The whole room smelled like beeswax. There were five whole pounds of it, that I had melted, one brick at a time, in a microwave on the other side of the building. The beeswax covered paper mache, which covered chicken wire, which covered a wooden frame generously created for me by my carpenter ex-boyfriend. It made a big yellow blob on the gallery floor.
Over the beeswax mass, meant to look like snot, were piles of tissues, prescription bottles, pills, cigarette boxes, and Diet Coke. The joke at Vanderbilt was that all the women lived off cigarettes and Diet Coke. I ate too but I wasn’t immune to the trends. Out of the yellow mass reached mannequin arms and legs wrapped in health insurance statements. Then there were things hanging from the ceiling. Fake flowers, a cleat, an Amartya Sen book.
I had never been given a budget to create art before. It was thrilling to get the check and order wax and mannequin parts on the internet. I felt like a mad scientist and wondered if people on the other side of my orders were wondering what I was up to. Even though I just needed the limbs, I couldn’t find enough disembodied mannequins and ended up with a spare torso. Melanie and I named her and, wrapped in Christmas lights, she became a centerpiece in our otherwise bare kitchen. We talked a big game about getting her nipple tassels, and different kinds for different holidays, but that dream never materialized.
I was creating. I was creating so hard that I ended up ugly crying in the arms of Judy Chicago. Known for being a ruthless critic, some would just say a bitch, she was surprisingly kind and comforting. She held me and told me I was okay. Surely I was not the first art maker to lose my shit in her presence.
I stayed up late many nights in a row, working on the sculpture by myself, happy that I could listen to my favorite music. One night a friend came to visit and we snuck onto the roof to smoke pot. It felt so naughty, doing something so clearly unsafe, on the roof of an academic building. But I didn’t care anymore. I’d settled into a kind of sweet, I-don’t-give-any-fucks delirium. Nothing was more important than this piece and I was on a deadline.
I showed up to class when I was supposed to but I wasn’t really present. I was focused. Focused on finishing this piece that expressed everything I hadn’t said. Everything I didn’t share about my own complexities, coping mechanisms, and how freakin’ hard it was to be sick at 21. At the opening, so many people looked at me in awe. “I had no idea,” floated towards my ears too many times to count.
They put it in the paper, my sculpture as big as a car, and the objects that hung above it, representing everything I felt I couldn’t have. Of all the amazing art that was created in and for that building over the course of a semester, some made by capital P professional artists, it was my piece that made it in the Nashville Scene. I couldn’t believe it, but also I could. I had never felt so at home, at ease, in the flow.
When others in the class complained about the personalities running the program, I couldn’t understand why they cared. They gave us an entire building to play with! And money to make art! All we have to do to get two classes worth of credits is read some books and make art. Y’all, this is a gift!
Upon completion, I felt wave after wave of relief, like multiple orgasms, given without any expectation of reciprocity. It was sweetness, peace, and the best kind of exhaustion. I felt spent. It wasn’t just the energy of successfully illuminating invisible illness that made it so magical, but also hanging out with other artists, healing from a breakup with the man I thought I’d marry, and learning how to be with early 20’s angst. It felt like God giving me a taste of what I was capable of.
I didn't even mind that we had to destroy the piece. It was necessary to get it out the door. I remember expressing gratitude to the six black trash bags that contained all of my creation. Thank you. Thank you for everything you gave me.
It felt like the best kind of breakup. I’ll remember it fondly but it was also okay if we never saw each other again.