The other week I had a meeting with a gatekeeper and he tore my work to shreds. He wasn’t someone I’ve ever worked with or met before. (crucially he wasn’t in any way associated with any of the organisations I’m currently working with.) We were supposed to be meeting for a mentoring session, I’d sent him some info on my work past and present, he was going to give me some advice and feedback. “I’m going to open by saying I don’t like this thing with the paper boats.” He said, referring to my ongoing project Seaworthy Vessel “I think you should drop it.” And I said “Oh?” then he said, “I wasn’t sure about your other work either, maybe you disagree with this but it’s just not critically engaged, if I’m being really honest it’s all a bit too twee and sentimental.”
Another point in the meeting he was asking me about my general career worries. I said, “I’m worried about being pigeonholed as a ‘disability artist’.” (A pretty common worry among many disabled artists I’ve spoken with.) He said, “Well, you have to present yourself as you want to be seen, if you don’t want to be a disability artist don’t make work about disability.”.
I’m guessing the enlightened readers of this blog don’t need me to tell you how sexist and ableist those statements are. (I do have a 2000 word essay drafted on the subject for another day) So instead I’m going to tell you this. For years and years I’ve been reading cool creative women I look up to talk about having this pivotal moment in their careers where they realised that they just didn’t care what people thought about their work, and how liberating that moment was, how it changed everything that came after.
I’ve always believed these women were, if not outright lying then at least massively exaggerated. It’s been inconceivable to me a person could make work and not be racked with anxiety about its reception. The desire to be universally loved is a founding principle of the Letty McHugh brand.
Here’s the thing though, the other week, when that gatekeeper was calling my work twee and sentimental and generally lacking in substance I found, miraculously, I didn’t care if this man loved me, I didn’t care if he liked my work, I didn’t care what he thought about me at all. I think this maybe could be that liberating moment I’ve heard tell of.
Here are some questions I asked myself while he named female artists he has worked with in the past. (It was quite a shortlist) If this man is the person who decides who gets to join this club do I want to be a member? If this institution doesn’t value me or my work do I value this institution? Am I going to change what I make work about because this man told me to? The answer to all three is, of course, a resounding no.
I’ve spent so much of my artistic career to date waiting. I’ve waited until I felt like I was good enough to work on projects. I’ve waited for resources and I’ve waited for opportunities. I spent three years waiting for my life to get back on track after my MS blew me so far off the course I charted for myself.
I’ll still have to wait for some stuff, there’s work I can’t make without money and work I can’t make until my cat stops napping on my keyboard, but I came out of that meeting knowing I’m done waiting for anyone’s permission to make the work I want to make. I’m done waiting for approval.