I recently was interviewed by Brent Watkinson on his Everyday Artist podcast, and I wanted to follow up on a few things after I listened to it that I thought were important to share here. Here is a link to the interview, if you haven’t already heard it.
Vanessa Lemen – interview with Brent Watkinson on Everyday Artist
When asked if I had any last words of advice at the end of the interview, I said “Don’t be afraid to tell your own story. In fact, make it a point to tell your own story. Because no one else is going to.” I wanted to make sure that I clarify that as we discussed throughout the interview, your own story can manifest in many ways. It’s not only in regards to doing your personal work, but to also keep in mind to not fight the intersection of life and work. It’s inevitable that your work will reflect your perception and life experiences. Let it. And also, be permeable. Allow it to change your way of thinking if it needs to too. Introspection is key to developing your output.
When I said that it was important for artists to know that the AD found me by way of seeing my work in the annuals Spectrum and Infected By Art, as the conversation took a couple different turns, it slipped by me to also point out that it was my personal work that he saw. Not only am I mentioning this because this is how I was found, that I see an importance in submitting to those annuals for those types of reasons, and that my personal vision was what he was indeed looking for and thought fitting for the project, but by sharing this, I’m also stating that these annuals are not only for seasoned artists sharing the work they’ve done for commissions and projects they were hired to do, but the annuals themselves are also celebrating the personal work and unique vision of all artists as well. It’s important to note, in the context again to telling your own story, that this applies to the work you’re commissioned to do, the jobs, the projects that are being done for others. They’ve chosen you to illustrate their project precisely because of the vision you’ve shared that’s distinctly yours.
When I say that I learned so much from the combination of working on The Left Hand Of Darkness and the Me Too movement happening at once, I mention: “There’s no not looking at it. You can’t turn away from it.” And that it further solidified my feeling that “Not everyone wants to talk about it. Not everyone is meant to speak up and be loud and heard.” I want to note that after listening to this, I felt that I wasn’t quite clear about the importance of this point. What I mean is that there are other ways to speak about it (about any subject), and not everyone is made to be outwardly vocal or loud. First and maybe foremost, please know that there are people to talk with. There is a community to speak with on a smaller scale if you do want to talk but don’t want to be heard by everyone, there are people who you can share with and will listen in quiet spaces too… And there is a going within that is essential and many will find their answers there as well. There is a strength that comes from that trust in one’s self. I visit that place within on a regular basis. It’s the very nature of what happens to creatives while creating. I’ve also found my best way to speak up (for me) is through painting. Not only is my own story in many of the images I make showing themselves as finished paintings, but the working through things is in the act of painting, itself. For me, the working through is in the experience and process of making the painting probably more than the finished image, but the finished image is what others see and feel a connection with. It’s an experience that’s felt differently for everyone who experiences it, including myself. And that’s essentially what art is.
What I’d begun to do over the many years I’ve been painting, and especially now, is make a pact with myself that at all times I share hope and optimism in the images I create, even if they came from a place that might’ve felt like the opposite. With all of the turmoil we see on a daily basis, it’s important to me that I share the story of good that has come from adversity and from working through it all, and to be clear in that message. On a personal note, coming from a place of thinking that our work is a mirror, I want to create a reflection I am proud to look at and that can help me through my own dark times as well. By doing this, I’ve found a much larger conversation to be had in the sharing of those reflections. I’ve found that by feeling familiar to others, they speak universally, and that I have created a connection on a much larger scale by way of making these personal images. I’ve found that others feel as if I’ve shown them their own reflection in that mirror too.
Though not art-related per se, but important to note: I want to address that part of the conversation in the interview about speaking up or not speaking up.. If you don’t speak up, it doesn’t mean that you are less than anyone who does. It doesn’t mean that your story is less valid because you haven’t told everyone, and it doesn’t mean that you are less of a human by any means because you haven’t spoken out or that you’ve stuffed it away so successfully that you’ve forgotten all of the details. In the words of the founder of the Me Too movement, Tarana Burke, herself: “I have a bad memory because I’ve spent most of my life trying not to remember. One of the ways we survive is by practicing forgetting.” All of us – those who’ve not been personally impacted and survivors alike – need to understand what survival in general looks like, that it’s individual and has many variables, and to have empathy for those survivors, as varied and nuanced as we may be in our experiences. Not everyone deals with things in the same way, and all of those ways may be valid in the context of their own makeup. The understanding of this takes integrity. For many, I believe, it feels difficult to examine our own thinking, and then perhaps even more difficult for many is the attempt to change that way of thinking. And that doing so is going to take time.
