“Art and literature encompass a great many ideas and experiences. . .[that] raise questions of the quality of life in a world where experience itself seems brittle and degraded. How in such conditions can you produce worthwhile art in the first place? Would you not need to change society in order to flourish as an artist? Besides, those who deal with art speak the language of value rather than price. They deal with works whose depth and intensity show up the meagreness of everyday life in a market-obsessed society. They are also trained to imagine alternatives to the actual.”
— Terry Eagleton, After Theory
“Art celebrates with peculiar intensity the moments in which the past reenforces the present and in which the future is a quickening of what now is.”
— John Dewey, Art as Experience
In the beginning, the question came so simply, so innocuously: where did the art come from?
I might as well have been asking what were its origins, but as a Korean adoptee, I don’t know my own origins. How could I know where the art came from? There I was at twenty-six, having just moved to California from Michigan to follow my dream, possibly. But what does it mean to dream after you’ve lost them all, save the one? I had always dreamed of moving to California.
First it was Los Angeles to be an actress. Then it was San Francisco to be a philosopher. Then it became California, the state of, it didn’t matter where. “My life will begin in California,” I told myself, and perhaps because that’s what I told myself, that’s when it did. Maybe it was all the sunshine, or the fact that, for years, I hadn’t felt as happy as I did that first year I lived there, but I had not thought to ask where anything came from before. I was much more concerned with the why and how of things.
Something shifted when I turned twenty-six. I began to have an artist’s longing to create—to give birth to. Yoko Ono says, “The world of Art with a capital A, is a very creative place that can be compared to a woman giving birth to a child.” Art, she claims, is “a feminine activity in the world,” though not “an activity for women.” Whether or not it’s true of Art, my yearning was certainly for the feminine. When I was twenty-one I was diagnosed with insulin-resistant polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), a condition where the female body has too many male hormones, or androgens, which can create ovarian cysts. The corrective measure is a hysterectomy. Regardless of whether one has a hysterectomy (I have not, actually), the hormonal imbalance makes it difficult to conceive, and I sometimes feel like less of a woman because of high androgen and testosterone levels, and the fact that I have to shave my facial hair every morning.
Is it too simple an explanation to say that because I have neither the desire to, nor the body in which to create a life form, I created my first art installation instead? It was for the A Place of Her Own exhibition at SOMArts Cultural Center in San Francisco. Each artist was asked, if you had a place of your own, what would it be? My place was a threshold. The liminal space between real life and what can only be conjured or imagined. I constructed six red frames arranged like a stained glass window and two red doors, each twelve-feet-tall with a doorknob too high for any person to touch. Red scarves spilled out from the edges. It was impossible to walk through.
When I walk, I look at the ground to know exactly where my feet are going and what they will step on. Brick, brick, avoid the gum, avoid the spit, back to brick, avoid the bird shit. Then I look up to see who I pass by. I always look older women in the eye. I don’t know why, but they smile back at me.
It made sense when I was a child because I was the kind of child that women love to look at: chubby, wide-eyed, full of life. Strangers used to walk up to my mother in the middle of the mall just to stare at me. As I got older, I thought it was because my mother and I walked arm in arm when we shopped, and it either reminded these women of their relationships with their daughters or the relationships they wished they had with them. In college, as I walked alone, I thought it was because of my Asian face, which I am told has a history of exoticism, especially in Michigan where it is exotic simply because it is so rare. Maybe it’s because my face is beautiful—I am still chubby and wide-eyed and full of life. Maybe it’s because I think older women are beautiful and full of life, and they recognize that look in my eye. Or maybe it’s the simple act of seeing.
One day, I casually caught the gaze of the first woman I loved in California. Her name was Risa Nye. We were discussing the impact music can have on memory, and I wondered if she regretted any of the choices she’d made in her life. I looked into her eyes for a full minute, and she held my stare until I finally turned away.
The first thing I noticed about Risa was her silver hair. The second was her voice that had inflections unlike any I’d heard before: soft, with a steeliness I have always found attractive. It hinted at a life lived in California that I would never really know because I haven’t lost a great love to a war, or married my best friend, or raised three children. I wanted the kind of formidability that comes from living on the edge.
Risa turned sixty the year I turned twenty-seven and wrote in her blog that she feels invisible these days when riding on the train. The young people beside her don’t notice her. I couldn’t believe it; not because this woman, in her sixties, is among the most beautiful I have ever seen—though she is—but because I have never felt invisible, even in a crowd of Asian faces.
