Blog / 2022 / Because I Was So Good at Math
November 17, 2022
I wasn’t actually that good at it. I mean, I did earn an A in AP Calculus, but I bombed the Advanced Placement test, a $75 exam that might have gotten me out of the required math credit in college.
I don’t remember my father being upset about the test, but I do know that four years later—right around the time I was painting this portrait of him—he was wondering out loud to me why I wanted to be an artist.
“You were so good at math,” lamented the engineer who’d provided half the genetic material that makes me who I am.
My father—whom I always called Papa, never “Dad” or “Daddy”—was full of advice for my art career. Early on, he tried to convince me to take the nom de plume Gwenn Liberty, which is my first and middle names only. I knew he never particularly liked our last name, but the worry that he didn’t want my art associated with him lingered for years, motivating me at least as much as my desire to save the world.
And then there was my Papa’s focus on making me financially literate. By the time I launched my career, he’d been self-employed for a decade. He explained the process of noting earnings and expenses meticulously, and he paid his CPA to do my taxes that first year, encouraging me to use those filled-out forms as a model when I prepared my own return in the future.
That financial confidence was invaluable, particularly at the beginning of my career. It may not have been reflected in an impressive income, but it did allow me to face down the money stuff from the outset. I doubt I’d have been able to make my living entirely from my art without ever working a day job if I hadn’t had that solid start.
The fact is that this basic financial training was one of the most loving things my father ever did for me. As much as it sometimes seemed like he didn’t want me to be an artist, his very practical focus on helping me get my taxes right made me think he also sort of did.
Beyond the money and the marketing, Papa took an interest in at least one element of my creativity. He hated the idea that my art would be cartoony or, worse still, “calendar art,” an insult he reserved for the sappy kitsch that Hallmark might publish. I distinctly remember the warning he gave me about this painting of our family home, which I made him and my Maman as a gift after they sold the house.
This sketchy detail of our beloved Rouzic ar Gwellan (go here to see him in all his glory) peeking out from between my dad’s shop and the corner of the house pushed the painting a little too much towards cute for my father.
A few years later though, Papa commissioned me to make art from this snapshot of my mom and him. The curtains in the background had always annoyed him and he wanted a version of the image with something different going on.
I obliged, even though reproducing photos like this in paint is not my calling as an artist. Doing so actually feels a bit too much like “calendar art” to me. Still, I was pleased to be able to do something for him, because, by the time I made this painting, it felt more and more like his disappointment in me had won out.
It was bound to, I suppose. Born in 1924 and raised on a homestead in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, Papa’s conservative worldview made sense, but that didn’t make his casual sexism easier for me to digest. Growing up, hearing him yell “bitch” at the television any time Nancy Pelosi or Hillary Rodham Clinton appeared was hard enough. Juxtapose that with the not-gender-specifc “asshole” he reserved for the men politicians he didn’t like, and the lesson was clear. Powerful women provoked a special kind of ire in him.
Our fundamental disagreements about women’s rights, queer rights, systemic racism, and climate change were a constant source of stress. My father seemed congenitally incapable of avoiding these problematic topics. And knowing that he’d once stopped talking to his brother for ten years over a difference of opinion made me congenitally incapable of doing more than putting up a boundary with him and then changing the subject.
It’s also made me more radical. More than any female role model in my life, it was my father’s misogyny and homophobia that made me a feminist and inspired me to come out to the World Wide Web as low-key genderfree.
My father died last month.
I already miss the relish with which he sat down to every meal, an absolute joy in food that I definitely inherited along with his sometimes annoying obsession with safety. And I’ve been surprised by my grief too. Maybe the strangest thing I miss about him is his love of numbers.
To explain: there was a reception a couple of weeks ago for this show. It was my first in-person art event since COVID began, and, once all the fun and fanfare died down, I was bereft, though not for the reason you might expect. What gutted me is that I suddenly remembered that, after every celebration I’ve ever had for my art, my father asked me how many people came. I was never good at estimating, and the question always prompted an eye roll from me. Quantity has never meant as much to me as quality, but now I’m devastated that there was no one to ask about the stats for this reception.
My father never told me he was proud of me. When I think about it now, I realize he never told his sons or grandchildren either. But I know how impressed Papa was with their many accomplishments. From their Ivy League grad school and the awards they received in their industry to their many epic travels and feats of physical endurance, all of it fascinated him. Especially significant in my mind is how sad he was to miss the same-sex wedding of one of his grandchildren due to his waning health. His emphasis was, for sure, not on the marriage being same-sex, but he definitely wanted to hear all about the celebration.
It seems to me that counting how many people showed up for my events was a way he could be proud of me as well, even if my choices and my art disappointed him.
I’m obviously still discovering what my father’s death means to me, but I already know a few things for sure:
- I’m good at math and at analytical tasks in general as well as at saying no to oppression.
- Those qualities make my art better.
- I got my left-braininess and my zero-tolerance attitude towards bullshit from my Papa.
Maybe this post made you think of something you want to share with me? Or perhaps you have a question about my art? I’d love to hear from you!
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