Ceci n’est pas une artiste

By Lindsey “Yee” Kriaris and Abby “Haw” Ritz

Lindsey and Natalie Hayes hanging their exhibits

Last semester, we participated in an independent art exhibit with some of our mutual friends (Marty Benzinger, Clio Lieberman, Sabrina Saleta, Maddie Walker, and Natalie Hayes). This was actually how Lindsey and I first met! We all had certain things in common: we liked art and we liked to make art in our free time, but none of us had ever participated in an art exhibition before. We gathered as a group throughout the semester, and brainstormed potential themes. Something that could not only apply to all of us individually, but something that could also apply to all of us as a group; a theme that would not only allow us to express all those things which we wanted to express but would allow us to express through the various different mediums with which we all worked.  Everyone in the group had a different style, different medium, and different point of view. However, we all appreciated having a chance to promote art-making on campus. This was an entirely different artistic experience for both of us, predicated as it was on sharing what we made and considering what we made to be art, and thus, in turn, considering ourselves to be artists.

My artistic ventures as a child were limited to writing stories (i.e. fanfiction) and copying drawings from books. I can proudly say that at one point in my life, I had mastered the ability to draw Plankton and a krabby patty. I’ve always had an active imagination, yet I limited myself to building upon art that was already established instead of creating my own. I started writing songs in middle school. I already liked to sing, but I dreamt of creating music that was powerful enough for other people to connect to. However, I never actively pursued this dream. Even when I took guitar lessons I never tried to create music of my own, I limited myself to what was in my introductory book. In my mind, it seemed impossible that I would ever live up to my own (unreasonably high) standards. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy: by continuing to believe I would never be able to be a “good” or “successful” artist, I was denying myself of the chance that I could be.

I’ve always drawn as a hobby, ever since I was a very, very small person with chunky little fingers that didn’t know how to draw.  I used to draw on walls and floors (to my parents’ chagrin and, according to family legend, to one particularly grumpy uncle’s delight), used to fill journals and every scrap piece of paper I could get my hands on.  I was just teaching myself, just drawing for the sake of drawing, imitating artists I found online and in books (a lot of Harry Potter and Percy Jackson fanart in there), but never really feeling like I was creating something. Sure, I stayed up until five in the morning drawing, sat hunched over during church drawing on those little envelopes you’re supposed to put donations in, but it felt less like art and more like the development of a skill.  I never felt quite ready to branch out and begin making and creating work that felt like my own. How did I even create something? Where did the ideas come from? Did I have ideas? Were they good enough? Were they something that someone else had done? Would I even be able to express my idea, would it be worth the effort when it turned out differently than I wanted?  I consistently questioned my creativity into a box and like Lindsey says, this denial and undervaluing of my own creativity became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

It wasn’t until I did some self-reflection during college that I broke the cycle and realized creating art added meaning to my life. During a time when I felt very disconnected from myself, it was extremely valuable for me to have a new way of expressing and understanding my emotions. I started by journaling, and then continued to explore other mediums: I easily transitioned to writing short poems, then doodling, then painting, and then began incorporating glitter glue for fun(!). My Glitter Glue Period marked a shift in the way I viewed art-making, and a shift from being overly self-critical to having more self-compassion. Creating became less stressful, and more fun. Creating became less about what the end-product was and more about how I could make the process work for me and my own self-growth. At this point, I still hadn’t considered myself an “artist”. I was just someone with no formal training or experience who vomited out lines and words to better communicate their thoughts and feelings. Or, to simply pass the time. My artistic exploration was at first, entirely selfish. I would create and produce for my own benefit, and I never shared what I made with another person. I didn’t want to find out if someone disliked something I made. I was scared, and doubted my own ability. I had anticipated that other people would criticize my art (me) just as harshly as I would criticize my art (myself).

My senior year of high school I took a drawing course, just as a fun way to relax from what was otherwise a ridiculously (my mom might say irresponsibly) packed schedule.  It’s the only class I’ve ever failed.  The moment that art became an obligation to be filled, an assignment to be completed, I became infinitely more stressed about the act of creation. I hadn’t realized how much emotional value I had attached to drawing until the grade attached felt like a value judgement; I became overwhelmed by the expectations and dictations of a structured art class that expected my drawing to be regulated, to be consistent, to reflect time and effort and reality and I fell behind, turned in assignments well past their deadline and eventually became so anxious that I did just what I feared most: I failed.  I watched on as my friends, boyfriends, acquaintances, distant relatives created, became poets, photographers, writers, musicians.  I didn’t feel like I was in the process of becoming anything, not a poet, not a portrait painter; I felt like I was simply watching and wanting. But slowly, s l o w l y I began to pull myself from this mindset, not even entirely purposefully. As I got into college, I began to draw in places no one else was going to see.  Began to draw imperfect forms with messy lines and out of place faces, began to let my pen wander and simply lose myself in process, instead of product. But doodles in the corners of notes, on the backs of practice exams, on textbook pages and essay drafts, those weren’t art.  No matter how often I looked at them with a glow of pride, no matter how often I pasted them into notebooks.  To consider myself an artist would be to have to open my art to the world, to have to consider the judgement of others upon a space entirely my own.

