Artwork and Healing: Owning Your Story and Giving Yourself (and Your Subconscious) Credit / by Erin King

In my experience pursuing my Masters in Fine Arts, also known as “academia”, I (as well as my peers) have interpreted messaging from conversations, studio visits, lectures, and critiques to be anti-intuition, anti-personal, anti-happy accident… Well, at first reception of that messaging, anyway. There is a dance that I’ve recognized my peers and I do in response to faculty critique:

  1. We make something we believe in or are passionate about or has personal meaning for us.
  2. We speak about that thing only from what we, the artist, gains from the making of that piece, or speak about it in very closed terms.
  3. We feel interrogated or antagonized about this thing we felt strongly about. We retreat to “safer grounds” — play, process, materiality, political response pieces — things that require less resolution and less personal investment in the outcome.
  4. We get “interrogated” again — about our word choices.

We’re never told to not make any of these pieces, or that none of them are good or interesting. We’re told to choose better wording that lines up more with what we’re making in the work.

Except — that messaging is in the spaces in between — the silences, the replaying of critiques and studio visits, the reading over notes taken during these conversations, the critical thinking, the moving forward.

There’s a running joke in conversations with art peers leading into a critique — that if anyone asks whether something was intentional, you say yes. Even if it was a random mistake or happy accident — if they ask about it, you own it. I’ve never been great in doing this because in my mind, that is a lie, and I tend to be honest and transparent to a fault. But I think I’ve learned a lot more in that honesty. (Of course, sometimes these revelations don’t occur to me for 6 months to 2 years later, but I eventually get what the professors were trying to say.)

Nathan Boyer, in the first mid-term critique in my time at Mizzou, stated something that has stuck with me for the duration of my studies in the MFA program. During a peer’s critique, the question of why a certain mark or action or material came up in the work over and over was asked. The peer said they were utilizing chance and play in the work. In response, Boyer replied something to this effect: the first time you get a result, it’s chance. The second time you do something and it happens again — it’s no longer chance because the result becomes predictable and anticipated.

In the pain and personal trauma that critique can feel like, we don’t always hear what is actually being said. We are only hearing the words being said, and are already feeling on the defensive. We hear the above response as “play (or chance) is bad.” Or, “personal meaning is bad/uninteresting.”

Over time, I’ve concluded that what we’re really being taught in the subtext and silence is marketing, and standing by your product. We’re being taught to give ourselves, the artist, more credit. If a process always involves a form of deconstruction, or the use of found objects, that must be important. It’s our job to sit and analyze these commonalities between seemingly disparate works and recognize what our subconscious is trying to communicate.

We are not being told that the personal experience, intuition, or play has no place in the Art World or academia — no matter how much it may sound like it at the time. Rather, we are to identify broader ideas and themes that are “universal” experiences. (There’s not a true universal, but there are themes that accompany the human experience.) This isn’t because that’s what defines good art; it’s about mass appeal and marketability to survive in a consumerist culture that wants to acquire things. It’s about living in a society where people want to see themselves represented in things.

But it’s also about empowerment of the artist. It’s about giving us the power to communicate unquestionably what our philosophy, experiences, perspectives, and perceptions are so there is no confusion in the art critic and art historical debates down the road. We don’t need a Clement Greenberg or a Lucy Lippard to get people to buy into our ideals or create our “brand” for us. We control the messages we put out into the world about our work, so we might as well make sure we know what our artwork is really saying — because if we don’t. than anyone can misuse our artwork for their own purposes.

In other words, we’re being taught to own our stories.

I have been focusing a lot on healing for most of my adult life. It probably started the semester I studied abroad in Thailand as a third-wheel with my now-married friends. This insatiable need for healing was unidentifiable for a very long time — in part because I was a workaholic and an overachiever, and filled every waking moment so I wouldn’t be alone with my thoughts. The other reason was because I didn’t have the words beyond “single” and “isolated”. Even before I started identifying my experiences as trauma, or my physiological symptoms as PTSD, anxiety, and depression; even before I sought counseling — I knew the pain of isolation; of being accepted, but not belonging; of being liked, but not known or heard.

My journey of finding resolution in my artistic practices coincided almost perfectly with my own journey in addressing my fears of isolation; loss; being unloved; being seen as a fraud, unintelligent, or unstable; being unable to be self-sufficient; and being alone with myself. In my research, I discovered that many of these issues were correctly associated from the primary traumatic event I experienced at age 6, but it was also in part in the inherited traumas that were passed down from my parents and grandparents through epigenetics.

I can’t say I was all that surprised by these findings because I had pretty much reached that conclusion on my own by the time I sought my first counselor in August of 2014. When I moved to Columbia, MO, in March 2013, I spent a lot of that winter and early spring alone in my sublet, staying up late into the night working on my microcosm artworks (circle pen & ink drawings over gouache backgrounds) and would spend that time identifying how I had gotten to where I was. I always believed that since I could name the root causes, I didn’t need counseling.

When I first started to talk with my parents about the possibility that I was depressed, I was warned against taking medication just because a doctor prescribed it. When I finally did come to terms with my depression and decided I’d seek counseling, my mom finally opened up about her own experiences with depression. She mentioned that she didn’t want to take antidepressants because she was afraid it would take away her creativity. While watching Hannah Gadsby’s Netflix stand-up special, “Nannette”, this sentiment came back.

Gadsby recalled a particular show after which she had been approached by an audience member about her use of medication for depression. He claimed that if Van Gogh hadn’t suffered, we wouldn’t have had The Sunflowers. Gadsby, as an art historian, went on to educate that man in Van Gogh’s biography — that he actually had medicated his illness, and in fact, his use of color in some of his most innovative paintings could be credited to his medication.

At the conclusion of Gadsby’s heartfelt stand-up routine-turned-testimonial, she declared she was going to own her story, but also admitted she wasn’t strong enough to carry her story alone anymore. Gadsby asked the audience, “Do you want to know why we have The Sunflowers? It’s not because Van Gogh suffered. It’s because Vincent Van Gogh had a brother who loved him. Through all the pain, he had a tether — a connection to the world. And that is the focus of the story we need. Connection.

So, in my project, my research, and my personal healing, I’m shifting from shame and not “boring people with my personal story”, and am deciding to own my story. Because, as Gadsby said: “I don’t want to unite you with laughter or anger — I just needed my story heard, my story felt, my story understood by individuals with minds of their own. Because, like it or not, your story is my story, and my story is your story.