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Reflections/Making Your Life as an Artist

Marjorie Brown (grandmother) and Carla Brown (self portrait). Part of 30 Days Has September series 2011

Often, you will hear someone say that they had a “full circle moment.” I think two nights ago I indeed had one of those moments. You might recall I mentioned that I had the best birthday to date celebrating my big 40th last summer. Part of the reason I can say this was because I had the opportunity to see Misty Copeland’s performance of Firebird at the Metropolitan Opera House. This was my coming out as a real adult birthday, with me and my date cleaned up to the nines, looking like fine black people in the city. When we arrived at the Met, there was a huge banner for the Firebird production with Misty filling it front and center, posed in her full bright red and gold costume with flames contouring the back of her profile. Below her billowing image was a growing sea of other cleaned up to the nines black people, brown people, young people and old people. Almost any variation you could imagine. Before Misty became a solo dancer and most recently a principal dancer, this was not the typical American Ballet Theater/Met crowd. She was the reason we were all here. She was the reason that this tide had changed. Whether or not you were a ballerina or a dancer, so many more people can now see themselves in her and what she represents. It’s a huge responsibility that is never someone’s first intention, but it is a natural cause and effect when someone breaks that long held color barrier.

Misty Copeland signing books. Not best picture, but you get the point

Those two nights ago, I had the great privilege of seeing Misty again, conveniently right where I work for the Enoch Pratt Library Writer’s Live event. Her new health and fitness book, “Ballerina Body: Dancing and Eating Your Way to a Leaner, Stronger, and more Graceful You,” just hit the stands and she was joined on stage by actor/dancer Maria Bloom, to discuss her life and the book to a sell out crowd of 500 eager listeners. In addition, I had the pleasant surprise of receiving a text from my cousin, asking if I was still at work because she was on the campus for the same event. I should have known she would be there. Her daughter is a young, phenomenal dancer. Not in a “she is my family, therefore she is great” kind of way. But in a “she is too young to be this good and not have a serious career in her future because she has it” kind of way. My cousin is an outstanding mother of 4, with her dancer being the youngest. She supports all of her children’s creative talents and has been a key to their success. This trip was a surprise for her daughter and I was delighted to see the look on her young and inspired face. My cousin’s support of her child, as well as that of the hundreds of other mothers there with their daughters, was something to behold.

Parental support for creative endeavors and creatives is extremely important, which is why I will give my cousin her props forever. Now that my cousin contemporaries and I are older, we are much more aware of our unique family dynamics; it has become a recurring topic of conversation. The majority of this journey that I am on and sharing while creating this documentary is focused on my maternal grandparents, specifically their lives and the influence they have on me, and my urges of wanderlust. Nonetheless, I never want to forsake or overshadow the importance that my paternal grandmother has had on the course of my life and who I am. She is the force and thread of my creativity. The entire paternal side of my family is bursting in the arts because of her innate creativity. It wasn’t until the start of this initial idea of interviewing my grandparents about their lives, did I discover the depth of her creativity. She told me about many things that she had made or sewn, some of which I had been staring at most of my life. But why had I never thought about this before? Why would it not have been the only reason that the entire Brown side of the family had some creative hand, genetically passed down from generation to generation? It seems uncommon and I don’t know why it took that long to register. During these conversations with my cousins about our unique family, we looked at my grandmother’s children, our mothers and fathers. Out of the 6 children, they have all fostered huge creative talents, some they still pursue. One was an art educator, one attended FIT (Fashion Institute of Technology), and one is an avid art collector. Most of them, had they had the parental creative support and/or had it been a different time, they could have pushed further and been the who’s who of you name it. I realize that the paths that they have taken could have been due to basic survival as well as being pragmatic. During our parent’s generation, especially if you were African American, you weren’t given the same opportunities as your white peers, not to mention, you were just trying to survive. You didn’t have the privilege to have lofty creative goals. For those creatives that did thrive during our parent’s time, the road was not easy and there was a lot that was sacrificed.

