Go away. Just leave me alone. No, I don’t want to be here. You’re going to make me think about myself, interrogate myself, question my decisions, my ‘consequential thinking’ or lack of it. My actions are going to be scrutinised and you’re going to tell me how I could have done it better. Just go away, go away…
‘Why the opposition?’, you ask, ‘What’s the problem? I’m just trying to help you make better decisions for yourself. You’ll find it makes life easier for you, less complicated, less chaotic.’
No, I’m having none of it. You’re just having a go, picking at me, making me feel more crap than I do already. No thanks, no f’in thanks.
You see, when you ask me to think about what I do and about my decisions, my actions, that’s not what you’re really asking. Well at least as far as I see it. You’re not asking me to reassess what I’ve done, you’re asking me to reassess who I am. You’re not questioning my choices, you’re questioning the very essence of me. If my decisions are bad, then I am bad. And I don’t want to look at that reflection in the mirror.
I’m on a knife-edge as it is and if you push me to look I don’t know what will happen. And that scares me, deep-down fibre of my bones scares me. So I’ll run or I’ll hide, quietly by not showing up or loudly beneath some rage, violence or insult. But I will not look. I will not look.
My sense of self is an impossibly fragile thing. I might look tough and hard, but like a snail’s shell if I am stood on I will shatter into a million pieces, into shards of myself. And my sense of who I am is so impossibly entwined with my actions, my decisions, what has been done to me, what I have done to others. So to ask about all those things is to ask about me. And I will not tell. I will not tell.
I will not tell of the confusion, the pain, the hurt, the regret, the shame, the pride, the happiness, the sadness, the anger, the buzz, the release, the guilt, the mess that is me. The goodness, the badness, the beauty and the horror.
That is, until you show me, first and foremost, that I am more than my past decisions and actions. That my sense of self is not under threat when you ask me to think, to reflect, because I am more than what I did, more than the thought processes that led me there.
What I need to know before I will let you anywhere near me is that my life is a long series of paintings, representations of me in moments in time. Created with brushstrokes of decisions made, coloured with the paint of circumstance, and textured with the consequences of mine and other people’s decisions. But I also need to know that I am not a painting, a flimsy piece of canvas, millimetres thick. I need to know that one moment’s representation of me does not have to be the representation of me for all time, the portrait that captures who I am forever. I am me, the painting is a painting.
A painting can’t withstand relentless scraping off of layers of decisions, never-ending poking at the layers of circumstance; it will disintegrate. And if I think I am the painting then neither can I. But if you help me to see that there is more depth to me, more than the layers of paint, that I have a core that exists separately to the painting of me, then the scraping, the exploring of the painting isn’t nearly so intimidating.
I am then exploring the meaning of the painting, rather than the meaning of me, considering why I chose black over green, why I chose to scratch the canvas with the blunt end of the brush rather than the soft. I can discuss what I like and what I don’t, show the bits that someone else painted for me and how that affected the other parts. Yes it will affect my understanding of me, but the me, the real me stays in tact. I am analysing a moment in time, not the fundamental core of me.
I can do this without fear of being crushed because I am the artist, not the painting. I can deal with the pain of the previous portraits exactly because I am an artist and because I can paint another. There is hope in the possibility of future canvases. I can make better brushstrokes, better colour choices, have better techniques. I can bring the best out of me rather than the worst and display it on my new canvas, for all to see.
You then show me that the reason why we look at a painting is not to condemn, but to help us create anew, to grow, to improve, to learn. By critically analysing my previous choices in any one of my previous portraits I can see how each decision, each circumstance, each perception of myself led it to be the painting it turned out to be. I learn, and then I move on. My life becomes fluid; I escape a particular representation of me, in a particular time, in a particular place and I rework it.
I use parts from the old that I want in the new. Include the bits I’m proud of and re-render the bits I’m not. What was in the foreground before may now be in the background, or what I once viewed as dark may be reconceived in a lighter, more hopeful way. And I can try new techniques with confidence because I can always try again if that particular portrait doesn’t work out. Because I am me, and the painting is a painting. We are closely linked but we are not one and the same.
You need to help me see all this. That just because I have made mistakes does not make me a mistake. It was maybe just a bad choice of colour, of brush or maybe someone shoved me while I was trying to paint. Or maybe the mixing of colours and layers on the canvas made an ugly colour I didn’t intend. But if I summon up the courage to look, then I can seek to understand, to learn, and to get better. I can seek to take responsibility for my choices; I can absolve myself of the responsibility when the decision or circumstance was not of my making. Whatever the issue, if I look, I can better understand. I can learn from my and others’ mistakes and create something better. I can paint the best of me.
The expression of me is not one canvas, it’s a never-ending creative process. The act of painting is never done. Show me that you too are constantly painting, that you are not a completed work of art either. That way the humanity of your current portrait and mine is revealed and we connect as artists, constantly striving to learn, to paint better, to reconceptualise our pasts and create better futures. It is in looking, however painful, that we finally learn to see. To see that we are more than a representation in time and that we have untold potential for future works of art.