In a strange twist of contemporary life, the voice of the artist does not always come from the counter-culture, or the intellectual elite. Nestled near the end of a cul-de-sac, in the suburbs of a small Virginia college town, I live my life and make my art.
I left Brooklyn in 1999 to live in a small town where I could see mountains and trees, have a backyard with big dogs, and be with the person I loved. We got married, had a baby, and settled down in the ‘burbs. My life is less lonely and more comfortable now than it was in Brooklyn in the Starving Artist days. It is filled with family meals, the joys of parenting, and the deep happiness of a wonderful 10 year marriage. (Not to mention the big house and the giant televisions.) But despite the comforts, my life as an artist is challenging, and I fight each day to maintain a choppy momentum in my studio. I work a day job 30+ hours a week to help contribute to our chosen lifestyle, care for our young son, and juggle the usual daily commitments of family life. I plan my precious blocks of studio time around my family and try not to feel guilty about taking time away from them, despite their ongoing encouragement. Few people in my neighborhood know I am an artist, and I miss the stimulation and community I once had in New York. Sometimes I feel oddly out-of-place here in the ‘burbs, and second guess my life choices.
I am plagued by a curious ambivalence about my suburbia, as a place to live and as a backdrop to art-making. I love the home and the garden we have created over the years. I love knowing my son can play outside and ride his bike in a safe place, and attend a good public school. I love living 5 minutes from Target and 15 minutes from our small historic downtown. I especially love my studio in the finished basement with the window looking out to the backyard and the woods behind our house. At the same time, I am bothered by the mandates from the Neighborhood Association that tell me to erect a lattice fencing to conceal my garbage can. (I have not yet complied.) I am irked that I need permission to change the color of my front door, and wonder why I must have the exact same mailbox as everyone else. There is conformity, consumerism and waste here. (There are endless gallons of water used in the pursuit of perfect green lawns, although we do have the latest technology in single-stream recycling.) There is also security, natural beauty, and some really nice neighbors. It’s not artsy or hip, but it’s home.
Recently I walked past a mosaic on the side of a parking lot retaining wall. I have parked in this lot a thousand times, but never happened to be at the right angle to see it until that moment. It said: “Everything you need in life is streaming towards you.” This unsolicited message pierced my consciousness in a way that made me re-think my life situation. Can I see my life with more gratitude and realize that I already have everything I need to make my best work? Can I escape my own stereotypes and see myself and my neighbors with more compassion? Maybe I can stop complaining about what is preventing me from making enough art or my best art. Maybe I can let go of the insistent thought that I will never have enough time to make the art I want to make. Maybe I can stop dreaming about a time in the future when I will attain the perfect life circumstances to paint all the time and finally be a REAL artist. Maybe I don’t need to lose 5 lbs or quit my day job or live in a loft in New York to be the person I really want to be. Maybe I can shift the trajectory of my future by living more fully in the present. Maybe there is a way to change everything without changing anything at all.
And so, I devised a new project for 2012:
Art happens for me in between life’s moments, as well as during those precious hours of studio time. I draw a lot throughout my days, in sketchbooks and on scraps of paper, at the breakfast table, at work, and in the car. Every week, for the 52 weeks of 2012, I will collect these little drawings. At the end of each week I will collage them together onto a 12″ x 12″ panel. I may use text as well as other found items. I may go back to re-work a previous panel, but cannot jump ahead to the future.
The panels will be arranged in a large grid, 4 panels high and 13 panels across. I will employ a restricted palette that may change with the seasons and the colors experienced in and around my home and neighborhood. The final piece will be complete at the end of 2012, a record of the many small creative moments of My Suburban Life.
This project will explore what is achievable in tiny increments over time, by committing to small consistent actions and an attitude of openness to what is here now in the present. There have been times when I felt like a failure for having left New York and its opportunities, even though I have continued to make art ever since moving to the ‘burbs. What if this is exactly where I was supposed to be all along?