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Blog - Letty McHugh

An Encounter With a Gatekeeper


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.”

A cat sits on a desk next to a pink typewriter . The wall behind features Paris patterned wallpaper

If that guy thought my work was twee I’d hate to hear his thoughts on my studio

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.

A white kitten sits on a floral blanket. A speech bubble reads "you will live to regret this"

The new stuff in my sketchbook is completely unrelated to this encounter. Honest.

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.

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richard downes
1 year ago

Bravo Letty. Never seen your work. Have no idea if i like it. But i love that you don’t give a stuff. I’m there or thereabouts myself. I work, i have something that needs to be heard or at least something i need to say. Did i make it for unnamed faces in an audience. Nope. i made it for me. If you like it you can have it. If you don’t too bad. If you want to heckle or demean get on with it. So far the works going well. Did a piece last week that wasn’t very sensitive… Read more »

Letty McHugh
Letty McHugh
1 year ago
Reply to  richard downes

Thanks for the encouragement, Richard. I think you’re right, we just need to find our own people and make the work we want to make, it’s the only way to stay sane.

Amanda Wells (artist name Ceridwen Powell)

Well said Letty – it’s not about impressing certain people. it’s about saying what you need to say and often what desperately needs to be said, whether that’s about disability or other issues. It is hard when you get knocked back and easy to lose heart, but stay true to your inspiration. If this guy was meant to be mentoring you he wants pulling up about the way he treated you, it’s appalling.

Amy Zamarripa Solis
Amy Zamarripa Solis
1 year ago

Hi Letty, I knew I had to read your blog when I read the title. It takes incredible insight/strength to see this bs for what it is, so well done for a start. I have definitely had a few knockbacks from similar gatekeeper people. Fortunately, I’ve never let these unhelpful people stop me & I hope you do the same. I also hope you can give his organisation some ‘constructive feedback’ about his lack of suitability in this instance, as being able to give constructive criticism is one of the first rules of the game. Solidarity!

1 year ago

Love it. Well said Letty. Yes all the way. You can only be the artist you are, not the one others wish to imagine you to be, to fit in with their agenda.

siobhan lewis
1 year ago

I can totally see where you are coming from Letty. I’m sick of having the token ‘disabled artist’ tagged on to my work & I’m sick of the general pigeon holing. Like you I came to the conclusion work is my work, take it or leave it …. oh & for heavens sake stop trying to analyse everything little thing in my work , or tear me apart through your uber passé critiques. …. although I guess being deaf has helped me since I really don’t have to listen to the meaningless waffle they spew forth! LOL 😀 Stick to… Read more »

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