 

Marty recruited me after I posted one of my “artworks” (or that which she considered to be “artwork” and not, simply, artwork) for the first time. I had

Lindsey surrounded by some of the pieces she exhibited

doodled a design and wrote a short statement in a notebook, iked what I made, and I posted it immediately, leaving no room for self-doubts. The fact that the first time I posted a picture of something I created an social media I was asked to join an art group should have been validation enough. It should have. Yet during our brief group meetings, I desperately sat on my urge to ask if I really belonged to be there? What if people liked what I was making? If the first thing I shared was the only thing people would approve of? What if that one doodle I made looks too much like that one guy I kind of had a thing with after said doodle, but he somehow sees it and thinks it’s about him and then I just seem pitiful? Okay, even at the time, I knew that last one was a real stretch. But everyone else in the group seemed much more comfortable with the idea of sharing their art in an academic building than I did. Keyword: seemed.

One day, when talking to Clio Lieberman about my frustrations with the limited ability of students to express themselves on campus (I wrote about this frustration in one of my previous blog posts) and she mentioned that she and a few of our friends were looking to create an art crew, a group of students who were all mutually interested and invested in creating and in expressing themselves.  And there we were last fall, gathered in the living room of the Geneseo Co-op, peeking at the cowboys in Marty’s collages and straining to look at the stitches in Clio’s embroidered postcards, exploring ourselves in relation to our art and others in relation to their own art. Happy as I was to be creating, I began to feel the old anxiety, the one I felt during my drawing class, bubble up, but in a different way.  I wasn’t an artist, wasn’t a creator. What would something I created look like to others? How would it be received?  As we pinned our art up on the walls of Brodie’s Bridge Gallery, I couldn’t help glancing around the gallery and wondering if what I created belonged there. Everyone else seemed so much more comfortable sharing their art than I did.  Keyword: seemed.

 

Of course, neither of us knew that we were both feeling very similarly about this process. We were both scared  and neither of us felt confident enough or valid enough to share our fears and anxieties over something so personal as our own work. Dan Dezarn (who has come into our class and talked to us about the principles of design), brought one of his ArtTalks classes to our exhibit in order to show that there were students who were making space for artistic expression on the Geneseo Campus. In front of the class, he asked each of us what we got out of the entire process. That was when we realized we had very similar answers. For both of us, this was our first time ever displaying our own art, our first time putting things that were close to our soul out into the world.  For me, this was both a moment of profound discomfort and of distinct self-awareness. Once I was standing there in the Bridge Gallery, voicing out loud that I did not consider myself an artist, to a class about art on campus, in front of my own art that was being exhibited in a gallery, I also began to talk about how I was censoring myself and my own voice; how this process helped me gain confidence to share parts of myself I was once too scared to show others. Instead of thinking: why me? I started thinking: why not me?

 

So what does this have to do with the Art of Steve Prince?

In the beginning of the semester, watching people walk in and out of Steve Prince’s collaborative “Urban Garden” exhibit, I sensed anxieties similar to mine and Lindsey’s.  Others seemed concerned about taking an eraser to the charcoal walls, about putting something out into the world. I admittedly felt this way for a moment, but pushed past my apprehensions for the sake of the project and my own self-confidence. It was then that I was able to get the most out of that experience. With the Urban Garden, Prince aimed to gather unfiltered expression, real emotion, real connection. There were no rules, no requirements, no limits to be apart of the project – he just wanted people to share the experience together. This is one thing, among many, that I deeply admire about Prince’s community exhibits, they force people who consider themselves to be distant from self-expression, to be unable to create, as artists.  After all, are they not creating in the same space as an artists, creating on the same canvas as an artist, the same preserved work? And beyond this, people are forced into an awareness of the thoughts, worries, priorities, emotions, experiences of the others collaborating in the exhibit. This was an artistic process that we learned from – whether it be about our self, art, or other people and their art. And we were lucky enough to share it.

 

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