I am a writer of stories. Our good friend and Things They Buried‘s cover artist, Michael B. Fee, is a teller of stories—a talent I envy. During our last visit, he shared a story about showing a series of his paintings, one I think all artists of any ilk should hear. (I will be paraphrasing—even in quotes. We were all drinking on the back patio while he was storytelling, so my recall may not be the finest, but I’ll hit the right points.)
While Fee was working on this series, a friend of his named Brian was serving as something of an assistant. While Fee worked, the two discussed themes, symbols, and content while the project developed. Brian became an expert on this series of paintings.
“He probably knew it better than me,” Fee said. “I just paint the things.”
When it came time for the show, Fee and Brian were hanging out, doing the artist thing when a very self-confident man surrounded by a group of fawning co-eds appeared. The man sidled up to Fee’s work and commenced a glowing analysis of the themes, symbols, and content—none of which were even close to anything Fee had had in mind while painting.
By the time the man had finished his flattering critique, Brian was bristling; he was ready to charge up to this interloper and set him straight. Fee grabbed Brian’s shoulder and stopped him.
“Shut up,” he told Brian. “This is great! What he’s saying may not be even close to what I had in mind, but the paintings are affecting him. He’s superimposing his own B.S., but he’s still getting something out of them. And he’s influencing all those young toadies to like and remember my work.”
I love that.
As artists we slave away, perfecting every word, brush-stroke, and detail of our chosen mediums. We know the point we’re trying to get across. We know what the symbols mean, the interactions, the color choices. Every reader, viewer, consumer is going to bring a whole other set of baggage and experiences to our work. They see things in it that we as creators completely missed.
I love those moments. More than once, I’ve talked to a Things They Buried reader who’s left me saying “Huh, I guess we did do that without even knowing.” Sometimes it’s difficult not to correct those different interpretations, but that’s the beauty of art—we all experience it differently. Listening to someone who read and enjoyed my work is an amazing experience every single time, no matter how they interpreted it.