Coloring Outside the Lines

Mercena West Schulenburg doesn’t really need any other ways of being different. At her school, she’s the only kid with two female parents, the only one with a trans parent, and the only vegetarian, meaning she eats different food from her classmates almost every day. And so it would be entirely reasonable if she decided to start coloring inside the lines.

I do mean literally. She never showed much interest in figurative art. Oh sure, she’d churn out the obligatory family painting on a semi-regular basis, but mostly she was interested in shape, color, and movement. She created an alter ego called “The Artist” who was responsible for her work.  And while most of her play-time is spent in exuberant (and exhausting) role-play with us, her art-making is a quiet, focused, and inward activity. She’s often her most productive when working on the potty.

Whenever we pick her up, we’re not surprised to find her bag full of her latest creations. Some are clearly school-directed, and for those, she does color inside the lines (thanks in part to the occupational therapy that Heather made happen). But her self-directed art is mostly abstract (though wiser art minds would probably have a more accurate name for what she does).

Yesterday, something special happened when I picked her up. As I admired her coloring inside the lines on one project, her late stay teachers told me I had to see a different creation. They seemed genuinely impressed, saying it should be hung up on some museum wall. And so it was they located and shared the work above, which to my untrained and entirely partial eye does seem like a breakthrough for her.

Here’s why it matters: she’s been teased for her artistic interests. Classmates have made fun of her for coloring outside the lines, or ignoring the lines completely. Of course she internalized that and would sometimes criticize her own art after she’d made it.

In the words of Joan Nestle, shame is the first betrayer.

So I invented a made-up art critic who was so passionate about Mercena’s art that she couldn’t stand to look at anyone else’s art. Pablo Picasso was nothing to Mercena! Van Gogh was trash in comparison! (This was also a great tool to teach her about actual art, and I’ll never forget her first attempts at saying Picasso’s name.) For a few weeks, Mercena would request the art critic to come and view her work whenever she was finished. Then, she didn’t need the affirmation of the art critic anymore (though the critic stands ready to gush as needed).

And then there we were, her teachers praising her unique art, and me with so much art to carry home I needed a second bag.

So this morning, I’m feeling great love for Mercena and all the artists who won’t let the shame of others keep them from drawing outside the lines.

For a final grace note, may I tell you the name she gave the work above?

She calls it The Beach.

Published by CorinnaSchulenburg

Artist and Activist

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