Dear Unnamed Woman with Child,
(I am still painting you!)

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When I was younger I found it difficult to understand that my artwork could not be seamlessly translated from my mind onto the piece of paper or canvas that was before me. I had trouble accepting that something always got lost in translation. Poetry and writing were no less risky; even if I did manage to put my thoughts on to the page in the right way, the meaning of my work would inevitably vary from reader to reader. I cannot forget the frustration I felt one day in eighth grade when, after reading a poem out loud to my English class, a classmate raised his hand and said, “Yeah … what was that about?”

Nowadays, I find myself with an even greater challenge: explaining a piece of art that I myself have not fully given meaning to.

It is a simple acrylic painting no bigger than two and a half feet in length and two feet in width. It sits high up on our mantel in the dining room, half-finished as it has been for two years now. It began on a long weekend when I was 15. I had been sorting through a vast collection of National Geographic magazines in our bookshelves when I came across an article called “A Life Revealed.” There she was. A woman named Sharbat Gula who had been photographed in 1985 in a Pakistan refugee camp. The cover photo that captured her haunting green eyes is iconic. But the issue I picked up was more recent: it was from 2002, the photographer had gone back and photographed her 17 years later. The photos I saw of her were startling, she looked as though she had seen things well beyond her years. She was still as sinister and striking as she had been in her first photo but she had lost her innocence. I had to paint her.

The painting that now sits in my dining room has elicited many responses from guests. Many don’t understand it. Others are startled by its religiosity. When they look to me for an explanation, I can only throw up my hands and tell them to make what they will of it. It is the face of Sharbat Gula, only she has a golden crown and she is holding a child dressed in white. They have halos surrounding them.

When I describe it now it sounds undoubtedly religious, though I had never intended for it to be such a strong statement. I had only meant to paint her face. The addition of the religious element was an afterthought. It was simply meant to be a sort of what if? I saw her eyes on that cover, and I felt as though I was seeing something divine, something that ought to be honored. She was so entrancing, yet so startling. That was all. It was not meant to be any more or any less.

But after having to explain my intentions to dozens of bewildered guests, I realized that I was entirely aware of what I was making. I had made the painting with the intention of questioning. This was a divine woman, she had children when they went back to visit her — she was angelic but not benevolent. She was what I imagined Mary to be like — tough, wary, worn and hypnotizing. Christian or not, she was divine.

We can never be sure that each viewer will arrive at the same conclusion as we do when we create artwork. It is an act of courage and faith, it is like sending someone on a path to a destination without a map and hoping they notice the same things along the way, hoping they feel the same way upon arriving at that destination — without any certainty that they will make it there at all.

But perhaps this risk of losing meaning in translation of our art is not altogether a bad thing. Perhaps we should encourage ourselves to risk losing some of our artistic meaning in the act of translation. Because when we subject our art to different interpretations, we walk away with a richer understanding of our own meaning. We are forced to ask ourselves what we really mean. In doing so, we gain perspective in a way that could never be achieved on our own.

Translating meaning into art is a difficult and frustrating task. We must be willing to part with some parts of our vision. We must know that not all of it will be properly translated. But, we must also know that not all of our meaning can be entirely envisioned in the beginning. Art is a living, breathing, evolving thing that we must be willing to open up to the world. We must be willing to wait for it to come back to us, knowing that once it does, the translation of it will be all the more beautiful and comprehensive.


Phoebe Young

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