Vulnerability is Punk AF
You Think You're Better Than Me
Last month I “dropped” my new collage class, and then started to worry about how it would come across. Was I too awkward? Did I stress certain things too much, other things too little? Was it funny where it was meant to be, or did I just come across as some weird freak? TRUTH CAN HURT.
I was feeling vulnerable.
I requested feedback from everyone I knew who’d bought the class, after they’d watched it. Renée Layberry bought the class, and when I mentioned my feelings about it in an email she responded “vulnerability is punk AF”. Apparently, she made this phrase up, though I expected her to tell me it was the battle cry of all self-respecting Brené Brown fans or something. A meme, at least. I liked this new catchphrase so much I immediately made it the title of this month’s Feed the Monster—though at the time it was a month away and I had no idea what I was going to write.
Then I started work on a wall-sized panel piece (see below) about my relationship with my mother, as part of my Life’s Work project. You can see how this piece could make a person feel vulnerable… gulp. But really, making available my Collage Class video made me feel no less insecure. You make a thing… maybe a thing you’ve never made before. You take a chance. It’s not perfect. You put it out there. You feel a bit wobbly inside. You wait.
Note: As uncomfortable as it is, I never want to stop experiencing this.
I’ve found that the response from subscribers to Feed the Monster is greatest when I’m open about my imperfection and vulnerability as a human being. This seems to be the stuff that touches people most… that they relate to the most keenly. People clearly need to know they aren’t alone in not always being right, not always being sure, making mistakes, and struggling with certain aspects of their lives. That they trip; that they cry. It can take some practice to speak freely about these things, but I’ve learned that far from being dangerous, allowing and showing vulnerability becomes a superpower that a lot of people are missing out on. People who seem to think that appearing infallible means they’re infallible (or that they’re fooling anybody).
Nope. Pretty much the opposite is true.
As for the giant graphic memoir piece below… well yikes. My Life’s Work project has mutated many times since it first germinated about a year and a half ago. Originally it was meant to be a visual memoir both about my mother’s dementia and my difficult relationship with her that complicated the caretaking I did. I wanted to show how I went from initially being appalled and indignant at having to deal with my mother and all of her affairs, to grateful at having been forced up that mountain. It’s been my experience that facing hard things forces palpable growth, like one of those time-lapse videos of a plant sprouting, growing, and unfurling. Only much slower. The more I accept or lean into emotional challenges I’m faced with, the more I’m able to be there for others. And for myself.
Life’s Work is still about those things, but (unsurprisingly perhaps) I’ve found it much harder to approach the mother-daughter relationship than the dementia stories. Partway through this piece below I've found myself thinking, “so maybe this one piece will suffice in illustrating my relationship with my Mom… no need to go on and on about it.” And maybe that’s true. Or it might be an indication of my discomfort. I fear coming across as feeling sorry for myself, or sensationalist. I keep thinking of the Philip Larkin poem This Be The Verse:
They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had
And add some extra, just for you.
But they were fucked up in their turn
By fools in old-style hats and coats,
Who half the time were soppy-stern
And half at one another’s throats.
Man hands on misery to man.
It deepens like a coastal shelf.
Get out as early as you can,
And don’t have any kids yourself.
I mean, it’s boring, right? My experience is commonplace. I don’t want to whine about it, or lay blame. It became clear to me at some point in my life that I wouldn’t be the person I am if I hadn’t struggled to overcome certain adaptive habits of mind developed in childhood. And that dealing with the ways in which your parents fuck you up can create superpowers, too. I even began to see Life’s Work as a tribute to my mother, though that surprised me and it certainly didn’t start out that way. It was more like: Ugh, I have a shit-ton of material here that is begging to be mined, and anyway haven’t I been writing about this my whole life?
This wall piece was not pre-conceived. I was given a roll of wide photography back-drop paper by Ted Grant and I decided to put some of it up on the wall in case it gave me some ideas. Et voilà, I got the idea to do a super-sized graphic memoir piece, and so painted a series of rectangles free-hand. But it stayed that way for two or three months with only the word “Presenting!” written in the top left-hand panel. I’d had an idea back in the fall to do a piece about being a “dutiful daughter”, but the bedside scene with my mother was on the back burner because I wasn’t sure how to approach it.
What ended up coming out just developed as I went along. I’m using a bamboo brush because it gives me very little control, so it prevents me from worrying about the execution of the images. In other words, it precludes becoming too wound up or precious about the painting aspect. I wanted to work quickly, without over-thinking. That way I was able to get lost in allowing the piece to unfold as it wanted to.
I pulled out all the tropes of “presenting”, “starring”, “once upon a time”, “dutiful daughter” and “wicked mother” to overstate the idea of this being a STORY… though a true story. But just a story—not a unique story—a story that has happened millions of times in millions of ways. This too was not something I thought about… I just did it.
The piece is not going to look like anything I’ve ever done before, and I’m glad (I’ll show you the finished product in next month’s FTM). It definitely looks very unpolished, but I’m okay with that. When I started painting portraits in 2015 with 100 Days of the Artist is Present, I got better and better at it, and of course there’s nothing wrong with that! But it became like a formula and started to feel pretty stale. I liked having that skill, but I wanted to go somewhere portraits couldn’t take me. Enter once again… vulnerability. Trying new things affords the possibility of unexpected results that the old tried n’ true usually can’t deliver, and I seem to be developing a taste for that. Huzzah!
Sadly I can’t post the panels individually so that you can see them better… I only have a certain amount of space on this platform and I’ve used it up. You may feel moved to do some magnification.
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