Notes to Myself – A Personal Essay

Mia Wolniak, Guest Writer

Our garage was built to house the silver Subaru I grew up with, but in the years since its construction, the garage has gone through a lot. When I was a baby the fliers called it Suitable Gallery. I just recently found the website my parents made to archive the exhibitions they hosted and I cannot put into words how much love I felt for them while looking at those pictures of the art they displayed and of my mother holding me up to see it. They made something beautiful out of something ordinary and for the five years the gallery ran, it made exactly the kind of impact I want to. Back then, when we still lived upstairs, my dad used our basement as a pseudo studio space. The glass-block windows would eventually be knocked out and replaced by bullet-proof panes and a framework of new walls would go up, but in my one clear memory of the old space,it had been full of cold watery light and smelled like plaster and ink. The fuzzy red spinning chair my dad had made to look like a mushroom sat in the middle of what is now my room, matted with dust. He used to make sculptures shaped like prickly plants out of newsprint and wire and glue. There’s an old photograph of him cutting the leaves for one of his creations from the Sunday paper while I sleep in the sling around his neck. His studio moved into the garage after we remodeled the lower levels of our building and stayed there for many years. I grew up surrounded by color and mess, dents in the wall made intentionally by a hammer, hand-stretched canvases snapped in half, the staples sticking out of their corpses. Purposeful chaos. He would tape large sheets of paper to the ruined wall and my cousins and I would go at it with markers, I spent hours making movies with clay and an old video camera, and my little isle in the newly refinished basement perpetually displayed my messy watercolor masterpieces. I was so much less critical of myself back then.

Art is ingrained in me. My family members are connoisseurs of beautiful things and our walls are layered in pieces my dad made trades for or was gifted by his college friends. Our shelves fill up with books and records and tiny sculptures. 

My mom is a librarian and sometimes pottery and watercolor enthusiast. She read me picture books with colorful illustrations and later we would sit in our yard and paint our own imaginary worlds. The same five books have sat at the end of the shelves in my parent’s room for years. I can see them so clearly in my mind: Invisible Man, The Fear, Stories and Poems by Harold Bloom, Gift from the Sea, Americanah. On the fourth shelf down a little clay man I molded and dressed to look like my dad holds fast to the bookend with pipe cleaner arms.

I leave pieces of myself written in words and images in the dozens of blank books I’ve started and abandoned on the cubic shelves my father made for an exhibition years ago. My journal from this past summer is full of ink stains and charcoal scribbles and bits of my soul. On August third I drew a schematic of my cabin at camp and wrote that I hate who I am at home. On the ninth, I observe that the ferry to South Manitou Island advertises $7 bloody Mary’s and later that I cannot believe that the Lake Michigan I swam in that night, “flat blue and cold as ice under a waxing moonrise,” is the same body of water that borders Chicago. The beach is white and rocky and full of bleached driftwood that resembles bones. The bugs buzzed torturously in my ears and I was caked in grime, but I drew exaggerated smiling faces and scribbles of emotion that smudged across the pages and my fingertips, and I was content. In my final entry on August twelfth I wrote, “I may not love religion or god but I do love places of worship for their quiet calm. Humanity is so irreverent, at least we have this.” I’ve realized that no matter how deeply reflective you can be in one moment; the trivial things will always come forward more readily. For example, the last word I wrote in that notebook was the name of the boy I loved in eighth grade. He’s the reason I’m insecure about my nose which is ridiculous but the stupid things we say to each other stick. The things we say about ourselves in private are worse. 

In a more recent sketchbook, I write line after line about the deep discontent I hold for my body, yet I stand before the full-length mirror behind my bedroom door and sketch it on the next page as if I find it beautiful. There’s nothing I love and hate more than my art. I paint bony, starved looking women in green and blue and magenta. They are taller than me, their eyes sadder than mine have been in a year at least, but I still think of them as self-portraits. “Envy,” screams one in chartreuse, another sketched in sharpie on a violet background with her arms twined above her head in vines as she is stretched thinner and thinner, limbs and torso marred by the scars of growth. These women are resigned. They are who I was. Past tense. Still, I can’t quite escape the insecurities that bind them to me; the unhappiness still tugging on weekends when I don’t leave the house. The drawing of my face from January, color-blocked in turquoise and forest green, is beautiful because my method was unique and intentional. It will never not be a piece I am proud of, but it will never not be of me and so I will never not find it ugly.I spat out my most recent artwork with resentment behind my brush, sadness and the conviction that the universe intends for me to be lonely: that it’s because of the ugliness I see in myself. She is depicted from neck to upper thigh, malnourished as always, hips and bony shoulders jutting. “TEENAGERS ARE STUPID” I splashed in red across her blue limbs. At the time it was because of the nagging truth that the favoritism I observe society show some makes me feel eternally inadequate in the eyes of my peers and that because of that I will never love myself no matter how badly I want to. How horrible it is that my own self-worth is so reliant on what other people think is beautiful. Looking at her at this moment I’ve decided that she will serve as a reminder that my mind’s attempts to convince myself that beauty is important are lies to be ignored. As I said, I am a teenager: by default, stupid and untrustworthy. 

Sometimes the things I make are so beautiful to me that I forget the self-loathing they sprung from. My dad has been painting colorful plants for the past two years. I can tell he isn’t happy with where his work is going. I think they’re lovely but I’m not sure he agrees. He recently started making his newspaper sculptures again, he calls them Weeds. I think that they are weeds in both form and the fast, easy way they grow from his mind and in his hands. He specializes in putting ordinary things through changes that make them extraordinary. He and my mom did it to our garage 20 years ago. Implementing a little intentional chaos, a little uncertainty, is a good thing. We both get frustrated with who we are and the things that sprout from our insides but I love his plants and I think they’ve influenced what tumbles from my mind. I like to think that the fact that I can find nothing but beauty in something he feels dissatisfied with means there is beauty somewhere to find in me, and so my father’s work blends with mine on the grayish walls of my bedroom. I wanted to paint them white, pure and perfect, but I think it’s better this way.