Mustering the courage to paint a visionary

After a decade of living in the shadows of my desire to make art, a little tale about how and why I came to paint a portrait of Ava Duvernay.

Mollie Ruskin
Mar 9, 2018 · 6 min read

For the first time in ten years, I finished a painting.

Ten years of job-hopping in organizing and web designing and government-ing and researching and hard, change-makin’ work. Long nights, new skills, new careers, and schlepping between cities and social lives. So many encouraging gifts — canvases and paint sets and sketchbooks — from those who didn’t want me to give up. Failed attempts at picking up a brush again and again.

For the better part of a lifetime spent fervently believing in the power and interconnectedness of art and social change, I remained unable to find the courage to partake myself.

In the waning weeks of last year — a year in which I forced myself to figure out how to create space for more than just the job — I decided it was time.

Making art was first on the list of post-over-employment self-care activities I set out to do. And the last thing I conjured up the willpower to take on. Piles of hand-me-down canvasses and untouched pristine brushes began following me around my apartment, reminding me that I had resolved all of the thin excuses I had been leaning on for years: I can’t commit because I travel so much for work. Classes are expensive. I don’t live near any studios. Art isn’t a good use of my time.

So, in November, I enrolled in a portrait painting class and that was that.

I went to class every week. And I kept going back. And then I never wanted to stop. Like a language I forgot I knew, it came back faster and more generously than I had anticipated.

I quickly found that unfolding my voice onto the surface in front of me became more daunting than picking up the brush in the first place.

Fluency in form returned with an ease I couldn’t have imagined but when it came to creating something with meaning, I was terrified I would hate whatever I made.

I longed to create art that boldly entangled itself in the mess of the world around me, that followed the path of so many artists I have loved and admired for years — who are able to convey with paint and image powerful articulations of rage and hope and vision for a world free of all the fucked up things tumbling in on us.

But I worried that if I tried to make “art about justice” it would come across as self-righteous and off-key. As a white person perpetually thinking about the need for more images by and for people of color, I wondered what I had to offer to the conversation. I feared that only an indulgent, semi-obnoxious academic version of my ideas would emerge.

I was offered a constraint from my dear partner, who I think was a little sick of hearing me spin out over my getting-started anxiety. He generated a simple prompt: “Paint someone in your social justice world who you truly admire.”

When I would shrug at the idea, he’d ever so gently keep asking me who it would be.

The truth was, I already knew. I just needed this push.

I wanted to paint Ava.

My painting teacher, the talented Caitlin Hurd, helps me lay the groundwork in the early stages of the portrait.

Ava Duvernay is a filmmaker, a storyteller and a dream builder who is creating a new image of the world. And damn, does it seem like she’s having a good time while doing it.

Ava never held a camera until age 32, and within a few years, had released Selma, a major motion picture which tells the stunning and brutal story of the fight for freedom and the right to vote for Black Americans.

But grand stories about MLK are perhaps the easy ones to tell. The 13th, her landmark film that came next, takes on our country’s prison system. It features the likes of both Angela Davis and Newt Gingrich. (Which is really quite incredible). It lays out plainly this thing we so very much do not want to see, with a clarity and force that’s hard to look away from: an incarceration apperatus that is fiercely, systemically racist and has grown directly from our American legacy of slavery.

But it’s not Ava’s ability to bring us into history that draws me to her, for there are many artists who tell stories of where we have been. It’s her vision for today and tomorrow that I so admire — creations like Queen Sugar and Wrinkle in Time. These are works that feature complicated and beautiful women and nuanced black and brown characters, full of voice and richness. People who’ve been relinquished to bit parts, stereotypes, and sidekicks on our screens for far too long. This time, they’re treated with love and humanity and imagination.

Beyond her own camera, Ava is creating space for more women and people of color to take over the telling of the stories we see across our screens. Array is Ava’s unique grassroots distribution and advocacy organization that has been supporting the film work of women and people of color for almost a decade.

But, silly as it seems, it’s in her signature Instagram stories where I find myself falling in love with Ava the most. She regularly tags everyone she works with, takes selfies with her big, beautiful family at glamourous Hollywood parties, and quite literally, jumps for joy at every step. (The woman seriously loves a well executed bouncy Boomerang). She lets us in on the movie-making process and lets us know that having a ball is part of how to survive out here. She seems to build up the people around her with an earnestness that’s hard not to admire.

All this while showing millions of Americans both the dark parts of where we’ve been and boundless places where we have yet to go. This one person is throwing open doors which have been locked for too long, giving black and brown girls the overdue chance to see themselves and their potential in our world, and showing all of us what is possible.

At once radical and yet accessible, contagiously joyful and uniquely bold, this is the very kind of vision I wanted to point to in my own return to art making.

I happened to finish this painting during Black History Month and I happen to be sharing it on International Women’s Day. But I believe firmly that the histories—and futures—of Black people and women must not be relegated to single days and months.

They are woven fully into the American story and we must acknowledge and pay tribute every single day to those who history books and big screens so often fail to recognize. And as white people, we need to find more ways to study and celebrate the people of color who have, and continue to, shape our world.

For me, my little painting is but a small attempt at building a practice of this belief.

I continue to wrestle with making time for painting, amidst an ambitious and demanding career which continues to take new shapes. Yet this project has helped me recognize how much I am seeking to build a life in which creativity bleeds into change making.

This was an exciting first subject, challenging and yet also freeing, in many ways. Now, I feel even more compelled to keep pushing myself beyond what is comfortable and easy, to use this form to bring about critique and beauty and conversation and reflection upon the stories and people and values which I hold most dear.

And so I offer you this portrait of Ava, a trailblazing Black woman — an artistic inspiration, and an acknowledgement of a visionary who brings exuberance and beauty to the struggle for freedom, and a nod to what lies ahead.

Mollie Ruskin

Written by

design + social justice + people-centered change + tech + radishes + rooftops + other miscellaneous meanderings

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