How I Poke(d) People Into Telling Me Their WHY
Yet still she persisted….
(8 minute read)
I know I’ve told this story a million times. But I can’t find it to share with you, and so I’m telling it again.
Soon after I heeded the call of my art, I entered my work in a group exhibition. The group was the Women’s Caucus for Art (the New Hampshire Chapter) and this was my very first art exhibit. I was already on fire with my newfound life mission, and it showed.
The show organizer asked for volunteers to present gallery talks. I volunteered, but wasn’t chosen. Which I carried NO resentment for, and when I asked, courteously, telling them I just wanted to know for my own education, they said they picked people they knew would be up to the task. And they didn’t know me yet. (Which shows the power of gentle inquiry in finding out in a way we can LEARN from, instead of simply assuming the worst.) (TWO life lessons for you today!)
Having never heard a gallery talk, let alone actually giving one, I went with eager anticipation, hoping to hear the story behind these artists’ work.
It was a long drive, we only had one car at the time, and one of the other artists offered me a ride. We hit it off and had a lovely talk on the way up. (Keep note of this!) The exhibit was beautiful, the typical run-of-the-mill artist statements were displayed, and after an hour or so, the selected artists’ presentations began.
It was abysmal. THEY were abysmal (the talks, not the people.)
The first speaker shared a lot about their process, a much-maligned medium (digital art) at the time. Perhaps to compensate for the expected push-back (digital art was not considered “real art” at that time), the artist understandably spent a lot of time on the “how”. Their talk had a good reception, though. The work was nowhere near “simple” to create. Their subject was inspired by a Greek island the artist had explored in their academic research, where a priesthood of women in ancient times had resided. Those recently-discovered images were the foundation of her work. Their presentation was quite academic in nature.
But then it was time for their question-and-answer session, and that’s where it almost fell apart.
The first questions were fairly mundane: What software had they used? Who did their framing? Etc., etc.
Then I posed my question.
Okay, this was almost 30 years ago, and I can’t remember exactly how I phrased my question(s). It took about a dozen tries on my part. The more I persisted, the more defensive the artist became, again understandably. But my intent finally got through.
I simply wanted to know why this particular island was so important to this woman. And, to be blunt, why it should be important to us, too. (More on this at the end.)
I said, “There are thousands of islands in Greece.” (Just looked that up. There are around 6,000 Greek islands, though fewer than 300 are inhabited.) “Thousands. And people have lived on them for millennia. Why THIS ISLAND? And why THIS POINT IN TIME?”
Aha! The lightbulb visibly lit up in their head.
They unfolded their arms. They stood up, straight and proud. Their voice deepened, slowed down, became firmer:
“Because on this island, in this all-too-brief moment in time, women were revered and respected. They could walk the streets, at night, in safety, alone and unafraid.”
Boom. Mike drop.
The entire room did that gasp thing, where everyone else suddenly gets it, too.
It was a powerful moment. Still is.
The rest of the talks went the same way. When everyone was done asking the run-of-the-mill questions, I would ask the “why”.
Now, this was hard for me. I do not welcome confrontation. I usually run from it as fast as I can. It was hard for the speakers, too. They had clearly never considered the “why”. And no one had ever held their feet to the fire to do so.
Afterwards, every single speaker came up to me. I would start to apologize: I was new to art-making, I was on fire with my art. And I wanted to know what the fire was in my newly-found community of artists.
Every single artist said, “No. I want to THANK you!” (THAT took courage, too.)
My fellow artist/speaker/driver said the same thing. I was worried that after our intense, deep conversation on the way up, that I’d wrecked it. Their work was titled, “The Hidden Story”. And I was the only person who actually asked what the story was!
“No,” they said, “I know who you are. I’ve never told that story before today, and I’m glad you asked me about it. I looked at your face in the audience. I felt safe, and I felt SEEN. I told you my story, and I’m glad I did!”
An article about the exhibition ran in the state’s largest newspaper, and I was mentioned. Not by name. I was the “persistent woman in the audience” who encouraged every speaker to tell their powerful story.
Yup, that’s me.
I don’t do that much anymore. I’ve done a similar process with anyone who takes me up on my offer to help them find their story. It’s easier, in some ways, to do it in person, or in a workshop. I have to show them my (persistent) intentions are honorable. Even so, there is always someone who simply can’t do this. They aren’t ready. Or the years of experience they already have keeps them from wrapping their heads around this. Obviously, this isn’t something that happens much in art school, I’m guessing, though maybe times have changed.
And even when it’s someone I know and love, it’s hard for ME. It DOES feel confrontational when I won’t let some lame response fill the bill. I keep going until I know that person is speaking their truth, because I see the same signs when it does: Posture changes, defenses come down, voices strengthen, and slows.
Truth is told.
And even when others see this, it can offend them, make them defensive. I gave an impromptu presentation when asked at a gallery exhibit a few years ago. I know my stories, and somehow I know which one will “rise to the occasion” when I talk. I’ve told them many times, there are always new ones in the work, and I rarely lack for something to say, when asked. (This from a newly self-identified introvert, remember!)
But the very next person who was asked, said angrily, “My art isn’t verbal!” and clammed up. (Too bad, because their piece was one of my favorites in that show.)
So if you did the homework assignment from last week, with full attention and intent, and are still stuck, try this:
Is there someone in your life who you would trust with your tender, creative heart?
They don’t have to be an artist, nor a collector, nor even a fan. They simply have to be someone who you trust to act with integrity and kindness. Ideally, someone who is also willing to persist.
You keep talking, and every time you pause, if the story hasn’t appeared yet, they keep asking you that question about your artwork: Why?
Why this medium? Why this subject? Why this composition? Why these colors? Why, why, why.
They need to pay very close attention to what comes too easily from you. What feels like a no-brainer for you:
“I just love color!”
“Why? Why do you love color? Why did you choose THESE colors? What do they represent to you? What mood are you striving to create with them? Why that mood? Where does that mood come from in this piece? Why?”
I don’t have any sure-fire tricks here. Every time I do this, I worry I’m doing it wrong, if that helps. When the person gets defensive, REALLY worry: Have I just killed our relationship???
But that defensiveness is exactly the clue, the proof, that we are on the right path.
Our closely-held assumptions, our protective coloration (sorry, couldn’t resist!), our cherished (yet often superficial) beliefs about our work are being challenged. That can feel like an attack. Hence, the defensiveness.
But if you truly want to get to your creation story, which you can choose to incorporate into your artist statement or not (your choice), this will be well worth your time and momentary discomfort. (It might help to have a bottle of wine ready when you’re done?)
You can also try this in writing, by yourself. I did. When I locked myself in my studio, determined to get to the heart of what I do, I started with, “Why this cave?” And after I’d write my answer, I would write, “Why?”
Until I got to my true answer.
Last, here is why the “why” is so hard:
I’m really asking you why I should care.
And here’s why you need to find it, even though it’s hard:
Everyone has a creation story.
Every creation story is a hero’s journey.
No matter where you are on your journey, there’s a story.
You are not alone, with your story.
Everyone is struggling with something.
Everyone is healing from something.
Everyone wants to be “seen”.
Everyone wants to have a voice in the world.
Everyone wants to know that they matter.
And when we share our story, there are people who are going through something similar, or know that it’s something they WILL go through, someday.
Your story will not only resonate with someone, it will uplift someone, encourage someone, inspire someone. It may comfort someone, it may give someone hope. It make clarify their own intentions, wants, and desires.
Your story, at the heart of your art, your creative, is a powerful force for good in the world.
That alone is a pretty good reason to dig deep for it, don’t you think?