In the summer of 2000, on most Saturday nights, you could find me painting. No, I mean it, you really could find me painting because I was part of the ambiance at a nightclub named Contour on 1st avenue in Seattle. The promoter was trying to create a different kind of nightlife experience, one for creative people, celebrating music and art, he called the night “The Mannequin Room.” (Was it a metaphor? Club-going was plastic? A commentary on societal beauty standards? Was it meant to be ironic? I never knew. Whatever the reason, it was a lot of fun.)
I got the gig because my friend Mary Anne has more faith in me than I could ever have in myself for the next six lifetimes combined. It's important to have people like this in your life because they will tell you can do something until you believe it yourself. Mary Anne was friends with The Mannequin Room’s promoter and when the subject of an artist came up Mary Anne said, “Vanessa can do that.” I don’t know how she knew that I could (or would) but for the next several months I did.
One night standing on top of a 3 ½ foot tall bar table that was my “stage', in platform high-heel shoes, wearing an army’s worth of glitter, painting an abstract painting, dancing to D.J. Evanly B spinning (as he always did) one of the best sets I’ve ever heard, a stranger called out to me over the music, "You are very brave." Puzzled I thought, "For wearing platforms standing on this table?" So I said, "Oh no, the table is very sturdy, it is bolted to the ground." “No, for painting in front of all these people.” He said giving me a shy smile and disappeared.
When I named the blog, I was not thinking about bravery in the heroic sense. Of people running into burning buildings and saving people. I was thinking of the small acts of bravery we experience in ordinary life. Invisible bravery. The kind of bravery that we muster every single day without anyone knowing. The kind of bravery we HOPE no one knows about because if they knew about it, we would be seen, naked, vulnerable, in our entirety.
For me, that is what artistic bravery is like, a bravery that I wish no one could see and that I'd always have; but vulnerability is relative. When I create a purely visual, fun experiment, it is easy to be brave. But some pieces of art feel like a piece of me I'm trying to express but can't put into words. When I look at those pieces from an outsiders point of view, I can see they are harder to relate to. Especially without context. Art is subjective, visually some people love it, some people hate it. Sometimes that is easy to accept, other times, not so much.
At the time of the stranger’s comment, I had already been painting at the club for a couple of months. I had a routine, it was a job. I did not feel brave. I did not even feel the need for bravery. Every Saturday night, I got in my dancing-artist gear, brought my easel, paints, surface to paint on, and I painted whatever came to me, whatever I felt, what was in the moment between me, the music, and the vibe of the night. In many ways it felt like going to life drawing class…only in the dark...with awesome music. It was insanely fun.
I had mechanisms in place to protect my ego, I could be confident up there because I had a belligerent attitude. “All that matters is that I like it. If THEY don’t like it, fuck ‘em” is what I told myself. But that was a defense. Not so deep down, being up there WAS scary, and not because of the high-heel platform shoes. I did have moments of self-consciousness about my art, its worth, what standing on a table painting in a club “meant” about me and the value of my work. I questioned whether what I was producing was even "real" art.
Even the moments that could have been validating were confusing in that environment. On the very first night of the Mannequin Room, a man watched me paint pretty intently. He was chatting with the bartender and me only occasionally, he was very nice, and he was drinking and having a good time. At the end of the night, he wanted to buy my painting. I didn’t drink while I was painting so I felt very aware of the differences in our mental states. And while my grandmother would probably not have approved of any of this, it was her practical voice that was in my head. This is what I imagined my grandmother saying with her Texas accent and her no bullshit demeanor, “Do not take money from men you don’t know. God only knows what they think they are paying for.”
(Nice man from the bar that night, if you are reading this, nothing personal, I'm sure your intentions were honorable. Thank you for the kind offer, it helped me think through what I was comfortable with before the not-so honorable requests came in.)
Even if the usually male patrons had the best intentions and were only interested in the art, not the artist, there were too many variables. Was alcohol enhancing this person’s interest? What would the painting even look like in day light? I was painting in the dark, sometimes with strobe lights, smoke machines, and at least once flame throwers. I never knew what the painting was going to look like in normal light. One night I painted a whole painting mistaking dark green for blue. For all those reasons, that first night I decided, on principle, that I would never sell any of the paintings. On some nights, if someone was particularly excited about a painting, I’d give it to them. But no money exchanged hands.
I thought I had a good thing going confidence-wise at The Mannequin Room. I knew what I was doing, I knew what my principles were, and I didn’t give a damn if anyone liked it. That construction got a healthy challenge one night when my co-workers came to see me paint.
At the time I was working as an event planner (complete with health benefits in case I fell off that table.) I worked with great people, who were hilarious and fun, supportive and kind. When they said they wanted to come see me, I was excited. But when the night actually arrived all of the questions about the value of what I did began to surface. My defenses no longer worked. Because if THEY didn’t like it, I really DID care. These were people I respected and I wanted them to respect me.
What I was thinking when I got up to paint was, “I have to paint something…real.” It had to be a picture of something tangible. I decided to paint a woman. But not the female form, which had been naturally emerging in my paintings on many nights at The Mannequin Room (see example, Figure 4). No, I was suddenly going to paint a portrait of…well…some made up person.
Oh how the memory of this painting hurts me. I actually kept it until about a year ago and every time I saw it I cringed. I couldn’t even stare at it long enough to paint over it. Up there that night, it was not fun to work on, I felt like I was being watched (Hilarious! I was standing on a platform in a nightclub, like always, the whole point was I was being watched!) The more I painted, the worse I felt about it. It kind of looked like a painting of Suzanne Somers, but to any fans out there, not in a good way. Oh it was horrible. Have I mentioned how terrible it was? I wish I had a picture of it so I could prove it to you.
I think there was an opportunity for me that night and I missed it. There was an opportunity for me to really be brave. To stand up there feeling scared and truly be myself anyway, to allow myself to be seen, and be okay no matter what the response might have been. Instead I just felt embarrassed and never invited anyone else to come.
I missed that opportunity but like any lesson in life we refuse to learn, it comes right back around. And here it is again. My next painting for this blog is going to be an abstract one. And as I prepare to make it, I realize I feel a little scared about that.
My last painting, The Underwater Dome, was literal. People could look at it and say, “Oh, it’s the aquarium, I’ve been there.” or "Look! A fish!" When I posted about it, I got kind feedback and people that hated it were nice enough not to say so. The Dome was interesting to paint and I learned a lot, but as I mentioned in the post about it, I missed the freedom of painting abstractly. Before I move on to another painting from a photo (which is my plan), I want to experience abstract painting back to back with the Dome. It’s an experiment to see what lessons I can learn.
I’m already nervous about sharing this new painting and I don’t even have all my supplies to make it yet. The painting I want to paint next is coming from a different part of me, the one that is harder to explain. The thought of writing about it has me asking questions like, what if it is not something that people can relate to? What if people don’t get it? Or like it? What if they don’t like me? And why do I care about that? Where’s the “Fuck ‘em if they don’t like it” woman? And how do I get her back?
But the answer is, I don’t get her back. I evolve her. I move her forward. I muster her bravery. I feel the fear and do it anyway. And if they…you…don’t like it, I don’t let that collapse me AND I don’t tell you to fuck off, because if my confidence is based on you, it’s not my confidence at all. There it is, what needs practicing, not abstract vs. realistic, but plain old ordinary bravery. The courage to just be me. Just make my own art and see what happens. So that's what happens next.