Featured Artwork: “Happy 2 Be Here” by K. O’Neill
Being an artist and writer, I’m constantly thinking of how to incorporate wordplay in my painting titles and literary work. Naturally, I thought I was really clever (and only a little cliché) back in January when I’d proposed a summer solo exhibition titled “Hindsight” to the curator and board of Nomadworks NYC.
What incidentally started out as a pun, this show (much like my year), has become a force to be reckoned with.
This show initially was supposed to be a sort of second-wave of my solo exhibition, “Lift Me Up”, that debuted in Philadelphia last year. I had previously had the chance to share it with Reclamation Magazine and discussed how Lift Me Up centered around the concept I’d birthed to show “the tango between trauma and resilience.” As my work is mostly up-close facial expressions, the pieces shown documented an evolution between expressions of pain, discomfort, and eventually peace and serenity. In creating Hindsight, I worked with the brilliant mind of Tobe Roberts (friend, curator, amazing artist) to essentially construct this current exhibition to be a celebration of overcoming obstacles — the triumph over trauma, a victory lap of sorts. I’d love to tell you that’s what this show still is about and while the pieces selected tell a similar story, the mood is far more somber.
Fear, grief, and trauma are just some themes that have been inescapable this year, for a variety of reasons that aren’t exclusive to my experience alone. Subsequently, it would be unfair for me to say that I’m in the same enthusiastic mood I was in last year. “Hindsight is 2020”, and we’re never going to know the right things to do or say to alleviate some lesson we haven’t learned yet, but that’s not enough for me anymore. That consistency in never knowing what is next is now a cause of anxiety rather than something inspirational. At this point last year, what was around the corner excited me. I can’t say the same anymore — if anything, I’m far more apprehensive, and it bled into my attempt at initially maintaining the same “everything is fine” semblance for the Hindsight to debut as initially devised.
That was one of, if not the most humbling moment of my year.
I’ve always been very vocal about maintaining transparency in my work and this piece/this show/this conversation will be no exception. My pieces are created to show expressions I face in my battle with PTSD — a battle that I was celebrating last summer as if it was over because of this incredible testament to an experience I’d considered worked through. This, however, is not the case, and I’ll be the first to tell you that progress isn’t linear: you will stumble, scrape your knees, and cry (a lot). However, relapse isn’t a sign you’ve failed and your work (or a gallery exhibit for that matter) has been in vain, it’s an opportunity to refocus — something this collaboration was curated to show.
There is no “end” to self-improvement, much like there is no definite end to healing.
But yet, here I was, trying to give my audience a half-hearted celebration of resilience I no longer felt. At one point I considered not even continuing the show’s development, set on using the same concept I no longer felt was relevant just to offer something to the brilliant minds at Nomadworks that believed I could pull off a great show.
I cannot begin to tell you how fake I felt trying to write up happy, motivational Instagram captions for my pieces for the sake of staying relevant in the Instagram news cycle. I cannot tell you how I felt like I’d undone years of therapy and built my artist debut in Philadelphia on lies because of the depression, anxiety, and sleep disturbances I was now reexperiencing. Imposter syndrome rang and boy, did I answer.
For those of you reading this who might not know me personally, know that I am the Queen Eternal of Catastrophizing. I mean it, for someone getting a doctorate in psychology, I truly am the absolute worst at putting things into perspective and nearly constantly build my problems up to an impossible-to-achieve status. During the development of this show, I can genuinely say I missed several deadlines and dropped several balls in nearly every facet of my life, and essentially fudged the work-life balance (which I’m still convinced is a myth).
It was also around this time that I read something in a viral tweet that helped bring me back down to earth (side note: never did I think Twitter would give me a life-altering epiphany but here we are). Someone had essentially written something along the lines of, “pay attention to which balls are glass and which are rubber.”
It would be inauthentic for me to say this quote solved my impending mental breakdown but it did help put things into perspective. In times like these — and even when we aren’t in a literal game of ethical, political, and psychological Jumanji — we’re going to mess things up.
We are going to miss deadlines, binge-watch too many TV-show episodes on Netflix, forget to call our mom back, and not water our plants as often as we should: we are human. I have never promised to be more than human in my work. If anything, my work is where I’m arguably most human.
Forgiveness is key to that progress I was rambling about earlier.
I had to learn to forgive myself for the most basic of physiological responses my body was exhibiting in response to my literal posttraumatic stress disorder, and to realize that I wasn’t a fraud for putting on a show celebrating battles I feel sometimes like I’ll never truly win. Forgiveness is the victory. However, that doesn’t excuse the fact that we must also be vigilant in what balls we allow to drop, knowing which are glass and which are rubber. That being said, forgive yourself for whatever ball(s) you have dropped lately. Beating yourself up isn’t going to change anything or prepare you for your next juggling act.
Times are hard, unprecedented, but if we give just a little more forgiveness to ourselves and others, we will be okay.
And if not, at least we have 2021 to try again.