Fifty-four years ago, my great aunt Beatrice painted an oil portrait of her father in law as a marionette, with disembodied hands at the top of the painting. I remember being frightened of it as a child, it hung by the bathroom, the figure's placid but sinister face lolling to the side. My cousin and I have joked about how creepy the painting is. She now proudly owns it.
When I stayed with them a couple of months ago, I asked my cousin if I could see the painting again. Its memory seared into my brain, but I wanted to re-examine my aunt's work up close and personal once and for all.
This time, I no longer saw a creepy puppet man, I saw a frantic message from beyond the grave, sent not by my aunt, but a peer.
My aunt had been a victim of her time, her gender and her status. Her narcissistic parents (who among other things named their children after themselves) refused to send her to art school to study her real passion, painting, and instead offered a dull compromise of learning commercial arts so she could earn her keep. This set a very difficult precedent for my aunt, the notion that money is the sole indicator of a successful art piece. Although she had immense talent in oils, she spent most of her time creating folk art replica ornaments and boxes, painting chairs in Early American style, and watching her marriage fall to pieces. My poor aunt's talent went to waste for the sake of commerce, fear and an immense need to please her parents. She gave up what was left of her independence to come back and take care of her mother, and continued exposure to lead paints fried her brain. She lost her faculties and eventually died, bitter and woefully unappreciated for the amount of work she did.
This painting was Aunt Sally's magnum opus, an angry act of defiance against everything and everyone that blocked her dreams. They don't understand the journey, the magnitude of what it means to blindly create with no plan. I don't fit into anyone's expectations, I got called a lot of horrible things and accused of things that were untrue. The only answer to this is to simply walk away and let those opinions stand alone. I've stopped caring what my family thinks of me. Once you're called every name in the book and told you're worthless and selfish and lazy, there's really no answer to that that isn't put on the defence, and I don't think I have a bloody thing to defend in the first place.
Sally's puppet hands make sense to me now. They're a warning to break the cycle. I've been told that "everything is so competitive," with the underlying message being "you're probably not good enough so we're saving you from the inevitable disappointment." I've been accused of being a starfucker, which is stupid - I just happen to know all kinds of people from all walks of life, and treat them the same. I've been told I look down on manual labour, which is hilariously untrue. Ask any film or theatre set I've worked on in the past 3 years. I've been told I expend all my energy into things that don't pay off - except they do, in self worth, in pride, in accomplishment. I'm not sure the trade off of "job security" - a smoke and mirrors idea if there ever was one - is worth it. I sacrificed myself for a massive part of my young adult life for the sake of financial security, only to be manipulated, emotionally abused, and shamed out of my voice. I had people claiming they were "just looking out for me" who would berate me and scream at me when I wasn't 'living up to my end of the bargain.' What bargain, pray tell?
I don't deserve any of these accusations and I certainly will never apologise for being who I am. Maybe this makes me selfish, but it's been my experience that martyrdom, self-victimisation, and giving up your passions are also forms of selfishness, especially when they're used as weapons. I do what I can to help others, I am there for those who need support, and I am working on what brings me genuine joy. If that's a crime, send me to motherfucking prison.
Sally's painting will stick with me the rest of my life. I don't want to end up broke, insane and miserable like her, or my grandfather. I'm talented, I've got good people in my life, and I'm sad that those who I loved best think I'm a loser not worth putting any more effort into anymore because "I couldn't deliver." I'm angry that I was put in a position to apologise for something I don't feel the need to do, and get rewarded by a complete shunning, to the point that no one bothered to tell me my only sister was pregnant with her first child. They claim "I made that choice," but the real truth is, the choice was made for me. Who wants to go home to that? To have every fault you've ever had thrown in your face? To have your father betray you and throw your confidences back at you as proof of what a loser you are?
FUCK THAT. It's emotional blackmail. It's cruel and it's exactly what their parents raised them to do. Guess what? I'm doing fine. I've got the essentials in life right now, and that's kindness, faith in my abilities, and generosity. Art is not "being lazy." I'm working every fucking day of my life. I rarely rest. It's like breathing to me anymore, but I am not out to prove myself to earn my keep, as I've done my whole life. I'm creating because that's why I'm here on Earth. So until I die, this is my mission.
Will my family ever reconcile? That would be nice, but I absolutely refuse to cater to this nonsense anymore. I've heard nothing but badmouthing of relatives, demonising of people around the neighbourhood, and indignant responses over bullshit. It's not what I need anymore in my life, and I am taking my own puppet strings and leaving this City of the Plain.