Full of nerves, I slunk into my outfit for the ZACC benefit gala. Why oh why did I sign up to attend a fancy dinner and art auction all by myself?
Because I’d meet more people without J. at my side to whisper with all night, that’s why. And because not going was not an option: venturing past the edge of social comfort is important, just to remind us that we never really outgrow adolescence. Awkwardness means something’s happening. I had donated a piece of art that they had accepted into the silent auction, and wanted to see its destiny. And I wanted to learn a bit more about the Missoula art world. (Little did I know that not long after, I’d have another opportunity to feel socially inept, this time meeting one of my art idols, totally unannounced and serendipitously… but more on that next time!)
So far, I’ve mostly steered clear of the gallery scene, except for looking at other people’s art. Trying to “get in,” navigating egos at play, networking in loud, small spaces, knowing the vocabulary that makes one sound with-it… not my forté nor my interest. To boot, it’s an incredibly hard way to make a living as an artist, probably even harder than hawking one’s goods alongside fifty other people hawking goods at the People’s Market every summer Saturday. Supply and demand: the former far outstrips the latter.
But community is important. The fellowship of other artists and lovers of the arts is a string of buoys in a choppy sea. I believe we can all help one another, and rejoice at each other’s successes. Community, feedback, collaboration: antidotes to burnout and other ills. So I signed up. And suited up.
Emi from work loaned me a fabulous dress that she owns thanks to her second career as a blueswoman, and Secret Seconds, the best thrift store in town (it benefits the programs of the YWCA), provided the accessories: my very first clutch, and a pair of remarkably comfy heels. From JoAnn Fabrics I obtained a length of silver cord for a headband, and sewed a fake poppy over one ear. And there it was: flapper for less than $15.
J. said I looked like Olive Oyl, in an affectionate way, and he was nice enough to be my chauffeur. It occurred to me as we neared the Wilma Theater that perhaps this was not a dress-up event. Was I gonna be the only person in sequins? I had just resolved to let my freak flag fly, when I saw people in expensive-looking outfits headed for the door. Whew.
Like a benevolent fairy godmother, whoever did the seating arrangement put all the artists together. This way, the high rollers who wanted to bid on sumptuous dessert platters as a table wouldn’t be dragged down by people trying to stretch dimes… and by people who have enough dimes, but still could think of several better uses for 400 of them than as a trade for a couple of Le Petit Outre blueberry tartlets with spun sugar bird’s-nests on top, delicious as those might be. Even better, the clustering of artists, each of whom had donated a work to the silent auction, allowed us to meet one another. So, may I introduce my tablemates…
Ashley Mitchell, who crafted an adorable monster party scene made of felted animals sharing a felted pizza in the felted woods. The Clay Studio of Missoula sculptor Richard Smith, also unrepentantly attending alone. Candice Haster, whose date was her mother, and who seems to work in every medium, from clay to paper to cake:
And Lillian Nelson, who paints along wood grain to stunning effect:
I managed to stay detached from the fate of my piece– another prerequisite for stepping near the flames of competitive fine art. It did sell, to Candice, who bought it as a surprise for her mother, who had expressed a yen for it just before we met. Very sweet. I observed that whether a work sold, or whether a bidding war erupted over it, didn’t necessarily correlate with its quality. A gorgeous painting of light-shot glass marbles, mounted in a shadow box with a real marble, did not receive a single bid. And of course anything with a bison on it or in the shape of Montana sold easily. That is the artistic equivalent of the culinary shortcut of smothering something in cheese or bacon: not every dish employing such tricks is bad, but even if it is, nobody can resist it.
So we ate catered dinner (tastefully not smothered in cheese or bacon) and watched other folks bid on artwork, desserts, and vacation getaways. Lillian’s fellow held up his paddle for the first bid a few times, just for the thrill. He was bound to be outbid, but why not play the game? I wandered upstairs and found a photobooth where happy couples were mugging. And why not play that game too? Who cares if it’s just me – I’ll celebrate the empty space to my left:
And then the volunteers whisked away the dishes, and the artworks were packed up and paid for and taken away to their new homes, and that was that. I texted J. to collect me, and was glad to kick off my heels and put on a sweater. Charity gala auctions aren’t my idea of fun, but I’m glad I went. I don’t know that I made any unsinkable friends, but the energy’s flowing in the right direction. Baby steps into the uncomfortable, sequins and all.