Naked Art

In case you missed it the first time, here is my piece from the March 15 Hothouse Magazine Arts section:

“Out beyond ideas
of wrongdoing or rightdoing,
there is a field.
I’ll meet you there.”
~Rumi

Look up Karen Ann Myers’s work, and you will see portraits of young women provocatively posed on beds, dressers, floors, in repose, sitting up, wrapped in blankets and clothes in various stages of undress, some tense and haunted, others comfortable and playful. Sometimes they embody an odd mix of naïveté and a sort of intimate knowledge that makes me feel as if I’ve been let in on some secret that I wish I could give back but wouldn’t because of its connection to my own inner life, my own secrets.

A friend of mine recently turned me on to Myers’s work after she saw an exhibition at the Greenville County Museum of Art in Greenville, South Carolina. She sent me a message with a link to the museum’s web site where I found samples of the paintings. In the message, my friend wrote that my work in creative nonfiction reminded her of Myers’s paintings as they “depict women that [Myers] knows in the most intimate of places [the bedroom] and includes clues to their interests and insecurities, etc.”

I was flattered, of course, since my friend is not only well-traveled, smart, and sophisticated but a woman who confronts her own religion (we are both Christians and attend the same church) and secrets and work in much the way I do—with an uneasy kind of faith. I was grateful that my writing should be compared to the work of a visual artist who creates such beautiful yet, in some ways, frightening portraits. These paintings tell us something about the inner lives of women and the culture in which they’re situated. It’s a view we like to ignore because it’s unsafe to see women in all of their strength and vulnerability. Watch out. These women might do something startling, dirty and beautiful, these portraits seem to say—it is frightening when women in our culture do the unexpected. Myers’s work humanizes women and their realities.

But, I was mildly disturbed by the comparison, too, because the paintings are edgy and troubling. As an evangelical Christian and the wife of a pastor, I live straddling two worlds: one of proper behavior—Midwestern evangelicalism—and another that reaches beyond the façade of proper behavior—Art. I studied the images for insight into why they should remind my friend of my writing. They depict the hinterlands, the remote country of women’s lives. Does my work do the same? Is it troubling? Does it reach beyond the proper behavior of social rules dictated by my religion and in so doing cause me to lean more toward art than my religion and its strict rules of conduct? I hope so, but I fear the realm beyond proper behavior because, not only could it damage my husband’s career in the ministry but label me a heretic and liberal within the very closed system in which I spend much of my time. While I don’t believe that my art separates me from the God I follow, it sometimes separates me from the community. To me, the act of creation is concretely linked to my faith. I think my friend might feel the same about her own tenuous relationship with the community based on her vocation in social work. Her work causes her to see right and wrong, punishment and forgiveness in ways that are often in stark contrast to our shared community.

At the end of February, I attended the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference in Seattle, Wash. I listened to a panel discussion (The Naked I: Nonfiction’s Exposed Voice) during which writer Dinah Lenney said that writing in this particular genre—creative nonfiction—requires the writer to “get naked, stand up and turn around. Slowly.”

“I don’t write to disappear,” Lenney said. “I write to locate myself.”

Indeed, creative nonfiction writer Judith Kitchen said that the voice of the writer in the genre is the “stamp of the individual in a world of conformity.” It asks, “Who am I” in that world and how to find that self in the community.

I began to see that it wasn’t just my writing in creative nonfiction that reminded my friend of Myers’s paintings of young women. What she saw in Myers’s images is also the work of the creative nonfiction writer in general. Perhaps it centers on the idea that art creates an intimacy with the reader, the viewer, the listener that’s often at odds with the community in which the artist lives. For Myers, it’s the wider cultural subjugation of women. For me, it’s the façade of proper behavior, the lack of intimacy—out of fear of being corrupted—that Midwestern evangelical Christian community sometimes fosters.

Art is dangerous—a field without borders. I’ll meet you there.

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