From 3-5 yesterday Valley and I, along with the other pairs of collaborators (Amie Oliver and Harry Kollatz, and Joshua Poteet and Roberto Ventura, and Dash Shaw (who wasn't able to be there)) exhibited our work to the public who were kind enough to make the trek to Ashland for the afternoon. One of the highlights of the afternoon was the reading by the various writers involved in the project.
Joshua Poteet did a wonderful job reading his poem which he and Roberto Ventura had illustrated. Hearing it read brought it close to my heart and helped me understand it more. Their artwork was an aesthetically beautiful response to Randolph Macon's setting next to the railroad tracks, to the poem Joshua had written about the space between the tracks and the rest of the world, and to the tragic murder of a homeless person which happened in that space. Beautifully finished plywood with the poem and article etched into it, Joshua's light boxes serving as punctuation, and lines on the wall delineating the progression made an overall beautiful impression of order and disorder blending together, as does that space between the tracks.
Harry gave a very dramatic reading of snippets from his journal over the course of several years which Amie had illustrated with gorgeous black and white drawings of herself and Harry, coffee cups, flowers, and Harry's hat. Overlaid on her drawings were scrawls of Harry's handwriting from his journals. The drawings were displayed beautifully on rails on the wall, their B&W tones exquisite against the neutral gray of the gallery walls.
Dash Shaw's graphic novels greet the visitor upon entering the gallery. A computer monitor was set up to allow people to watch his short film. Original pages from his novels were displayed in a grid on the wall, and the actually books themselves were also available for visitors to peruse.
Valley's and my work is on the far wall as one enters the space, bold and red paintings along with stark black and white words against the neutral gray walls. Three oil paintings of Valley, a pastel drawing, and three series of three photos are the visual offerings. 2-3 line poems along with Valley's article from Belle are the written ones.
This is the painting from our first session. It's called Valley in the Chair.
This drawing was also from the first session. It's called Valley's Folds. It's an almost abstract exploration of her scar and the folds of her torso.
From our second session together, after Valley had had some amazing revelations about her relationship with her body. Valley Coming out of the Chair.
The final painting in the series, a portrait of her in her flashy red bathing suit.
Standing in front of Valley's Folds, her personal favorite of the paintings, Valley gave a reading about her experience of our collaboration. It was so beautiful, so powerful, so completely intimate, there was utter silence as she read, a reverential hush when she finished, lingering applause as she returned to the crowd and hugged her best friend with relief. Here is what she read:
Last January I was invited to a vision board making party at the apartment of a good friend. I had just spent the morning having a past life regression in Mechanicsville. But after entering a state of deep relaxation instead of visiting a past life, I had visited an archetype. I was Guinevere in King Arthur’s Court and I was sobbing in front of a mirror. Beauty is dangerous, beauty is betrayal, beauty is a crime, Guinevere/Me moaned through her sobs. The words, and the thoughts behind them, were so powerful that I spoke them out loud.
This a belief worth examining, my past-life regression practitioner observed. And so I did. As a young woman in my early twenties traveling across America by bus, train and ship, my mother had felt compelled to write me a letter. “Valley, your body is not a thank you note,” she had said, because I was still in the habit of offering it as a substitute for everything else I felt I intrinsically lacked.
In my mind, being beautiful was the equivalent of being a slut. I wanted to be beautiful, but beauty was, I believed, a weapon women used against other people, particularly themselves. This belief left me confused, divided and shut down about my own body and physical nature for many years.
At the vision board party, while flipping through old magazines I thought about what it was I truly wanted for the year ahead. Yes, money, fame and fortune. But as I cut out a stunning photograph of a nude statue and then pasted the words “WE LOVE YOU” over her breasts, I looked up at Susan Singer. I remembered the first time I’d seen her paintings and the electric current they’d sent through me. She had managed to render the rolls and folds of the female body in a bold, exquisite way that was completely unapologetic. Her paintings had woken something in me that now sat up at attention.
Across the coffee table scattered with glue sticks and magazines, I asked Susan if she would be willing to collaborate with me for the Artists and Writers show at the Flippo Gallery the following year. In other words, I asked if she would allow me to be her model, first photographing and then painting me naked. This was a scary prospect for me, but one that I instinctively knew I needed to try. She, it turns out, had just pasted the words/images “Gallery Show” on her vision board. She said yes.
We have spent the last year making this happen.
The experience of being naked is not unlike the first time you show someone a raw and vulnerable first draft of a novel. As a writer I have a tendency to edit myself down until there is almost nothing left. I whittle and cut and delete and fret over my words like a woman first making up her face and then changing 18 times before leaving the house. I worry that what comes out on its own- without being heavily clothed, made-up or edited, is unacceptable. The plastic surgery I have committed on my own writing has left some of it more mangled than those sad brides competing for the opportunity to be disfigured on the reality TV show, Bridalplasty.
However, being painted naked has made whittling myself down to nothing more difficult. My body carries the blue print of the life I have lived. In the last decade I have had six surgeries between my neck and my thighs. I have had six miscarriages and one beautiful child. I have probably lost and gained 300 pounds. Six months after getting married, I developed Cushings Disease, an adrenal disorder which gave me moon face and a buffalo hump. My body is short a uterus, a gall bladder, one rib and an adrenal gland. I have been sliced open and stitched back together, but some of my deepest scars are invisible. Allowing myself to be seen, to be studied, to be photographed and painted by Susan has been the catalyst for healing many of them.
Obviously this exhibition was heavily edited. There are not 389 nude pictures of me on the wall. But it does represent a year long process within which I’ve struggled to uncover both my body and my writing, finding what lies beneath the surface of not only my clothes, but the words I use to represent myself in the world. In the beginning I felt fragile, exposed and like I might die. But when I didn’t die, and in fact felt accepted, celebrated and nourished in Susan’s presence, something powerful happened.
I believe that what Susan Singer is doing with her art is a gift not just to the women she paints, but to the world. I feel like her work is revolutionary- not because she is inventing something new but because she is showing us in a new way what is already there.
And beauty, I’m learning, isn’t about having flawless skin, thighs that don’t touch, perfectly aligned features or the right person next to you in bed.
For me, it’s about allowing my imperfections, insecurities and battle scars to co-exist with the parts of myself that I already liked in a way that is vulnerable, authentic and open.
And now in a completely different way, my body is a thank you note. One that I am giving to myself.
To close, I would like to thank Katie Shaw for having the vision to bring all of this together, and my husband for his unflagging patience the last ten years as I’ve struggled to learn the things he has always known intuitively.