I started making “feral wild girl child” a month after I lost my job as a visual artist in a pediatric oncology unit. I had worked there happily for three years and then the grant funding ran out. I was exhausted and dazed and I didn’t even know it.
I had read about burnout in oncology nurses from a position of academic interest and because I thought I wasn’t burnt out. It’s a weird rabbit hole to go down: judging other people for denying their burn out while I was simultaneously denying my burn out.
So in my raw and trembling newly born unemployed reality I decided that the show would not only contain live painting but I would insert my own nasogastric (ng) tube because the kids I loved hated that the most. In retrospect the tube was a very literal way of staying physically connected to the kids I might never see again.
I worked on this show for the next 3 years. I had never taken so long to make anything. I didn’t understand why I needed to, but I kept needing to so I kept doing it.
When I got a grant to produce it I decided to do it 20 times in one month while I was also working as a pre-school teacher full time. It was insane not only because putting a tube through your sinuses that many times in one month usually isn’t done and for good reason, but also because the show was a giant mess that needed to be cleaned up every night. The walls and floors had to be re-painted after each show and sometimes I was so tired that I did it right before and everything was still sticky under my feet.
Because I survived that test I extended the show for two more months.
At a certain point I started to feel embarrassed. The whole thing seemed really extreme. Why did I need to do this crazy thing so many times? I was ashamed of my own need to perform it in this long form endurance quest.
It’s been some months since the whole thing ended and in the space between then and now I feel different. Miraculously I feel done, satisfied, satiated. I don’t need to do the show again. The need to tell those stories and have that catharsis that drove me for three years is quiet. And I’m shocked. In the quietness I realize I was making a very elaborate and demanding grief ritual for myself. But not only a grief ritual for the children- it was also a grief ritual for my own identity.
I loved being The Artist-in-Residence at the Children’s Hospital. I was so proud. People would ask me what I did for work and I would tell them “I make art with children who have cancer” and I felt like I was telling them a truth about myself. The work felt bound up with my identity, like they were kin. When I lost the job I had to grieve a loss of self. Now I am a nanny. I am not so proud of that as I was when I scanned my badge to enter the hospital lobby.
The show helped me let go, helped me compartmentalize, helped me grieve. I remember a co-worker telling me that when they lost a patient they made a paper crane and that was their ritual that helped them find closure. I remember thinking “That is NOT going to be enough for me.” It turns out I needed to get half naked and covered in paint and paint my vulva and hide large sculptures in the ceiling and make hundreds of cupcakes and cry while I presented myself an award for it all. I needed a ritual equal in strangeness and grandeur to the strangeness and grandeur of cancer.
The impulse to make autobiographical performance continues to fascinate me. Who are these people who must do this? Why do I feel compelled again and again? It is dangerous, unpredictable and complicated to put your own identity onstage. When I make autobiographical art I am experimenting towards unknown ends and the material is me. I don’t know how I will be changed by the art I make and that gives me reverential goosebumps. I am playing with fire.
And while my intention is to heal myself, to be purified and freed by this fire, I have no idea if that will actually happen or if I will emerge burnt and embarrassed.