And yet it was from Chris Burden, who was quiet and unassuming,
even shy, in class, that I learned a crucial lesson about art: it’s the artist
who determines what matters. Not tradition. Not familial or cultural
aesthetics. Not the fashion or rhetoric of the day. The artist.
I never looked back.
That summer after my first year at UCLA, I prided myself on bursting free of my small-town chrysalis, having spent the year not only making art but going to museums and galleries, to music concerts, to plays
and film festivals and university lectures, to discussions about feminism
at the Women’s Center, and even sleeping once with a married man,
all things I’d never have considered in Alabama but things that had
changed me. When I arrived home for a month’s vacation in July, my
hair longer, prettier, my posture looser, my identity as an artist more
confident, my way of dressing stripped down to the bare bones of colorful tank tops, shorts, and tennis shoes like every other art student, I was
secretly pleased. Bringing LA to Alabama, I smugly thought.
But to my surprise, these little revisions annoyed my father. A career in art seemed risky if not irrelevant to him, a bohemian (though
he wouldn’t have used that word) indulgence in need of a reality check.
What did he care about Phillip Glass or Vito Acconci or Judy Chicago,
artists who would have seemed, at best, kooky to him? In contrast to me,
my brother and sister, a lawyer and doctor, respectively, had followed
the traditional narrative: admired and settled in professions and marriages, they had new houses and babies and energy to spare. What had
happened to me?
When my father saw me burning the edges of a piece of cloth I in-
tended to dye and paint, singeing it erratically for aesthetic unevenness,
his face puckered in a frown. “What kind of job can you hope to get?”
he asked, wrinkling his nose at the smell. “I mean, how will you support
Surprised, I looked out the window to where heat shimmered on
the driveway, to where the ferns were so big and green and fleshy, they
looked monstrous. My father had a right to be worried, for though I was
a teaching assistant in my department, he still gave me money, insist-
ing that I live in a “decent, safe place” instead of “some rat hole,” which
meant a functional apartment near UCLA. But since his worries con-
stricted my desires, I fought them, denying the premise, resenting his
concerns. Didn’t he see that I’d been broken by divorce? Didn’t he see
that I no longer was?