The sun beat down on the sidewalk as my mother and I walked from the Top of the Mark back to Japan town. My grandfather was a naval officer during World War II, and my mother had always wanted to eat in the place where her father had a farewell drink before shipping out. I slowed my pace to match hers, remembering the time one of her friends saw us walking in our hometown, Grand Rapids. She told my mother that we had the same stride. There was something in that image of a middle-aged Caucasian woman and a teenaged Korean girl having a moment of connection, or sameness, that filled both of us with such pride back then.
We had come to San Francisco for the 25th International Asian American Film Festival, and on our way back down to the theater in Japan town, my mother filled the silence with talk of how beautiful the Victorian architecture looked. “This is the best time of my life—being here with you,” she said.
I turned away because I couldn’t tell her that I had been thinking it was the worst time of my life—being there with her. I came to San Francisco in the hopes of connecting with a community of people who shared my experiences of being made an outsider, simply for having an Asian face. It hadn’t occurred to me that my mother would mark me as “other” from the faces in those theaters, too. Her white skin a beacon showing them I belonged to the culture of their oppressors. I had never felt more alone. I wanted to cry, but I turned back to my mother instead and disagreed about the architecture. I had always preferred Gothic, myself.
One of my mother’s favorite stories to tell when I was growing up was about the time she and my father took me to Buffalo, New York when I was three to visit my grandpa’s cousin, June. June considered herself an aristocrat, so she was appalled when she took us all out to dinner at her favorite restaurant, and I put my black patent leather shoes on top of the white tablecloth. My mother would say, “You stuck your feet up on that table and gave the whole restaurant a look that said, Here I am, world. Look at me!”
June had been adopted in 1914, and her mother could never let her go. Not long after June left home for college, she got a telephone call from her mother telling her she was very ill and didn’t know how long she had to live. Her mother lived for twenty-five more years, always at death’s door, and June stayed home to take care of her until she died. “How could a mother do that?” my mom asked me. “It’s such a horrible thing to do to your child.” I said, “June could’ve chosen not to do it.”
When June died, she left most of her money to charity. I was the only one in the family she gave anything to in her will, and it was $10,000 for college tuition. “It’s not very much money,” I told my mother. I had decided to go to Kalamazoo College, and that would cover only about one-third of the tuition for one year. “You know why she did that,” my mother told me, and I did.
In the few times I had seen June in my life, I would catch her looking at me strangely. I was too young when she was alive to know it was because we had both been adopted. Years later, my mother told me that June’s mother had died in a car accident, and June had been driving. She once admitted to my mother that she wasn’t sure if she had driven the car into an oncoming truck on purpose.
I stared into an eye. It might not have been an eye, but it gave the impression of one in blue, black and a little white. I could have touched the geometric patterns and dotted brush strokes if I could have reached them. It reminded me of the Transcendentalist eye, which reminded me of freedom. The spiritual, moral and aesthetic freedom in Immanuel Kant’s transcendental theory, a theory concerned with how we come to know objects, rather than objects themselves. I was nineteen, a student of philosophy, and freedom was as abstract a concept to me as the eye in the painting.
Renoir’s Two Sisters (On the Terrace) is my mother’s favorite painting. A poster of it from the Art Institute of Chicago hangs in our house. As a child, I would look at the coffee table books my mother had on Impressionism and trace the paintings with my finger. When I asked my mother why she enjoyed Renoir and that movement so much, she said she understood their love of light and desire to paint nature and the everyday. I often wonder if I was drawn to the painting of the eye, less for its patterns and more for the familiar brush strokes.
One of my favorite post-Kantian philosophers, Friedrich Schiller, believed freedom is only found through beauty, as though it is also a threshold. Schiller struggled his whole life because he felt that philosophy kept him from being a true poet and vice versa. More than two hundred years later, I have the same struggle. In the Second Letter of On the Aesthetic Education of Man, he says: “Art is a daughter of freedom, and takes her orders from the necessity inherent in minds, not from the exigencies of matter. But at the present time material needs reign supreme and…utility is the great idol of our age, to which all powers are in thrall.”
