Art vs. pretty pictures

Beaded bra art

“Post- Pre-” by Leah Steel 2014

My sister, Leah Steel, created this arrestingly gorgeous beaded bra as part of a recent art show and auction for the Fullerton, CA artwalk. The show, at Artside Studio and Roadkill Ranch & Boutique, was called The Booby Trap and it invited local artists to submit bra-related works to be auctioned off for breast cancer research.

In an article that ran in the local paper the week before the show, Leah was quoted as saying that her best friend’s breast cancer diagnosis last year had provided the inspiration for her beautiful, but lopsided, bra art. “I was inspired to create ‘Pre- Post-‘ as a mirror-image representation of her body as it has been all these months since her surgery,” she said.

To me, it illustrated something I’ve come to believe: Art, real art, isn’t just craftsmanship. Art is about something other than itself, something more than itself. When any type of creative effort comes from that wellspring of meaning we all share, it will connect with other souls at a very deep level.

This applies, in spades, to writing, and it’s why pretty, embroidered writing isn’t enough for me. It’s not enough for me as a reader, and it’s not enough for me to aim for as a writer. The most beautifully crafted piece of writing in the world can’t hold my attention for very long unless it’s about something. There has to be an idea in there somewhere, a metaphor, something bigger at stake than a writer’s ability to manipulate language. In the best-case scenario, the writing is both beautifully wrought and meaningful, and the language itself is integral to that meaning. That’s writing as art, and it’s damned hard to do. Which, I guess, is why there aren’t more people doing it, and why I struggle so hard to create anything that I feel even approaches this level.

The bra show was filled with fun, inventive and gorgeous pieces, but Leah’s was an outright stunner. It was also far and away the donation winner, bringing in the highest bid of the weekend. On Friday, the first night of the show, a woman came into the boutique where “Pre- Post-” was on display, made a beeline for it and wrote down a substantial bid. She left her name and number with the proprietors with instructions for increasing her bid should anyone outbid her. She needn’t have worried; Her initial offer was so pre-emptively large that no one was likely to touch it. And, in fact, no one did. It remained unchallenged until the end of the show, where it remained the highest bid of the event.

Leah told me she had an opportunity to meet the woman, who was herself a survivor, during the show. The woman had read about the genesis of “Pre- Post-” in the newspaper, and said she just had to have it. This is not to say that the worth or success of any artwork can be judged by the price it commands at market. In this case, the large bid was a representation of the woman’s connection to the piece. It was clear that the story behind its creation was as compelling to her as its beauty.

Leah’s piece is all of a piece — the story and the work it engendered are inextricably tied. It’s more than beautiful: it’s meaningful, and that makes it a work of art.

In praise of publication (with thanks to Mr. C.)

Karen K. Ford’s short story “Fire Watch,” is included in the magazine’s new print anthology

My short story, “Fire Watch,” originally published in issue #5 of Ginosko’s online literary journal, was chosen for the magazine’s new print anthology. The book is out now, and while I hope that you all go out and buy a copy, this post is really about something more personal.

First I should say that I was thrilled to be included. I love these guys — editor Robert Cesaretti took this story on at a time when I really needed a boost. It was 2007 and I was going through something we all go through as writers, one of those long stretches where it seems that no one wants what we do. It’s beyond depressing; lots of us just give up. I was seriously considering a career in food service when I got word that “Fire Watch” was being published. It was validation. I felt honored and thrilled. When the magazine came out, I just kept looking at it — not reading it, just gazing at the pages, the way new parents watch their babies sleep at night. I was so proud!

Fast forward to now. As I reread the story while proofing the galley for the anthology, I had a different reaction: I saw so many things I wanted to change! I’m still extremely proud of the story, but I’m a different writer now and I realized that if I wrote it today, it would be a different story. And yet… it’s been published. It’s out there. Publication has a way of stopping time. “Fire Watch” will always be what it was in 2007, stuck in the amber of print. That’s a kind of immortality, and I feel guilty for being anything other than unabashedly grateful for it. I do feel grateful, just… with a touch of dissonance.

That dissonance comes from the distance between what we dream a piece of writing can be before we write it and what it actually is, once set down. Even once we do set it down, it still shines with the potential to be that perfect thing of our imagining. (That’s what rewriting is for — reaching for that ideal.) Then, if we’re lucky, it’s published. And once it’s published, we need to let go of whatever we thought it would be and embrace what it is.

This is actually a lesson I learned a long time ago, from my 12th grade A.P. English teacher, Mr. Corradino. One day he read an essay assignment of mine aloud to the class, then went on at great length about the depths of insight implied in the writing. I listened with horror. I hadn’t written any of that: My take was infinitely more simplistic, and (I thought) all there on the page. Timidly I raised my hand. “Um, that’s not what I meant,” I said.

Mr. C’s smile was wicked. “It doesn’t matter,” he said. “That’s what I got.”

“But…” I struggled for words, believing I hadn’t made myself clear. “You’re reading stuff in that I never put in there.”

“Doesn’t matter,” he said again. “When you publish something, you give it away,” he told the class. “It’s up for grabs for anyone who reads it, and their interpretation of what you wrote is just as valid as yours.”

I was astounded. I was outraged. But I’ve never forgotten what he said. And I know now that he was right.

It drives me nuts that I can’t go back into my published work to endlessly fiddle and tweak. But if I want to continue to publish (and God knows I do!) I have to learn to let go. I need to be unabashedly proud of my little darlings as they go out into the world. I just hope that the world understands them. Or if not that, sees something in them that I never did, and loves them anyway.