Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Labeled As Is

Her big, brown eyes grew wide as she whispered her confession across the art gallery.
 "I don't really like this sort of thing - I find it kind of boring."

I didn't share my mom's sentiment, but this tiny art gallery in the throbbing metropolis of Troy hadn't really clasped my heart strings the way galleries usually do. It was a warm, clear day - we had stopped in - my grandma, Aunt Rita, cousin Jon, mom, and I - to see a painting of the barn on my grandparents' property. The painting was pretty; it captured perfectly the landscape that had come to define my childhood.

The towering, red barn had once housed squirming, squealing piglets, but now stood before the blue sky and green grass empty of breathing vessels, but filled with two generations of childhood memories. It was in this barn that my brown-eyed brother wore his first miniature Carhartt uniform; where he first grew those roots of becoming a country boy to his core. It was outside this barn that I fell in the affectionately coined 'poop pit.'

I was wearing new shoes and had stopped by grandma's with my mom; when you walked back behind this specific barn there was, what appeared to be, a small brown puddle right in front of the fencing. It was very innocent looking, as far as poop pits go, but if you had the misfortune of stepping into the murky puddle you were instantly made to feel as though you were trapped in quicksand. My new shoes never recovered from the pit of quicksand. Today one can go back in search of it, but they will only find dried clumps of poop. My new shoes sat in the door of the garage for some time, never again to see the light of day while on my feet.

The painting didn't give the audience any history of that depth; it wasn't able to whisper the childhood secrets to admiring strangers, either. It was merely a colorful and well-painted portrait of a barn that will only ever belong to my family. We had come to see the barn painting and now that we had I moved toward the back of the gallery. It was on a clear day with sadness in my heart, over impending goodbyes, when I first saw the large piece hanging on that back wall.

Harry Ally's Figure with Flowers #2 hung on the back wall of the small gallery - it is a physical dress molded to a canvas; it has tones of green and creme and turquoise and has sporadically placed pink carnations around the dress. My breath was stolen from my body as I looked on at this art piece. My mom and I stepped closer to further examine it and I immediately felt like Maggie Gyllenhall's character in Mona Lisa Smile looking over a large, paint covered canvas. As we walked away I looked back at it one last time and my mom whispered, with tears in her eyes, "Do you feel like a dress hanging alone?"

In a moment of complete honesty I will admit that drawing is something I've always wished was in my arsenal of talents. "Artist" is a term I've long come to understand will not be one to define me. Going into art aisles at the local Hobby Lobby and JoAnn Fabrics found me lusting after sketch pads and colored pencils that would only be filled with different colored cubes and oddly shaped daisies, if in my possession. I hesitate at labeling myself much outside of the familial or emotional relationships I occupy. I have been creatively writing since I was twelve years old and yet when people ask what it is I do waitress always comes to mind, never writer. It has become clear I have my "W's" all wrong.

In 1987 I became a daughter; a green eyed brunette emergency C-section. Daughter hood has been an interesting ride; my temperament is similar to my father's, which has proven to complicate even the most civil situations. While tumultuous situations have reigned supreme with my hot-tempered pop and I, my mother has been the single fighting force behind every right move I've ever made.

In 1990 I become a sister to my polar opposite. I think it's likely a universal truth that with initial birth of a younger sibling, the older sibling becomes elated and goes into overdrive on helpfulness to the parents; this was accurate for Zachary and I, but it promptly ended when I realized he was better looking than me and was easier in mannerisms and temperament, as well.
In January of 2003 that all changed; our family suffered a great loss when our fifteen year old blood relative was killed in a car accident. It was during the funeral service when Nick's sister got up and tearfully recounted memories of her brother; I was being given an opportunity and I wasn't going to let it pass me up. As I sat there listening to the brave hearts get up in front of the mourning crowd and share memories, I was having a quiet one of my own. Zachary and I were eight and five and at the mall with our saved allowances. In my selfish eight-year-old ways I was looking to buy for me - my brother, however, was also buying for me.
He got me a stuffed Winnie the Pooh bear. As I sat in the midst of rolling tears and repressed sobs it occurred to me that my baby brother had loved me all along. Since that day I have come to treasure my title of sister - it's become one of my most favored identifiers.

In a world filled with labels, with titles, with focus on the importance of a name I find myself both in search of my title and hiding in dark corners to avoid the title finding me. In Eat, Pray, Love Elizabeth Gilbert is in Italy and talking with friends over dinner about what "word" they are; each city has a word, each person has a word, and Elizabeth says, "Well, my word would be writer." A male friend responds, "That's what you do, not who you are."
Shortly after finishing this book I became obsessed with my "word." Simultaneously searching and hiding from that inevitable word, from that tempting title. What if I don't like the word I am? What if I don't like what my word might say about me, how it may or may not define me?

This society we live in insists upon branding, which seems to be producing a great need for definition in both our personal and professional lives. I am guilty of being in this category - I long for titles of writer, award winning author, lover, wife, successful. It becomes a question of at what length will I go to to fully embody these titles? At what point will one or two be enough or too much?

Going back to that art gallery and looking at the painting of a barn that helped me grow, looking at Ally's Figure with Flowers #2 it occurs to me that great things, great beings are not always initially deigned with a proper identifier. As "they" say - Rome wasn't built in one day and I've heard Jane Austen was a bigger success after she met her prize than before . . .

I step closer to the large, white canvas and look up at the thin straps of the bodiless figure before me. My mom's words come back to me : "Do you feel like a dress hanging alone?" Writer or waitress, writer or waitress? Sister, daughter, sister, daughter and just what is my word, Elizabeth Gilbert? I reach out to touch the canvas and then stop myself  - leaving all as is.

 Figure with Flowers #2

1 comment:

  1. What a beautiful piece, Steph! I loved how much emotion and personal history you were able to include after this moment you had in the gallery with this painting that spoke to you. And after having had the privilege to read some of your other essays I can see this theme of trying to find your identity, which is very relatable to so many people. Many of us are trying desperately to find our 'word,' but you have this way of both showing it as a weakness but also a great strength - you're trying to interpret and find who you are, in the meantime working toward an identity! I enjoy reading your stuff, lovely piece!