Blog / 2019 / On Being an Art-making Grownup in a Child’s Life
April 16, 2019
My favorite uncle died two weeks ago. His influence on my character is hard to overestimate. A lot of things I like about myself are traits that he nurtured in me. Still, something I didn’t really think about until I was sorting through memories after his passing is that he helped me become an artist.
When I was a teen, Robert came to visit a lot, and, during one of his weeklong stays, he showed me the jewelry that he had started making. He was bending silver wire, shaping it into elaborate rings or using it to mount pretty stones as pendants.
My parents are creative types. My Maman is responsible for lots of the clothes in my closet and she still makes the bags I paint on. My Papa loves to work with wood and the only beautiful furniture in my home comes from his hands. I know that they influenced me as well, but Robert’s jewelry-making really got my imagination going.
He was a grownup I admired, but someone outside my nuclear family—making it easier for me to see him as a whole person. He was dedicating himself to this craft, and, though I don’t think he meant it as a statement, his actions spoke loudly.
If you’re ever feeling like your art doesn’t matter, look to the kids in your life. They might not understand it until 25 years down the line, but the fact is that you and your art practice are almost certainly making space in their dreams.
Robert did that for me.
And he did something else as well. To explain, I need to rewind 14 days.
Robert died the day after my anti-Trump art was censored from a group exhibition. I heard about his passing right after I first posted about the situation. His death wasn’t a surprise, but the timing gutted me.
Robert did not approve of the painting that was removed from the show. He agreed with its message, but he didn’t think it was healthy for me to fixate on the horror that is the current US president. In the 11 days between when the artwork was censored and when it was reinstalled, I had a lot of time to think about Robert’s feelings about the piece.
His concerns were definitely on my mind when one of the institutions involved in the censorship told the press that I had hidden the true title of the piece (Hello Sh*tty) and given them only the sanitized version (Hello Kitty President). The institution seemed to be implying that I was trying to pull one over on everybody and sneak some swear words into a library.
That is false. For one thing, it is illogical. I didn’t even know that the library supposedly didn’t allow curse words in art, because the institution failed to put that in the prospectus for the show. In other words, I had no reason to try to hide curse words. Also, I have an email thread proving that they knew the true title, because someone with the institution asked me to change it. But the institution is, well, an institution, and I am just some uncouth artist who uses “bad” words and makes art about ugly things. Who was going to believe me over them?
That’s when I hit a wall. All I could think was that, if this artwork didn’t exist, then none of this would be happening. If I’d never made the painting, I could be grieving my favorite uncle in peace.
But I had made the painting, and, in a sense, I made it because of Robert.
When I was younger, he was the only man in my life who never once made me feel like my being a girl meant that my voice didn’t count. Robert’s feminism gave me the confidence necessary to be an artist.
I’ll never know for sure, but I think he would have been proud of how I’ve handled this situation. I think he might even be pleased that, with a little help from the press, I managed to get the piece back into the show.
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