My Artist Residency in Puebla, Part 3: The Assignment That Reduced Me To Tears
Last time we left off with this revelation:
My art was all about my obsession with how I look. Not only had I objectified myself...I had objectified my art.
If you missed my last few posts, click the buttons below. It will pop up in a new window.
I wanted people to like my art so that they would like me. I'm not sure whether or not that sentence should be in the past tense or not...
When I came to my residency in Puebla City, Mexico, I had a really specific goal in mind: FIND MY VOICE.
As you read in my latest blog post, I had been struggling with creating pieces of art that felt more like a rip-off of someone else than my own creative point of view. I knew that six weeks in Mexico, focusing completely on my work, was a great opportunity to try and find ME.
The director of the program, Francisco, told me during our first critique that it was clear that I was trying to find my voice. Part of me was crushed that I didn’t have a stronger identity like the other artists did, but I reminded myself that I didn’t have that unique artistic voice yet and that it was time to calm the hell down on the pride.
Over the next few weeks Francisco gave me interesting exercises that were quite difficult, but were designed to help break me out of my bad habits. He advised me to get out of canvas, but I didn’t have any walls to paint on, so I settled for buying paper that I could easily tape to the wall, floor, and ceiling of my studio. The idea was to change the habit of how I started a piece. He also encouraged me to ban a few colors from my palette for a little while. Those colors were blue, pink, and purple.
It was like ripping off a band-aid. Even though I was ready to get to work, I sat in my studio, uninspired, unsure of how to start, and getting really frustrated. I worried about what my followers were seeing on my feed.
“What do you want your art to say?” Francisco asked me at a critique. To be honest, I didn’t know. I kinda bullshitted my way through some words, just desperate to give him an answer that sounded more impressive than “I don’t know.” I could see that he didn’t buy the bullshit, but he pressed, “How is your work going to say it?”
Together, Francisco and I agreed that abstract clouds of color weren’t going to communicate what I wanted. Maybe someone else could do that, but I needed to change.
Then Francisco gave me a really interesting assignment. “Find something that you think is ugly and paint that. Paint the ugliness and really accentuate it. Explore why it is ugly. Show me that it’s ugly.” (This is a paraphrase)
Well, for a few days I walked all over Puebla looking for ugly. I looked at muddy streets, garbage shoved into storm drains, homeless dogs with mangy and matted fur, crucifixes in cathedrals with the bloodiest Jesuses on them, tacky toys… I couldn’t find ugly in these things. I was able to zero in on the qualities that made them quite beautiful, actually, and I was failing to complete my assignment without a muse.
But the revelation here is a difficult one. I realized that in order to find ugliness, I didn’t need to look any further than my own face. My own body. Me.
I thought I was ugly. I have for as long as I can remember.
Now this ISN’T some blog post designed to get you all to tell me that I’m gorgeous and blah blah blah. My body image isn’t the point here. That’s a separate issue that I work on with my therapist! I’m being honest with you here about my artistic process – the ugliest thing I could find in Puebla was myself.
I needed to paint self-portraits.
I asked a fellow resident to take some photos of my body. I stood in front of them, nude, posing for shots that I anticipated I would want to paint. I grabbed my fat rolls and squeezed them forward for the camera. I pinched myself, and knelt in submissive, defeated poses.
Being naked in front of someone who isn’t your lover is a really strange experience. I didn’t feel ashamed of my body in front of them, even though my whole project was about my poor body image. I felt myself separating from my body, like it was an object that I owned. And when I look at the photos, that’s how I feel, too.
It reminds me of being in treatment for anorexia. We had yoga on Thursdays, and during one session the instructor told us to massage our own feet. As I touched my feet and rubbed them awkwardly I began to cry. Why did my body feel foreign to the touch even though I certainly measured it every single day? I thought I knew my body so well for it’s flaws, but I really didn’t know my body at all. It had been this breathing dead thing, neglected and malnourished, ignored and starved.
The feeling that my body and me were separate came back during my time in Mexico as I looked at these photos of myself and chose which ones I would paint. I appraised it with a critical eye, emotionlessly. As I painted myself I focused on the photo for its shadows, highlights, and outlines. You would think that this process was extremely personal, but it actually felt quite impersonal. Cold, even.
I embraced that because it was true. It was honest. It was a part of my story.
But that coldness, that unemotional reaction ...that didn't last long.
Ok, that was a little gloomy, but this saga about my residency isn’t over. Check out my playlist about body image (below) while you wait for the next installment!
This playlist includes songs about having doubts, as well as songs from the POV of someone who wants you to see how beautiful you truly are. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but it's certainly my go-to for when I am reflecting on my own issues with body image.
AND don't forget to sign up for my blog update email if you want to be notified when the next chapter drops.