With time, and social progression, the batch of first cousins that are my contemporaries have had increased opportunities for creative outlets growing up. As a result, a lot of have gone to college for art, there is a photographer, a 3D modeler, a dancer, writers, visual artists, a curator, master carpenter, a singer/performer (although that is from the Graham side) and me, however I fit in. Some of us are sustaining our lives with this work, some are on the way and some have chosen to pursue other professions but still appreciate and support the arts. Now that my cousins are parents, some of their children have started down the same path of being creatives and now we have the next wave of dancers and visual artists and musicians. This is not a fluke. My grandmother, Marjorie Brown is the common denominator. We have more than just her looks. Often I wonder if she ever realized how her creative gene had permeated the family tree. Often I wonder had she had the opportunity, would she have been a practicing artist? Realizing this generational “passing of the baton,” as my cousin stated, I think each generation will continue to become more and more supportive as our understanding grows and we witness what can be possible as and for a creative. A young black girl, starting late for a dancer, told by many that she couldn’t and wouldn’t, is now the first African American principal ballerina at one of the premier ballet companies. Anything is possible now. When you see it, you can believe it.

Back to the full circle moment: full disclosure, I have been transparent about the events of my life during this journey. Where I was in my path when I first saw Misty last year is different than where I am now. Things happened that I did not foresee or expected along the way. But I guess we all progress no matter where or what we are doing, we are not stagnant beings and life goes on. In short, seeing Misty was bit bitter sweet. It reminded me of people and a different time in my life that I miss. During her conversation with Maria, one of the most important things I took away from Misty was her response to an audience question. Since the book discusses centering and focusing the mind, someone asked if she had any mantras or quotes that she uses frequently. With that megawatt smile of hers, Misty shyly responded, first with a disclaimer that this was one that she had never disclosed, but her response was that she says, “I love me.” It was like some overplayed clip from Oprah, when there was that “Aha” moment. No matter what I am going through or goals I have, I only need to remind myself of that one simple fact. I love me, and everything else will fall into place.

With that being said, I think that my full circle is more of a Venn diagram. Non-math nerds, the quick definition is two full circles overlapping in the middle showing all the possible logical relations, but with me laying right inside. Much of what Misty said floating on top of the energy vibrating from all of the young, hopeful dancers, was pertinent to my life as well. My ballerina dreams are too far gone, but as a creative who feels uncertainty and insecurity at times, it was comforting to hear someone remind you that anything is possible, why we do what we do and why it is important. There are a lot of things in life that just are, but are difficult to explain. Being African American is one and another is being an artist/creative. Put them both together - headspin. More and more these days, my circle of creatives that are African American and I have found ourselves in deep purposeful discussion about what this means. My Storycorps recording last year stemmed from this repeated conversation. We all feel it, do it and can’t think of when being creative wasn’t apart of our lives, but it can be a gut kicking way to live a life.

For instance, my father and I have a standing joke about the rent. I am charged a nominal fee. That is not a problem. I am an adult and I know what it is like to have to pay bills and it’s the least I can do for the roof over my head. Every once and awhile when I may take a sip of this or use that, my father teases me and decrees that my rent will have to get increased. We go back forth about it often where I too will ask for a decrease when I jokingly feel that I am being put out by being asked to do things like dog sitting. It is what we do. About a week ago, the joke reared an ugly head, it wasn’t as funny that day. I must have been having a moment. I didn’t respond like I normally do and it all turned to sour grapes. I stewed a little that night and in the morning it became clear to me what happened. What normally didn’t bother me caught me because I was feeling sensitive at that time for reasons I am still unsure of. Once I thought about it, it became obvious to me what the issue was. This was how I articulated it to my mother and my father, in a way that I thought they would understand: things are completely different for my generation than it was for you. I live in a world of insecurities. In a sense, I am currently financially, housing, professionally, and now romantically insecure. Your path was different. You met as teenagers, you went to the military after high school and that put you on long and fulfilling career paths you were able to retire from, you were able to buy houses and have a family. Now, things aren’t that laid out for everyone. I am single, job security is increasingly fleeting and people have to think about retirement in a different way, and renting a home is a more realistic American Dream as the housing market skyrockets. The cherry on top of this big fat iced cake is that I am a creative. I made the decision to relinquish my independence to live in your house based on some idea I had that I am trying to make into something only because I think it is important. After some consideration, I know I can look at this in a positive way, this could be a good thing, I can do whatever I want, and the world is my oyster. But at the same time in the deepest layers of my being, it all gives me the Snoopy whine.

