Everyone Around Me

Basically I wanted everyone around me to fail. I wanted them to step up with confidence, to have a warm sense of themselves as they started playing the recordings of their symphonies or showed the first slides of their sculptures or started into the first lines of their poems — and then I wanted to feel the gradual spreading recognition among us, measure after measure or slide after slide or line after line, that this was very bad work. Upsettingly bad work. Trivial, familiar, self-indulgent. I wanted each of us to be wondering how we would respond when the presentation was over — what would we say to the artist? What positive thing was there to say without being dishonest? And then I wanted everyone around me to fail at the response. I wanted the applause to be scattered and awkward, and I wanted people to stumble over dodgy phrases like Really interesting and You know, provocative, and Was it nice to share your work?

Then I would approach the bereft artists and I would be the only person able to console them, to find some genuine goodness in their work for them to treasure…

Then I would approach the bereft artists and I would be the only person able to console them, to find some genuine goodness in their work for them to treasure, and when it was my turn I would rise and take my place at the front of the room and begin to move through slides of my paintings, talking quietly about what had drawn me toward each of these images, and though it would be somewhat dark in the room I would be able to see that, even after the first few slides, there were tears on the faces of everyone around me — grateful, humble tears — and even the sound of the occasional gentle sob, and in this way everyone around me would be elevated from failure and lifted to a place where, just after me, they would begin to understand how they might succeed.

People, however, did not fail. In some cases I didn’t know whether the work was good or bad, but in all cases they were received as successes. The audience of artists applauded rapturous applause; they hooted. They called for more.

Presentations usually happened after dinner, after we had spent all day in our studios working on our various things — I was trying to push my paintings toward some of the hotter colors — and then come together for whatever meal the artist’s colony had made us. Usually the meals were good. At the very least they were always good in the sense that they had been made for us for free and would be cleaned up for us, too. (I didn’t want the kitchen staff to fail — I wanted them to lead happy, prosperous, well-appreciated lives.) Toward the end of the meal there would be the sound of someone tapping a knife against a water glass, and the person would announce they were doing a short presentation after dessert, and everyone would applaud even the announcement. Everyone would applaud even if the person was announcing that he would be singing some new songs for the third time that month.

There was a man who did that — who sang us new songs on three different occasions, not even counting the couple he reeled out casually for late-night drinking sessions in one studio or another, though never in mine. I wanted this man in particular to fail, though he had always been very nice to me; he sat across from me at meals more than once and told me interesting things about songwriter circles and living in Atlanta and asked me things about me and my life, too. I wanted him to fail, but again I wanted to be the one who succeeded at making him feel better about it, at making him feel under-appreciated rather than under-talented. What’s wrong with these people? We’d say, shaking our heads. And so ultimately it would be a more positive experience for him than if he had gotten a standing ovation.

Everyone around me loved him and his work. They couldn’t contain their enthusiasm. One person actually put two fingers in her mouth to make that especially piercing whistle. He was, on each occasion, hounded until he added an encore song. Afterward I was one among many saying Great job, though I also tried to add something specific and memorable, something about the unexpectedness of a certain lyric or the haunting nature of the refrain. It took creativity — by the time I got to him, many choice comments had already been made.

In my studio I pushed on those hot colors. I brought them in from the corners in a step-by-step way. The first canvas I did during my month there just had these hunter orange moments in dots in the upper right, but the one after that crimsoned all the way down the right side in a fading stripe. When the colony staff brought me red apples with my lunch basket I used them in some still life paintings — why not a still life? — ones where the bowl was empty at the center of the work but the apples were steadily marching inward. I pushed on those colors.

Oh, how I wanted everyone around me to fail! During those late-night drinking sessions I tried to explain my battle with the hot colors and my inability to stop dark-greening everything and people listened…

At night, though, I felt like the colors were being shoved back again. I sat at dinner enjoying the potatoes or what-not but otherwise miserable; in the terrible raucous acoustics of the dining room I tried to find my way into conversations that seemed like a hundred people banging hammers on the table. Then someone would announce another presentation.

One woman presented — a video artist, a person who did these short videos of cooking and eating in ways that made the acts of cooking and eating seem very strange. She apologized for each video. I know it’s not as exciting as some of the other stuff people are doing here or This one just goes on and on forever or I don’t know why I was so excited about noodles for so long, and in a way it was like a set-up; all the self-deprecation guaranteed the love of her peers. The truth, though, was that her stuff was good. The morning after I saw her videos I was very conscious of the way I was spearing my food with my fork, the way I was chewing it. She had illuminated something. And so even if she had said, Here are some pretty damn good clips, people would have responded with the same vigorous applause. They would have been wrong not to.

