Our art-related stories

19 Jan, 2014

by Molly Snyder

On Friday night, Pfister artist in residence Stephanie Barenz and I hosted a storytelling event in the Rouge Ballroom in conjunction with Gallery Night. Nine local artists told 5-minute stories around the theme of art. The audience picked the winner – Anja Notanja Sieger – who won a night at the Pfister and dinner for two at the Mason Street Grill.

Stephanie and I thought this event was the perfect way to celebrate her last gallery night as the artist in residence. We are both storytellers, but in different ways. I tell stories through words, and she through visual art.

This weekend, we honored another form of storytelling that’s the oldest and the most common: the oral tradition. We really enjoyed hearing all of the artists’ stories and decided to share our own as well.

“Red Boots” by Molly Snyder

It was the summer of 2009 and everything was about to change. I didn’t know it at the time, but I felt it. Meanwhile, I busied myself with projects and work and, above all, mothering my two young sons.

At first, the nagging was a quiet ache in my stomach, but eventually, it brought my brain on board and I dreamed of cracking open empty walnuts and fortune cookies stuffed with paper messages reading “something is wrong.”

I lived with the perplexing ache and dreams for years. Sometimes, a feeling of clarity and relief would wash over me for a few seconds, and I would stop in my tracks and actually ask aloud, “What? What am I supposed to do?”

In the middle of that fateful summer, artist Mike Frederickson caught one of these moments with his camera. I did not know it at the time. Mike was at the same street festival and – randomly and clandestinely – took photos of people to potentially paint later.

I remember this day clearly. I was wearing my favorite skirt at the time – the one the boys loved that was made from the retro-looking astronaut fabric – and my rhinestone-studded red cowgirl boots. It was a hot day and I was drinking a beer in the street, occasionally setting it down on the curb to pick up a sweaty, cranky boy.

At one point, I imagined just walking away and slipping away into the crowd forever. Instead, I sipped my beer and then picked up my younger son. “Shhhh, it’s going to be OK,” I told him.

In 2011, Mike sent me a Facebook message saying there was a painting of me at Jackpot Gallery in Riverwest. I was already a huge fan of Mike’s incredibly realistic-looking paintings and could not wait to see it.

A few days later, I walked through the gallery doors, and there it was, front and center. Massive. Me. My son. My former life. Much to my surprise, I started to cry.

A year later, while making my final payment on the painting, I tried to explain to Mike why it moved me so much. I told him that he captured a period of my life painfully perfectly, and that every time I looked at the painting, I wanted to climb inside of it and warn 2009 me that everything was going to get so much worse and so much better. But more than anything, I wanted to tell 2009 me that I did the right thing by listening to the ache and I would never regret my choices.

Mike listened to my ramblings. And then he smiled, cocked his head and said, “I just really liked your boots.”

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“Opinions Are Like …” by Stephanie Barenz

Someone asked me a while back if as an artist I had ever encountered harsh criticism. The answer I gave was a resounding, “YES!” And as I continue to pursue my career and hopefully become more established I can only imagine that it will get worse.

A friend of mine has been in and out of counseling the last few years. When I asked him how his sessions were going he replied that the most valuable piece of advice he received from his psychologist thus far was, “Opinions are like a-holes, everyone has one and they usually, always, stink.”

Why do we care what people think? Oh wait, I know, we all want to be heard and validated. I have been called some pretty awful things, as I am sure you have, too. The following comments were either said to my face or I found out about them later through the grapevine. Here is a sampling that relate to my career:

“You aren’t an artist.”

“You don’t think like an artist.”

“Your work sucks.”

“Your work is too feminine.” (I see that one as a compliment, even though it was not intended that way.)

“Bleh, your work sucks.” (that one is different from above, because it had a gag response before it.)

“You are so naïve.”

“Your work is way too decorative.”

“Your work is not original because you stole my color palette.” (Sorry, I didn’t know you owned the rainbow.)

“Stephanie doesn’t know what she is doing.”

“I am worried Stephanie won’t go anywhere.”

“I walked into your studio and was like, ‘What is going on in here? This is a disaster.’”

“Your work looks like a graphic T-shirt.”(Irony here: the person was wearing a graphic stretched-out v-neck T-shirt.)

You know why these were so hurtful? Because a lot of them were things I had voiced silently to myself. Here is another thought, your opinions of yourself usually stink, too. We have all heard it before but you have to be your biggest champion. There are people out there who will insult you so you shouldn’t take the time to do that yourself.

When I was a kid, the school bully called me fat. When I went home crying to my mom, she told me that this kid’s dad was in prison and that people who are hurting usually say hurtful things to others. While this is a simple lesson, it was probably one of the most valuable I ever learned. I saw the bully in a new way, someone who was operating out of hurt and pain.

I know in my insecure moments, I have ripped some very innocent parties to shreds. It isn’t something I am proud of, but nonetheless we are all guilty of this behavior. Whenever I am criticizing someone I try to ask myself if I am doing it out of a place of hurt or insecurity.

So the lesson I learned from all of this is that opinions usually stink, just don’t listen to them. Find a group of people who have your back and can be honest with you. Seek out constructive criticism, don’t listen to the rest, and make sure you aren’t your biggest bully.

About the author

Molly Snyder

Molly Snyder has lived in Milwaukee her entire life. She started keeping a diary when she was four and published her first poem at age 10 called “The Unicorn” in the now-defunct Shorewood Herald. Today, she writes less about mythical creatures and more about Milwaukee people and places. She is a senior writer at OnMilwaukee.com, where she has worked for the last 12 years. Telling people’s stories is her passion.

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