I’d drawn the nude many times in classes and studio settings, but I’d never painted one. I’d certainly never created a finished piece of one. So this painting was a challenge on several levels. I wanted to portray the idea of exposure.
The process of making my Without a Net series requires exposure, and sharing it with others pushes it farther. In going forward with my artwork (and a few other things) I partly want to show myself and at the same time I want to hide. I chose the peacock to portray half of this idea because it popped into my head as a most showy of animals. And to represent the side of me that feels exposed, I could think of no outfit better than the birthday suit, and some feeble attempts to cover up the most private parts.
The act of painting the piece was, as I said, a challenge simply because for the first time I would be presenting a finished painting of a nude. I had plenty of reasons to be level-headed about it. My former training had given me a clinical outlook on rendering anything. My state of adulthood and its accompanied experience has given me at least the average amount of maturity in regards to showing the human figure. My years as an art historian have given me a thorough acquaintance with the nude represented in a thousand different ways. None of it stopped my childlike embarrassment about painting a naked lady for all the world to see! And boy, how that feeling was appropriate for the mind state I was depicting.
Even if I weren’t making Without a Net, a series that is personally revealing, the act of sharing creations with others requires vulnerability. That’s no secret. Since the beginning, my career has involved the slightly scary act of “putting it out there.” It was never an insubstantial task, but I always found that the positive feedback always outweighed the negative criticism, enough to keep me going. I do love making art, so I’m not sure I would have given up easily anyway. But over the years, like many artists, I have experienced the desire to share my work with others in tandem with a wish to run and hide under the covers.
The reason I might want to hide or cover up is that others might find me coming up short in some way. Or even that I’m downright shameful. That’s pretty much the bottom line. It’s a valid fear, but the intellectual perspective is that the judgment of others (or my own judgment) is completely subjective and relative. So my fear is founded on something nebulous, uncontrollable, and unreal. To buy into my fear would require a supposition that what I’ve got to show really is inherently faulty, and that someone out there will officially deem it so. The thing that needs changing is the way I see myself. My ideas about judgment were brought to the forefront with my Naked Lady Peacock painting.
I can’t truly declare whether my work is mediocre or brilliant. I can tell you that feedback from others can place my work on a spectrum from Total Shit to Best I’ve Ever Seen. That’s proof enough of the power of perspective. The thing I can say is that no one on Earth has had the experiences I have. No one who has ever lived has had my talent, my voice, my skill, my message, my take on things. Nobody will ever create and share exactly what I do. It is and will forever be a unique, unrepeatable, irreplaceable expression. It has validity in that it comes from a desire, however feeble or magnificent, to craft, communicate, and contribute. When I respect this fact (for which I should be extremely grateful) the fear of exposure is transformed into the joy of giving.
The most clear and profound lessons I gain about exposure and judgment come through my teaching. I see in every one of my lovely students a marvelous process. I see them timid and unconfident when they walk in for the first time, worried about being ridiculed or neglected or finding out they are no good. I see, every time, a happy and thrilled look in their eye when they first see how fun making art is, how they really can accomplish something, and that everyone in the room is encouraging. And for years after, I watch them grow in skill, understanding, and confidence. No matter what talent they have at first, I see their artwork progress to represent their own vision. I see their art class turn into their therapy, their social circle, their get-away time, their workplace, and/or their church. What an honor it is to witness it.
One of my students asked, when I had just made a quality judgment about a particular artist’s work, “Well I’d hate to hear what you really think about our student work!” I answered honestly that as their teacher I only judge their work by how they, as individuals, are progressing. And as long as they continue to make art they are always progressing. The thought that anyone would judge my student’s work harshly really ruffles my feathers, like a mom watching her kid be bullied. I know how hard they work, and the love that’s put into each piece, and how much they enjoy making it. There’s nothing that shouldn’t be applauded.
A reasonable counter to my statements about judgment would be, “How would we have any quality standards if we don’t have judgment?” I am reminded of the people who try out for American Idol who have absolutely no singing ability and are convinced they are really good. It’s true: we can’t just let them in the contest! But that doesn’t mean there isn’t some place where they can sing, even if it’s in the privacy of their own home. Singing must be enjoyable on some level for them, but trying out for Idol is best left for other kinds of singers. I play guitar in a very elementary way, and I know my audience should be the few people who can tolerate it, not the National Guitar Flat Pick Championship. No matter what our creations are, we can find a sympathetic audience, however humble.
So I try to remember this when I look at anyone’s art. No matter what it presents on the surface, there is part of a person’s soul behind it, and it has validity just for that reason. After that I can have quality assessments, but they really only pertain to what arena they are being judged in. For my own issues with Showing/Hiding, I feel much better when I give myself the pat on the back (no matter what) for showing up and presenting myself, and then make sure I’m finding the tribe who appreciates it.