The funny thing about this entire crazy Mayday Experiment? I’m an introvert.
Now, no one who knows me ever wants to believe this, but I swear it’s true. I’ve managed to get past my awkwardness and shyness over the years with a lot of practice, but deep inside, I’m just a nerdy kid who wants to be alone playing with snails and drawing.
In high school, I realized that my social anxiety was going to get me nowhere fast. After being in one too many bully-induced fights (I am proud to say that I won though I didn’t ever start them – thanks, older brothers), I decided to join the Forensics team (debate + dramatic readings) and choir. Years of working in service-industry jobs and telemarketing finished the transformation. So I can pass as one of you extroverts, but the idea of speaking to strangers kind of fills me with fear and dread. I don’t even like calling people on the phone. Oddly enough, speaking publicly on stage in front of a couple of hundred people can be less scary than talking to a single stranger in person. I know: I’m weird.
And another fact about me that makes this whole tiny house expedition a mighty odd choice: my borderline hoarder ways and the way I pick up trash along my journey like a demented crow.
So, why would I set myself up to do something so uncomfortable? So at odds with my natural tendencies?
Well…why not? And if not me, who?
The best things we ever do in our lives happen outside our comfort zone. If we stay where we are comfortable, no great art gets made, no big ideas happen, no new products are brought to market, no new songs are written. But also…what else can I do?
As an artist, I have always been poor. I wear a lot of hats and juggle a lot of odd jobs to get by and pay for my increasingly expensive work. And as Denver has grown, I have felt the squeeze, like all creatives here have. So really, giving money to causes I believe in is almost out of the question. I guess I could sit in a tree or chain myself to something, but that’s never been my style.
Communicating is my style.
And despite my introvert ways, I think I’m pretty good at it. Or at least that’s what I’m told. So…why not?
The financial crash of 2008 taught me an important lesson. Previously, I had always lamented that my friends had chosen secure lives where they made money and had savings, and I had always been chasing the next idea, oblivious to money half the time and fretting unduly about it the other half. The fact is, I am just plain bad at capitalism. And the things I’m good at aren’t things we typically reward in this society, really, since they all lie within the realm of the arts. I’ve always done best when I follow my own path. Which makes the choices I’m making now, with the Mayday Experiment, make some kind of strange sense.
So in my head, here’s how these interactions on the road play out: I invite someone in for a cup of tea, and with the camera on us, we have a conversation about what sustainability means to them, whether they believe in climate change, what their fears are, what their dreams of the future are…at least, this is what I’m hoping for. Gentle, friendly conversations, miles away from the yelling on the Internet. Civilized. Over a cup of tea.
And yet, I’m going to be seeking people specifically who disagree with me. When I have told people of my plan, they’ve said, “Oh, you should go to ___ commune, they’re all about sustainability,” or “Oh, there’s a tiny house convention, you should go there!” And while it would be fun to meet people with whom I have so much in common, it’s the precise opposite reason of why I am doing this. It’s more preaching to the converted. So my reality may be very different from the story that unfolds in my head. There may be yelling. There may be disagreement. My goal is to have gentle conversations, but I can’t control what anyone else brings to the table. That’s the risk you take for realness. But that’s also how change happens, and why this feels so important to me. Getting out of the bubbles and having real conversations with people changes the paradigm.
The people who walk into a gallery, who might be touched by my work in any way, are already open to the ideas I’m presenting. I’ve never had someone argue with me at an opening, just nod in agreement. And it’s not that I’m not appreciative – I am, so, so appreciative. Like all artists, presenting your work is a vulnerability I’ve likened to standing in the middle of the room with your skin peeled off, while people poke you with sticks. It’s not an easy thing, to lay your soul bare for all to see — to, as art critic Jerry Saltz has said, “dance naked in public.” But…I want to feel I’m doing something. For me, art is about communication, and reaching people who agree with me is too easy, and too useless.
When 9-11 happened, I remember never feeling more useless and unnecessary. Not just useless in the sense of desperately wanting to help and having no needed skills, like nursing or construction, but useless in the sense that I was making pornographic stuffed animals, and from there on out, it was pretty clear: The world did not need pornographic stuffed animals. The fault in the ground beneath irony had opened up like a chasm and swallowed it hole, and no one was in a joking mood for quite a while. I struggled to find my voice.
The first artwork I finished after 9-11, called "Elegy," made me cry when I completed it, something that had never happened to me before. Not just because it held all of the melancholy that had dripped from our collective souls in the preceding weeks, but because something in me had shifted along with the world. At that moment I knew I was done with everything I’d done up until that point. I didn’t know what came next, but I knew I had nothing more to say in the grid format I had been using to make paintings, and no more recombined stuffed animals to sew. Not knowing what came next was terrifying. But I couldn’t keep saying the same thing over and over, and I was afraid I had become that kind of artist. I had to find my voice again, in this new time.
I also wanted to become useful to someone besides myself. Art felt, at the time, like a supreme, navel-gazing self-indulgence, one which I was thankful to be able to do. I was making my living solely from my work at that time (a rarity for any artist), but September 11 changed more than my mindset — it completely halted my income. Most of my galleries, in tourist economies such as Santa Fe, closed by the end of the year, with a paucity of tourists and a break in customers typically flown in on now-grounded airlines. Commissions planned in more certain financial times were cancelled. Phone calls weren’t returned. And while this was truly horrible on the financial end of my life, the silver lining was artistic liberation. I had been cranking out work so quickly to keep all of these galleries satisfied that it had almost become automatic. I needed a moment to breathe and find my center again.
That wanting to feel “useful” led to opening my shop, gallery and event center on Santa Fe Drive, Pod and Capsule. I approached opening my business the way I approached making a piece of art – how hard could it be? What did it matter if I knew what I was doing? I’d figure it out. And while it was hard, I eventually figured it out, and the business did help people in its five-year lifespan, giving hundreds of artists their first opportunities to show, studios to work in, a printshop, classes…I’m proud of how many artists passed first through my doors and traveled on to show at some of the city's best galleries, and even the Museum of Contemporary Art. But still, it wasn’t my artwork, it was a business, distinctly separate from my art. It was its own thing, and often heartbreakingly at odds with my studio practice, like two competitive children. And it sometimes felt like it had swallowed my identity: When an artist introduced me at someone else’s opening as a “gallery owner," I went out to my car and burst into tears. It felt as though my identity as an artist was becoming lost.
The Mayday Experiment is definitely an art project — but unlike any I have ever taken on before. And it is many other things as well: a home…a laboratory for sustainability…a complete re-ordering of my life. It will absolutely change my work and even is now, in completely unforeseen ways. I find myself struggling how to wrap my head around it at times.
I approached this the way I approached the business – how hard could it be? As usual, the answer is hard…but not impossible. But it requires new ways of thinking, and a long-term focus that is unusual in how I work. And there’s that comfort zone thing...once again, I find myself outside of it.
Lauri Lynnxe Murphy, a 2005 Westword MasterMind winner, is blogging out her tiny house project, The Mayday Experiment, on Show and Tell. If you'd like to support her journey, you can pledge here. See more of her work at lynnxe.com.