They met for coffee. She was already at the table when he arrived, cupping her tiny white hands around a warm mug of tea. He gave her that “I see you” nod – just one bob of his chin straight up and back down again – before placing his order at the bar. A moment later, coffee in hand, he joined her.
The conversation was long, as many coffee shop conversations tend to be. There was a little bit of polite chitchat, a little bit of catching up, and eventually, things turned toward their respective art. Artists like to talk about their art.
“It’s just that,” she said, obviously trying to be delicate, but clearly leading up to a critical observation, “your paintings are just very… personal?” The last word was said as though it was a question, but he could tell by the look on her face that this opinion was in fact, a solid one. “I think maybe your paintings just make people feel uncomfortable. Like, you’re oversharing.”
He shifted in his seat for a moment, unsure of how to respond. “But, art is about personal expression, right? So my paintings should be personal. And when I’m painting something uncomfortable, if people don’t feel that discomfort, I’m not really expressing myself properly.”
She held up her hand, palm forward, in a gesture of peacemaking. “Oh, no, I agree,” she said. “It’s just that you paint very serious, very personal things so often.” She put a heavy emphasis on the word “often.”
“Okay.” He took a sip of his coffee, and glanced out the coffee shop window, trying to process what he was hearing. “I guess all I have to say to that is that I feel very serious, very personal things often. So it makes sense that if I’m feeling them often, I would paint about them often.”
“Well,” her tone of voice had switched to an unmistakably helpful one. “That other painter – you know the one, that one we follow on Facebook? – he paints about serious things, but he does it in watercolor, rather than heavy oil, so the whole thing feels lighter and easier to digest?” Every last word went up a little in tone, like she was only half offering an opinion that she wasn’t entirely sure would be well received.
“I suppose,” said the painter, his brow beginning to furrow. “I understand how using watercolor is really effective for that painter, but it honestly just isn’t my style. I paint in oils because that’s what I know. I feel like oils are the best medium for the messages I want to convey.”
“So, maybe you could just paint a lot less? Maybe if you only did, say, one painting a month, then it would be okay to paint such heavy things.”
“I did have someone comment to me the other day,” she continued, in that tone of voice that people use when they are breaking very bad news “that it feels like you are constantly uploading little paintings and doodles and sketches all the time. It’s like your entire Facebook feed is covered in stuff that you make. I just don’t want you to be unfollowed by everybody because you post your art too much.”
The painter took another beat to drink again from his coffee cup, and she followed suit, carefully sipping around the bag of tea floating in the hot water in her mug.
After a moment, she smiled broadly at him. “I think you’re a really talented painter. Seriously. I just don’t want people to feel like you are…” she screwed up her nose a little bit as she searched for the right words, “too emotional.”
He cocked his head to one side, curiosity and hurt mingling a little bit on his face. “I have to wonder, would you say the same things to a writer? Writers express heavy thoughts and emotions all the time.”
She shook her head. “No, no. That’s a totally different type of art. Writers just, write, you know? It doesn’t really matter whether or not they write heavy things in a comedic voice, or write personal posts all the time. Writers just write. It’s not the same thing.”
After a little while, the conversation turned back to more neutral ground, and they parted on happy, friendly terms, promising to “not let so much time pass before the next coffee date.”
But the whole way home, her words rung in his head. And he had to wonder: why was raw honesty and vulnerability in one type of art deemed more acceptable than in another?