I don’t want to make my sole theme the non-relaxing ways I spend my weekends, but this past Memorial Day weekend I spent exhibiting at the Washington Square Outdoor Art Exhibit. For those unfamiliar with the glamorous world of outdoor art fairs, this involves setting up a booth on a Manhattan street corner and spending the weekend alternatively roasting in the 85-degree heat and soaking in sudden thundershowers. Saturday, my main take was a hot tip on a pancake house in the next town over from mine. Sunday a local Greenwich Village character that I know came by and told me a moderately convolved and largely pointless story about back when she hung with the Hell’s Angels in the ‘70s. Monday, appropriately for Memorial day, an elderly Navy veteran, a complete stranger, introduced himself showed me his tattoo, a self portrait as a Japanese demon (it was a good likeness), and holding up four fingers instructed me to ‘open my mind’ until I could see eight fingers. I’ve been trying my best all week, but can only get up to seven. Taking show fees into account, my net take for the weekend was $ -280. Evidence suggests that I’m not in it for the money; sometimes I’m not sure why I’m there. Two reasons worth thinking about, even if I’ve cured you of all desire to even see an outdoor art exhibit, are community and hope.
A sense of community among the artists is (for better or worse) what makes these events bearable. For the most part everyone is eager to help in any way they can, and trapped as one is, one tends to become instant best friends with your neighbors. Art can be a lonely and confidence undermining business. A sense of acceptance into a circle of people with similar struggles may be worth the show fee.
More important however, I think is a sense of hope, not the hope for a big sale, but the hope of sharing what is important to you with someone else and finding them touched by it, finding that after all it is important to them as well. This is a kind of community too, but rather than just being support, it is touched with a faith that you have something to contribute. Art is a strange combination of private internal compulsion and hope that it matters to someone else. For me at least, mattering means my works touches someone in a way they need to be touched. It might remind them of what matters amid the world’s distractions, love, faith, giving. Or it may help them get perspective on a problem they are facing. I like to think my work says things that are worth saying, but in the end it’s hard to know unless you go out there and interact with people.
At times all worthwhile tasks have this dynamic, they are an act of faith bolstered by the support of a community. But vocational callings, undertakings one feels a deep need to do, whether art, or parenting or religious life show it most vividly in their tension between the joys of connection and the fears of irrelevance. I’ll say a prayer for everyone else facing these struggles while I’m sitting in front of my display this weekend.