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  • Writer's picturePeter Golder

Painting the picture of your life. How an identity can be created.

Early in my life, I really struggled with my identity as a gay man, as I feared I may not be able to live life freely and with acceptance from others. I never regretted who I was or wanted to be different, but I did think that the world I lived in could be unfairly intolerant of people like me, who were seen to be different. This had a big impact on my mental health, with a lot of fear and anxiety being generated in me.

Over many years though, I gradually fought against my fear, speaking openly to others about my sexuality and feeling more confident with who I am. It was important to me to live my life with the identity I felt was at my very core. Living my life in a way that wasn't my choice, wasn't an option I could carry on performing.

I am much happier now, feeling proud of my identity, though there are times when the remnants of the past, in terms of how I thought and felt, lurk in the background. I have learnt to accept these dark shadowy parts of who I am. For me, I would rather acknowledge that they are there and include them, in all of the work that I do in building my self-awareness. By doing this, I hope to bring about and maintain balance in my mental health.

Where has your identity come from?

My journey in life, in relation to my identity, is the inspiration for this short piece of work. As I have already mentioned, my identity has defined my life, so I am interested in how much other people think about their identity.

In this piece of work, I talk abstractly about how we might come to terms with our identity and how it can develop and change throughout our lives. This includes, what we do if we feel who we are, doesn't fit with the norm and how we manage that. What I’ve written is created through my own frame of reference, so of course if you're reading this, you will have your own different experiences and opinions. That’s to be expected.

My intention was to use words and imagery to generate some thoughts, about how to navigate and find balance, within each of our own identities. Working out the very essence of who we are can be difficult, when it has to develop in the midst of the controlling and influential world that we live in. By writing about this, my words may provoke some reflection in you, to consider how your own identity formed. Perhaps you are consciously aware of creating your own identity or are aware that you have not been able to. You may start to think about where your identity has come from and the people or structures that have defined who you are. Importantly, we unconsciously take onboard the expectations and rules of who we are and who we can be, from the world that we live in. By bringing these into awareness, we can start to consider whether we are ok with what we now know about ourselves. If we are not, then we can think about how to change that and live life differently, more consciously.

Oil painting materials on desk with canvas painted in swabs of different colour

The start of something new

We are all born with our own unique sense of self. A blank canvas that will be filled over time with the colours and textures of the life that we lead. Imagine you are asked to paint a picture on this canvas of your life, created over the years, which will reflect who you are and what you've been through. As time passes by, the painting changes, as a result of the updates and amendments you make to it, which reflect what's going on in your life at the time.

When we are young, we don’t know how to paint this picture, so we are given a colour pallet by the people around us, with a few colours on and a few brushes to get us started. There’s no free choice on how we create our painting. We are told which parts of the canvas we can use and how to create the brush strokes in a particular way. We are even instructed which colours are acceptable and which are not. If you make a mistake you will be told off, so you learn to paint your picture that abides by the rules.

This in a sense is how our identities are formed. We are born with particular sexual organs and then told as we grow up which gender we are. We are told which people we are meant to be attracted to, even though for some, they find out when they get older, that's not true. We are told where we come from, what language we use, what defines us from other people in the world. We are told which groups we belong to and which people belong in that group. In relation to this, we learn who is on the outside of the group and why their identities don't belong in the group you have been told you are part of. We are told to abide by the laws and customs of our society that have been constructed by social, political and religious influences. Our thoughts, feelings and behaviour are absolutely constructed by the people we grow up with and from the world that we live in. So, it’s understandable why a child will paint their picture in a certain way, because they have been told to paint it like that.

Small child with bow in her hair dipping brush in paint about to paint on book. Father and sister sit beside her watching supportively.

The reaction to individuality

As you get older, you look around and notice that your picture, is a lot like everyone else’s. 'Where’s the individuality?' You say to yourself. You also notice that you are still using the skills and techniques that you used as a child. Something in you feels uncomfortable with that, because it doesn’t feel like you’ve grown much or become your own person. You think I don’t want to do it like this anymore, as it doesn't reflect who you are, so you think about changing how your picture looks. You say to yourself; 'I want to jazz it up, use some new brush techniques, maybe even choose a different painting tool to a brush, incorporate different colours'. You just feel the picture of your life needs to change because you don’t like what you're looking at.

Even though you've started feeling you want to change your painting, you’re hesitant about doing anything different. You’ve noticed when other people have tried to change their painting style, to be more avant-garde, immediately they are met with hostility. You can really feel how rigid the rules and structures are about how to paint this picture of yours. People can show real hostility when someone does something they don’t agree with. You’ve even heard stories where someone’s canvas has been ripped up, burnt and destroyed. The freedom to paint this picture of your life, in your own way, seems impossible to achieve.

You look back at your picture and your heart sinks, because you just feel that what is there is not who you are and it doesn’t represent you. It feels like you are not creating your own picture and this is really starting to bother you. You are frustrated by what you see, the colours you’ve used, the lack of light and shade. It’s an ordinary looking picture and feels flat and uninspiring. You feel constrained and limited by the approach you have been told to use. 'Why do we all have to do it the same way?' you say to yourself.

