A Woman -- Liberated

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Bridgit Gallagher

During the summer of 2017 I participated in Swarm Artist Residency—a collective of Chicago creatives who organize annual artist retreats throughout the Midwest.  I found Swarm only a few months after I began taking myself seriously as an artist.  I’ve created some form of art all my life: I started writing poems when I was 11 and made several scrapbooks for my family; I took photography classes in high school and eventually was placed in honors art classes; I’ve created mixed media pieces just for the hell of it, and I’ve kept a journal since I was 10 years old.  Yet—I never went to art school.  In fact, I spent my college years doing anything but art: working 25 hours a week, going to school for 15-18 credit hours a semester, taking care of my sick Grandmother, and trying to get away from my alcoholic father as fast as I could.

Actually, my high school art teacher tried to convince me to go to art school, but I couldn’t.  Not only did I not apply for art school, I was furious that she even suggested it.  The school was out of state—an option my mother didn’t want me to take.  She wanted me home, close to her, safe—plus we couldn’t afford it.  I internalized this message without my parents ever having to tell me directly; so when my teacher encouraged me to pursue this option, I was outraged on her behalf. Even today, I can clearly recall nearly yelling, “But I’d be away from my family!” and her calmly responding, “Maybe that’s a good thing.”   

After I graduated university, I was lost. Finally, after 20+ years of working and going to school, I was free to do anything—everything! But I found myself gravitating towards the next thing: finding a job, getting married, having kids, etc.  I didn’t really want those things, but I found myself going down that path regardless. Throughout my childhood, my mother always showered me with fantasies of marrying a man, having plenty of babies, and being the new matriarch of our family. This vision for my life was one I simultaneously rebelled and yet—I wanted. Not for me, but for my mother. I wanted to make her proud and happy, and at that age I couldn’t see a different vision for myself. Despite the fact that I’ve spent most of my life rebelling, I tended to want, or thought I wanted, everything everyone else wanted for me.

So I said yes and got engaged to my partner of 4 years.  I really loved him and did want to spend the rest of my life with him, and yet—I wanted something more. Something I couldn’t imagine. During the wedding planning I found myself creating art. I made a 4 foot replica of my body by collaging Instagram photos of myself with pieces of cell phones and laptops, assembled on 4x4” canvas pieces. I felt like I was being dissected into boxes of expectation: expectations of my mother, of my partner, of my family; the expectation that I would get a 9-5 since I bothered going to university at all, at least until I was ready to have children. As a woman, I was born to fulfill expectations, especially of the men in my life.  Although I understood intellectually (read: academically) that I had choices, I couldn’t imagine them.  So I made art—and planned for a wedding.  

Wedding planning was something I was wholly unprepared to face.  Not a single part of this process was appealing to me.  More than the massive consumerism, the inherent sexism, and overtly romanticized ways in which weddings are planned, I struggled with something far more daunting: my father. I did not want my father to walk me down the aisle or frankly—even be a part of my wedding. I distinctly remember having a conversation with my aunt in the car about it.  I was explaining how I wanted both my partner and I to walk down the aisle simultaneously, so as to make the day about us and not have this hyper focus on the bride, and she almost hysterically warned me of what other people might think if my father didn’t walk me down the aisle and of how he might feel about being so blatantly rejected in the ceremony.  An entire childhood of alcoholism and abuse could be swept under the rug for the bride’s happy day.  Not only could I not envision a life I truly wanted, I wasn’t allowed to envision alterations to the life expected of me.  

Growing up, I constantly heard “life is too short to stay angry” and “blood is thicker than water,” all to mean that I should accept my father’s abusive behavior because we’re family and forgiving my father was the only way to find peace.  After years of trying to embrace these messages, I realized that actually, life is too short to maintain abusive relationships.  Having a relationship with my father simply because he was my father only deepened the wounds that he already made.                

