Eighteen years ago, I left my first job at the UN. Although my job was working with civil society and networks external to the UN family, my real job – at least in my mind – was to be an in-house advocate; to keep our work honest. It was an important job that I felt proud to have, but also the furthest thing possible from being an artist. Look it up, the antonym for artist is bureaucrat.
My hiring also meant that I was the first openly HIV-positive person to be hired by UNAIDS in a full-time global position. I’d like to think that I was hired for my qualifications but there was also some strong symbolism in my being brought on board.
The day I went to a meeting and didn’t speak up, I knew it was time to leave and so after about 2 and half years of service, I did just that. It was the right thing for me, because I was burnt-out, but also for the organization because it left a door open for new people to come in and take up the work. Overall, leaving felt good. At the very least, it felt right.
That weekend in 1998 also happened to be 4th of July. In Switzerland, of course, the 4th of July doesn’t mean much but it meant a lot to me. Before leaving my job, I’d started doing some artwork and some friends with a nearby gallery invited me to do an artist exhibition – a mixture of painted work and metal sculptures.
We planned the opening for July 4th and I titled it “Emancipainted” and I used the occasion to celebrate the trifecta of my first gallery opening, the end of my first UN job and the beginning of my new life in which I hoped to focus on feeding my creative self, my inner artist.
During my first months away from the job, I read a book by Julia Cameron called “The Vein of Gold” and many of the exercises left me crying because I realized how much I’d smushed down my inner artist. My foray back into art was far overdue.
Flash forward to 2016 and it strikes me that many things are, yet again, aligning. A group of women with whom, last summer, I worked through “The Artist’s Way” – Julia Cameron’s most famous book – are now doing working through “The Vein of Gold.” Admittedly, I’d suggested it, but when I did, I hadn’t thought about the timing…only that it had had a strong effect on me the first time and I felt it might be good for them as well. Indeed, I will also work the book again because it is time.
My inner artist, which I began nurturing closely in 1998, is now 18 and, perhaps like a regular human, fully able to go out into the world. The timing again is remarkable as at the same time as working this book with these gorgeous women, I am also finishing up my thesis for my MFA in Creative Writing and Literature. I am a few months away from the title of Master of Fine Arts.
Now, to be clear, I did go back to the UN – to UNICEF – in 2003 and spent another nine years working but it was an entirely different scenario and I felt much more valued for my skills in that job. Somehow, within that work, I also brought in my creativity which helped to make it a much more satisfying experience. When I left in 2011, I felt immense pride for the work we had accomplished. I was tired then, too, but left with joy in my heart. I felt I had triumphed rather than leaving with a sense of defeat.
Again in 2011, I vowed to spend my time nurturing my creative side and I have. With the MFA and a few years of singing with bands here in New York, I now feel comfortable calling myself an artist and am confident that I have the goods to back that up.
As we recognize July 4th this year and the independence it represents for some people, I smile with the memories of how I have celebrated in the past. Yet again, it is time to embrace my (now more fully formed) inner artist and move forward in the world with higher expectations for myself.
Many people are no longer here to celebrate progress – I’m thinking particularly of people recently killed or injured in Orlando/Istanbul/Dhaka/Mogadishu/Baghdad/Riyadh/Medina/Too Many Places to List – and my thoughts of them and the insecurity of the world are a constant reminder that today is all we have for certain.
Let’s see where I am in a year. I hope it will be somewhere interesting; somewhere filled with beauty, inspiration and a community of artists.