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The Shared Victories of Art

Growing up, I didn’t have television; I had books. Our house was tucked away in the mountains, down a mile and a half dirt road. From there, it was a fifteen-minute drive to the pit stop of a town stamped on our home address. I wouldn’t have chosen any of that (I envied the other children who talked about The Simpsons each day in class — who had neighbors to play with), but I’m grateful for it now.

It was a quiet childhood, spent mostly in my head. My earliest memories are of the books my mother read aloud: The Hobbit, Earthsea, Harry Potter. I owe my imagination and ear for language to her for that. To this day, I see the mountains Bilbo (and later Frodo) traveled through as the view outside my old window. When I visit, I recall how different it is to live in the silence of the mountains. It is serene there: the gentle tick of old clocks; birds in chorus with chimes; the burbling patter of the Fresno River in the distance.

I was lucky.

Illustration by Lura Schwarz Smith
Illustration by Lura Schwarz Smith

Still, we were never wealthy. As a child, it seemed we were always on some financial edge. First and foremost, my mother is an artist. But art — for most artists, for a long time — doesn’t result in much of a cash prize. My family owes a great deal to my father, who hopped from job to job to support our family, as my mother pursued her art career.

It was never easy, but it began to pay off in greater dividends when my mother was awarded Best of Show at Quilt Expo V in France in, 1996, for her textile art piece “Seams a Lot Like Degas.” To watch her work at her art for years without giving up — and to meet with such a massive success — was formative for my process, years later.

We might tell ourselves otherwise, but success (in any professional capacity) is a vital part of the craft. To know that our work will be seen — for our art to mean something to someone else — is crucial.

At the end of 2012, I moved back home in optimistic pieces. I was deeply in debt from college, single for the first time in four years, and coming off the failure of an online magazine I’d tried to launch all year without a hint of business sense or startup capital (RIP, The Angry Luddite). And yet, I was hopeful. I adopted a kitten, and decided I was going to hermit away in my childhood home Hemmingway-style — do that whole “writing thing” for real.

Over the nine months that followed, I left the house perhaps five times, perhaps less. When I wasn’t working (from home in pajamas, with a cat nearby, as always), I was writing stories and sending them to magazines. As the year progressed, the pile of rejections grew, but I remained positive and driven.

Halfway through that year, things began to crumble. My beloved kitten Pixel (who would ride about on my shoulder) was diagnosed with a terminal disease; my grandmother entered hospice, and passed away; other health issues in my immediate family appeared without warning, and took their toll.

Earlier that year, I’d booked a trip to visit my best friend in Hawai’i. When it came, the timing felt like some cosmic joke. By then, my cat had lost the function of his legs almost entirely and spent most of the day sleeping in my lap, placing small fractures in my heart as each day passed. My grandmother’s funeral, too, could only be scheduled for the week of my trip. My parents encouraged me to go, regardless. I had been there “in the trenches,” as my mother put it, during the hospice months.

It was not the trip I had imagined; in the first few days, I came down with a brutal cold, cut my foot deeply on coral, and drank myself from hangover to hangover. The day before my grandmother’s funeral, my parents called: my cat couldn’t hold on any longer, and had to be put down. I remember drifting in the water that night, drunk, watching the sun set as vibrant fish darted about my body, feeling only guilt and emptiness.

When I returned from that trip, I was not in a good place, and my parents were there to pick up the pieces. I’ll always be grateful for the support they gave me then, in the midst of their grief.

Soon after, with the help of my family, I moved to Portland with a backpack and a suitcase — a city I had never been to, where I had no friends — determined to start over. Several months later, I received a story acceptance for the first time — and that moment felt like the first breath of air after an era underwater.

In recent years, I’ve had countless conversations with my parents about the process of art, and it always strikes me how similar that process is, regardless of the medium: the anxiety, the stress, the joy, and the triumph. Sometimes, sure, you’ve got to bleed for your art — but having a network of support is crucial. Honestly: If my parents hadn’t said “NEVER GIVE UP” each time I received a rejection, I might have.

Last month, I stepped into an art opening at a tiny, crowded studio in Portland. Instantly, a woman beckoned to me and began pointing to the art on the walls, explaining in a thick Russian accent that it was the work of a mother and son — relatives of hers. It was their first show, and though they spoke no English, their entire extended family was in attendance. Her pride was clear, familiar, and moving.

In my experience, it’s not the moments of success alone that matter; what truly counts is the joy in sharing those victories with the people you love, who helped you along when you needed it most.

© 2021

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