While watching The West Point Story, with James Cagney and Doris Day, I was struck by how clearly the early films portrayed the concept of a studio owning the star. The not so subtle subtext was how the military owns the cadet at West Point, with the story line being that of love, marriage, and a career doing what you're good at vs. doing what you get paid to do, following orders and saluting the man in charge.
I confess that I'm illiterate when it comes to movies. I'm hoping to rectify that now that I've been given the chance by virtue of living to the ripe old age of 62 and being allowed to live with some means of support that is not subject to some authority figure saying I can or can't be who I am.
The fear I have is that the authority figures will change. I'm already subject to my son's approval, the fear of what I'll say next or the concerns that others have that I'll get out of "line" and stir up the mud somehow. That is "the breaks" as they say, of being in show business.
And that's what an artist is. A showman. So's a teacher. Try to persuade someone to listen to you without being a showman. You can't do it. I am always walking a thin line between people saying "Oh, great! Here's Susan" and people saying "Oh, great...here's Susan...(again).
So often we just want to be heard. We don't dare send out the message ahead of the interaction, and this makes for some tough selling. I have had a hard time "looking the part" of an artist in the framework of the hip little bistro where my art is hanging. They tend to see me as an old lady who has an annoying habit of talking to people when they aren't interested in listening.
Interest, then, is a prerequisite to sales whether you're trying to sell a painting, a concept, or a product. When I was trying to get the bank to loan me money for an interior design business in North Carolina in 1981, the bankers would tell me about the fact that there were no "metrics" for that type of business. They would talk about the number of cars that pass by a certain location and look up the stats on a particular business but a creative business like mine was not in their book. The metrics didn't hold up because the market for design is not static. It's variable. The products that we sold, fabric and wallpaper and furniture and custom design -- those were market dependent. You couldn't say how many employees you'd need, or how much your supplies would cost because that was variable, and the only thing you could say was that the cost of sample books was subscription based and horrendously expensive because you had no way to bypass the need for an actual sample of each colorway of each fabric so that exact colormatches could be obtained.
I managed to fund the business myself - with my husband's help. For a time it was a good thing. Eventually the pressures of being a mother and a business owner would conflict with the duties of being a wife and our marriage came to an end. It was a tragic end to us all, and no one came away unscathed. But we managed to deal with the dissolution of this marriage in what I thought was a progressive manner. We went to a mediator, rather than engage lawyers.
Because we did that, our sons have a relationship with both parents to this day. It has never been easy, but it has been the way we've coped with what seems to most outsiders to be a really uncomfortable relationship. I don't see it that way.
Our children were never mine any more than they were his. Now that they are both in relationships, it's likely that he and I will find ourselves sitting on the same side of the aisle again for the first time in a very long time. I'm hoping that the best in both of us will emerge to make it the best moments for us both. Because I'm no longer his wife, I can't reflect on him the way I once did. And yet our children are still part of both "houses" if you will. So there's always gonna be some trait or other that is part of the famil heritage that blends into the mix and makes us interesting combinations of our ancestry.
This ancestry, with all it's DNA and cultural shaping from social institutions that have come from a deeper well than we can fathom at first glance, is also what makes it so hard to be who we are as adults in the world. My sons struggle daily to emerge from the envelope of their parents expectations and try to be fully who they are. This wasn't always the way children were allowed to be. That's what I'm talking about when I speak of Chattel in terms of children. I might have to use my artwork to illustrate a bit. But here goes.
My paintings explore the life of the generations I knew when I was born to Edwin (NMI) Warley and Beverly Langley Warley in November of 1949. I was named after my father's mother Susie Sledge Douglass Warley and mother's mother, Mary Will Simms Langley, and both of those grandmothers were alive when I was born. Only one of my grandfathers was there to greet me however, since my father's father had left him a "widow's son" at age 15. The story of my father's life is the main focus of my recent writing and I'm really ready to get this story in print.
The story, however, is about me. It's about my own coming of age in a world divided by class and race and social status and war, just like every other baby boomer that burst into the national consciousness after the boys came home from war. As I write this I'm watching TV, something I haven't done much of in my adult years because I almost always get mad at what I see. Now, I mostly laugh or smile.
How is it that I see things so differently than most? I don't know that I do, but if I might suggest one possiblity it might be the fact that I'd done a bit of traveling in my youth. As a stewardess mostly. I learned so much more during those first five years than at any other time in my life, and I enjoy that perspective that I get from the one on one communication with other people.
But one of the things that helps that is the "introduction" that comes from someone who knows you. I'm missing that these days. I'm realizign that the thing that makes us look closer is some form of safety zone - a public space between you and a stranger that gives you permission to approach. In the military, it's the thing that you do when you ask permission to come aboard. Or you salute each other - a greeting that says I know you're okay and I'm not going to accost you before I hear you out.
