for better or worse, we use consumerism, the things we buy, to vote companies in or out of existence. i’m not sure how i feel about this (or my primary identity defined by the shit i buy), but there it is. it is a condition of being a human in the US in 2014. you are what you buy.
then again, there is the part of me who loves beautiful things. i am not one of those millennials content to live on experiences alone. i love the tangibles, the things i can use and touch and gaze upon. it makes me so happy.
one of the conditions of finding myself middle class (trust me, i’m as surprised as you) is that i’ve started paying close attention to what i buy and from whom. back during my salad days, i couldn’t think much about buying shit from WalMart made in China for the simple fact that i was all i could afford. this is a condition from which many people operate, and i don’t fault them for that. all i can change is my own spending habits.
when i bought my house, one of the things i committed to do was furnishing it from entirely used items. and i have succeeded at this, through the largess of craigslist, ebay, etsy and friends and relatives. the only exceptions i made were upholstered items (because bedbugs). my mattress and both of my sofas were purchased new. but really….that’s it.
i bring all this up not to pat myself on the back (buying used is not really an onerous thing for me because i love antiques and i love the hunt) but to comment on it, given we are entering the annual season of consumerism. i wish everyone who is able to would be more careful about what they buy, and from whom, and where it comes from.
i recently commissioned Brad Johnson to do a gigantic platter for me. ironic that it’s usually the people who are artists (and who generally can least afford it) that tend to spend large amounts of money on other artists’ work. it’s because we know where that money is going. i admire Brad’s work, i admire him as a person and an artist and i would rather put $200 in his pocket than go out and buy an iPad and put money in the pocket of some enormous international conglomerate of tech.
this is such a simple calculation. ironically, the more conservative powers that be in this country like to champion small business but when asked to put pedal to the metal they are in line buying things that are made in China and sold by someone making minimum wage, because the free market rules all. they are the ones going to the big box store because it has cheaper prices that eventually shut down the mom and pop hardware store that paid their employees a living wage. these people then go down the road with all their skills and knowledge and start working at the big box store for $8. no one wins in this situation. except you, the consumer, because you paid a dollar less for a 2×4. congratulations on that.
in sum: shop local. know where your dollars are going. if you can look in the eye the person who is getting all your dollars, all the better. we can all do better on this.
in the wake of the Santa Barbara shooting and #YesAllWomen, there has been a resurgence of interest in feminism and women’s issues, and as you might expect, i was up on my soapbox loudly and frequently all over the teh facebook. it’s really good that these things are being talked about, of course, but i’m not so naive to think that this interest won’t eventually fade as everyone and Twitterverse moves on to the next outrage of the moment.
but i am going to offer up an example that i experienced today as to why this dialogue has to continue.
i should preface this story with the fact that i live and work in one of the most liberal and diverse areas of Pennsylvania. the Main Line is very white, of course, but it is a place that generally values egalitarianism and generally frowns on any kind of homophobia or racism. that is to say: i run into this sort of problem very infrequently.
one of my favorite and long time students is a tomboy. she’s probably a lesbian, but me speculating on an 11 year old’s sexual orientation is immaterial and not the point. what does matter is that she is one of those kids who is just so completely herself, without artifice, who is passionate about what she’s passionate about and doesn’t care if it’s nerdy or weird or uncool. She isn’t afraid to stand up for what she’s interested in and clearly takes pride in who she is and what she can do. at an age where girls are starting to internalize the more destructive aspects of performative femininity, she is more interested in simply being a person, a friend and an artist. i love her mostly because she is what i wish i was when i was 11. when i was 11, i was a bit tortured, depressed and overly worried about what others thought of me and in the process of losing a sense of self that would take another decade and a half to relocate.
i was briefly out of the room, so i missed part of the conversation in question, but i did hear another student call her “he” and state definitively that she couldn’t possibly be a girl because she had short hair, and girls didn’t have short hair (this was a result of either obliviousness or balls because he made this statement right in front of his teacher, whose head is partially shaved).
i am loathe to overly police conversations between students in the classroom (outside of profanity, bullying, sex and violence, of course), but i verbally slapped him down immediately and made him apologize. he did, half heartedly, but kept sort of insisting that he was right.
