Walking around in your underwear (sorta)

It’s why my son says he’s the best runner and world champion marathoner Paula Radcliffe says she has areas where she could really improve. Why kids at lemonade stands brag about their business skills and CEOs of successful companies revamp their entire strategies. 

If we didn’t, in the beginning, believe in our own genius, our own capacity for greatness, I doubt we would ever pursue anything at all. Thank God for blind, ignorant, audacious confidence. Thank God we can so often at least begin with voices more encouraging than we deserve instead of those that tell us “what’s the use” or “this will never work.”

I didn’t take a formal art class until college. I knew so little that I strutted into an art major, confident as my dog in pursuit of a squirrel (don’t tell her she’s 0 for 1,758). In my second year, one of my classmates was preparing for her senior exhibition, which she entitled “Walking Around In Your Underwear,” a phrase our professor would use a lot to describe what it feels like to share your art with others. The thing was, it didn’t feel like that to me at all back then. It felt neither vulnerable nor very personal. It felt more like walking around in my GAP jeans, sweater, and LL bean backpack– nothing too remarkable nor scary about that. 

It’s twenty years later, and I’ve painted more and in more cities in the last few months than I did in all four years of college. And every day when I show up to my newly opened gallery, stride past the hardware store on my way to grab a cappuccino from the coffee shop down the road, I give myself a little pep talk to ward off the insecurities. It’s not that I feel like I’m walking around in my underwear. It’s more like I’m walking around with some enormous and ridiculous hat– one that has the ability to talk and every so often just blurts out some random or incongruent idea at passerbys. My art now feels deeply and unavoidably personal. 

I know so much more now. Namely, that what I don’t know is infinitely bigger than all the things I will ever know or could ever know. That painting each day is acknowledging limitations but also not letting them get the best of me, using them even. It’s acceptance. It’s giving the bird to the idea that what I offer is not good enough to exist, that perfection should precede expression. 

I think that’s the spirit by which this new series was born. The women in these pieces mostly have their eyes covered. Half the time I don’t know where I’m going and despite all the long-term goals I try to make, I often can’t see beyond my next step. I think these pieces are equally about being hidden and standing out, equally about humility and confidence. They are the reflection of a racing mind and an overwhelming peace that presides over the noise. And of course, that peace, for me, quite often looks like a bird. 

This post feels just about as vulnerable as the paintings behind it. But I’ve got this tiny little metaphoric bird ever at my shoulder. She’s part the poems that guide me, my late Aunt Catherine who taught me art and therefore bravery, and part that heavenly peace that surpasses all understanding, the one urging us forward and on and around and about no matter how silly it all feels. 

I am so grateful at this moment for the confidence born of ignorance that propelled me into this new shape-shifting world where I feel less certain of each step and yet more eager to keep taking them. 

I’m getting this small series ready for the gallery (and the site). They will be available Friday, November 26th at 10 am.

A few days ago I shared the piece that starts this post as well as another painting from the series on social media and asked for feedback on what ideas, feelings, or thoughts it conjured for my followers. Having not yet shared this post, which I was working on, I was a little astounded at the answers I got and how deeply they resonated with what I felt about this body of work. You can read some of the responses below and if you aren’t on facebook or instagram, well, first, congratulations! and second, I’d still love your feedback, right here on this old school blog. 

I Didn’t Know What She Meant by “Walking Around in Your Underwear.” Until Now.

Into the Unknown, palette knife painting

“Into the Unknown” 20×20, oil on canvas Buy Now

“You’ll feel like you’re walking around your underwear,” my art professor warned as we inexperienced undergraduates prepared for our senior art exhibits.

One of my classmates felt the metaphor so deeply that she made it the title of her exhibit– “Walking around in Your Underwear” was a collection of beautifully abstracted pieces. Her paintings were lovely, and I remember wondering how they could make her feel so exposed. Art made me feel less vulnerable, not more.

I was a newcomer to art. I’d never taken a single class until college. I had spent my childhood and formative years pouring every thought (petty and not) into countless notebooks and journals. I never shared my writing with anyone. Art was exposure but not the same as words. It was a different language altogether. Whereas my words left me feeling naked and vulnerable, the art made me feel competent and bold– I made this thing, this thing is big and colorful, look at it, and not at me. So I shared the art and clung tight to the poems and stories I wrote in secret.

The title of my senior exhibit was “Between the Lines”– I had scribbled illegible words into many of my paintings. Because the viewer couldn’t actually read the words (though I saw some noses pressed against my canvases trying) they functioned on the level of design rather than literature. They were safe.

Fast forward fifteen years, and I am just now starting to feel what my art professor described as walking around in your underwear.

My moderate success since I’ve “gone pro” has allowed more people to see my art than ever before. While almost all the feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, there has also been a small dose of criticism as well. Which is agonizing. I struggle with it.

Over the years, painting has gone from something new and exciting to something I do regularly, passionately, and devotedly. I am more committed to it than I was in college, and it, in return, has allowed me to take up space I used to think I didn’t deserve. Paintings literally take up space– they are physical things. Creating them involves making literal marks. These very literal expressions remind me of the less literal ways I take up space and make my mark– from kindly and respectfully informing a waiter that he’s gotten my order wrong, to having a difficult conversation with a loved one.

A couple weeks ago, I was brainstorming with a friend for a business she is starting. The next day, I woke up and went to a yoga class during which an image of a woman walking off a ledge kept appearing and reappearing in my mind. She wasn’t falling off a cliff so much as confidently stepping into the unknown. My friend’s entrepreneurship inspired me. And so did my own agency. I was very much the woman I saw.

The painting that is the result of this vision is one that makes me feel vulnerable. It isn’t a bird which might sometimes stand for me or the qualities I want to have (grace, confidence, patience).  It is actually me– my thoughts and my fears. My vulnerability and my intention to keep walking forward despite the uncertainty. Despite the little criticisms. This painting is about taking up space. It’s about moving forward. Even when I feel like I’m walking around in my underwear.

 

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