A VEGAN, human rights advocate and LIBERAL ARTIST
FROM MONTGOMERY, ALABAMA WHO SHINES AS HER TRUE SELF
On exposing her art to comments and criticism:
"Being a commissioned public artist in Montgomery, Alabama has put me in a very vulnerable place. Showing my personal work feels vulnerable, but to now have two highly visible murals downtown, with a third one on the way, is a whole new level of exposure. Most people have been extremely supportive and appreciative, and I am truly grateful for that. But there have also been some pretty harsh social media blasts attacking me personally, as well as the work itself. Some of these harsh comments came from other artists, which was unsettling to say the least. I can understand that not everyone is going to like my style of painting, but the personal comments were jarring.
The negative reactions made me realize I had to acknowledge the larger issues of racism and privilege that were spurring some of these comments. The community I live in is still largely segregated today by race. Montgomery is one of those places that has systemically and very purposefully remained segregated by a group of white men with money and power, despite the growth and progress here since the civil rights movement. You can look at any map of Montgomery and clearly see the reality of racial and economic segregation: the school district map, the neighborhood flood risk map, even the congressional district map.
So when white artists started getting the first public art commission jobs celebrating the black culture in our town, there was understandably some concern.
"You can never please everyone. I think as long as I am true to myself and open to constructive criticism and honest dialogue, then I can grow stronger as a person and as an artist."
I have been trying to use my position as an artist and an activist to help reconcile and heal this community. By understanding where this anger comes from, I am learning not to take these comments so personally. I know that I can't please everyone. I think as long as I am true to myself and open to constructive criticism and to honest dialogue, then I can grow stronger as a person and as an artist. The question of race and privilege finds its way, understandably, into almost every conversation when the city takes on a project. Finding myself suddenly in the middle of those conversations though has led to some wonderful outcomes and partnerships, attending events and planning future events to create a more integrated culture in Montgomery."
ON THE STRUGGLE WITH SHOWING UP:
"It’s difficult for me to let people in. I like to be in control of the parts that I let people see. That’s why I have such a limited presence on social media. I’m trying to change this about myself, but I’m too worried about what people will think of me, if I can be completely honest. I worry whether what I do or say will have any meaning, will inspire or have an impact. I worry about whether my art has any significance and relevance. There are so many better artists in this world. So why bother putting my own art out there?
"It’s difficult for me to let people in. (...) I’m too worried about what people will think of me."
But deep down, I know I have to bother. I know that I have to keep being me and I want to share who that "me" is with other people. But I’m a very sensitive person. I doubt myself and I am too hard on myself in everything I do or say. I am so patient and accepting with others, but not with myself. I’ve been trying to be more open on Instagram for example, posting some of my poetry and testing the limits of how vulnerable I can allow myself to be. Usually when I post, I share my most honest and heartfelt feelings. But then, I usually delete the post the next day."
On using Tai Chi to grow outside OF her comfort zone:
"About four years ago, I realized I wasn’t doing a single positive thing that was solely just for myself. I had been curious about Tai Chi and was thrilled to see there was a center here in Montgomery. So without even trying out a class, I signed up.
This was a time in my life where I was very isolated from other people as I had buried myself in an unhealthy relationship, so being around a group of complete strangers, learning something entirely new was very difficult. The Taoist Tai Chi set is very complex, so it was frustrating that I couldn’t understand it right away. I was constantly making mistakes in front of other people. But eventually this helped me learn to not be so hard on myself. And because the other class members were so kind and open, it helped me to enjoy being around people again. And it turns out that I love doing tai chi!
"I was constantly making mistakes in front of other people. But eventually this helped me learn to not be so hard on myself."
ON BECOMING A TAI CHI INSTRUCTOR:
Eventually, I was asked to be an instructor and one of the requirements is that you are required to attend at least one out-of-state workshop a year. I found out about a workshop in Aruba and was terrified at the idea of going. With the support of friends, I pushed myself to go and a few months later, I found myself in a country that I had never been to and where I knew nobody. I am a fiercely independent person, so having to rely on complete strangers for food, transportation and housing was a stretch for me. This turned out to be more wonderful than I could have ever imagined. I never expected to leave this country as a more confident woman.
Leaving my comfort zone and having to rely on other people definitely opened my heart up more and taught me that sometimes I just have to get over myself. I’m not going to grow, if I don’t do things that are challenging. I can’t remember where I heard this quote, but the essence of it is: if you can hear your heart beating outside of your chest then you’re probably doing something right."
"Leaving my comfort zone and having to rely on other people definitely opened my heart up more and taught me that sometimes I just have to get over myself. I’m not going to grow, if I don’t do things that are challenging."
On leaving an emotionally abusive relationship:
"My toughest fall was not a fall, more of a slow submersion into a pit. Back when I started painting at a theater, I met a very talented actor who spent time in between shows helping the shop guys. Long story short: we dated, he cheated on me, we broke up, we got back together. And it was good for a while. A year later he convinced me that we should buy an old, historic house because we could do the renovation work ourselves. We did great work and doubled the value of it within five years. But what I didn't realize was I had completely shut myself off from the world. I barely made art anymore. I stopped writing altogether, which I used to do everyday. Every night we sat on the back patio drinking too much wine, smoking too many cigarettes and talking about life.