and i looked over at her, and i saw her that she was hunched over her drawing, and i knew she was hurting from his words. i wanted to say something to her but didn’t want to make a bigger deal out of it than it already was. i think she’s completely amazing and fabulous and SO talented, but it’s weird for your camp teacher who you only see in the summer to say these things.
so yeah. i was surprised how much this shook me up, and how much it made me think.
it made me think about how she and i and many women fall short of the expectations of femininity, and how it’s hard in so many small ways and that it should not be.
how people called me a lesbian (and in the mid-1990s in Central Pennsylvania, this was a hateful slur) because i didn’t date in high school and didn’t wear make up and refused to fall all over all the boys i was supposed to.
about all the money i spend that men don’t to make this female body attractive.
about how i’ve been called ugly on online dating sites because my hair was apparently too short.
about all the men i’ve casually dating who suggested if i lost a little weight, put on some make up and grew out my hair i might really look nice.
about how when i look at myself in the mirror the first thing i think is “person” and “artist”. how when other people look at me the first thing they think is “woman”.
this cuts deep. too deep.
i’m trying to figure out how higher ed somehow morphed, in the span of less than two decades into a many headed hydra of predatory loans, degree completion failure and insane, overarching privilege.
let’s back up a little and look into my own anecdotal experience. i was lucky enough to grow up in a family with two college educated parents, which meant of course that it was a foregone conclusion i would attend college. this was never in doubt. it was what i was going to do, even if (for me) it was less about expanding my brain and improving my work and more about getting the fuck out of Central Pennsylvania. i was also lucky enough that i had two parents who (having gone to art school themselves) fully and enthusiastically supported my decision to do the same.
now, let’s do the numbers. in 1999, i applied to five schools. i got into all of them, and i seriously considered two: Tyler School of Art (where i ended up attending) and RISD (because, well, RISD). RISD not only accepted me, it gave me a $10k a year scholarship. tuition at RISD in 1999 was just about $29,000, which today seems laughably low but then seemed absolutely insurmountable. i could not imagine paying $19,000 a year for school. my parents had a set amount of money set aside for college and told me that once it was gone, the rest was on me. Tyler, on the other hand, offered me scholarships too, so that my first year out of pocket totaled about $4,000. yes, you read that right. my parents were able to pay for my first 2 and a half years outright. so i went to Tyler, and graduated with an entirely manageable student loan debt of $12,000 (it would have been a lot less if i had decided not to do a study abroad program my senior year). my monthly payment was so low that i ended up overpaying each month for a couple years.
i only lay out the numbers because i want to emphasize that this wasn’t 20 or 30 years ago. this was 15 years ago. the way things have changed in terms of cost is simply staggering.
in 2010, i got my MFA. despite having a stipend and a tuition remission i graduated with an amount of debt that is sort of crazy, a number so large that i’m not going to talk about it other than to say i’m fairly sure i will in fact never pay it off. but hey, i make a living wage today, a good middle class income, because of that MFA. i do not regret getting that degree.
but after finishing graduate school, i realized something: nearly every person i went to school with at UMass (public university, relatively inexpensive) came from a middle class background. our parents had college degrees. we grew up wanting for nothing, living in comfortable houses in safe, suburban neighborhoods. we were nearly all white. the homogeneity of my program’s population smacked me in the face a few years too late, but it’s something that i can’t stop thinking about.
because i have a high falutin’ MFA in ceramic sculpture, i tend to know a lot of people who have the same education and background as i do. i scroll through them on facebook, my artist compatriots. we are startlingly the same.
art is one of those fields that likes to pretend it’s a meritocracy (like many fields, i suspect). everyone says smugly that it doesn’t matter where you went to school and what degrees you have; all that matters is the work. the cream will rise to the top. if you make good work, you will be discovered and lauded for it. they forget that a lot of the purpose of BFA and MFA programs is making connections with people in your program and beyond, cultivating professors as mentors, going to conferences, workshops and symposia, and of course, the unbelievable gift of a two or three year stretch where you worry about nothing except advancing your own work.
