a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
a space for youth writing on mental health & identity
The painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte, by Georges Seurat is comprised of microscopic paint-dots; instead of blending hues, Seurat relies on optical illusion. Dots which stand separate on the canvas, are blended at a distance from a given person’s point of view. The painting resonates with me—not just because of its subject, or common interpretations of the piece. The art style, pointillism, articulates aspects of my world view and experiences. I’ve even attempted a few pointillism paintings myself, although the extent to which I succeed in those paintings’ executions is debatable. Regardless, I’m compelled to express my appreciation of Seurat’s well-known piece through my painting experience, my interpretation of the art style, and my interpretation of the pop-culture representation of Seurat’s painting.
My high school’s art room was cold; an ugly tile floor sat beneath twelve students and a teacher. Cambridge art is the last period of the day—I’m exhausted because, most likely, I only had three or four hours of shut-eye the night before. But my teacher, Mr. Dykins, is one of the most inspiring people I know. His art work is incredible and never once did I hear him put me or another student down for pursuing any form of artwork. So, when I presented the printed photo of Paul Signac’s The Pine Tree at Saint-Tropez as inspiration for my next project, I knew his response was not meant to discourage me. It was something along the lines of:
“You’ll have to research different pointillism techniques. You might try toothpicks or q-tips instead of a paintbrush. You could also use fine-tip markers.”
I’m not exactly sure why I was so insistent on using acrylic and a tiny paint brush. I think I had some ridiculous standard for what art should entail; what it should mean. I had a lot to learn, both about self-expression and the malleability of words and definitions.
In any case, my technique only served to stress me out. Pointillism was tedious enough to execute and paint brushes, with their easily-frayed, fly-away hairs, did not make this execution any easier.
I would stare at my piece for long periods of time. I thought, for some reason, likely associated with my “lizard brain,” that if I froze, the “danger” would vanish. Illogical anxiety held my hand, tightly, suspending it like a puppet’s hand attached to clear wire. I saw every mistake I’d made—my distrust of the technique. I mixed colors, regardless of the promise that the optical illusion would pull through. I was impatient and distressed that I wouldn’t complete my artworks in time for peer-critiques. Large gaps between each dot shown through; the white of the canvas created false, unrealistic highlights. In Seurat’s piece, his points have close neighbors.
My points were nearly isolated.
Coincidentally, or, as a result of my subconscious acknowledgement that my anxiety was something that I should maybe address sooner than later, I studied fear in one of my paintings.
A skeletal hand wrapped around a door frame in the background; a girl faced away from the hand, unaware of the danger that awaited her; most of the canvas was covered in dark shadows, juxtaposing the pastel colors Signac and Seurat used. I wanted my audience to feel suspense, seeing what lies ahead for the girl, while she remains anxiously unaware. An outsider, tasked with analyzing my artistic decisions for a deeper meaning, might note that the emotion expressed to the viewer in this painting represents my anxiety.
My anxiety thinks it’s a fortune teller, able to see the full picture, like the viewer. In actuality, it is the girl and I am a static painting.
Anxiety expresses worry over the unknown and I freeze.
Or maybe I just appreciated the dark aesthetic of a skeleton hand.
In Ferris Bueller’s Day Off the anxiety-ridden, hypochondriac, and overall loveable character, Cameron Frye, stares at A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte in the Chicago Art Institute. The camera zooms far into the painting, revealing the optical illusion. This scene speaks for some of Cameron’s anxieties and potentially regards his personal worldview. Cameron, like myself, is an over-thinker. When he looks, literally, deep into the painting, it becomes abstract and harder to interpret when all that’s visible are pigmented dots. Cameron overanalyzes himself. Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a coming-of-age movie and, in that respect, Cameron attempts to figure out who he is as the camera flips between shots of himself and the painting, indicating the two reflect one another. He’s too close, however, to really solve that mystery. He’s alone, too, as Ferris and Sloane make out in another room—his abandonment anxiety clouds his perception. I think, with a consistent acknowledgement of community and his anxieties dispelled, he might have a less distressing time figuring himself out. However, I think his conclusion may remain abstract, much like the peach and white dots found within the little girl’s face.
I find, similarly, that when analyzing situations, motives, people, I eventually become tired and conflicted; “it’s complicated” becomes a rule of thumb unless there is a more obviously harmed party in disputes. For example, there’s still some contention around the word “queer” in the LGBT+ community. Recently, someone I knew expressed discomfort over the word and labelled it a slur.
I was in a Zoom meeting and, in all honesty, it was far too early for a nuanced conversation about the reclamation of slurs, nor did I feel like “officially” coming out just to defend my opinion. But I digress.
The article was dubbed, “Queer POC on Campus.” This wasn’t even its actual title, just the nickname we gave it so the title would fit in the spreadsheet. A friend of mine and peer expressed distress as her parents had used the word against her in the past. I didn’t feel it appropriate or necessary to argue about it and instead simply stated,
“I think it’s an identity.”
And it is, I thought. It’s part of my identity. It’s my way of saying I’m part of the community, while still remaining somewhat ambiguous. And I know it can be used as a way to express both gender and sexuality for some people. It’s used in an academic context, too: “queer theory.” And given this took place within an academic context, I really didn’t see much of a problem with it.
Then again, during this entire situation, a different co-worker continued to say the word, “queer” in my friend’s presence.
I felt torn.
I knew we could simply avoid using the word, at least in front of her—it wasn’t hard. I’m doing it now. But I also didn’t want to argue that my identity was a slur.
I stayed silent for the rest of the conversation and the name in the spread sheet was changed to “LGBT POC on Campus.”
My answer as to how to contend with the use of “queer” in spaces where someone has a traumatic experience with it, yet others identify as queer, is “it’s complicated.” I don’t think primarily staying silent was an immoral act, in this situation. I didn’t want to come out just so I could defend the use of the word nor did I think staunchly defending it would have had entirely positive results, either. The more the situation is picked apart and analyzed, the less defined it becomes. And, I think, who was in “the right” or “the wrong,” becomes muddied as well.
While I believe A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte expresses a form of anxiety itself through interpretations of its subject, I think pointillism expresses two world views—one primarily optimistic, the other, a state of pessimism.
When done properly, the stippling in pointillism overlaps, slightly. The points are friendly with one another, although ultimately individual when viewed carefully; they rely on one another, too. They must overlap in order for the viewer’s eye to blend their unique colors. The technique is a piece of my worldview—humans are ultimately unique beings, and our individuality should be respected. But we also rely on one another; community is essential to our development and to reaching our full potential. Life is a balance between the two, and if someone were to value one aspect over the other, individuality over community, or vice versa, they might miss out on what makes humanity wonderful. I don’t think this is a particularly unique world view, yet the concept of “freedom” in the U.S. is twisted, at times, to mean aggressive individuality, or care for only oneself. Yet, when marginalized groups attempt to express their unique experiences, they are told those experiences haven’t actually happened, that they aren’t real or worth consideration. The blending of individuality and community is the key to compassion.
All of these anecdotes and media consumption are parts of me and my identity; I appreciate the space I’ve been given to express myself.
* = Editors' Choice work
Unless otherwise noted, all pictures used are open-source images in the public domain.