Truth is best served by recognizing a viewpoint as only a viewpoint, and refraining from taking that extra step of regarding it as true to the exclusion of all other views. In other words, all views–even correct views–are best held gently, rather than grasped firmly.
Andrew Olendzki, Blinded by Views
I first picked up a camera in the early eighties. Afraid of anything technical, I often asked my husband to take photos for me. Not interested in people photos or huge, magnificent landscapes, I was drawn to the small miracles that nature had to offer in the shape of a lily or a rose. After being told how easy it would be for me to learn how to use a camera, I took a few workshops and was hooked.
I had a background in painting and was slowly growing weary of the weaving, spinning and natural dying I’d been involved in for years. I became fascinated by microscopic views of everything, from the powdery wings of a dead butterfly to the patterns found in rock formations. But most of all I was drawn to flowers. The closer I could get, the more abstract my photos became. Encouraged by family, friends and other artists, I put together a body of work. To see what would happen, I entered ten of my images into the Virginia Commission for the Arts 1989 Prize for the Visual Arts, in the category of photography.
In the meantime, I had recently moved to Charlottesville in 1985, which has always been a mecca for artists of every ilk, from writers, to painters, and theatre people. In this town there is a festival for almost every genre of art. In November we have the Virginia Film Festival, in March there is the Festival of the Book, and in May, the folks who put together the LOOK3 Festival of the Photograph, hang the work of photographers from all over the country in local galleries and outdoors, in the trees on the Downtown Mall.
As a newbie in town I went about trying to become a part of the art community. I am an introvert and it was difficult. Afraid of my own shadow, I’d grit my teeth and go to various gatherings to meet other artists and to see what was happening. I was shy and when I opened my mouth to speak, the words often spilled out in a garble of nonsense that even I couldn’t understand. I felt that my work was unworthy and that I had little to offer the community. Rather than push myself forward I kept myself in the shadows, being grateful for any bit of encouragement.
One evening at a gallery opening, I met an elderly man known locally for his close-up photography of insects and plants. We started talking and he invited Bill and I to his home to see his work. I brought some of my own images along to see if he could give me some feedback. He and his wife were friendly enough, serving us a bold red wine and a few nibbles. They lived in a lovely home tucked into the woods and I felt that I had finally made a friend. He showed us his Cibachrome prints, all beautiful. There was a shot of a honeybee gathering pollen, close-ups of a variety of beetles and images of flowers. All were perfect specimen shots, ideal for a coffee-table book about the garden or as illustrations in a guide to insects. He also proudly showed us his massive collection of romance novels that he had written under a pen name.
When he asked to see my work, I brought out a dozen or so glossy cibachromes of my flower studies, so very close-up that you might not realize they were flowers. Similar in perspective to Georgia O’keeffe’s paintings, some viewers described them as resembling water colors. There were blurry areas and sharply focused lines of the edge of a flower petal or the inner landscape of a daylily surrounded by a pool of pure, sensual color. The first words out of his mouth were, “These are not photographs. They are an abomination.”
As I remember, the conversation went down hill from there and quickly downing the remains of my wine we made a hasty exit. Although I was somewhat used to rejections of my work as a weaver and fiber artist, I had never had anyone make a comment about my work before in that tone or in those words. All of the people who had critiqued my visual work in the past had given me constructive suggestions and ideas on how to make my work better. This man brought to mind my father who would often berate me for not following directions or listening to how things are to be done. This was the first time I had ever been trashed by a stranger. I was devastated, in tears and ready to roll a huge boulder to the entrance of my cave where I would hide and never come out into the light of day again.
It took me a while to lick my oozing wound and to bring about some healing. But a few weeks later, a letter arrived from the Virginia Commission for the Arts, saying that I had been given an Honorary Mention for the 1989 Virginia Prize for Photography, by Edward Sherman, of the well-known Benin Gallery, in New York City.
Everything changed. I went on to become a member at the McGuffey Art Center, here in Charlottesville and those photos, along with other bodies of my work, went on to be shown individually and in one-person exhibitions in museums and galleries across the country. And it wasn’t too many months before the phone rang, and the wife of the old guy who had trashed my work, asked me for my advise on getting her husband’s work to the attention of people outside of the community.
Despite occasionally feeling unworthy of being an artist and a writer, I’ve worked hard at not letting the views of others take me down. They are only opinions after all and if I let that happen, I would lose my very being. It’s been a hard lesson, but one of the most crucial if I am to do the work my heart brings to me.
How do you handle criticism and the views of others? Have you ever been in a similar situation?