i wrote a little about this in an essay a few months back where i talked about my family, my parents and grandparents and great-grandparents and how their sacrifices made my education and my MFA possible. for every person like me who was afforded these opportunities, there stand thousands for whom getting a degree like an MFA in sculpture is not only impossible, but a ridiculous, impractical pipe dream, all by dint of the cost, both in time and money. if we can even take the monetary factors out of the equation for a moment, the idea of setting aside two or three years of one’s life presupposes that that person has means to move to go their chosen program, an understanding spouse, no children, no family obligations, no parents that need support, no siblings who need care. all those voices being shut out from this discourse, a discourse that, despite its imperfections, is the lifeblood of art making in the world as we know.
this is, of course, how structural oppression works: by pretending it’s the individual’s fault if they cannot hack it.
i find myself stunned that the issues i’ve outlined above were never even TOUCHED during my three years in graduate school. there was never a mutual acknowledgement among us in grad seminar that the issues we were all talking about were sadly, deceptively narrow, winnowed down by our relative sameness. we all came from the same page, in many ways – and while there is validation and camaraderie in finding those who share your background and viewpoints, there is also very little challenge and very little learning in it.
when i open my eyes, you’ll be gone.
i open my eyes. it’s dark and it’s still raining and the tines of my broken umbrella are reflecting the headlights of the cars going north. where am i? Locust. still a way to go.
i count down the streets as a mantra as i walk. Locust, Spruce, Pine, Lombard, South, Bainbridge, Fitzwater, Catharine. i cannot remember nor do i care about the smaller named streets in between these. they are tiny, no parking, barely wide enough for an 18th century horse-drawn cart to fit into.
this is the thing that people don’t tell you when you’ve lived in one place for a long time. the streets, the parks, the cafes, the bars you’ve gone to fill up with memories, so everywhere you turn, there you are. your past self is inescapable.
at first, building this history was all in fun, like a badge of honor, almost, because the tales and romances of my misbegotten twenties are light and harmless, stories that are easily told and forgotten.
what is happening right now – the things that are chasing me – are not fucking around.
is this where it happened, i wondered. i was at South Street by now. is this where the heartbreak took root, where it began to grow. we laughed and walked together down these streets and all the while things were falling apart and i never knew.
this time it was the real thing, the thing that changed me, that scrambled my feelings and my brain in ways that are emphatically not fun and seemingly undoable.
one of my less inspiring professors in graduate school trotted out this piece of useless advice during my tenure at UMass: what you did the first two years after getting your MFA was everything. it would set you on your path, determine your success for decades to come.
well, i spent the first two years after grad school languishing in jobs that i hated that had nothing to do with art because i happened to graduate into the worst job market in thirty years. her words echoed in my mind as i applied for All The Things and did not get them. a year after i graduated, i was a finalist for a tenure track job in West Virginia and came in second. given the academic job market, it was a missed chance of a lifetime, one i felt i would not have again. i went back to being a nanny outside of Boston, working in my drafty studio on the weekends. i decided at some point in my early 20s that i would get tenure by the time i was forty. time, i felt, was slipping away from me. i always felt as though the sword of Damocles was hanging over me, that if i did not make it soon, i never would.
i’ve spent the last six months or so questioning a lot of my assumptions about age, experience and being an artist because a) they seem flimsy upon close examination, and b) holding onto them was making me really unhappy. letting go has been a long process, one that i am still in the midst of, but it’s help me see more clearly what’s in front of me. i’ve gained some perspective and am finally understanding what it means to be a maker over the entire arc of a life, not just before one turns 30.
a lot of my early life as an artist and maker involved technical difficulties, as i’m sure it does for many young artists. you can’t predict how the material will react because you simply haven’t been using it long enough. it’s tedious and frustrating, even more so when you are around people who have mastered the material. to them, it’s like breathing effortlessly underwater. to you, it’s like holding your nose and letting the chlorine sting your eyes until you can’t stand it any more.
