If you follow along on any of my social media channels you know that I’ve been, like much of America, a bit riled up after the election of our new U.S. president, especially since the inauguration. I’m not here to talk about politics at this moment, so hang in there with me. I’m here to talk about what some of my followers expressed when I did start talking more frequently about politics in the last year, and what their reaction has made me realize.
For the record, I’ve been speaking about my political (personal, social, world) beliefs here on this blog and on social media for years. I don’t do it a lot, but when stuff in the world or in my own life happens that I care about, I say what I think. I feel like I have a personal responsibility to say what I think. Also, I’m gay. Openly gay. I’m married to a woman. I’m covered in tattoos. Over the years, my hair has been every color in the rainbow. I live in a liberal mecca (and moved here from another liberal mecca). I have done work (very publicly) for both the Obama and Clinton campaigns, the Human Rights Campaign and other progressive causes. I’m an artist. You get the picture.
I sometimes naively assume that if you follow me online or take my classes, that you also get the picture — of me and what I’m about. But what I have learned over the years (and especially recently), is that a portion of my following, while they might assume I have political opinions that are different from their own, they don’t want me to talk about them. They just want to look at my pretty pictures.
Here’s the thing: for the most part, I do make a living drawing and painting “pretty” (and mostly politically benign) pictures — bold, graphic landscapes, floral line drawings, animals, repeating decorative patterns, vintage-inspired quilt motifs, and inspirational hand-lettered sayings.
The day of the inauguration, I wrote a post here about activism. I started more fervently making and posting politically charged artwork. Afterward, I got comments and messages on various platforms saying some flavor of: “I follow you because I like your art, but I do not want to hear about your political views.” Others argued with the power or validity of anger (I had said, in no uncertain terms, that I was angry). One woman proclaimed that she was unfollowing me, and that she was also going to unfollow every artist who was also currently an activist speaking out against the government. Because, to her, it is wrong to question the president. She also vowed to unsubscribe to the platform on which I teach classes and to never buy one of my books again. She was done with me. It’s worth noting that I have not experienced a mass spewing of vitriol. Most of my former followers have unfollowed me more quietly, and, even if they’ve expressed their opinion about why, they’ve done it politely and respectfully.
(Above: one of my many recent posts on Instagram, at the Women’s March in Portland, holding a sign I made and wearing a Pink Pussy hat my mom made for me)
In truth, I believe the beautiful thing about social media platforms is that you get to choose who you follow or don’t. That requires a bit of trial and error — you might follow someone because you “like their art,” but then later discover they express opinions that you find offensive. I have unfollowed folks for a variety of reasons. I am in full support of unfollowing, because a lot of the time, it makes sense. And so, my response to the woman I mentioned above was some version of “…that’s the great thing about social media — you don’t have to follow or listen to anyone who you don’t want to, who rubs you the wrong way, who you disagree with, etc. Follow if you want, but I totally respect unfollowing. Peace!” You get to “curate” your own social media feed.
After years on the Internet, I have learned not to take disgruntled followers or mean trolls personally. I have learned to accept unfollowing as part of everyday life. What has become more important to me, and the main point I want to make here, is living my truth, expressing myself as a whole person — not just someone who makes pretty pictures — is more important to me. Here’s how I put it to the woman who publicly proclaimed she was unfollowing me and all artist/activists: “I am not on this planet to please everyone or make everyone feel comfortable. I am here to share my art and my experience and to be a voice for what I believe in.”
That’s right: I might make pretty pictures, but they do not define who I am. I am a complicated, sometimes messy human being. I have past experiences that haunt me. I have regrets, hopes and dreams. My views have been shaped by my experience — as a woman and a lesbian, for example — just like your experiences shape your views. That’s why on my Instagram feed and here on my blog you see both the pretty things I draw and paint and, occasionally, of the other stuff — my struggles, my beliefs, my heartaches, my joys and contemplations and my political rants.
I also want to acknowledge that while I have lost many, many followers over the past months (especially in the past weeks), I am incredibly heartened by the support that the vast majority of my following (and it’s going strong) have expressed for my activism and my activist artwork. I think most of my followers do see me as a whole human being — they want to see me as a whole human being. They like knowing where I stand, and where they stand in relationship to me. Sometimes we don’t agree. Almost daily I am challenged to think about at least one thing one of my followers has said or asked.
I am also heartened by the activism of so many artists on the Internet — many of whom have never said a controversial thing on their Instagram feed or blog until now. I continue to urge artists to use their voices. Your freedom to do so is what makes our democracy great! Your words have weight. Use them.
Have a good Wednesday, friends! And thank you for listening.