How Art Has Made an Impact on My Life
Written by request as part of a proposal for the San Rafael Arts District, November 7, 2018
Jack Jones, my favorite 93-year-old artist, once told me, “Megan, I don’t live to paint. I paint to live. It’s like breathing. I can’t live without breathing, just as I can’t live without painting.”
A self-described “recovering architect,” he would start his paintings without any sort of idea or composition in mind, but rather with shapes and blobs of oil paint on the canvas. As he delved deeper, these shapes would turn into Viking women, burning house façades, running soldiers, and other politically-motivated subjects. They would emerge from within, in a way that he couldn’t repress or stop.
Jack passed away some years ago, however, he came to mind when thinking about this question, “How has art made an impact on your life?”
To be clear, art has NOT made an impact on my life. Rather, art IS my life. I couldn’t turn off the persistent fascination, inspiration, curiosity, obsession, or appreciation that art invokes within me, just as I can’t stop myself from breathing. Creativity and expression are who I am, how I think, what I do, and why I do it.
I am not just writing here about visual art. The first pull in my life was toward dance and performing. I started taking Jazz dance classes in elementary school because: 1. It was the 80’s, and 2. I looked so cool in my hot pink leg warmers and matching, shiny, high-cut leotard. I kick-ball-changed and pas-de-burre’d like the best of them. I loathed Ballet but did it because I had to, and eagerly jumped into baton twirling classes because I was in awe of the older girls, who had just performed a glow-in-the-dark baton-twirling dance to the Axel F theme song from the movie Beverly Hills Cop. At my “peak” in the 8th grade, I was captain of the drill team doing militaristic-style dance moves, like about-face and forward-march, in formation with my team covered in polyester and sequins with hair curled and teased up as high as it would go. (Demonstrations of all described movements and hair styles are available upon request.)
I write this not to glorify the past, but rather to show that I was a product of an era that didn’t value deep insight or creativity. It was LA, and all about the shiny, sparkly, and surface-deep. Around that time, my parents took my siblings and me to Europe, and what I remember most about that trip was: 1. being livid that I had to miss Tracy’s beach party, 2. being bored at the Louvre because it was a bunch of old stuff, and 3. being wholly unimpressed with ‘Blue Monochrome’ by Yves Klein at the Pompidou. “Even I could do that,” I remember thinking when faced with that giant blue canvas.
The pull for me actually started after I was plucked from Santa Monica and moved (kicking and screaming) to Santa Rosa in high school. There, I started taking Jazz classes a couple nights a week, but found myself mesmerized by the Ballet classes beforehand. Considering my previous spite for the artform it was surprising to find, while watching the dancers do pirouettes and grande jetés, how much I longed to be in there with them. Soon I was dancing six days a week - Ballet, Modern, and Jazz - performing, working for hours to pay for my classes, and loving most every moment of it.
There is this feeling that wells up inside when I dance. It’s a glow. It’s undeniably warm and bright and big. It’s a feeling I can tap into at any moment. My shoulders come down, my neck extends, and my chest is filled with a butterfly-sensation. It’s not nerves. It’s a flutter of readiness, of excitement, of freedom.
Dance has been with me my whole life. It was my first form of expression, my go-to stress reliever, and a constant opportunity to step out of my comfort zone and be a bigger person. It was my first love. It was my first big commitment. It was my joy and passion, and in many ways still is to this day.
Admittedly, what I dreamed of doing though, when I was younger and still in LA, was to be a fashion photographer. I could see myself in the studio, camera in hand, flashes going off at random, crouching down for that best angle, saying “Good, a little more, great, yes, yeah! One more pose…” I took a lot of pictures, but didn’t really dive into photography until my 20’s.
During the dot-com boom of the late 90’s I helped found a wine media website called VineSwinger. I was the media manager handling all imaging needs, including taking 360-degree photographs of over 250 wineries. Working with top designers, I created multi-media virtual reality tours of the Northbay wine regions, with interactive maps and information about each participating winery. Like so many other dot-com dreams, the website was ahead of its time but the company, still running on the “if you build it they will come” strategy, was never able to develop a solid revenue model. After a couple years, we ran out of money and disappeared into the dot-bomb ether. Regardless, the opportunity for me was life-changing.
It was a crash course in how to manage large projects, how to take amazing photos, how to capture your subject in the best light the first time around, how to connect with winery owners and executives and get them on board, how to work effectively independently, and how to be a part of a vibrant team. I was in the middle of immense beauty for hundreds of sunrises and sunsets. I explored dark, musty wine caves and bright industrial barrel rooms. I learned about rattlesnakes, ticks, and all the other dangers of being in a vineyard on your own. I fearlessly honed my craft and my ability to bring visions to life.
Photography trains you to see the world in a different way. It is so much more than just pushing the shutter release and hoping for a great shot. You have to anticipate what you think is about to happen, and then you have to put yourself in the position you think will be most beneficial to capturing that moment. While being aware of your equipment, its settings and limitations, you’re forward thinking at all times and at least 10 steps ahead in any given moment. Photography tends to be a lone craft, which makes developing a community around you all the more important. I have learned more from conversations with peers and experts than I ever would have expected, and have grown exponentially because of it.
There is a beauty in the layering of life experiences that ultimately create the person we are today. One experience leads to the next, which leads to the next, and so on. I began exhibiting my photography during the VineSwinger days, and soon developed techniques for finishing and framing my artwork. With the help of mentors and friends, I learned that I can build anything I set my mind to and bring any idea to life. I also learned that I highly underestimate how long a project will take (what do you mean I can’t build three 8-foot lightboxes in one day?!), but with the right tools, the right mindset, and the right people, the opportunities are open and endless.
This openness led to a meeting with a CEO of a large health organization in Santa Rosa. Thinking I was going to sell a piece of artwork to her for the new health center being built, she explained that she was looking for someone to manage the whole art program for that facility. The art was to come from a staff photo contest, with the winning images curated, printed, framed, and displayed at the new center. I often tell people I fell into art consulting by chance and they think I’m joking. The truth is, I jumped at the opportunity and discovered so much along the way.
What I learned from that project, and the many others since, is that art creates community. The art of an organization represents its story and culture. When people get to participate in the creating of their company’s art collection, they develop a sense of ownership. Similar to a child feeling seen when their painting is hung on the refrigerator door at home, the artwork in an organization can make people feel like they belong. In supporting and encouraging the artistic endeavors of others, I’m playing a greater role in building and strengthening community. I feel truly grateful for the opportunities I’ve had to express and create. I am constantly learning and growing, and look forward to the new experiences on the horizon.
On a finishing note, last summer I had the opportunity to take my own teenage daughter to Europe, and one of the places she really wanted to go in Paris was to the Louvre. My initial inclination was to skip it – I tend to prefer modern art. She persisted, however, so I took her and what an experience it was! We explored as many of the galleries as time allowed. We stood staring at the ‘Mona Lisa’ trying to understand the allure, while people walked up, snapped photos, and left. We were enthralled by the ‘Winged Victory of Samothrace’ in all her stunning power and glory. We discovered that my daughter needs to have a map to know where we’re going and I am totally fine with getting lost along the way. We could have spent days there.
We did not get back to the Pompidou and ‘Blue Monochrome’, but we found Monet and Van Gogh and all sorts of other wonders on our adventures. It’s always been my belief that art brings people alive. It creates bridges of understanding and connection. It has driven some to insanity, while for others it has given the clarity and motivation needed to continue forward. It is an essential part of life, in fact, art IS life – as essential as breathing.