|Ceramic sculpture by Heidi Roemer, Victoria, B.C.|
I don't have a lot of patience. I frequently gnaw at my tethers, and tend to talk so much in my hurry to say the things that come to mind that I forget to listen, and frankly it takes a lot to fascinate me to the point of getting my rapt attention. But inside my own installation, where the art is to be found in the viewers' reactions, I'm all ears. People ask me what my intentions are; what my training and material choice is; what the stories behind the work are, and I usually tell them to go have a look for themselves and see what their own hearts see.
Some people look and some don't. Some come tell me what they think, and some leave in silence or with a quiet nod and thanks. Some participate in the show by adding their stories in writing, some by telling their stories to me, and some with silent tears. The guestbook is filled with kindnesses, and nobody leaves a negative note. But I know there are many people who are displeased -- offended, even. And I wish I could hear those people's thoughts. Some never even walk in the door.
But one man stayed. A retired judge. He walked all around the show, then sat on the bench by the door, waiting for his ride. He eventually told me he thought the work was awful. Unkind. Disgraceful. Ugly. And was I the artist?
I hesitated. "Yes."
Well he said he thought it was disrespectful to women. Why would I paint women so ugly when they're so beautiful? And I was stunned. Literally I was stunned into silence, because I honestly could not understand where he was coming from. He said I was such a nice young woman and he couldn't understand why I would paint women with so much hatred. I thought silently about how much love I'd felt while painting these things; how much joy in watching women participate in the show, but I didn't tell him. He literally shocked me into silence, and it was to my benefit. I kept on listening. He pulled a chocolate heart from his bag and gave it to me, saying that he carries them around to give to people to remind them that they are beautiful. This gesture was very strange to me, and I kept listening. Sometimes I wanted to defend my work, but I stopped myself. And eventually, after a very long time, he told me that the bald women in my paintings reminded him of the bodies at Buchenwald.
Wow. And that was the moment my stunned listening paid off. Not only did I realize that he was coming from an understanding I will never share, and that, like every other visitor to the gallery, he looks at it through his own life's lens, but I also realized that that long period of simply listening had been necessary not just for me to understand, but for him to come to an understanding of his feelings. That is something we know, I think, but something we (or at least I!) very rarely consciously consider. I need to talk to understand my feelings, too. But do I give others that chance? Rarely.
Listening is an art. I have been trying so hard to listen for so many years, and it is certainly a steep uphill climb for me. But in these past couple of weeks I have begun to see how many times my impatience has meant that my children are not heard; how many times I interpret their silence as an answer only because I didn't wait long enough; how many times I miss the boat because the call aboard was a long complicated story and I had stopped listening after the first whisper. I now see how many times my own fear of offending has meant that I tried to answer for people before allowing them the time to make their own conclusions and ask questions.
I talk a lot on this blog about fear: how unschooling is a journey through letting go of our own parental fears and trusting our children to live well. It is. And it never ends.
Back to what I learned from this art show, I watched my father make a parenting discovery, too. He came to see some of the work in my studio, before I installed it in the gallery, and had very little to say. It was clear he was uncomfortable, or at least not very interested. When the show opened he came to the gallery, and walked around awkwardly. So I prodded him about it. He told me he just doesn't consider this art. My fear of failure made me want to run away crying, but there were other people around so I stood and listened. He said it isn't something he'd like to hang on his wall. Why would I put something in a gallery that people wouldn't hang on their walls? He didn't think it would be well received. And on top of that I knew he was grappling with the fact that I was about to read some slightly alarming stories on the opening night in an open-front painted wedding dress with polyester pubic hair peeking out the front. I was afraid of embarrassing him. But I did it anyway. I did this strange costumed reading, and the 60 or so people in attendance seemed a bit stunned, but apparently some of them congratulated him.
The next day my Pappa walked down to my house and came in, only to tell me that people loved the show, and he was proud of me. "So what changed?" I asked him. And he told me he had been afraid, before the opening. Afraid for me.
And this is when I realized that the fear is never going to go away. Not ever. My children can be 38 years old and planning not-very-daring feats of social misconduct, and ... I will still be terrified for them.