As you look at what you have created so far, you wish you could just start again, but you know that’s not possible. A lot of time and effort has gone into the picture already, so you think I need to somehow change the painting on this canvas. In the pit of your stomach though, you feel frightened about making any changes, aware of how some people will react. You’re also angry because it seems difficult for people to express themselves freely and because some folk can be really resistant to change. A tear falls down your cheek and you sigh. You say to yourself, ‘I just want to paint my picture in my own way, without judgement and without criticism’.

You feel that as soon as you start doing something different to what others do, people will notice and begin asking questions. Curiosity can turn to anger, because you appear to be painting in a way that isn’t the normal way. The way that ‘everyone’ else paints. Why can people be so cruel about someone who wants to do things differently? Questions may be asked about who do you think you are? What do you know? Are you feeling ok? Essentially, they are saying 'No! You cannot do that'.

Angular style of painting with thick lines of colour in blocks.

A change that grows

You reach a point though, where you think, I just can’t do this anymore. You’re aware that your mental health is starting to suffer. Your creative inspiration has almost dried up because there is no motivation to carry on with the painting as it is. You feel you don’t have the freedom to create what you want and continuing to create something that doesn’t represent you, is proving impossible.

It’s at this point, that you think, enough! If I am to continue with this picture, then I will paint it in my own unique way. It feels to you that you have no choice, yet you are scared about what may happen.

You decide to stick with creating this portrait of your life using painting. There had been a moment when you thought about using a different artform, like using music to portray your journey over the years. Maybe you could have used dance, sculpture or the written word. How wonderful these arts would be in creating a portrayal of someone’s life. Something that would be truly different to what had been done before. There are so many ways now that people can express themselves, why is there still this need for people to conform to traditional practices? You know though, that would be really outside the box and you’re not the type of person to draw too much attention to the changes you want to make. This is why you decide to carry on painting.

Small and slow creates big and powerful

You decide that you want to make subtle changes, with the hope that others won’t immediately notice what you are doing. You’ve seen how some people make sudden drastic changes on their canvas which causes all kinds of problems, resulting with their canvas being ruined.

You also appreciate by looking at history books that painting styles have certainly changed over the years, all be it very gradually. This is why you believe that making subtle changes to your painting will work, making possible, the change that you seek. You will have more control and it won’t cause upset to others, hopefully because they won’t notice. Essentially, you will be able to paint the picture that you have been dreaming of creating.

Over time, your picture starts to develop in a more abstract way, the colours are richer and more varied. You’ve learnt different ways to blend the colours to create new ones, that give your picture something refreshingly new. You’ve experimented with different painting tools to paint brushes, like sponges, sticks, fabric, your fingers. There’s a lot more contrast and depth in the painting, with the light and shade across the canvas providing a deep sense of balance, which you feel now reflects you more.

You've been cautious with the changes you've made, thinking about them carefully and acting slowly, so the people around you unconsciously get used to the changes you’re making. There have been a few times when people have said to you, ‘what have you done?’,’ that looks different’, some have even said that they don’t like what you’ve painted. You feel ok with that, because mostly, they have commented and then gone back to their own work.

Three images with a female figure brushed with strange effect, a possibly huminoid fuigure in blues and purples and a tiger print with no clear face visible.

Inspiring others

Interestingly, you are aware that others have started to copy some of the ways you paint. You see that their pictures have got more colour, there’s more inventiveness in their creativity and you smile to yourself. It feels good to see that if people are given a different way of doing something, that isn’t too far out of their usual way, then they enjoy the opportunity to do something new.

You’ve gained a few followers who like your creativity and with how you are painting your picture. They comment that they see you looking happier and that your picture brings warmth to their life. They ask you, ‘How do you do it? You say it hasn’t been easy and it took a lot of courage to make the changes you’ve made. You tell them also that you were mindful about the rules associated with how to paint the picture of your life. But that it was important and necessary to you, to create a picture that has meaning to you and that reflects who you are. You add that you have always respected the rules associated with the work and that you would never harm anyone else’s picture. It’s just, it felt important to be the artist you were born to be and create an honest and open reflection of your life.

Calmness and contentment

Over the years, photos have been taken of your picture by your family and later by yourself. You can see how much your picture has changed and you feel a deep sense of pride at what you have achieved. When you were a child, your picture just looked like those of your parents. Same colours, textures and structure. As a teenager, the picture looked very confusing, dark, shapeless, without any clear indication of what it wanted to be. Then as you matured, you noticed the subtle changes that you made with the addition of new colours, new painting techniques, more freedom and depth.

Beautiful orange and purple colours used to depict a galaxy or some astrological wonder in the universe.

It’s at this point that deep down inside of you, you feel content that you have created a picture of your life that represents who you are. It wasn’t easy, especially when you first made the decision to change your painting style. It's also not perfect, but it feels better than if you had done nothing. At least you asserted your own influence on your work. It was important and necessary to make the changes you did, but when you reflect on the journey you've taken, you feel a deep sense of sadness that the journey at times was so difficult. There have certainly been many dark thoughts and feelings that were hard to bear, just to show people who you truly are. Just to live your life, in the way you want, the way that you were born.

It shouldn't have to be so difficult, to be yourself and to live your life authentically.

As you look back on the journey you've had, you think and hope, 'who knows? In the future, maybe people will be given the freedom from childhood, to discover what kind of artist they are by themselves. To be able to paint the picture of their life, in their own unique way'.


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