The first time someone saw me the way I saw myself was when, I think it was a fellow grade six student said, “Hey, you’re AN ARTIST!” with that emphasis that communicates both delighted surprise and respect. It was wonderful to hear it like that, as something good, and as something real to someone else, not just to me. I heard that voice in my head for many years subsequently, and it made me smile every time.
It wasn’t until I was a young adult and traveling in Italy that I heard that particular statement said with that particular emphasis again. Between that day in elementary class and my trip to see all the art I’d only ever seen reproduced in books during my studies were many comments more in the style of “You on welfare?” or “So what’s your real job?”
I was staying in a pensione with people who apparently spoke very little English and no French. I’d gotten the room through the service at the train station when I arrived in Florence, and had managed so far to communicate only with smiles and nods until one morning at breakfast. I was sitting quietly, waiting to be served by the mother of the house, when a child of about eight came up to me holding a binder in his hands. My binder, which I’d left on my bed in my supposedly private room.
At that moment, the boy’s father walked in from one side of the apartment, and the older sister came storming in from another. Over the cowering boy’s head there ensued such a loud exchange accompanied by so many hand gestures that I feared for the boy’s head. I said, “It’s ok!” and had to repeat it loudly to cool the room down. I understood that the older sister had gone to my room to change the sheets on my bed and that the brother had illegally followed her. It was a punishable offence.
As a distraction, I invited the boy to sit beside me and encouraged him to look through the binder. His family came to stand behind us to see. My binder contained my portfolio. Along with paperwork there were four slide sheets, each with twenty slides (remember those?). Before I could take a sheet out of the binder, the boy started pulling individual slides out of the sheets to hold them to the light and then pass them around. I watched. One after the other examined the images carefully. Faces grew focused, serious. The silence unnerved me.
My work was … unusual, at least as far as the ‘average person’ was usually concerned. It was not what people expected when they heard “I am an artist”. In the early eighties, being ‘an artist’ mostly meant being a painter, and failing that, a sculptor of big things in metals, found objects or involving technology and elaborate architectural installations.
Clay sculpture, I’d say when people asked me what I do, and people expected to see not art but ‘ceramics’, that is, clay made into objects and glazed for use, usually involving liquids or food. Or yet people expected to see clay used purely expressively, for the focus to be on the clay’s plastic (meaning malleable) properties rather than on classical-style control. My work did not (and still does not) fit neatly into those expectations. My sculptures were ironic; they referenced Surrealism and represented people caught in moments of inner conflict or confusion or daily objects animated theatrically and symbolically.
But I was in Italy, and this was Florence. Nearby was Fiesole, a hill where once the Etruscans lived. As in other European countries, the Czech Republic, for instance, clay was still a respected old-world material.
When all the slides had been examined, the father of my pensione family turned to me. In English, he said, “You are an artist,” with the same mixture of surprise, delight and respect I had heard so long ago. It’s all he said then, but after that it was as if I’d been adopted into the family. No longer just a foreign roomer to be kept at a distance, I became a kind of celebrity aunt. It turned out they all spoke English, so over meals we talked art: what a delight I had to discover that all the family members could discuss the art I saw in the various museums in the city with proprietary pride and surprising knowledge
That memory sustained me through another bunch of years, until I had enough of a body of work for it to help me “suffer … the heart-ache and the thousand natural (and unnatural) shocks that…” being an artist is heir to (to paraphrase Shakespeare’s Hamlet).