Earlier last month, the Dayton Institute of Art had this gorgeous photo installation. I can’t remember the artist/photographer, but the installation really stuck with me. See- the photographer had a rough relationship with her mother growing up. And as she began her career, she mended that relationship by using her mother as her primary subject, and portraying her mother as a caricature of who she could have been, if you will.
Or maybe that wasn’t it. But that is what I took away from it.
The installation was full of these gorgeous photographs of these gorgeous African-American women in gorgeous, colorful outfits, in vulnerable and confident poses. There was one particular photograph where the subject was at once disarming and challenging. I don’t truly know how to describe what I saw- I just walked away feeling like I saw something that I wasn’t supposed to, but was dared to by the subject.
Art is funny that way. It is amazing that way. It is complex that way.
Daniel and I go to this museum maybe once a month. It’s one of our favorite ways to do a “date day”. We have our favorite paintings that we sit in front of and talk about each time.
And there is this thing about it all. My favorite pieces are all of these women. Longing women. Sad women. Care-free women. Holy women. Challenging women. And every single time that I sit in front of these women, there’s a story that I’m waiting to hear from them. There is magic in looking at these paintings and figuring out their story from the small details in the pictures. While also knowing full well that nothing that I imagine is close to the truth. Except for maybe “High Noon” by Edward Hopper (my absolute favorite painting there).
All of this has me in this space of contemplating how I regard others, out in the real world. Because it is so very easy to look at a painting or a picture, and feel compassion and empathy and sadness and all other feelings towards the subject. It is so easy to imagine all manner of scenarios to explain the subject’s posture, smirk, dress, you name it.
The real challenge is to extend those thoughts to the strangers that we encounter every single day. The challenge of pausing before responding. The challenge of wondering why.
I would dare consider myself fairly good at that. I have always been deeply empathetic, and capable of feeling the things that other people are feeling. And even then, it is a conscious challenge to meet each person with curiosity. Because as empathetic as I am, I am still in a hurry. And while I would love to sit and chat, I also have things to do and places to go, and people to see. So there’s this conflict at play too.
A lot of what I have been internally reminding myself of is that I cannot take on the burdens of other’s like I have in the past. Not right now. And in reminding myself of that, I have had to try to learn how to engage with curiosity and compassion without taking on the challenges.
Just like with those pictures and paintings.
And just like with those pictures and paintings, I will almost always be incorrect. Because at the end of the day, we are all so complex. We are all just overflowing with thoughts and feelings and anxieties and fears and love and everything in between. There is some encouragement in that, if I am honest with myself. And there is freedom in that as well.