I wish my kids could take that approach with me. Unfortunately, we have a history. I've embarrassed them a few times. That's just the way it is. I'm misunderstood often. I'm an artist, a writer, one of the "crazy moms" that all kids in my son's generation seem to have. Or think they do. And that's a condition of trying to raise kids in a world divided by status, class, race, and religion. I get that the kids are over it, but they aren't over the hurt that their parents have suffered. And they aren't over the misunderstanding that has come from the struggle to emerge whole from our cocoons.
So when I talk about my paintings being about my grandmother's life and my father's life and my life, my kids say "I don't really care, mom. Just do what yo udo and leave my name out of it." They don't really mean that but they do mean "don't be so concerned about what other people think...it'll be okay if you just keep doing what you do." They are my kids. They love me. Like my students, they laugh at me sometimes, and they listen to me sometimes.
But sometimes I shut them out without meaning to. The definition is hard to escape - my "sons" are mine. They are a reflection of me. No, not really. That's the problem with this concept. They might have been at one time if I'd been able to shape and mold them all the way through, but divorce has a way of making that difficult. My sons were among the early victims of the explosion of divorce as a solution to marriage trainwrecks - certainly counseling was not an option back then. It was far more fashionable to "go with the flow" and "go along to get along" than to divorce, but we were not able to manage the transition. My children were the victims.
I sometimes get sidetracked (?) talking about this subject because there is so much territory to cover. In my paintings, especially the ones that were part of a trilogy of large canvases that I painted for my degree in 2005 in which I told the story of my grandmother's childhood in Mobile, Alabama, her early motherhood on a farm in St. Elmo, and my father's life as a "widow's son" in nearby Mississippi, these three paintings are the focus of so much of my energy. They are compelling if you know the story, if you understand the references, and if you have a context for approaching them. But if you are a complete stranger to the worlds that are depicted in them, you can be forgiven for not getting the idea.
The first one is titled "Three O'Clock in the Morning" as that was a favorite song that my grandmother and her friends would sing around the piano in the days before automobiles tempted young kids out of the house of "an evening" and opened up the world to such things as saloons, sailors and swing. Of course, those things didn't come at once, but the one thing my grandmother remembered most fondly was the "balls" that were so much a part of Mobile's society life. That's Mardi Gras to outsiders, and that is the season that is so strangely a part of both religious and secular merriment and yet is so poorly understood in and out of the culture here. It has never meant merriment to me however, as I've never had the luxury of being an adult who was allowed to participate in Mardi Gras balls because of my mother's death which I've written about so much elsewhere. My father was always strangely eager to join in that revelry but it was only recently that I realized how much it must have meant to him.
As a widow's son, he was pushing to be re-admitted to the society that had seemed closed to him. He spent the early years of his life as the oldest son of the "Cabbage King of America" and the grandson of one of Mobile's most prominent citizens. And then at a young age, he was taken away from Mobile and landed in Mississippi where my grandfather the cabbage king had gone to work in a canning factory. I can't even imagine the impact that a factory job had on a "man about town" but he did what he had to do. And then died. And my grandmother raised two children on a widow's pension of several hundred dollars a month and a paltry salary as the director of the Red Cross in Columbia, Mississippi. She too did what she had to do, but not without bitterness and regret. "If only" seemed to be her perspective on the world. A sadness and a sigh for "what might have been.
I learned the words "ne'er do well" from her, along with neuveau riche and a few other terms I'll just leave alone. She was one of seven siblings, the youngest of which was an episcopal priest. Now that I have begun to explain my art to local "patrons" I'm being reminded again how important the church dividing lines are in this city. And that's not a good thing in the main. I was introduced to someone who told me what parish she was from before she told me anything else about herself. I couldn't have been more discombobulated if she'd said she was from a certain family or whatever. Which is, in a manner of speaking, what she was saying. We identify with our "church" in this culture like our lives depend on it. The fact that there have been many, many generations born since Ann Boleyn failed to produce "legitimate issue" (a son, in other words) is just a detail in some parts of this world.
I'm sorry for that. But the point is that my grandmother thought that way. So when my father became an adult, came back from the war and fell in love with a shoe repairman's daughter, he didn't have any idea that her Baptist upbringing or her uncle the morphine addicted soldier or the possible Jewish ancestry of the bride's family would ever be a problem. In fact, she may not have ever even known most of that. She had enough to contend with having a very headstrong granddaughter named after her. I remember the sighs all too well.
That's the problem with all of this. We often remember and are manipulated by the sighs, the body language, and the tension between the old and the new moreso than the actual greeting and meeting of our fellow man. And when we can't get past the "permission to come aboard, sir" then we stand to lose more than just an acquaintance. We stand to lose acquaintance with the realities of our common humanity.