A few weeks ago, a friend of mine sent me a picture from the “vacation wine cellar” of someone we both went to college with. He’s the CEO of a huge corporation headquartered in London, and while he has worked damned hard to get where he’s at, I looked at that picture and thought….a vacation wine cellar? Seriously? I think I am in deep clover when I can afford a ten dollar bottle of wine these days, and if I had to guess, I would say that my entire house isn’t worth the contents of that wine cellar alone. And the sad part is – well, sad as far as I am concerned – is that, when I was a college student, it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t be stinking rich (and probably quite famous for being stinking rich as well) by the time I was 30, but at 52, I am living proof that if you want to hear the sound of God’s laughter, tell him your plans….
I will be the first to admit that I have been less than gracious about the chasm between what I was going to be when I grew up and what actually happened once I eventually got there, and while it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that I am not the only one in this sinking ship, I do know someone who seems to handle the curveballs with more dignity than I may ever possess.
I heard about Whitney Peckman before I ever met her. She is a gourd artist and painter – my “competition” – well, (at the time) in my mind, anyway. We are alike in many ways; outspoken, gregarious, engaging, funny. The difference is that if Whitney and I were steaming headlong toward our goals and suddenly found ourselves at the entrance to a maze, I would have this tiny little Denise flailing around inside my head screaming “This isn’t fair. I was almost where I wanted to be, damn it. Why did this have to happen NOW” while Whitney would laugh, make some smartassed comment, toss in a quote from Nietzsche just to prove she’s smarter (and more philosophical) than I am (no stretch there, really) and wade on in.
At 69 years old, she’s still one of the most beautiful women I’ve ever known and I told her, not long ago, that whenever I see her, I get this image of her as 20 year old college student, striding across campus looking all sleek and bohemian, unaware that every quarterback, professor, janitor and campus security guard in sight has turned to look at her. I also said I bet not one of them had the slightest idea what to do with her and she laughed and said, yep that was pretty much the case.
Whitney wanted to be a writer, but after leaving college to raise her family, she embarked on a career as a tapestry artist, and in true Whitney fashion, that meant shearing the sheep, dying and spinning the wool, and following ancient traditions and patterns to create elaborate tapestries full of color and texture, words she uses frequently, and with great passion, as the inspiration for everything she does.
When the bottom fell out of the art market (as it has a tendency to do), she traveled to Central Southeast Asia with her husband, Syed, to buy artwork to sell in a small shop in Washington State, but after a few years that lost its appeal as well, so Whitney and Syed decided to reinvent themselves and their art, and that’s when they applied to an art show in Arizona, where I first met them six years ago.
The art world, or at least, the kind of art world Whitney and I inhabit, not only makes for a dreadful business model, it can be murder on your ego. You create a product you care so deeply about inside that even you don’t understand it yourself sometimes, then turn all control of that product over to a panel of jurors who decide if you are good enough to exhibit in an art show that holds absolutely no guarantee of financial return of any kind.
I take the rejections (both artistically and financially) rather personally, but Whitney says, “One of the things that happens as you work your way through doing art for a living – living an artistic life – is that one thing builds on another, until you develop your own artistic voice. Always floundering, always dabbling, always looking – means I eventually found a voice that is mine”.
I wanted to write about Whitney today, because while I have struggled and wrestled and flung myself at obstacles most of my life thinking, if I could just do what I wanted to do then life would be what I wanted it to be, I have always admired her ability to weather the storms of an art career with such grace, and quite frankly, I wanted to know how she did it. She seems to have grown into who she is organically, while I have gone there kicking and screaming. I AM slowly getting there, even to the point of being able to admit that the fact that I did not wind up stinking rich at 30 (and famous for being stinking rich) was probably a good thing. It irks the hell out of me to say that, but its true.
Whitney said to me, just before our interview drew to a close, “If you focus on creating instead of making money, there IS a downside, and it isn’t easy. But every day presents a chance to get into the studio, to create something beautiful, to learn something new, and that’s how I want to spend my breathing time”. I don’t want to be Whitney when I grow up because she’s already so damned good at it, but I DO want to be more like her. I want my growth to be more organic and let life, whatever it may be, unfold before me, “allowing it to be what it is”.