I am always intimidated when I meet someone new - It is hopefully a combination of healthy respect and humility. Then there are the people you have looked up to your whole life. Your parents. Your teachers. Your mentors. Your heroes. Sometimes it is a relationship that blossoms over years, sometimes it unfolds over coffee, or in my case, a photo shoot. It is important that there is hierarchy and just as important to allow relationships to evolve with the balance shifting. Yesterday I wrote an email to my teacher from RISD, Wendy MacNeil about handling all the fuss over her retrospective opening next week in Toronto. Hopefully her show at the Ryerson Image Centre in Toronto next week will introduce the work and the wonder that is Wendy to a whole new audience. Wendy wrote that she was “petrified” at the whole schedule of events around the show. I knew her natural reaction would be to repel the spotlight. Then I wrote and actually hit send:
It is a big deal. Your brother and the team at Ryerson did an amazing job assembling the retrospective - I can say that before even seeing the show. You did an even more amazing job producing the work and keeping it all these years! My father used to ask me in the middle of all the craziness if I ever looked at myself in the mirror and was proud of what I did. NEVER ! But we should. You tell me all the time how proud I should be of my work. Even in an earlier email today you made me feel so appreciated and loved. My kids are so proud of me. They tell me often (I know that might change but loving it for now). Stephie, you know. So I am telling you - next week - take it in. ALLOW yourself to enjoy a moment of intense appreciation. Those moments are precious and too rare. Next week is not about being too humble or feeling like the work could have been better. It is about allowing others to enjoy and appreciate what you have done - and if you can...bask in it a bit.
For years when someone would praise my work I would always throw it back - "well...there were a lot of people involved"...or..."we all deserve it." Then around the time I did my book and the Ted Talk, I learned to say, "thank you." It was a big deal for me to say that - and it was appropriate.
So enjoy the fuss. All those hands on the walls will be waving at you!
Wendy’s response (which she allowed me to share)
George - I've re-read your email many times & I know everything you say is right on. Even your 'NEVER' response to your Dad. The important thing I realize from what you are writing is to allow other people " to enjoy & appreciate what you have done". How horrible it is for a person to express his/her love of someone's work directly to the artist's face and be rebuffed by an uncommunicative "humble" retreat into a shell, which completely spoils the other person's joy. Terrible! So I will let them enjoy whatever they want and I promise to follow the simple Thank You of your genius advice!! Thanks!!!!!
Wendy Snyder MacNeil, Ezra Sesto, 1977; printed 1988. From the series Hands. Platinum-palladium prints on tracing vellum. Wendy Snyder MacNeil Archive, Ryerson Image Centre