Rebecca Brantley wrote this essay for the fifth session of our Emerging Art Writers Mentorship Program. The session was led by Chuck Reece, co-founder and editor of the Bitter Southerner, and was titled “Where Does Your Work Come From?” He asked the mentees to reflect on what compels them to write, and specifically to write about art. We were impressed and at times moved by the essays, which we’ll be featuring over the coming weeks.
My feelings about art must be like certain dried-up marriages in their second or third decade: comfortable, shaped by routine, and plagued by the lingering suspicion that I made a hasty—even bad—choice. At the worst, I’m in it for the kids, and since I teach art now, that seems like the appropriate metaphor.
It could have been authentic love or an unshakeable conviction that I didn’t quite fit with my peers that drew me to envelop myself in any and all things art. One of my first encounters with aesthetic concerns happened early—in kindergarten. A teacher led the class through a series of instructions to make a construction-paper squirrel. I can’t remember the exact words of the disappointed and frazzled teacher who was so obviously put off my red-lipped and blue-eyed squirrel, but I do remember them being hung from the ceiling and mine being entirely unlike everyone else’s. Hanging rather ingloriously from a pathetic string of his brothers and sisters, my squirrel stood as a day-to-day reminder of my failure.
At some point, though, I grew proud: though made from the same basic parts, he had a pizazz that indicated the undeniable originality of a deeply creative maker. If I had known the term avant-garde, I would have used it. I would have explained the special burden of breaking rules and pushing forward. Conventions be damned! It occurs to me now that such an assignment has more to do with motor skills and following instructions. Every car I’ve had the privilege of owning attests to my shortcomings in theses areas. But then again, my mother broke crayons on purpose and eschewed the pre-fab artistic expression of coloring books. I blame her.
In my preadolescent days, I took refuge in watercolor lessons and art classes that gave me a deeper awareness of painting sand dunes and ocean waves. Otherwise, I immersed myself in the intellectual concerns that arise from books such as Star Wars novelizations, the Baptist-friendly romance Christy or that troubled tome of the South, Gone With the Wind (though my middle-school peers were convinced I was reading War and Peace—their surprisingly advanced, if incorrect, notion of a long book). To me, who so often found myself sitting stoically on a bus of loud and uncouth peers, it was clear that I was destined for a path of cultural erudition that set me apart.
In high school, I grappled with abstraction. Was a painting made of primary colors and lines good if almost every attentive grade-school student could potentially recreate it in a few simple steps? I painted an acrylic bamboo forest that a visiting former student assured me had the technical sophistication of a sophomore in college—his words, not mine. I attended a summer art program and unsuccessfully tried to learn to throw on the wheel under the instruction of a bearded ceramist I had a disconcerting crush on, and ended up painting an enormous flower diptych that another teacher unenthusiastically described as “a Georgia O’Keeffe cut in half.” My parents still proudly display it and the bamboo in their living room. Somehow, these paintings earned me an art scholarship at LaGrange College. Such encouragement led me to pursue the path destiny had laid out: I majored in art.
It was, perhaps, in a summer art history survey course that I had a series of very significant epiphanies. The first was that this was a cool class, but who would make a career out if it (even though the teacher said I had a “knack for art history”)? The second was that I, problematically perhaps, loved Mannerism and modernism alike. My adoration of Pontormo’s Deposition (now usually Entombment) led me to read a journal penned by the 16th-century Italian in which he chronicled his meals and their effects. While this uncannily foreshadowed my love of calorie-tracking apps, it’s genuinely weird that I read that. But the pink-and-blue effervescence of Pontormo’s painting stuck. I love it like I love Skittles and Malibu-based cocktails: there was an unabashed sweetness that did not mask its artifice—on the contrary, it reveled in it. I was sold.
However, there was also modernism—or, what I would later think of as the burden of modernism. Under the instruction of a Greenbergian art historian who could enunciate really, really well, I began to believe that the prettiness of Mannerism belonged irredeemably to the past. Art had been through a series of progressions that left the current state of affairs dismal at best. Postmodernism was a full of purposefully bad painters and porn-making narcissists. I was worried.
It was later in college and grad school that I really dug my heels in and claimed the pink-and-blue prettiness I’d always liked while reading Cliff Notes of postmodern theory. I campaigned for Rococo and Baroque art (because clearly 400-year-old art movements need a champion) and became enchanted with Matthew Barney’s meandering but aesthetically pleasing films.
When it comes to new works, I have brief affairs, but they’re flings, really. I do, however, find myself in the throes of old passion every so often—usually when teaching, and maybe that’s why I’m oddly committed to the fool’s game of adjunct teaching that leaves me permanently in flux—hopelessly out of step with my fellow 30-somethings and their impressive careers and abundant medical benefits. While teaching, I can momentarily recapture and act out a love that’s grown stale, and maybe seduce a few a damned souls to take down with me. Then there’s always this: even long after the myth the avant-garde has been dispelled (or at least elusive on a personal level), and even though we’re made of the same cheap stuff, who wants to be the paper squirrel that looks like everyone else?
Rebecca Brantley lives in Athens, Georgia, and teaches for Piedmont College and the University System of Georgia. She is board president at ATHICA: Athens Institute for Contemporary Art. She is currently a participant in BURNAWAY’s Emerging Art Writers Mentorship Program.