The other night, I went to the opening for the juried exhibition, Porous Borders,
presented by the Washington Sculptors Group. The exhibit includes two pieces by my friend, artist Julia Bloom, which she started at VCCA
(if you watch the video, there's a brief clip of her at work).
The exhibit showcases a wide range of interesting work, and I enjoyed it, but the evening started off strangely, with the dispersal of pepper spray in the Metro tunnel, which left me hoarse and coughing for the rest of the night (and the next day). Things continued rather absurdly with the appearance at the opening of DC Council Member (and former Mayor-for-Life) Marion Barry. It reminded me of the old days, when he was mayor; he would show up around town to be seen and make a stir, not because he had any particular attachment to or interest in what was going on. But I suppose every politician does that.
At the reception, I chatted with a doctor who described himself as a specialist in underwater medicine. He treats people who have the bends, and other related ailments. It never occurred to me that there was such a specialty. I thought of the Radiohead song, "The Bends,"
and asked him if he knew about it. I wondered if, musically, it was a realistic representation. This doctor, whose wife is a visual artist, asked me how the abstract visual art on exhibit might inspire my fiction. But what I was thinking about after that was, where can I put a character like that in a story, a doctor treating a patient with the bends, and what a great metaphor it would be for something...
Then, a friend and I had dinner and talked about the fuzzy side of memoir--What is it okay to make up, and when does it become a lie? (More on that another time...) It was a nice restaurant, but we kept hearing someone shout incoherently from the bar area, which we couldn't see from where we sat. I started to feel like I was stuck in the film "After Hours," and I mentally prepared to run from the Mister Softee truck. But nothing more happened, except this guy continued to punctuate our meal with bizarre growling sounds.
After that, I decided to avoid metro and catch a cab home. My friend and I have a joke that whenever we get together, I have a weird cab experience. Usually, what happens is a cab driver pulls up, looks me over, and decides he doesn't want me, then leaves me on the side of the road. This time, the first cab that pulled up wasn't my cab, but someone else's, so I shared it part of the way with a conventioneer from Hackensack. We talked about art and medical supplies for a mile or so.
When the conventioneer got out, the cab driver told me that he was an artist himself, working with metal and wood. He said that when he was young, people around him discouraged him from pursuing art as his career. They warned him that he could never support himself that way. They might have been right about that, of course. So he gave it up and did other things for years. But now, he told me, he was getting back into his art. If I had to guess, I'd say he was in his early sixties. He said soon he would need to reduce the time he spent driving his cab so that he could work on his sculptures.
Then he talked about "giving people what they want" in order to make money from art. He mentioned Andy Warhol, "that knucklehead who wasn't very talented, painting soup cans."
I said, well, no one else had done that before. No one knew you could do that and make it into art.
And then he told me about his friend who sculpted with wire, but couldn't sell his work until he started making roach clips. "Give the people what they want, and you do okay," he repeated. "Like those women getting filthy rich selling cupcakes," he added.
I think we were getting out of the realm of art at that point. But the takeaway was a story you hear again and again, about people being driven away from the work that really matters to them, because it's not "practical." But art doesn't exist for purposes of practicality. Anyway, I'm not going to talk about the value or purpose of art here, that's not my point.
A long time ago, I was at dinner with two couples, including a guy who was up for partner at his law firm. I was the only one at the table who wasn't a lawyer; at the time, I was an editor. Another woman at the table was near a breakdown because she was so unhappy working as a lawyer. It wasn't fulfilling her in some fundamental way.
I said, "Look, you don't have to do this. Your work should make you happy. It shouldn't be miserable, it should be fun." When I said "fun," the men at the table looked at me like I stepped off a space ship.
The one who was making partner said, "What the hell are you telling her? That she shouldn't be a lawyer? Work isn't supposed to fun."
And then the woman burst into tears.
I said, "She should do what makes her happy. The world will not miss one less unfulfilled lawyer."
I don't think I was invited to dinner with that group again. And that was okay with me. But I wonder what that woman ended up doing. I never heard.
What I was thinking the other night, listening to the cab driver, was that we have to stop letting other people's fears force us into lives that don't belong to us. If you don't do what you're passionate about, you'll eventually suffer in some critical way. With any luck, that won't involve pepper spray.