Thursday, February 19, 2009

Rejection, Reaction and Courage

Yesterday, I had lunch with this artist, a brother, who is a genius and very funny, raw. I kinda hate the phrase “streetsmart”– its overworked and most often used to imply a different, maybe lesser kind of intelligence – when in point of fact, the street is a university of its own. And this particular brother is way smarter than me on every level I can discern, which is at once intimidating and intriguing at the same time, but that is another matter entirely.

So anyway, we talked about a lot of things, including rejection and reaction to it, as an artist and a human being. How you have to have courage to put yourself out there, and even more to pick yourself up off the floor. I thought about my experience with the Hoffman Challenge last year, and it was cathartic to talk it through with somebody who gets it. I never wrote about this, or even talked about it much to any but a few people. I had created and submitted the piece “Lady Bird of Paradise Sings the Blues”, which I am re-posting here for reference. The jury gave me really good marks and feedback and promptly sent the doll back as unfit to travel because she was “too racy”. (She has been re-christened "Tracy" for "Too Racy" by the brother.)

So, after I picked myself up off the floor, I had to ask myself why it was important to me for the Hoffman people to like my work in the first place? I make things that reflect my reality – women that look like me and my family and my sisterfriends, things I see in life, on the street, in stories and legends that don’t necessarily reflect majority idea of beauty and femininity, but this is my aesthetic. Black women/women of color, are always too much of something, and/or not enough of something else, i.e., too black or not black enough, too smart for our own good or too stupid, too sassy, evil, sexy, fat, fill in the blank. Is “racy” a code for, you need not apply? Should I care? Should I try again this year with a toned down watered down prettyasaprincessonapea doll? Should I just make a white girl (I can do those too) and see what happens?

I guess the courage part comes in where you have to weigh the value and benefit of having a piece tour in a national/international show, and the recognition from that, versus your own artistic integrity. How far do you bend before you break? What do you say to your spirit?

So as my brother-artist spoke to me about the story, the narrative, of our art, and how this is what makes it ours - how we claim ownership of it - I took another look at Tracy and remembered what she said to me as I was making her. It takes a long time for me to bring up a face in paperclay and somewhere in the process the doll tells her own story. She spoke clearly and reminded me of a girl I knew in intermediate school. At twelve, Gail was a dark, brooding, little soul with the face of a doll and a body straight outta Cirque du Soleil. She was sassy and swinging. All the little boys followed her like love struck puppies. All the little girls hated her. Gail knew things we didn't know and did things we didn't do. She looked at us with cold disdain. She didn't need us little pootbutts for friends. She lived with her grandmother. We never knew where her parents were. She came to school sometimes with bruises and scars on her face and body. She started high school with us but disappeared without a trace by the time we were all fourteen. I never knew if she moved away or ran away. I've never seen her since, until she reemerged in the face/figure of Tracy Gail/Lady Bird of Paradise Sings the Blues.
These are the things I know and the stories I tell. I really don't know very much about cute and dainty. Innocence mangled, hope challenged, wreckage, redemption. Singing out loud off key. These are the things I know something about. My dolls are too racy to travel...