Why the timing of working on The Left Hand Of Darkness and Me Too happening at once was a challenge and good for me, was because I needed to create images that kept the interpretation ambiguous while at the same time, confront the very nature of why these issues have been surfacing: it’s engrained in our social norms. This is a reckoning of the norms that have guided so many of us for so long. Thankfully, this project was not only my own, but was a making of images for the writing of Ursula LeGuin, and she had been speaking about this in her own writing for decades, just as she did in her book I was illustrating at that time. This helped me tremendously in getting through it, and that was her intent in writing and sharing these stories. Among many important reasons, it’s to let us know we’re not alone – that she’s there, and she’s been there, and there are many like us. And most importantly, it will take us – as diverse in our experiences and thinking as we may be – working together to be successful in our examining and overcoming.
It’s important to note this, too, because as I also mention in the interview, in certain instances such as the blurring of the line between fine art and illustration, many younger artists and young people in general simply are not aware that our society and the world was/is not always about speaking up and being heard. We see it so much more now, and I think that’s great in many ways, but there is a strength that comes from having gone through things and processed them over years in a different way that is also important to understand. In the case of a less heavy topic than the Me Too movement, just in the art world alone and the division of fine art and illustration, there are artists who’ve always stayed true to who they are, their vision, and the art they put out. In a world of division and disconnect, they continued to power through and remain authentic, and have paved the way for the younger generation who are now able to share their vision across many platforms without thinking about that aspect of it at all. We can thank many establishments, galleries and publications that celebrate that melding of all facets of the art world as well for being an integral part of making this happen.
I’ve learned this in many ways throughout my life – not only regarding the art world, gender equality, cultural, social and political discord, or the unfortunate list of Me Too experiences, but in business as well. It’s not always in your best interest to be loud, even when you want to shout something from the mountaintops. Sometimes, it’s a choose your own battle type of scenario, it factors in others and not only yourself, and you really need to take a step back and assess before you react. Call on those close to you first who can possibly offer some guidance, people who’ve experienced life or business or simply have just lived longer and can offer a story of their own because they’ve seen things you, frankly, just have not seen yet. I can recall a few moments throughout my life when I’ve done that, and it helped me exponentially. At the time, a word of advice to not take action I’ll admit seemed very frustrating, but those words of advice came from experience and from a perspective that saw all sides and the possibility of it hurting me even more if I spoke up. In hindsight, it was better for me to not speak up, but to continue to do the best work I can. You’ll find that the people who may have hurt you will see that too, and most importantly, by the time you’re able to see all this in hindsight, the part about people who’ve hurt you seeing you take the world by storm really doesn’t matter to you anymore. You’re soaring far above it all, on to new and better things, and that’s the best part. And again, that takes understanding and growth, which takes time.
But let’s also talk about the more humble story, too. The one most familiar to you. The daily life type of story. It most likely isn’t glamorous, but it’s yours. This one holds so much power in its nuanced humility. It’s quite familiar to us all. It’s relatable. There is so much to be tapped into in that life you might feel is rather simple or humble compared to what you see in all of the chaos that surrounds us. It’s quite possibly where you feel centered, and where you can retreat to, away from the chaos. This kind of safe space needs to be shared right now more than ever. If you feel like your story might not be impactful in the way that people who shout from mountaintops impact others, you’re right. It will be different from that, and it’s what people need too.
On that note, I’d like to share a poem that was written by my dad many decades ago about his experience of going with me to my preschool open house. I can honestly say that my dad is my favorite storyteller of all – the way he tells them aloud especially – but to tell you more about that would take a lifetime. So, I offer this one humble poem and I think you may find yourself feeling like you are in a familiar place. It’s his story about a small moment in time, a kind of story that’s familiar to us all, and in that way, it’s so powerful in its simplicity and sense of wonder about the beauty we find in the small things and daily life. And it’s just so important that we do not lose sight of this. I feel lucky to have been able to have heard these kinds of stories throughout my life from my dad. It’s truly made such an impact on me. One that I will never give up on in the sharing of my own.
by Bob Bates
A blond bob of hair climbed out of the car,
fled across the dark street, offered a smile
and a hand to grasp, and urged me into the door.