Between my Docs in Progress fellowship, and a workshop I was invited to as a Ruby’s Artist Grant grantee with an organization called Artist U about life beyond the grant, I was introduced to the idea of cohort meetings. It became a repeated theme in my life. Cohorts allow you to commiserate about your creative woes, get feedback from people who understand, yet get the resources to take some action to make, asses and attain goals. It’s complicated trying to be every position in the company. You can easily find yourself leery and tired. There are those of us that are balancing double lives as 9-5ers in the first part of our day. From 6pm to whenever is the time we have to tend to our creative work. Besides opportunities like seeing Misty, there have been other invaluable benefits to my job. Over time, my friends (2 of them current co workers, one former) that I lovingly refer to as my BSU crew (black staff union), have organically created a cohort. Informally meeting to have discourse happens often and it typically revolves around discussing our art and our plans and our triumphs and concerns. Each of us is from different disciplines, backgrounds, geographical regions and different personal experiences. It makes for a nice balance of perspective especially when we are all at crossroads in our creative lives.

Making Your Life as an Artist Workbook, by Andrew Simonet

Conveniently, one of my BSU members was also an attendee of the Artist U workshop. When the workshop facilitator discussed the cohort meetings and asked who was interested to get a group consensus, my BSU friend and I ultimately decided that we would create our own and include our other at-work BSU friend, also known as my work homie. The facilitator and author, Andrew Simonet, was generous enough to allow us to take extra copies of the workbook, “Making Your Life as an Artist Workbook,” so I made sure that I grabbed one for him. It took some schedule wrangling, but we finally had our official meeting yesterday. We used a conference room that is normally occupied by bigwigs engaged in animated conversation. There was no exact plan except to meet and start discussing the workbook and how we would proceed. Technically there was an assignment that we had completed already at the workshop but our new cohort hadn’t had the chance to complete it. Our hour was productive with a mix of airing of current concerns, giving thoughtful advice and reading from the workbook. In the middle, I found myself taking the role of reminding us all that the answer is not to change who we are. All of us have known since a young age that art and creating was our talent and our calling. It has always been the thing that we fall back to. Becoming or doing something else because a lot of these days can suck is not the answer. We are smart enough to get jobs solely for the purpose of getting a paycheck. If that was what we wanted, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. If every artist and creative felt this way and chose to not to follow their talents, how sad would this world be without culture and us creatives and sensitive minds. I was proud of us for doing this. I know it will be constructive and helpful since each of us is literally on the start of the next chapter. Fighting what feels like an uphill battle always seems easier when there is someone who tells you that they have been there or they are right there with you.

Back to the overlap of the full circle moment, the power that I have witnessed from Misty first hand, giving people a chance to see themselves represented, only confirms my notion of the importance of telling the story about my grandparents. The Grahams story is unique because the majority of campers, friends of the parks and RV owners are not African American. Fifty years later, this is still true. I strongly believe that by telling this story, I can begin to change the audience. If other African Americans and people of color can see themselves in me and my grandparents as we take this journey in Everyone But Two, they can also see themselves at the parks or camping or as owners of RVs or even filmmakers. It is as simple as that. Seeing is sometimes believing. And as my last plug for things I think are important, I can’t stress enough how important this is for the audience to change. I know that this is not something that everyone thinks about no matter what the color of his or her skin. But these parks are for everyone. This land is for everyone. We cannot continue to let people or the past tell us otherwise any longer. In the not too distant future, government administrations, or greedy land developers can take all this away from us. If there aren’t enough people that this matters too, it can be lost forever.

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