I didn't speak or hang out with my friends anymore. Looking back, I can see it was because they were telling me they didn’t think we were healthy together and I didn’t want to hear it. When we did go out, I usually ended up crying in public because of something he passively said to me. He was often very critical and insulting. When I got upset, he would say that he was joking and that I shouldn’t take everything so seriously. And how I got to that point of accepting that, I couldn't tell you. But I've learned this: relying on someone else to validate your self-worth will do nothing but damage your self-worth.
"But I've learned this: relying on someone else to validate your self-worth will do nothing but damage your self-worth."
Eventually, we weren't a couple anymore; we were something else, living in the same house. It was only when I went to a friend's wedding in Missouri five years after living together that I realized some people were actually happy in their relationships. It was shocking what I had let myself grow numb to. After the trip, I told him we were breaking up. I think the backlash was worse than the relationship itself.
Soon after he moved out he got help for his drinking, got his life back together and we are good friends now. But I think the takeaway is, if you see you're in trouble, get out immediately, no matter the backlash. I saw the signs of emotional abuse and neglect early on, but I ignored them and I got myself into far worse trouble.
Sometimes it takes a long time to see what is right in front of your face."
"Sometimes it takes a long time to see what is right in front of your face."
On not holding onto shame:
"As hard as I can be on myself, I try to let the bad stuff go: what has been done to me and what I may have done to hurt other people.
It is nearly impossible to support yourself as an artist here and within a few months I found myself in financial trouble when commissions started slowing down. I kept my part time job at my friend’s antique store to keep a little bit of steady income. Instead of asking for help, instead of admitting to everyone that I was failing, I started to charge things on my boss' business credit card that he entrusted to me. I told myself I would pay him back before he even noticed. He would have been more than glad to help me, but I was too ashamed to ask. So, of course, when he found out, he was livid. And from the bottom of my naive heart, I was not trying to wrong him or steal from him, but that was exactly what I was doing. As angry as he was, he told me he would not have me arrested or sue me, which I was grateful for. But I had absolutely destroyed, beyond redemption, the love and trust of a very dear friend. That hurt and shamed me so much that I have never since then lied to another human being.
The shame doesn’t feel right to hold onto it. It’s unhealthy. I know that every mistake I’ve made has shaped me into who I am. Every shameful situation has brought enormous change and growth. I think that's the best we can hope for: to not let ourselves be consumed by our mistakes or be defined by them, but to move forward with a stronger determination to be a better person."
"I think that's the best we can hope for: to not let ourselves be consumed by our mistakes or be defined by them, but to move forward with a stronger determination to be a better person."
On LEARNING TO SAY “no”:
"I recently learned how to say “no” and I wish I had learned it sooner. In the past two years since I gained some small-town popularity, I’ve been approached with countless projects, both for painting and design work. And I’ve said “yes” to almost all of them. And I am not easy on myself. I will work nonstop until I finish, without taking into account my emotional, mental and physical needs. I found myself having wasted hours of planning and meetings over projects that never came to fruition, for one reason or another.
Managing those projects while having a full-time job was very stressful. But I kept saying "yes" because I enjoy the work. I wanted more exposure and I wanted to make money to keep renovating my house. Also, as an independent woman, I wanted to prove to myself and everyone else that I could handle it all.
A few months ago, I reached a point of being in a constant state of panic, with full on anxiety. And I realized I had to be more selective with my work, to say "no" to some things and put self-care ahead of money. Over time, this taught me to not feel bad about saying "no."
"I realized I had to be more selective with my work, to say no and put self-care ahead of money."
On staying true to herSELF AND HER roots:
"I live in the same city I grew up in. I was born in the small town of Ramer, Alabama and my family moved to Montgomery when I was five or six. I had a pretty simple life: we watched cartoons every Saturday, went to church every Sunday, and had to come home from playing when the streetlights came on. Even though they didn’t have a lot of money, my parents were very encouraging with any sport or activity my brothers and I wanted to pursue. At various points I tried ballet, piano, acting, poetry, even cello, but art was always my passion above anything else. When I was accepted into the arts schools here, I learned to express myself as an individual and found it nearly impossible to subscribe to the cookie-cutter "southern girl" mentality. I questioned everything about myself and who I was. The conservative mindset was so pervasive and suffocating. Needless to say, I wanted to get the hell out of Alabama as soon as possible. Then, on the last day of my senior year, my English teacher, a woman I greatly admired and respected, said something I was very surprised by and will never forget. In front of the whole class she said, "I want everyone to look at Sunny. She has always been true to herself. Learn from that." And somehow, that made the struggle to be myself, all worth it. She saw me when I thought no one did.
When I moved to Savannah, Georgia, a month after graduating, something surprising happened. I was extremely homesick. I missed my family. I missed Montgomery. As it turned out, Alabama is in my blood and it's my home. So I moved back a year later. And I can't say it's easy to be a vegan liberal artist in Alabama, but it is getting better. It's a growing and changing city. And I've been given so many wonderful opportunities over the years that have changed my life. And I'm so grateful for having chosen to stay in Montgomery to take my experiences and try to help change the city for the better. I’ve met so many like-minded individuals in my job who are making a difference in the lives of others. I have more artist friends than I’ve ever had, many who are making a real difference in our community. And I get to spend almost every Sunday lunch with my wonderful, loving and supportive parents, brothers and their big families, which is such a rare and precious gift."