People come with a past and a personality. Marsha was no exception. Her sister’s accidental death at the age of twelve and her family’s collapse after that terrible death robbed Marsha of something: joy; confidence; hope for her own future; something. It also seemed to rob her of her health. She grew sickly; she suffered with a chronic earache; and it made painting, which was the light of her life, painful and difficult. So she produced little—lovely things, but only occasional things.
A point came where several of these occasional things had accumulated. Marsha was then in her late twenties. She had a friend by the name of Meredith who had a friend by the name of Valerie. Valerie ran a small, prestigious gallery and Meredith suggested that Valerie see Marsha’s work. A studio visit got arranged. Valerie arrived; Marsha, her ear aching and her nerves raw, awkwardly showed Valerie around—it didn’t take long. Valerie left—and something about that visit and the ensuing silence provoked Marsha to come and see me.
“How did the visit go?” I asked after we were settled.
“It was pleasant. Fine.”
“What did she say?”
“That she liked my work a lot.”
“Did you ask her if she wanted to give you a show?”
“No! She didn’t seem that interested.”
“She said that she liked your work a lot. But she didn’t seem that interested?”
“Exactly. I sensed that she was just being polite. She didn’t have much to say about my work as she was looking at it.”
“What did she say? Besides that she liked it a lot?”
“Oh, she said this and that. She thought that I had a tremendous color sense, that I had a unique perspective, things like that.”
“And that sounded like mere politeness?”
“Well, she didn’t say that she loved anything! And she didn’t … I don’t know … have a lot to say.”
I wished I could smile.
“What would you have said to Van Gogh about Starry Night?” I asked after a moment.
Marsha shrugged. “I don’t know. That I loved it.”
“And? What else?”
“I don’t know. Maybe nothing.”
“Not ‘What an interesting way to paint stars’?”
“No. God no!”
“Not ‘How much you’ve crammed into a small canvas!’?
“And since you would have stood there mute or nearly mute, he should have taken that to mean that you were just being polite when you said you loved it?”
“Maybe she really liked my work,” she said after a long moment.
“So you’ll get in touch with her?”
Marsha closed right down.
“Well … ”
“My paintings are of very different sizes. They wouldn’t make for a coherent show.”
“So, you’re mind-reading again?”
“Mind-reading? No … I know how shows work.”
“Is that right? There’s a show at the Modern.” I mentioned the name of a well-known artist. “You’ve seen it?”
“What are the sizes of the paintings in that show?”
Marsha thought about that. “Every size under the sun. Miniatures. Huge things.”
“She’s famous. She can get away with different sizes.”
“I see. She started out famous?”
“And all of her early works were of one size?”
“No. I’m sure they weren’t.”
“So you’ll get in touch with Valerie?”
She shut down further.
“I’ve taken too long to get back to her,” she said. “I missed that train.”
“And you know that how?”
“Just intuition. I’m extremely intuitive.”
“How long has it been?”
“A month. Almost two.”
“Do you want a show?”
This question stopped her for a moment. After a bit she said, “Maybe I don’t.” It was a very breezy answer. “I’m not sure her gallery is really right for me. I should go check it out again. Plus, it’s so expensive to frame things—she didn’t say who would have to pay for the framing. I’m sure it would have to be me. I don’t know if I want to pay for the framing and then not sell anything and get more depressed. So, no, probably not, probably I don’t want a show at her gallery.”
“I see. But the same issues would arise with any gallery? So you don’t want a show at any gallery?”
She thought about that. Suddenly she brightened. “Yes, I think that’s right! I think that I don’t actually want a gallery show. I think I want something different—a more human way to show my work. Maybe some sort of collective effort—maybe I should start a group gallery in an alternative space. But I don’t have the strength for that. So I would have to find a group that already exists. But the ones that already exist are probably cliquish and I don’t do that well with groups … ”
We continued in this vein until the end of the session. I plugged away at wondering aloud how it could be a bad thing to contact Valerie and secure a show at Valerie’s good gallery; Marsha countered each suggestion with her reasons as to why such a show was either a bad idea or a complete impossibility. At the end of the session she smiled a small, wry smile, as if to say, “I’m really difficult, aren’t I?” Or maybe her smile meant, “I think I won. But what a victory!”
Had we made any progress? Marsha was certainly not a changed person. Still, because we had been talking about the right things, I would have bet that a seed had been planted. If we had been witness to her inner dialogue, I’m sure we would have overheard a conversation between her frightened, irritable, stubbornly negative everyday voice and that other voice, the one that guided the painting, appreciated life, and would have loved a little success. How would that conversation have ended? Probably not with her picking up the phone and calling Valerie. I would have set the odds at her making that call at four-to-one against; or maybe five-to-one against; or maybe longer—maybe much longer. But long odds are still an improvement over being scratched from the race and finding oneself in some very dark pasture.
Check out Eric Maisel’s latest book, LIFE PURPOSE BOOT CAMP