It’s Safe to Be Me: An Exploration of Art and Identity
I have recently been allowing myself to paint again. My soul sister was over this week, she and her husband are involved in the professional and academic art scenes where they live. And I realise how despite my books, despite my paintings, I struggle to own the terms writer and artist. I am – take your pick – not good enough, just self made, not trained, I don’t fit into the local or national “scene”. Where I grudgingly allow myself to own author – with five books to my name, even I have to admit that label! Artist is trickier.
I feel great danger in saying out loud what I know myself to be. What I knew myself to be before I had ever even written a book or sold a painting.
I have struggled most of my life with fitting in, with where and how I belong, with how I look and how others’ perceive me. With my voice and images – what they are, what they want to say, how that will be perceived and received. My work is too personal. Too niche. Too weird.
It holds me back still. As I approach the launch of Burning Woman, as I think about trying to do events to meet the women I wrote this book for, the anxiety is overwhelming. How can I be myself? How unacceptable will they find me and my work? How can I be what they are wanting/ needing/ expecting?
Even after having written and lived the process of feminine power, I still find myself wound round with the sticky threads of fear and shame.
The belief that I am not OK, I am not enough, the belief that I am ugly and unacceptable inside and out. The shame that I am not normal.
How deep can it go? Deeper still it seems.
As the layers are peeled back, healing happens, yet I am called deeper still.
It was only at the very end of writing that book that I had the startling discovery of finding “who I am” or rather “why I am how I am” in the discovery of Aspergers in women. It is like seeing myself truly in a mirror for the first time. It is breathtaking how my entire experience of life, myself and the world suddenly came into focus. But there is also the struggle of dealing with how other people respond – don’t label yourself, you are so much more, you can’t be you’re normal. or recategorising me as officially weird and a bit disabled.
Thanks to this frame of reference I have been able to dive deeper into the fundamental parts of my own self. Parts that have previously been obscured. I have been struggling with whether I want to pursue a diagnosis for ASD. Whether I want what has made sense to me in my own self understanding to be either confirmed… or to be shot to pieces. And what either might mean to me.
As I have dared to dive deeper, dared to let go of what I was or thought I was, and how I have been living in the world, I have been letting my art and write support this journey of discovery. My guide on some of this creative journey has been Hali Karla through her fabulous Essence course.
In it she shares a technique: painting over photocopies of photos…
She introduces the technique by saying many people might initially resist it, because they perceive it as “not real art”. *hand shoots up*
But I tried it.
Trying new things is MASSIVE for me. I really struggle with it.
And I love it. So my voice starts up, if you love it, then it’s not real work, it’s not productive, how self centred, painting pictures of yourself…
Then it moves onto this isn’t real art, painting over photocopies…
But still I stay with the fact that I’m loving it. I am painting again. (HUGE)
I’m enjoying it (MASSIVE).
I am looking at pictures of myself and not feeling the urge to vomit (MONUMENTAL)
I am enjoying working on images of myself. I think they are beautiful. I can see my talent. I am satisfied… happy even. For days now, between the panic attacks because of a change of routine and overwhelm from work/family stuff, I have felt a feeling which is entirely new for me.
A feeling of liking myself. Being compassionate in how I feel about past actions. And future actions. The very real possibility of feeling glimmers of love. For myself.
This is earth shattering.
In my inner dialogue as I paint I recognise the voice I talk about in Burning Woman. The voice of shame and control that keeps us from our own power. So I ask it THE question: Says who? Who says that this is self-centred? Who says it’s not productive? But most importantly, who says it’s not art?
What art is, is a tale I have been told by teachers and books and critics (who have probably never made any art in their lives before). Art has a whole fucking establishment – who will deign to tell you – after you’ve made it – whether what you have created is 1) art 2) good art 3) worth money. We were watching a program the other day – Where’s the Monet? – its premise was artists, professional and amateur, show their art to three critics, get torn apart, and a couple get picked to exhibit at some fancy gallery, and get picked apart some more. Since when did art become this?
