Learning a Language of Visual Art

Through the Orange County Rape Crisis Center I’ve gotten involved in two programs to use visual art to express, specifically related to rape and other forms of sexual violence, and survivorship. And one’s self, which can be violated and damaged by trauma.

‘SA Map’

‘SA Map’

The first was a one-day map-making workshop, partnered with the excellent organization Hidden Voices. I only wish this one could have gone on longer and that I could have had days to look at the map art books they had there.

To paraphrase Steve Jobs from his 2005 Standford commencement address, relevance appears only in retrospect. Wherever I am at any given time, the shape of my story changes based on where I am and what I'm learning. What is true may only be true for right now, and whatever I learn and experience tomorrow can make a profound switch in the story. In Terry Pratchett’s book ‘The Truth,’ the editor of the Discworld’s first newspaper is dismayed to learn that his painstaking investigative journalism and word work is pulped each day to make the next day’s toilet paper. And that the press, the hungry press, must always be fed, for news is only news when it’s new.

In an ongoing arts-based support group we’re doing new pieces continually. I’ve learned two vital things already. The first I already knew, but was driven home for me once more: the best, most galvanizing and inspiring way for me to learn (and also create) is to be among others who are doing the same thing, without instruction, just doing it.

The second thing was that my favorite things I create are revelatory, transformative, or both. And I wonder if it can be one without the other; I as an artist am changed by the act of looking back at what I created.

‘Mask Inside: aMaze Imagination’

‘Mask Inside: aMaze Imagination’

We did masks, the outside showing what we looked like to the world and the inside expressing our own inner worlds. A very powerful concept, one Hidden Voices also did a version of with a show using cigar boxes instead of masks. I realized the brilliance of the boxes because it tapped humans innate curiosity drive, and to physically participate in a piece of art, in the revealing of the secret, would make it more personal to the observer, would make it touch much deeper.

Depicting my inside didn’t hold much surprises. I spend most of my time in my rich inner world, it’s free, it’s an excessively tended and fed garden, and it’s where I’ve escaped to all my life.

Depicting my outside I did first, wanting to get the hard part out of the way. I’ve had a lot of things said to me

‘Mask Outside: What They Tell Me’

‘Mask Outside: What They Tell Me’

about my appearance and my outside. And the only good things later turned out to be a worm on a hook to lure me, but that’s another post for another time. Since both pride and self-effacing humor (with a strong presence of self-esteem) are goals of mine I also wanted to really start to acknowledge and own those insecurities. Yet when I looked at it again later a different part of it leaped out of me and I nearly burst into tears right there. Because I hadn’t realized it until I saw it.

Over my mouth I’d stuck the words ‘Thank You.’

I, like many survivors of chronic abuse, suffered from apologitis—apologizing for everything, including things that aren’t my fault, apologizing merely for existing and taking up space.

Looking back I realized that though I’d made a concerted effort to apologize less, I’d been thanking people in really over-the-top compulsive and excessive ways. Even for doing nothing. Essentially, for not hurting me, which I unconsciously equated with being a herculean feat few could manage. I would thank people for stopping hurting me, too, and for doing basic decent human things. I would thank people, bowing and scraping, for the least crumbs, far less than I wanted and even needed. And the more impoverished and disabled (and subsequently deprived of basic needs and dignity) I became, the more intense this idiot gratitude became.

And it hurt, oh it hurt. Because there’s so much pressure to be grateful, to cultivate an attitude of gratitude, especially on marginalized people, and especially when powerful people make the least concessions. And when I over-the-top thank people, inside I feel small, helpless, less-than, and undeserving. That’s a lot to process.

In the first stages, learning any new language is going to be clumsy and piecemeal. Especially when the subject matter is deep and intense, as it is when discussing these subjects I’ve long been silenced and self-silenced on. I’m okay with messy. I’m okay with not being satisfied yet with my efforts, and sharing them anyway. Dissatisfaction keeps me hungry to keep doing it. Dissatisfaction inspires my activism and my art. And the only person I ever want to compete with, to compare myself with, is who I was before.

Living with my disabilities makes even this hard, because I have my good days and bad days, and as I’m struggling to get my basic needs met my situation often worsens in many ways I can’t do anything about. Sometimes I feel like I’m barely breathing, lest I break something that’s vital but I can’t afford to replace.

And some days I exhale fully and breathe into the process of expression. Those are the best days. No matter what comes out.

I give you permission to breathe out—if you need it. If you want it. If it feels good. It’s yours. Always.

One Comment

  1. We did the mask thing in dramatherapy (it was faintly embarrassing that mine was the only one that wasn’t decorated as a face… I’m no artist!)… I liked my mask though. And even though I’m not an artist it still revealed to me, because I did the front side, that everyone sees, covered with a layer of tin foil, and then two circles of pink tissue paper which represented rose coloured spectacles, and with the foil the whole thing represented that I show people on the outside what I think they want to see… what I think people want me to be, that’s what I try to be. I’d sort of known it before but perhaps not so consciously.

    The constant gratitude sounds really sucky… This is going to sound silly but what you said made me think of the relationship between Lord Peter Wimsey and Harriet Vane in Dorothy L Sayers’ crime novels (she writes amazing characters, if you’ve not read them!)… Lord Peter saves Harriet from being hanged for murder (this obviously when we had capital punishment) and also falls in love with her, but she refuses to marry him for years because she is grateful to him and she knows the relationship wouldn’t be equal.

    Anyway. Thank you for this post.

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