Pinch me was the only thought in Jeandarc’s head while she watched the gallery door open, again and again, for more patrons. Yesterday, she turned twenty-eight; Today, she was celebrating the opening of her first New York Art Show.
She worked hard to get here. But she was made of tough stuff. Independence roots faster in kids of divorced parents. Bitterness too. Jeandarc’s bitterness fermented the day her brother, Hannibal, smashed the Tin Man she built for the snowman competition when she was eight. She hated him until the summer before her studies began at the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
After spending ten summers at the art camp in Provincetown, Massachusetts, she didn’t expect to learn anything new, but the familiar routine was comforting, and her dad was, once again, on tour with Springsteen.
At the end of the second week of camp, the life-drawing teacher set her dinner tray down across from Jeandarc in the picnic area outside the cafeteria.
“Thanks for saving me a seat.”
It was a joke and would’ve pissed Jeandarc off if voiced by anyone else. But no one got mad at Meade. She wore black harem pants and shirts with hearts and rainbows and Tweety Bird. Her eyes weren’t as round as Tweety’s, but they held an understanding that made Jeandarc feel safe. Safety wasn’t something she felt at home— at least not when her parents lived together— there were always battlegrounds, and she was never on the winning side because her dad was often gone.
“On Monday, a friend of mine is going to offer a two-week workshop in Authentic Movement,” Meade said.
“Actors use it to boost their creativity and get in touch with the characters they play.”
Jeandarc slurped the last of her lemonade through the straw. “You think I have a problem with creativity?”
“Not at all.” Meade never met a student more willing to experiment. Yet, Jeandarc’s experimentation in watercolors, ceramics and jewelry changed nothing in her favorite medium— portraiture. She completed two portraits per subject. The first drawing was a serious, realistic rendering. The second portrait was two-faced; one side a replica of the original, the other a demonic monster. During Jeandarc’s second summer, Meade asked her nine-year-old student why she insisted on painting the ugly distortions.
Jeandarc leaned toward her and whispered, “Because that’s who they really are.”
Meade let the comment slide. She was an art teacher, not a therapist. Still, she didn’t want the girl’s heavy baggage to interfere with her growth as a painter.
Jeandarc stopped slurping the dregs of lemonade and looked up from her slump with all the annoyance a teenager can muster. Meade brightened her tone. “Everyone needs a partner. I thought you’d be a great one for me.”
The following Monday night, Jeandarc showed up at the dance studio. Meade waved, and Jeandarc joined her in the oblong circle on the floor. The room was a chitty-chattering echo chamber that would’ve prompted her to run away if she hadn’t promised Meade to give it a go for one night.
The room hushed when Meade’s friend, Ginny, introduced herself. Meade joined the applause. Jeandarc hugged her knees to her chest.
“No talking is allowed,” Ginny said. “But sounds like a sigh or humming is fine. You and your partner will decide who will move first. The person not moving will act as a witness from the circle’s edge and as a barrier to help keep everyone safe. Movers will begin on their backs inside the circle and keep their eyes closed. After twenty minutes all partners will switch places.”
Ginny let the information sink in. “Authentic movement is not a performance. It’s an expression of your inner life. If you don’t feel an impulse to move remain still. But when an urge rises give into it. Any movement is acceptable. A yawn is movement. After both rounds, you’ll share what you experienced with your partner. No judgment, only observation. Any questions?”
A pony-tailed girl in pink tights raised her hand. “What if we don’t feel like moving?”
“No worries. Some people fall asleep the first time. Trust yourself. Your body will lead you where you need to go.”
Jeandarc wanted to puke. She hated sharing. Other than her dad or Meade, nobody cared how she felt. People pretended to listen, then said or did something that made her feel stupid.
Meade volunteered to move first. The group’s stillness didn’t last long. The movers rolled and rocked into positions better suited to explore the space.
Jeandarc thought a lot of the movers were breaking the rules, trying to entertain the witnesses. Meade was different. Jeandarc didn’t think she was ever going to move, then she stretched. The stretches turned into contractions, and eventually that give and take prompted her to move through the space. Jeandarc believed each movement came from an impulse deep inside Meade. The discrepancy between how Meade moved and how everyone else flailed around deepened Jeandarc’s curiosity, but she wasn’t eager to switch roles.
Her unease mounted as she wrestled with whether or not to move. She could feel the witnesses’ eyes boring into her. She wanted to stare back to prevent them from laughing the way Hannibal laughed at her for crying after he’d busted her Tin Man snowman.
She hated him for his meanness and for not caring that he ruined her chance to win something of her own. Winners like Hannibal didn’t care about anybody other than themselves; mothers of fourteen-year-old gymnastic winners didn’t care either. Jeandarc hoped her mom would punish Hannibal when she drove up on the scene of the crime, but she just shook her head at Hannibal and told Jeandarc to stop acting like a baby.
