Blog / 2021 / Mirror, Mirror
February 17, 2021
I was killing it. New to mime as I was, this surprised me, but I could feel it in my bones. No matter what movements Ella Jaroszewicz threw at me, I aced them in a matter of seconds.
“Gwenn, why are you looking at me in the mirror? Look at yourself!”
She was right, of course, and her instruction interrupted my reverie. When I watched Ella, mime extraordinaire and the powerhouse behind the mime school Magenia, I was experiencing a kind of projection in which I convinced myself that her gestures were my own. When I focused on my own reflection, I saw a mess of unruly muscles refusing to move with precision.
I was twenty, studying abroad in Paris. Instead of churning out figure drawings at some fancy atelier, I’d confused my university advisors on both sides of the pond and opted to learn about the human form by going to mime school. This wasn’t as gutsy of a decision as it might seem. Little sister that I am, I’d adopted my older sibling’s passion for theater as my own years before, and, while I had no natural aptitude for performance, following my brother around for a while had given me a basic understanding of spectacle. I was just confident enough to enroll in mime school and just ignorant enough to fail to anticipate how important this choice would prove.
For years, studio art teachers had been nudging me to expand my appreciation of art. I had very specific rules for what qualified as worthy, and surrealism remained relegated to the naughty list, artistic expression suitable only for incorrigible narcissists. Unfortunately, upon landing in France where the state sponsors large art institutions in an excruciating display of patriotism that, bizarrely, upsets me more than America’s obsession with its own flag, I’d been confronted at every metro stop, in every news stand, and on every channel with ads for the contemporary art museum’s new exhibit: La Révolution Surréaliste. If I wanted to go to the Centre Pompidou during my Parisian semester, I’d be forced to immerse myself in Art Enemy #1. So I put it off.
Then, one day at Magenia—my safe space from the strictures of my studio art major—Ella launched into a tribute to surrealism. In retrospect, I should have seen it coming. The illusion necessary to corporeal theater makes it the perfect breeding ground for surrealist sympathies, and Ella’s style of mime is particularly dreamlike. When you talk about art that juxtaposes seemingly unrelated elements in order to set both the artist’s and the audience’s subconscious free, you could be describing either surrealism or mime.
At the Pompidou, the Freudian white male circle jerk that defined this version of the Révolution didn’t impress me, but I learned to appreciate the space between. Juxtaposition is a powerful tool for any kind of artist. Instead of hitting your viewer over the head with your ideas, you invite them to fill in the blanks. You may not be communicating exactly the same thing to every person who interacts with your art, but you are making room for their imagination, which is always more powerful than anything you could create.
My new interest in surrealism drove me to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, a library whose dramatic architecture outshines every other building in the City of Light. Picture four towers of glass, far taller than most of Paris, set in what I can only describe as the world’s largest deck. To make matters more magical, in the center of this epic conversation between horizontal and vertical, there is a hole filled with forest. These trees are your view if you have access to the general collection, which is held under the sprawling deck. So it was with these captive but completely ungroomed woods looking on that I researched OG surrealist René Magritte as well as a later practitioner, Louise Bourgeois, intending to do my thesis about these visual artists when I returned to the US.
Back in Ella’s mime studio, buoyed by my growing appreciation for surrealism, I still had trouble watching myself in the mirror. Looking at my teacher wasn’t just a way to see the movements done right. My behavior bordered on disorder, the result of a deeply rooted internalized misogyny that had been vigorously reinforced by years of Catholic schooling. Looking at myself felt vain and feminine in a way that didn’t match the kind of femme I was, so when I finally figured out how to see me, it was a big deal.
In the space between my reflection and my teacher, a whole new story blossomed. Ella was demanding and unflinchingly honest in her feedback, making her rare compliments believable even to the soul-devouring black hole of self-doubt that lived in me. For the first time in my life, I felt artistically capable. There was so much work to be done, but I knew I could do it.
A couple years after that life-changing semester abroad, once I’d finished my BA and begun establishing my painting career, I found myself in France again. My Breton grandmother was the reason for the trip, but on my way through Paris I stopped to see the only art teacher who can claim to have made me the artist I am today.
From the photos I took on that visit, I made this portrait. Like all likenesses, it’s a painting which pretends to be about the person it portrays, but is really more about the space between the painter and the subject, making it an especially fitting homage in this case.
More fittingly still, in one of those funny little loops that life sometimes makes, this portrait recently made its way to the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Ella donated it last year along with her notes, drawings, and memorabilia from over sixty years of creativity. The idea that this painting would qualify as a piece of her legacy worth preserving touches me, making the discoveries of my Parisian semester fresh again.
When I look in the mirror now, I see my twenty year old self, the person who wanted to make a life by making art, but wasn’t sure if she could actually do it. I see too, from the corner of my eye, Ella, watching me and showing me the way. I see the artist I am today, and I feel capable.
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