I just had the most amazing conversation with a woman about my painting of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and it brought us both to tears.
It was during my most recent show at Splash Gallery, the “Spring Unveiling”. For this event, each of our 18 artists literally unveils a new piece of artwork and talks about it in front of all the event attendees (WITH A MICROPHONE, OMG).
I unveiled three new pieces, all from my January challenge: “Trash Panda” (a raccoon), “Guinea-corn” (a guinea pig with a golden unicorn horn), and “King” (my painting of Martin Luther King Jr). In hindsight, this seems like a strange collection, but hey.
I wasn’t particularly nervous to unveil them — I’ve been through this a few times at the gallery. That was, until I had the microphone, began talking about the work I was yet to unveil, and turned around to see two African-American women right in front.
Now the town I live in is admittedly very white. All the members of this gallery are white, as far as I can tell. And most of our clientele is white. So here I am, in a room full of white people, with two black women right up front, staring at me from 5 feet away. I wouldn’t have noticed this, except for the fact that I (whitey mc-whiterson), am about to unveil my painting of arguably the most amazing iconic black man in history.
(Face-palm). Just a little nervous now.
As I unveiled the paintings I started talking about the two animal paintings in length but just glossed over the MLK painting because I was so scared what they’d think. I seriously just said, “and my painting of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., which was really awesome to make”. LOL.
The reason I was nervous, was because I wasn’t sure if it was my place. I wasn’t sure if it was my place to paint the icon of a struggle I will never know. I wasn’t sure if it was my place to talk about how amazing his message was and how when I think about the power in his voice and what he meant to this world, I undoubtedly start crying. Maybe that’s why I didn’t say more — because I probably would have started crying.
Well the unveiling by each artist finished and right after, those two women were on me. “Oh shit”, I thought…. “Hiiiiiiii”, I said.
One of the woman greeted me, also with a nervous smile, and said she had a question for me… She wondered why I had chosen to paint Dr. King.
The rest of this conversation won’t be verbatim, and I’ve probably forgot half of it because I was so caught up in the moment, the emotions, and just awe-struck by the words coming out of her mouth…
Here’s what I said:
I told her I chose to paint MLK because of everything going on right now. Because I feel like he was such an amazing person, with a very important and uplifting message. I rambled on a little longer and did actually start crying, as I said I would.
Her response blew me away:
She said that she was not expecting me to unveil a painting of Martin Luther King Jr. and she was flabbergasted. For someone who “doesn’t look like her” to paint someone who does, to paint an icon of the struggle people who look like her are going through, made her feel supported and meant a lot to her.
She said it was amazing and wonderful that I used my place of power as a white woman, that I used my artwork, and that I used the platform of this gallery event to speak out for her. That it was important, because we can’t do this alone. We can only heal our past and rise together. I agreed.
She also began to cry, which made me cry even more.
I told her I was nervous to present the painting in the first place because I didn’t know if it was my place, and she said she was so glad I did. That it meant a lot for me to do it.
After thanking each other profusely, we hugged, and I felt like I had just done the most important thing in my life thus far. I made someone in pain, in a world that’s against them, feel supported.
I can’t express in words how much this interaction meant to me, except to say that it was one of the most encouraging, heart-expansive interactions I’ve ever had. And that it confirms for me why I consciously choose to paint people of color.
Because you see, it’s a definitely a conscious choice for me.
I instinctually want to paint white women, because that is who I am surrounded by and who I am myself.
But the thing about me is, I question everything I do instinctually.
(When I was 19, I noticed I felt like I had to put on makeup to leave my apartment. So I stopped wearing it for a full year)
I actually only recently started painting people again. And when I found myself painting white woman after white woman, I questioned it.
A teacher of mine from college, Lisa Sweet, once said you have to ask yourself if you’re not painting something because it doesn’t matter, or because it’s too challenging.
People of color are neither of those things for me. They’re not too challenging to paint, and they certainly DO matter. So I started painting them.
This was a bigger choice for me than just aesthetics though. I wanted to do it because I realized there are two things I believe:
1. People of color (and all minorities), need to see themselves, and be seen as beautiful, successful, magical, and amazing too.
Just as I noticed those two African-American women in the gallery, I notice when a credit union commercial includes a black family, or a mixed family, or a gay couple, or a person who is differently-abled.
It always makes me smile and think, “Good for them”! We need positive images of minorities in the media. For them to believe in themselves, and for us to believe in them too.
Artwork is no different. I aim to paint beautiful, magical things, so I thought I might be able to contribute to this.
2. I think the more we are included in each other’s lives, the less we notice our differences and the more we can break down the barriers between us.
They say the best way to overcome a prejudice, is to spend time with one of those people. When you take the time to learn about someone’s hopes, dreams, and fears, you begin to see yourself in them.
One of my ways of including people who don’t look like me into my home and reality is through art. I identify deeply with the people and animals I paint. My art is about celebrating their humanity, divinity, and spirit, so I have to put myself in their skin to do it. I have to really see them.
And in turn, I hope my artwork does this for others. I hope that women will buy paintings of women who don’t look like them, because they can see their own spirit and dreams within it.
Even knowing these were my motives, painting people of color still made me nervous. Would I do them justice? Is it okay to be consciously choosing to do this? Are people going to be mad? Why would they be mad? This should be okay. I’m just painting people here! Which again solidified for me why I was doing it. Because it should be okay. This shouldn’t be a thing.
Now, thanks to this amazing woman at the art show, I have my answer. It is definitely okay. It is needed.
I had no idea this painting was going to be so important to another person. And I had no idea how it would change me through her.
So I ask you, what is your platform? Where can you show kindness, acceptance, and support to people who don’t look like you? Where can you use your power to lift another person up? In your work, your talents, your community, your day-to-day life?
We can only rise together. Here is my hand.
Today marks 50 years since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated and it is also Dr. Maya Angelou’s birthday. Their words and actions are still out here changing lives, and may they continue to forever. Rest in peace, dear ones.
Many people ask if this woman bought that MLK painting after I tell them this story. She did not, she gave me a far bigger gift. The painting did sell a couple days later to another woman though. And prints are now available here if you want one.
If you liked this story, please feel free to share it
I think this is the first time I’ve written about such a controversial issue, and I truly hope I didn’t offend anyone. I was even more nervous to share this post than to make the paintings or talk about them at that event. Thank you for taking the time to read my story, I am always here with an open heart and ears if you want to talk.
All my love,