Maybe I was enthralled by that abstract eye because its mother was freedom. After all, that’s what I’ve constantly been in search of. The painter, Chris Hicks, was a student at Kendall College of Art & Design, and the gallery was about to go under. My mother was hosting a political fundraiser to support a local Democratic Congresswoman that night, but she came down to the basement periodically to find me. I asked her if I used my savings, would she pay the rest? She said yes. She never could say no to me, and I left the gallery that night the owner of my first piece of art.
I used to say, You can’t know me without knowing my mother. I am her best friend, and I tell her everything. My friends’ mothers would call them “little shits.” They wanted time alone with their own friends or to themselves, whereas my mother arranged her days in order to spend the most time with me. If we fought, she called me mean and told me it ruined her entire day, and every time I paid more attention to my dog, Charlie, she would glare and tell me that I loved him more than her. She would never call me a “little shit”; this I knew instinctively.
Maybe it’s easier for mothers who give birth to say these things to their children. They experienced a lot of physical pain and labor to bring their kid into the world. It’s a right and a comfort. For them, there is no “mystical other mother” out there who has a claim on their child and could possibly take her away from them. But for my mother, there is only the dream that came true, free of blood and pain and afterbirth. I am that dream. She wanted a child, and a year later she was given me. I once asked my mother why she didn’t adopt another child. As a kid, I wanted a younger brother or sister to play with. She told me that she fell in love with me at first sight and knew there was no room in her heart for anyone else. I could understand her reasoning, even at six, because we’re both dreamers.
One time, my mother and I decided to build a fort in the middle of winter because the characters in a book she had been reading to me that afternoon had done it. The snow wasn’t good packing snow, however, so after struggling for an hour without getting anywhere, we gave up and went back inside where it was warm, and we could continue to read about snow forts instead.
When I finally told my mom that she couldn’t read aloud to me anymore because I was twelve and more than capable of doing it by myself, she started screaming for my father, as if he could get me to change my mind, but all he did was hold her until she went off to their bedroom to cry alone. “She’ll be okay,” he told me. I wasn’t convinced, but the next day she was okay. She bought the book that I was reading and read it silently by herself right beside me, as she has done ever since.
One afternoon, my mother called and asked what I was reading. “Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason,” I said. “Why, are you going to go out and buy it?” She did. She hadn’t read philosophy since she’d studied normative political theory at Georgetown, where she’d been working on her doctoral degree until she met my father. She’d gone home for Christmas to Baldwin, a small village about an hour and a half north of Grand Rapids. There, she agreed to go on a blind double date with her best friend, and fell in love with my father. Three months later they got married. My mother left Georgetown and returned to Michigan, where she began to study law, but her passion was always politics. She told me once that only a few schools taught normative theory because it is the study of how things should or ought to be as opposed to how things actually are, and that thinking had fallen out of fashion.
I had the same problem in philosophy. I was only interested in Continental philosophy, and the schools were interested in Analytic. Questions about the meaning of existence are less essential now in an age where evidence, cause and effect, and judging the accuracy of knowledge production take precedence. But maybe normativity, in its philosophical sense, is where the art comes from. Art, after all, is an alternative way to see things.
Not long after moving to California, I had an appointment with an optometrist. As I stepped onto the sidewalk afterwards, I realized I had nearly perfect twenty-twenty vision. I could not only see the familiar brick, brick and bird shit, but also the sign for Cypress half a block away. I stood on the sidewalk looking at the world around me as if seeing it for the first time, because I was. The optometrist in Michigan had diagnosed my insulin-resistant PCOS (something the gynecologist hadn’t believed I’d had because my body type wasn’t “typical” for women with the disease, and my blood work had been borderline in my teenage years), but he had never paid attention when I said I couldn’t read road signs until I was almost past them.
Fatalism has never appealed to me, but there was a kind of inevitability about my move to California. It is a three-day drive from my hometown and a four-hour flight. My mother is the top campaign financial adviser for the Democratic Party in the state of Michigan. She was also chair of the Grand Valley State University Board of Trustees. The year I moved to California, she was offered a teaching position as a law professor, something she had always wanted to do. My father told me that she wasn’t seriously considering the offer because she wouldn’t be able to fly to California at a moment’s notice. “She’s still building her life around me?” I asked from over two thousand miles away, and he said, Yes.