Jeandarc’s anger combusted that night; she gathered all the photos of her brother from around the house and cut them in half. She never looked at him again without thinking of his face split in two.
She pictured the witnesses in the Authentic Movement circle with their heads split down the middle, but it wasn’t enough. She wanted to scream, but she was no baby— she’d given up all baby-ness in the hope of being taken seriously. She swallowed the scream, then pounded and kicked the floor while imagining the witnesses and fourteen-year-old Hannibal getting beaten to a pulp. The inner and outer violence frightened her, but she didn’t stop until the end gong sounded.
The room reverted to a chitty-chattering chamber as the partners shared experiences.
To deflect the embarrassment over her physical outburst, Jeandarc said, “Your movement was the most authentic.”
Meade touched Jeandarc’s shoulder. “I felt your frustration.”
Jeandarc’s eyes widened. Tenderness swirled in her gut, and she decided to complete the workshop. The impulse to move came sooner each night. Her physical expression akin to breaking out of her skin. She looked forward to the release and was intrigued by the emotions that bristled within the movements. She couldn’t always identify the feelings, but their weight and color were satisfying. Sometimes she wiggled wormlike or tiptoed like a fairytale nymph. These were foreign movements, and yet, she sensed she was communicating more in those twenty minutes than she ever revealed in conversation.
On the fifth night, she volunteered to go first. She began with a fluid stretch, which turned jerky. Tears washed her cheeks. She hugged and rocked herself. Sobs exploded. Panicked, she stopped. Listened. When no laughter followed, her cries came from a deeper place. Her wails continued through the end gong and only tapered off as she witnessed Meade’s movement. When it was time to share, rather than talking, Meade held Jeandarc’s hand.
That weekend in the paint studio, each time she reached for a brush her throat clogged, bouncing her breath out, while an acid burn gathered under her clavicle. She tried to push through it for over an hour, then gave up and went for a walk.
She walked throughout the weekend and found herself captivated by musicians running through scales, dancers at the barre, and actors vocalizing. The overabundance of creative activity was electric. The energy must’ve been present from the first day Jeandarc attended camp, ten years ago, but she hadn’t noticed.
On the second Monday night, Ginny gave new instructions. “At the end of the second twenty-minute round, instead of sharing verbally, you’ll express yourself on paper. You can write, draw or do both.”
Jeandarc shuddered. She hadn’t been able to pick up a brush the entire weekend. What if Meade was wrong? What if instead of nurturing creativity, Authentic Movement killed it?
She let Meade move first. Her partner’s movements quieted her alarm, but she was still agitated when she lay on her back.
Ginny sounded the starting gong. Jeandarc broke into tears. She pulled into a fetal position and dropped deep into the darkness of pain. The world around her dissolved. Exhaustion led to stillness, which prompted an enormous breath, then Jeandarc laughed so hard her entire body shook and abdominals ached. She couldn’t stop— didn’t want to. She was overcome by an extraordinary sensation of lightness she had no desire to lose. She embraced the laughter and spun and twirled round until she was breathless and needed to lie down.
Before the end gong faded, she grabbed paper and colored pencils. The finished picture was a self-portrait— not as she was now— but of when she was eight. It reflected all the hope, sorrow, anger, and loss of the day Hannibal busted the Tin Man.
“It’s beautiful,” Meade said. “The girl in this picture shows all of you, not just the one you want people to see.”
Over the next four days, Jeandarc’s body released more sounds than she ever made in her life: humming, whistling, and raspberries flowed freely. She also cried and laughed as her body led her to deeper parts of herself.
During the last two weeks of camp, Jeandarc reworked all her portraits for the final weekend’s exhibit that would be reviewed by professionals in the art world. No half-faces were included. That weekend, she received three letters of recommendation, which along with the connections she made at the University of Arts in Philadelphia, helped pave the way for tonight’s New York Opening.
All of her portraits were for sale at a fixed price, except one. It would go to the highest bidder— maybe. The portrait was of her eight-year-old self and fourteen-year-old brother hugging the Tin Man. Jeandarc wasn’t certain she wanted to part with it.
The painting was a reminder that you often think you know someone, then suddenly you don’t— not because they’ve changed, but because you’ve changed.
A woman with a glass of chardonnay approached Jeandarc and whispered an offer for the Tin Man. She was about to accept when she spotted her brother looking at the painting. After several minutes, Hannibal stepped back from the portrait and looked around the room. When their eyes met, he gave her a thumbs-up. Jeandarc turned to the bidder.
“I’m sorry, I’ve already accepted an offer.”