Inside, nearing the evening’s end,
the smaller jumble of parents and kids
still clambered or sat or smiled and chatted or tugged
– or finally sifted home.
After “hello’s” and “good to see ya’s”
the polaroid pictures (each face and name recited),
being first in the cubby holes by the door,
got more than their share of time.
But one question later and we were off,
I at the end of her towing hand,
past the rabbits, gerbils, and other beasts
into the cool night air of swings and slides.
A dash here, a stunt there, a cry of “Watch!”
and soon, each play thing tried in turn,
we settled into swinging for a while.
There under the light-sprinkled trees
behind the plain, squat, cinder-block school,
she swung in loops of swooping speed –
the clear and single thing to do: to swing
in her own wind and rush of air.
Suddenly, back into the building
and the parade of showing began:
play-dough, wooden blocks, paper pumpkins with seeds glued on,
a drum, triangle, puzzles of all sorts, and then a book.
The seasons of a toad skimmed by,
my chin over her shoulder
in a nearly separate world of two
(the toad didn’t really matter),
before goodbyes all around and an exit,
hand in hand again, into the cool night air.
My dad has been such an avid follower of my posts here on Muddy Colors, always sharing with me how he looks forward to reading them each month. And as I write this a few days before it posts, I’m not sure if he’ll be able to see it at the moment, but the beauty of sharing stories is that I know someone new will. His gift of storytelling has been a great influence on me, and I’m so grateful for having that experience – decades of it. It means so much to me that I’m able to share a glimpse of his voice and vision here. Thank you for taking the time to read it.
Thoughtfully and beautifully written, Vanessa! I love your heart for speaking life and truth and encouragement, even through the dark times (especially through the dark times!).
Thank you for reminding me of the power of simply expressing oneself. Often I create with the impression that someone is watching and expects certain things from me. That feeling has always been a source of frustration and anxiety, but to let that worry go and simply focus on creating what means the most to me…there’s freedom.
I’m so encouraged to see how your consistent output of your personal voice attracted people to your work. You inspire me to keep tapping into the parts of my process that are raw and real, and to find ways to weave that into finished pieces that are compelling and authentic. Much love.
hi Colleen- Thank you so much for the nice comment. I’m so glad that my work and articles here have been a source of encouragement and reminder to express yourself without the burden of what others expect. I think our output is a combination of all of that, and as illustrators we need to be aware of the audience too for sure, but never let it take over our own story. For me, that consistent output definitely was shaped by all of the above, but overall, the confidence that built up over time has helped me to be less influenced by outside voices, so not to be *guided* by them, but to listen to my own first and foremost. It really is inevitable, but when we fight it, that also shows in our work. I really appreciate your comment here. Thank you again.
Absolutely beautiful post, Vanessa.
Thanks so much, Dan. I’m so glad you think so. I appreciate all you’ve been able to do in being flexible during this time. My dad passed away a few days ago, and I’m so grateful to have been able to fit in his poem here in a way that felt right, and to have shared that with him before he passed. He absolutely loved Muddy Colors and all that everyone shares here. He really looked forward to reading the posts here. He’d been an educator for so much of his life, and he had so much respect for all that Muddy Colors represents.
Thank you, Vanessa, for this post. More than you can know, it is timely for me–serendipitous. At a time where I’m standing among several turning points, reading this affirmed my navigation/choices of the moment. Beautiful!
hi Erin- thank you for this message and for letting me know how timely it is for you. I’ve heard this from so many in messages elsewhere after posting it too, and I’m humbled to hear that it has helped others in some way. Turning points are such amazing places to be – a significant marker in affirmations and our personal evolution. They may feel tough in the moment, but in hindsight, they show us how much we are capable of and how far we’ve come since making the choices we make. So glad to hear you’re moving forward at a significant turning point in your personal journey. All the best to you, and thank you again.
Thank you, Vanessa, for this post.
hello, you’re welcome! 🙂 Thank you for reading the post and for the nice comment.