On the phone now, my mother still asks me what books she should read. She likes to read at least five at a time, and she buys them all from bookstores. It’s a habit I have inherited. One of the first friends I made in college asked if I’d read any Adrienne Rich before, and I said that I didn’t own any of her books. She paused, then said, “I forgot that reading and owning books are the same thing for you.”
The first book I suggested to my mother after I moved to California was Risa’s, Writin’ On Empty, in the hopes that I could read it when I went home for Christmas. I did, and in it, I found the words:
People told me when my kids were small that it all goes by in an
instant…Maybe it does go by quickly, and it can be harder than
anyone thinks, but the way I see it, letting children grow up and go
is part of the sequence of events that starts the first time they reach
for that shiny object, just beyond their grasp.
And I don’t know if it was “the first time,” “the shiny object,” or the fact that the object is known but untouchable that made me see it. But after reading Risa’s words, I understood what people meant when they told me that my mother needed to let me go.
One morning I woke up, opened the blinds to let the light into my apartment in California and realized I had everything I wanted. There had been a time only a year before when I didn’t even know how to go about answering the question. The what and where of things having slipped through the cracks in my thinking.
I remembered being back in Michigan when I was twenty-four and riding around with my mentor, Diane Seuss, in her black Volkswagen Bug. We sat with the engine running, talking as we usually did back then about the future, my future. “What do you want?” she asked me. I had wanted so much when I lived in Michigan: to have a best friend, to be a philosopher, to be a poet, to be a lesbian, to not be seen as “exotic” everywhere I went, to be blonde, to be happy, to put Asian American activists on the map, to not care about being Asian American, to be Di Seuss, to be a feminist, to be a Modernist, to be a Postmodernist, to know the meaning of freedom, to be cool, to be pretty, to be—above all—beautiful, to know the meaning of life, to die. . .but I would have settled for just being beautiful, and a philosopher, and blonde.
Di told me that I needed to find a punk who would bleach me. So I did. And there I sat in that black Bug a year later, bleached blonde hair shining in the summer sun reflected in her passenger side mirror—the ones that say “objects may appear closer than they seem.” What did I want now?
Two weeks before I left for California, my mother came into my room, and we began to argue over something small that quickly escalated, as all our fights did that year. “You need to learn how to control yourself! It’s not my job to take care of your emotions!” I shouted. “It’s your job not to go to California!” she screamed, and all of my anger vanished. I looked at her the way a mother looks at her child, full of kindness and understanding. “But, I am going to California,” I said gently. And I did.
Yoko Ono says, “A dream you dream alone may be a dream, but a dream two people dream together is a reality.” I’ve lived in California almost four years now, and my apartment is full of artwork. I’ve filled my space with beautiful things that I can touch and some of them I have made. I talk to my mother on the phone almost every morning, and when I wake to sunlight coming through the blinds, I remember how I used to envision a life for myself out here. Maybe that’s where the art came from. Although that vision looked different than the life I’m actually living, what I remember most is this feeling of light and the everyday that I can understand, like the feeling of looking at Renoir’s Le Moulin de la Galette, or the faces of the women I pass on the street.
 Yoko Ono, “Imagine Yoko” (Hungary: Bakhall, 2005).
 Risa Nye, “America—A Musical Interlude,” Zero to Sixty and Beyond (blog), January 26, 2012, http://www.risanye.com/uncategorized/america-a-musical-interlude.
 Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man: In a Series of Letters, trans. Elizabeth M. Wilkinson and L.A. Willoughby (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).
 Risa Nye, “One By One,” in Writin’ On Empty: Parents Reveal the Upside, Downside, and Everything In Between, eds. Joan Cehn, Risa Nye and Julie Renalds (Oakland: No Flak Publishing, 2008), 91-96.
Kelsay Myers is a writer and artist living in Walnut Creek, CA. She received an MFA in Nonfiction from Saint Mary’s College of California in 2012, an MFA in Poetry in 2013 and currently is Chair of the MFA in Creative Writing Program Advisory Board, as well as an adjunct English Literature instructor at Le Cordon Bleu College of Culinary Arts in Sacramento. Other work has been published in Portland Review, the anthology More Voices: A Collection of Works from Asian Adoptees, and she has an essay forthcoming in Waxwing this June, among others. Her interests are interrogating identity construction and persona, myth and reality, poetry and prose, and theory and form to explore the limits of personal history and narrative. For more information, please go to kelsayelizabethmyers.com.