I had a great concept for this month’s column, a sort of “Unified Field Theory of Julia,” in which I tied together my life as an artist, data analyst, aikidoist and teacher of the Alexander Technique. The general idea was that overlapping principles learned in Aikido and the Alexander Technique were the basis for my approach to both art and analysis, while my analytic and visual skills informed how I practiced Aikido and the Alexander Technique. One of the core ideas was how I used principles I had learned in all these disciplines to set up circumstances in which each could best flourish with least effort. It was to be illustrated with a favorite portrait that had just flowed out of me one evening, leaving me with the feeling the sculptor David Friedheim has sometimes referenced as “I only work here — I’m the guy that sweeps up at the end of the day.” In other words, on a good day, the creativity flows effortlessly through you, and you can almost step back and watch it.
The problem was that writing the essay was a struggle taking a great deal of effort. I wanted to write about the common factor in all these fields — setting up situations which fostered ease and creative solutions — but I was finding no ease in my writing. Then I realized that I was doing just the opposite of the very principles I was trying to describe. Instead of allowing the ideas flow out of me, I was trying to force them to the specific structure set up by my initial concept. If I really wanted to write about this I was going to have let go of my Unified Field Theory and see where the exploration of the ideas took me.
Just as I was coming to that realization, life threw me some punches and all my attention went to rolling with them.
When I was able to catch my breath, I found myself in the middle of sorting out private and public. For instance, what is appropriate to say in this public, published essay, about these particular punches? What has been appropriate to illustrate and describe in my Daily Portrait Project Blog all week? About half the time my daily self-portraits reflect my concrete circumstances. When the circumstances are traveling in Thailand or doing the laundry, there’s no line to draw about what lines I draw. But when the circumstances involve health, work situations, or personal relationships, how can I talk about them while protecting the privacy of everyone involved, including me?
My initial approach was to leave out all concrete information. Thus when I found out I had gotten a much-desired job (but hadn’t yet told my current boss I was leaving), I simply made a smiling portrait and called it “Finally, Some Good News.” A couple of people inquired and I was happy enough to tell them in private what was going on. But mostly everyone was pretty satisfied just to know something good was happening, and left it at that.
So this week I tried a similar approach with regard to life’s punches. I made distraught drawings and titled them things like “Bad Week” and “Bad Week Got Worse”. The problem with this was that people started to worry about me. One bad day wasn’t cause for comment, but when the ‘things are bad’ drawings started piling up, I started receiving concerned inquiries. It’s well enough to be reminded that your friends love you and people you’ve only ‘met’ online are concerned, but I didn’t want to be upsetting anybody — not friends, strangers or those in between. Also, I was now having to respond to many individual queries, some of which were public themselves, and sort out how much information to give in each case, while what I really wanted to do was keep my focus on the situation itself.
Finally I decided that if I was going to address my state of mind in my drawings, it was only fair to give a little information about what was going on, while still leaving out the details that would make anyone identifiable. Thus, I decided it was OK to say someone close to me was unexpectedly hospitalized, without saying who, and that surgery went well without discussing the exact procedure. That also freed me up to be more explicit in my drawings so that instead of just frowning faces I could depict and discuss waiting rooms and hospital corridors.
But it still leaves me a bit uncomfortable. For one thing, friends and family who follow the Portrait Project might still be worrying because someone close to me is someone they’re likely to know. And although these are the people who would eventually have found out directly what was going on, I feel weird that they may find out in this public way before anyone had a chance to contact them privately. So for me the jury’s still out on where to draw the line, and I don’t know how I’ll handle it next time. I guess, like writing this essay, I’ll have to wait and see what develops instead of trying to force myself to follow an idea that may not apply.
Julia Kay first described her Daily Portrait Project here a year ago, and last fall shared vivid memories of many Septembers. Since then, one of her portraits was in a Chicago show featured in the New York Times, and she agreed to check in with us once a month with a new selection from her project, chosen just for WVFC, and to let us know what new directions continue to grow out of her process. WVFC now joins the rest of Julia’s fans in hoping the life behind her art improves, and to marvel that even so, Kay keeps discovering new meanings of the word “portrait.” — Ed.