I’m also not into art being all in the head, requiring long theses to explain it. In the past art was a way of faithfully recreating images of people and places, before we had any other way to, or creating images to accompany stories. Then it became about expressing feelings. and then about making intellectual statements. A lot of the time it has been about making money. What an artist loves to make, isn’t necessarily what makes money. What an artist is commissioned to do isn’t necessarily what they love. What they love doesn’t necessarily win acclaim.
What is art?
Art is about making something unseen – seen. Or reproducing what can be seen, through the eye of the artist. It is making the invisible visible. Putting form to ideas. Because humans are diverse, their art is too. We naturally are drawn to certain tribes more than others.
Who gets to tell me what art is and isn’t? Isn’t that the role of the creative, the very definition of the artist – to set their own boundaries and make their own rules? And then break them too. Again and again. Isn’t this the whole fucking point of living creatively, is that we get to remake reality, redefine normal. Redefine ourselves. To make meaning from what matters to us. To use our own materials we have to hand. To dive into the richness of our own existence, whatever aspect fascinates us at the time.
Who gets to say what matters to me? What my art should be about… What my passions should be… I’ve always had a sense that I needed to justify what I was into. Be accountable to others. For me it is this constant need to fit in, because I don’t. I walk the line between knowing that self-expression is like water and oxygen for me. But express myself too much at odds with social expectations and I lose people. Not blog followers – although that matters – but real people in my community, in my close circles of friends and family. The dilemma, with which I dance, is how much of myself am I prepared to sacrifice for the happiness/ love/ acceptance of others. Contrary to appearances, the answer for me is a lot. Being me, as I am, as I feel myself to be, on pretty much every level, feels inherently dangerous.
In my (now monthly) menstrual massage sessions, my precious masseuse says to me, each time, you know, it’s safe to be the woman you are. It’s safe to be both your masculine and feminine sides.
This is what I don’t know to be true, but long for. This was at the heart of Burning Woman – and is at the heart of most human’s struggle: it’s safe to be the person you are. It’s safe for you to express the wholeness of yourself.
Because experience. Culture. History have most definitely taught us otherwise.
I love it. And that is enough. That is ALL.
Each time I paint my face I get this feeling, that I can only imagine that a transvestite gets when they dress up in women’s clothes. The relief of finally being myself. In covering my face in art, I feel free to be myself. In painting on a mask – not a conformative mask of make up to conform to societal norms of feminine beauty. But when I paint myself as an archetype, a symbol, when my face is morphed by the surreal, I feel myself, I can see myself. I feel I am no longer vulnerable as I am during days where I wonder the earth without a mask, in a world that expects us to be masked and armoured, in a world that insists on personas and even that we are living brands.
That I realise was what was trapping me in my previous blog identity/ incarnation.
Where from here, I don’t know. I feel most at home at festivals, where it is normal to go around with your face painted. I have no desire to visit the supermarket and get stares. But it feels like my art may be taking me there instead, finding ways to combine my human image with my desire for ornamentation… I feel a pull back to the surreal… the place I started from in my art many years ago.
I am reading an interesting book at the moment, Andy Warhol Was a Hoarder about figures from history, and how their “mental illnesses” helped and hindered their achievements. I found myself wondering how many surrealist artists may actually have been ASD or have other “mental illnesses” which made them feel outsiders to this supposedly “normal” world, who naturally saw the world in all its oddness, grotesqueness and coexistent beauty.
How do you know it’s art? Because it lights you up. It touches you deep. It soothes and speaks to parts of your soul that have been hungry.
How do you know it matters? Because when you make it, it feels like sweet relief.
So that is where I am at… embodying my art, my writing, my creativity more fully, dreaming bigger, allowing myself the possibility of defining myself.
It is big, brave, beautiful work. And I am grateful for it. And for all who travel that path alongside me.