Expectations turned into requirements, and my heart broke a little more.  I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t plan my life around anyone else’s needs or desires.  I couldn’t live the rest of my life feeling like a fragment of who I wanted to be. In the back of my heart I knew that if I continued this path it would be the ultimate betrayal—against myself.  My high school art teacher’s words echoed in surround sound…

So I decided to move to Chile for a year and teach.  While I was announcing these plans to my family over dinner, I also told everyone that I would be cutting off communication with my father.  I felt my family’s discomfort as they shifted in their seats and the weight of my words in their concerned eyes.  By centering myself, for what felt like the first time, I was changing my family’s dynamics, whether they were ready for it or not.  Expectations denied.     

Living in Chile was an incredible and challenging experience.  I was making art, but I still didn’t consider myself an artist.  In fact, I only began to consider myself an artist when my Chilean friends told me I was one.  I can recall one of my friends saying: “You’re an artist if you create art.  “Good” and “bad”, “professional” and “amateur” are not labels we should use when we think of ourselves as artists.  If you create from a place of love and beauty, then you are an artist.” I began to embrace this new identity, but still—in my heart, it sat like a foreign feeling.

When I returned to the United States I felt like a new woman.  I had spent a year making decisions centering myself and my own needs and it was liberating.  However, the role of caretaking soon called again. After my return, I began taking care of my Grandmother, who had become bedridden and was living at home.  I held a lot of tension in my heart about this call: on the one hand I loved my Grandmother and I would have done anything for her.  On the other hand, I felt like I was being sucked back into a role I had spent a year unlearning.  Expectations met, with hesitation.

Taking care of her is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done.  I didn’t know how deeply I could love another person, or how much endless patience I could give, until I began taking care of my Grandmother.  It truly felt like an honor to care for the woman who nurtured me my entire life, but it was challenging.  My entire life revolved around taking care of her and in turn, other parts of my life became smaller—except art.  During this time, the identity of “artist” felt truer and more real as I began creating and selling art in Chicago.  With the amount of energy that goes into caretaking and creating, it would seem unlikely that I would be able to do both, but as the poet Alok Vaid Menon says, “Art is the place we go to when language fails us.” Taking care of my Grandmother and watching her body transition is something I am still finding words for; dust that continues to settle in my heart.  

That’s when I found Swarm.  That summer I spent nearly a week living in a barn in Indiana with some of the most incredible women, femmes, and non-binary folks.  We had workshops every day, led by Chicago creatives.  One workshop that has stayed with me over the months was one on storytelling.  Lily Be, creator of The Stoop and manager of the Hoodoisie, led this workshop around a campfire, and taught us how to tell our stories.  Lily’s message rang true in every fiber of my being: telling our stories and hearing the stories of people is an act of liberation.  If we don’t tell our own stories, someone else will tell it for us.  Or, as the author Zora Neale Hurston says it: “If you’re silent about your pain, they’ll kill you and say you enjoyed it.”

Around this campfire I began to see the ways in which I had avoided listening to my own voice: not attending art school, almost getting married; calling myself an artist only when someone else confirmed it first. Even in the art I was making, I wasn’t telling my story:  I was tiptoeing around myself, too afraid of my own shadow.  Furthermore, I rarely, if ever, spoke about my father and my childhood.  It was a family secret and I kept that secret, festering inside of me.  Even when I sat down to write this blog, I felt myself gravitating towards writing about political movements and actions, things that feel more important.    

One of the last things my Grandmother said to me before she passed away in August 2017 was: “Life’s too short to be uncomfortable in your own skin.” I’ve spent so much of my life burying myself and my pain, being uncomfortable in my own story. But the layers I’ve constructed around my heart peal back every time I tell my story and every time I hear the stories of my sisterz.  My sisterz teach me resilience and vulnerability.  My sisterz teach me radical love, for myself and others.  As a woman with 5 brothers, these are the sisterz I never had.     

And here I am, resisting and reimagining: writing about myself in a way I never have, creating art and creating community in a world that doesn’t value women or artists, and blooming into the woman my Grandmother always saw in me.    

Expectations, beyond.