Oh, how I wanted everyone around me to fail! During those late-night drinking sessions I tried to explain my battle with the hot colors and my inability to stop dark-greening everything and people listened and even commented and asked questions, but mostly people didn’t want to talk about work while they were drinking at night, and what I really wanted — for my personal struggle to be the most important thing in these artists’ lives, as it was in mine — was of course distantly out of reach. I drank to great excess on those nights.

There were days when I couldn’t pull an angry yellow into my work at all, where every time I tried to bring it in I just kept messing with it until it was softening, shifting into some pale leaf color. And there was a day when I painted a canvas a chaos of sun-hues, painted it in one long, furious, sloppy attack. The days were all very different from one another, except in that things always seemed quite uncertain. And the nights were all essentially the same.

One woman shared poems that she’d written while at the colony — brand-new things. She’d written, if you could believe her, a couple dozen new poems in three weeks, and before they were even quite finished she decided to read some of them to us. She stood in a proud, contented way at the podium — actually a hijacked music stand — and told us that she was really psyched about the work. My desire for her to fail approached the level of prayer. It seemed so little to ask. I know so little about poetry that it was hard for me to know what was strong and what was weak, but I’ll admit that a couple of images have stayed with me — particularly the one about the rain running to the underside of the branches — and in any case she finished to hollering, foot-stomping applause.

Of course, you didn’t have to go to the presentations; they were optional. It was just that everyone else did go, and it was just that I had the need to see disaster strike someone, and every time it didn’t come it just increased the urgency that it come eventually. I had signed up to do a presentation myself, scheduled it for the very end of my stay, and it still seemed possible that someone would deliver a fiasco before it was my turn at the front of the room.

I painted, I’ll say, in a determined way — though almost like something larger than me was doing the determining. I lined canvases against walls and even began to lean other canvases on top of the early ones, two and three deep. I covered a drafting table with fashion magazines and oranges, oranges everywhere, and I painted them a half-dozen different ways.

Of course, you didn’t have to go to the presentations; they were optional. It was just that everyone else did go, and it was just that I had the need to see disaster strike someone, and every time it didn’t come it just increased the urgency that it come eventually.

The presentations continued — a man read a chunk of a novel that took place in Western Africa, and people peppered him with questions afterward; a woman showed us images of looming, affecting sculptures that looked carved from marble but were actually plastic and foam; another person played jazz piano in a way that led us to contemplative silence and then, inevitably, sober and earnest clapping. Was the choreographer any good? I wasn’t sure. Was the other poet too funny? I didn’t know. I knew that they were all loved.

My plan had been to show old work at my presentation; I had plenty of stuff on slides that had been shown in galleries, work that had gotten good reviews. By the end of my time there I knew, though, that it was impossible to get as much appreciation as these other people. I was not going to be the one true artist at the center of everyone. I decided to cancel my presentation, but while I stood at the calendar outside the dining hall, having trouble crossing my name off somehow, the man who shared his songs all the time saw me there and asked what I was doing. I told him, and he told me not to cross myself off. You should present, he said. Tell you what — I’ll do some songs before you, warm things up.

And so I did. First the man with the songs played two more — three with the encore — and people loved him very much. I stood up and went to the wall at the front of the room, where I had leaned five of my new canvases, facing away from everyone. There had been no time to make slides of them, of course, so to show them I just had to hold them in my hands awkwardly, try to get them into the light. One of the other artists jumped up and said she would hold them for me, and after thanking her with a real gratitude and surprise I stepped back to see my work myself. I tried to explain how the hot colors were coming in from the corners, and I built up to one of the paintings where it was all oranges all over the place — the one, in fact, that I was least sure about but which interested me the most. I looked around at everyone. It wasn’t the scene I had envisioned where everyone around me had tears on their faces after the first couple of paintings; they didn’t have tears on their faces at all. I did, though. I did, from the first painting on.

I finished talking, finished presenting. People applauded. It wasn’t more than other people had gotten, and it wasn’t less. They cheered me in the way that they had cheered everyone else. I sat heavily, a little stunned, on the nearest couch, as people started to come over to tell me nice things. I hadn’t failed. I hadn’t failed, and neither had anyone else. Everyone gathered around me. They told me, more or less, We are the same and We are the same and We are the same. I continued to weep. Those were the words I had always wanted.

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