The idea of identity has been haunting me since seeing the Carrie Mae Weems Retrospective at the Guggenheim on Saturday. The theme seemed to run through most of her work, but I found myself crying as I walked through the room of more than 30 photos titled From Here I Saw What Happened And I Cried. Me too I thought, I cried too.
The issue of identity goes so deep with me I find it hard to keep it all in my mind. It keeps slipping away. What I do know is that for most of my life I let other people define me. I allowed them to tell me who I was and what I should be doing. I was filled with fear, doubt and rationalizations about why I couldn’t or shouldn’t be an artist. I had a million excuses why I couldn’t do the work I really wanted to do and had surrounded myself with people to reinforce them.
Sometime in my early 40’s I began to understand and say out loud that I was not fulfilled with my life as it was. I began to realize that I wanted to do my work, at least part time. ( I actually didn’t even let myself dream I could do it full time). This was around the same time that Jon gave me what became my Studio Barn on Old Bedlam Farm to work in. I think his encouragement was essential to my being able to see that being an artist was not something to be dismissed or taken lightly. I had never met anyone who felt so strongly about the importance of creativity. Although I was on my way, Jon’s belief in me, helped me to believe in myself.
A few years later, when I was first divorced and had very little, a small apartment in a rundown Upstate NY town, a part time job working with Developmentally Disabled Adults, and not much money, I realized that no matter what happened I was determined to do my work. I realized that, even if I had nothing else, my being able to make art would be enough. It was somehow grounding to know that I could always rely on my work to be there for me.
I know now, that it was grounding because for the first time in my life, I was not looking to someone else to tell me who I was. I was saying this is who I am and this is what I do. My confidence came more gradually, over time as I was actually living the life of an artist. Which simply means doing my work and putting it out into the world.
Carrie Mae Weems, again and again, explores in her work this theme of identity. Sometimes in pointing out how people try to define other people though race and gender or by using her photos to say this is who I am. But her work reaches beyond race and gender and speaks to anyone who has struggled to make who they really are known, to themselves and everyone else.