“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.