Last night I summoned up all my nerve and took myself to the monthly critique at the darkroom. I was half an hour late and all the beer was gone.
There’s a guy who is involved in the darkroom who is a bit, actually probably a decade or more, older than me. I bring his age up because he did: he turned to me and said something about, hey, we cannot compete with these 40 somethings, they know tech! and I thought, dude, you don’t even know me, and I was in fact a 40 something in quite recent memory, not to mention, I just got my damn hair done, how fucking old do you think I am? And why does this matter, to me, to you?
He was showing his work. It was really fucking amazing work, like, I would kill to have these pieces in my portfolio, big prints that were metallic and shining, work that started with extremely good photographs and went on to become something more. Things I do not even have the least idea of how to even begin to make. They were things he had made a long time ago and was showing now. He was confident and arrogant in a particularly male way, or so it seemed to me. I do not like male arrogance and men make me uneasy, these days. He talked a bit about hating the digital world and he said some dismissive things about stuff I care about- but this is on me, not on him, he was not being an asshole at all, it was just artist talk.
I felt horribly awkward and nervous and then I was first silent and then talked too much because I am not good in these situations and also it’s ridiculously hot. I really fucking hate summer. There were other people there who I like and respect tremendously, most of whom are much younger than me. Somebody said, eventually, “So, are you a photographer?” And I said, “Um, sort of! Ha ha!” although I have been defining myself as a photographer for fucking years and years now. I didn’t own it and I didn’t show my own work, although I had brought it. This is mostly because I realized, looking at this work and some of the other work people had brought, that my work is student work.
It’s objectively fair that it should be student work! I started this odyssey 4 months ago. Aside from one 7th grade afternoon (the memory of which I have treasured all these years and one of the driving forces in where I am now) I had never been in a darkroom, never printed a photo from a negative, never done any of this. I am trying, now, to make something. I know that, but. But I have been making art, one way or another, for a long time now and taking pictures for almost 20 years and, hell. I didn’t own it.
I am ashamed. I don’t have a body of work to show. I am old and I should have my shit together and know what I’m doing, in art if not in life, or at least somewhere, and I so, so don’t. I remember when I was a painting student in college and the middle aged ladies who were taking classes. I wasn’t a nice kid: they drove me crazy and I was mean to and about them. I was horrible and confident then. Now I am neither. Now I am a (mostly) nice middle aged lady, taking up space.
I went into a bad spiral last night. What is the point of me, middle aged lady, pretending to be an artist? I’m just a fuckup. I’m just a lameass broke bookstore clerk. I have failed in everything I have ever attempted. I have no right to try to make art, to print photos like it’s the first time anybody ever printed photos of a concrete pig. I remember this feeling – I got like this one time before, in my late 20s, when I felt it was disgustingly privileged to try to make art and nobody should doing it using anything other than stuff you can buy at the dollar store for less than $5 because otherwise, you are hurting the world. I spent years pulling myself out of that.
This though is sort of worse, because it is tied up in being a middle aged lady, and feeling like perhaps you should really put yourself on an ice floe for the good of the planet. Okay, granted, I would hop on a nice ice floe so fast right now you could not even see my smoke, but heat wave (heat DOME! It’s DOMING!) aside, it is really difficult for me to think I have a reason or a right to exist. Mostly I sort of think I don’t. I am not pretty anymore. I don’t have a great job. My children are grown and gone and . . . I am just sort of keeping the dogs and the tomatoes alive. And trying to make, well, art. Art. Like I thought I would spend my life making when I was 23 instead of 53. Now I think, how dare I? How dare I try to reinvent myself and learn a new art form?
This says a lot about me – whoa dog! A lot! An extremely fucked up lot! – but it occurs to me that it also says a lot about the world I inhabit. Why is women’s work dismissed? Why is it so easy for me to dismiss myself, my aspirations, my interests, my art – as pointless and stupid? Why do I think I should just quietly give up and maybe, I don’t know, do good works and needlepoint? Men my age do not, I think, feel they should be on an ice floe. (No they mostly go on OK Cupid looking for 32 year olds because they have suddenly realized they forgot to have kids but yeah, okay, I might be a little bitter, #notallmen) They have a kind of confidence, though, that I don’t have. I need it. I don’t have the faintest idea how to acquire it. I remember my mother saying dismissively, oh, that’s just women’s fiction. Those are just women’s books. Women’s paintings. Not important.
This toxic stew of misogyny and ageism, it can bubble up badly quite fast.
I don’t have any answers. I talked to my friends a lot tonight, most intensely to my friend Zen, an artist, a photographer who has gleefully at 60ish taken up being a graffiti artist and is really good at it. He made me feel better. My friend Meg reminded me that this is the depressive brain – it tries to tell you stupid shit lies to make you stop doing things. And it was in general lovely to see them and remember that if these people like me, well, they are smart and awesome people, and they would not like me if I was horrible shit. I came home and took a bad picture of one of the sunflowers in my front yard, which are growing crazy and are like 16 feet tall and yet are standing up, being as orange as orange can ever be.
I worked in marketing for years. I could turn this into a nice redemptive piece with a happy ending right now. But there isn’t one and I don’t (thank you dashboard jesus) work in marketing anymore. I’m still kind of unhappy and I don’t have any answers. My art is probably shit. I don’t have a good reason to make it. I am one of the daffy middle aged artsy fartsy ladies beloved by parodists (and why is that, by the way?) and I am unhappy about it but fuck, I am still going to keep on trying, I guess. I pretty much have to – I suck at needlepoint. So here is a picture of a 6 foot concrete pig.