When I was 15 my then Art teacher said to me: “Emma, you never know when to stop! You overwork everything!”. At 18, as a new student of Art I was told by a lecturer “if you want to make it in the Art world, you have to find the hole in the market and fill it!”. A little part of me died. At 19 a college professor pulled me into his office and, in his too-tight trousers, swore that he would find out where I was plaigarising from. Nearly everyone left his office in tears. At 21 I was training to be an art teacher in East London and a colleague of mine was being threatened by a parent. His crime was to have joked that the Bengali girls should do all the cleaning up. He wanted to get them to refuse – to reject stereotypes and to insist the boys helped. Instead, a family assumed that he was abusing his position of authority and we were told to leave the site safely. The school had police escorts ensuring that the students left the site without gang fighting with a nearby school.
And then there was the incident of the man who had my heart, being killed. We were no longer together though. As if that makes it alright?
Then what? What do I do but fall back on sentimentality, lucky charms, books and greetings cards and the smell of sweet peas and tea. I roll the pages of my sketch books through my hands. These vast collections of scribbled thoughts, desperate longing, and sadnesses that I feel guilty for owning. Because I have this beautiful family, these incredible friends, this amazing child and a job I adore. I didn’t deserve to feel bad about stuff. I hadn’t earned the right. Suffered enough.
Colour is my therapy, my muse. I squeeze it from the tube; great glistening fruits of yellow and pink. Cherries and sunsets, fireworks and celebrations. If I swamp myself in enough colour I am happy. If I surround myself with seductive nudity, I own it. It is part of me.
But it isn’t. It wasn’t. It was a charade. The colours drown out an emptiness and the flamboyant figures a masquerade. And I’m there teaching other people techniques and trying to fill a world with images that are empty of ‘me’ – because they are not allowed to exist fully, or to feel genuine. They can be aesthetically pleasing and have their own sadness or raunch. As long as it is not mine.
And I’m reminded of all of these artistic encounters. Of people who said things and made me feel. Of artists who move me and of why I do what I do. And I do love what I do. And I’m no longer this caged bird who hides from judgement and pretends my work is pretty and acceptable and polite. I’m free from the perception that the world needs me to be something; colourful and prolific and joyful. Because that is not real. Instead, as I reinvent my website and my portfolio, I want to acknowledge the growth this MA journey has allowed me. I am open to my own pain. I acknowledge my sadnesses and my joys. I feel the cool air making my eyes water and I let the tears roll; as comfortably as letting the laughter hurt my cheeks. My conversation is with materials – it is process led, real discovery; authenticity. It is my exploration (supported by a fairly sizeable amount of academic rigour, and experimentation). These conversations with the work are the air in my lungs. There is no right or wrong. Only the process. Only the engagement. And when it rears its ugly, unconventional, bruised head, I pull it to me, recognising a friend.