Friday, August 6

I Am What I Am: a cautionary tale

Imagine my surprise when I clicked on a favorite blog this morning and saw MY ARM. It's on Worn Through: Apparel from an academic perspective. The sewing machine tattoo on my forearm is the first picture you'll see.

The post shows sewing tattoos but mostly it's about the blog author teaching a course on "personal and professional appearance" and it reads as a mildly cautionary tale. I don't flinch at that, but it is funny if you know me and know how much I ruminate over such decisions.

I got my tattoos when I was forty. When I ran one of my runner-up ideas past a very non-tattooed friend ("Matt, do you think I'll regret it if I get a ***** tattoo?") He immediately said "Helen, we're already the age when you would regret it." That cleared things right up.

I also got them after being self-employed for a few years. They are a reminder that I am who I am - and I have not ever felt so purely myself (in all the fantastic and tragic ways) since I left the world of working for others. It's basically been one long Zen retreat - and not the kind where someone serves you miso soup in a raku bowl and you suddenly see everything clearly. I'm talking about the part where you stare at the white wall and every demon you've ever built comes to visit and taunt you, and while they are chanting all your fears (Failure! Loser Failure! Loser!) you try to function, and create beautiful things, and keep your books - oh, and make enough money to eat.

My personality is enmeshed with my business. Like my tattoos, my business is me. But I was always taught that being professional included hiding your self. So I'm interested in redefining what it means for me to be professional based on this lack of traditional boundaries. For me professionalism is a direct extension of what it means to be moral. I make my business decisions in a humane way and I seek to strike a balance of fairness with everyone, myself included. But I'm also an artist, and a passionate fool with very specific quirks. In my perfect world I'm asking professionalism to becomes specific, flexible, and human - inclusive and not reductive. And I'm trusting that there isn't too much about me that needs to be hidden!

By design I am part of a very direct process: the things I've made with my hands - things that are part of my soul and are built based on every experience I've ever had - are traded directly for other people's hard-earned money. But they are also traded with admiration on both sides, and I know the people I sell to and they send me pictures of themselves wearing what I've made and they tell me stories about what my work means to them. They show me things they made with their hands, they share their lives with me. Over and over, we're building a world together where we are connected. I don't sell to stores, I don't hire other people to sew for me - I want to be part of this direct connection, even when it's hard. And it often is.

Yes, I may have to work for someone else some day, and yes, maybe I've doomed myself to working in long-sleeved shirts. But I can't believe that people who work in the straight world don't make choices that affect them permanently. I know they do. And while they aren't engraved in their flesh those choices are often written on their faces. I've seen it and it's not for me. I'm going to keep taking my chances on the choppy high seas of self employment and art-making for as long as I can. And if it fails I'll probably end up working for some youngster covered with octopus and knitting tattoos. It's all good.

p.s. here's the other one, equally as nice, though it lives in the shadow of the colorful one which gets paraded around books and the internet ...