Ira Glass has a great quote:
“Nobody tells this to people who are beginners, I wish someone told me. All of us who do creative work, we get into it because we have good taste. But there is this gap. For the first couple years you make stuff, it’s just not that good. It’s trying to be good, it has potential, but it’s not. But your taste, the thing that got you into the game, is still killer. And your taste is why your work disappoints you. A lot of people never get past this phase, they quit. Most people I know who do interesting, creative work went through years of this. We know our work doesn’t have this special thing that we want it to have. We all go through this. And if you are just starting out or you are still in this phase, you gotta know its normal and the most important thing you can do is do a lot of work. Put yourself on a deadline so that every week you will finish one story. It is only by going through a volume of work that you will close that gap, and your work will be as good as your ambitions. And I took longer to figure out how to do this than anyone I’ve ever met. It’s gonna take awhile. It’s normal to take awhile. You’ve just gotta fight your way through.”
of course, he was talking about writing, but it applies to really any art form. and he’s completely right: the urge to quit out of frustration is always there. you know what you want your work to look like but it never matches up with the vision in your head. to go through years of this is so, so hard.
and now: i’ve reached an equilibrium with my making that is just lovely. i am savoring the freedom of time, of age, of experience. i sit down with my materials and i know exactly what to do, i know how this form will react, i know how this glaze will look in the kiln, i know whether or not that crack will grow during firing or if it can be repaired. i take chances that i didn’t used to because everything feels lighter, less fraught, more joyful. and now i’m watching my students from the other side, trying to teach them to hold their breath and plunge in. i couldn’t have gotten to where i am today without all the time, all the work, all the tears, all the experiences i was sure at the time were useless and a waste. i see myself and my work clearer now than i did at 19, at 22, at 27, at 30. finally accepting that my best work is ahead of me, rather than behind me, is a revelation.
this is supposed to be a studio log.
not much studio has been logged lately.
in a little while, as soon as my roommate gets out of the shower, we are going to go downstairs to the basement and continue working on what will eventually be the workspace. on Saturday night we vacuumed spiderwebs and removed nails from joists (mostly to save his head – he’s six foot four), mopped the floor and sprayed bleach on the walls to encroach on the mold that i am sure is sporing itself all over my workspace.
so much work to do, in every area of life. it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed. i go to work, i see projects. i come home, i see projects. these are all projects that i am varying shades of excited about, but they are work, nonetheless. the amount of work i see in front of me is staggering. and awful. and exciting.
back in the summer of 2009, i was about to enter my last year of graduate school. i was poor, as grad students are wont to be, but thanks to the fact that i lived in Massachusetts and was full time at university, i had some excellent health insurance. insurance that kept me in birth control, inhalers, therapy appointments and the occasional trip to the ER for panic attacks (hey, it was grad school).
still, i spent that summer absolutely blowing up facebook about the health care legislation that was slowly winding its way through the sausage-making hell that is Washington. i raged, and raged, and raged about it, about the ridiculous town halls, about single payer, and so on. i was watching this all very closely, for the simple fact that i very much had a dog in this fight: i knew that, the following May, my insurance gravy train was up. and barring me hanging my head in shame and returning to Starbucks to starve on poverty wages, i did not have any conceivable way to get it.
i did have a temporary reprieve the year after grad school – i ended up staying in Massachusetts, and my employer at the time (who was a doctor) was kind enough to give me money every month so i could buy a decent plan on The Health Connector. this came in handy when a bout of airplane bronchitis nearly turned into pneumonia the following spring. i relied on my insurance, and my boss’s largesse for calling in prescriptions whenever i needed them.
but that was two years ago. since then, i have been without any kind of health insurance. i have been one car accident, one infection, one bike crash away from financial and possible bodily ruin. i know this, and it hangs over my head like the sword of Damocles every day. the irony of all of this is most of the last two years i have spent fully employed, but through jobs that didn’t offer health insurance, or through a patchwork of part time jobs that pay well but have no benefits. in other words, i am the person who these health insurance marketplaces were made for.
well, Bethany, you say, find a full time job. to this i say: i do have a full time job. one of my jobs is 24 hours a week, the other is 12 and the other is 5. through these i make a solid, middle class living (enough to buy a house!). i’ve done the math in this regard: if i were to find a full time job, say, working at a non profit, i’d probably be taking a pay cut of somewhere between $5000 and $10000 a year. i’m sorry, i really don’t want to do that. i’d rather put that extra money in the bank and hope a SEPTA bus doesn’t hit me next week.
so. tomorrow i will go on the internet, and buy health insurance. and then i will mentally give a middle finger to the conservative douchebags who thought i didn’t deserve this because i was a moocher or weak or lazy or didn’t fit their vision of success. and then i will give another middle finger to the weenie ass liberals who couldn’t manage to make single payer an even remotely viable option.
god bless america.