Today is Chuck Close's 75th birthday.
Related: I have this major hang up where I am convinced everyone around me is 1) way cooler than me 2) way smarter than me. This particular brand of self consciousness is something I've struggled with for-ever. It used to be wayyyyyy way more inhibiting though, in my younger years (uhh but let's face it. I'm still young, OK?). Yeah, it was way more pervasive back in the day...now I'd say it's definitely just situational. So - while I'm at ease, say, helping customers find dress at the shop and editing an article for publication, I'm a complete disaster standing in line at a coffee shop in a new city, terrified the barista is going to get annoyed at me for asking for a tall instead of a medium (that's a real thing, by the way, ordering coffee at new coffee shops can be stressful!).
When I try and pinpoint the time when I finally got a better hold of myself, ya know, learned how to reign in the social scaredy-cat, I think it was in the winter of 2007 when I took a "Writing about Art" class at the Center for the Study of Modern Art at the Phillips Collection. I took it as a "continuing adult education" kind of class; I was figuring out what direction I wanted to take my career at that time and was interested in expanding my art education as well as my writing skills so...duh. Most of the other students in the class, however, were undergrads from the University of Chicago as the Center was a satellite campus at the time - and they all knew each other. Cue my crazy.
I felt like a total weirdo outsider who no one knew and no one tried to get to know and I'd walk from (one of) the Starbucks in duPont Circle with Maggie to the corner of the museum as late as possible before class so I didn't have to sit around the big lecture table with everyone chattering around me waiting for class to start and me just....sitting silently. Like, they would literally talk around me as I sat there and looked down at my papers. They weren't being mean - they were just living their lives, oblivious to my discomfort. One time someone told me they liked my outfit though and I almost died of happiness.
Part of this class was taking a trip to NYC with our professor (who I thought was SO cool, even cooler than those freshman. She was mid-30s with a New York hair cut where the messier it looks, the more expensive it was,you know the kind, and she wore cropped black pants and fitted black blazers and white t shirts and brown oxfords and minimalist jewelry, you know the kind) Anyway. Mid-semester, the whole gang (plus me) took the train up to New York and spent four days getting behind-the-scenes tours of museums and galleries and meeting tons of cool people doing cool shit. We got a guided preview of the Whitney Biennial before it went on view to the public (a seriously SERIOUSLY special experience), a guided tour of the MoMA, the New Museum, and a ton of other super exclusive and really fun stuff.
And I had a great time, I really did. I learned a ton and got super inspired and experienced a lot of things I never would have gotten to experience otherwise. Still, though, I was in New York for four days alone with no one to share the experience with - hell, I didn't have anyone to eat lunch with, let alone swap theoretical frameworks with! So yes, I felt decidedly lonely and alone; I remember calling Tom the second night from my hotel room at 8:30 p.m. - in for the night, because what the hell else was I gonna do? and he was out at Bistro with Chris and Victoria. They passed the phone around, yelling over each other about how much they missed me and what they were eating and I started to cry. Like, sobbing crying. Oh, god, I wanted to go home! I never went to summer camp as a kid but I can only imagine that's what that kind of homesickness feels like. Do you feel sorry for me yet?
The day after my emotional breakdown, we spent the entire afternoon gallery-hopping in Chelsea as a group. It was my first introduction into something like "gallery-hopping" altogether. Yet another intimidating activity in which I feared I stuck out like a neon floral print in Kim Kardashian's closet...like, have you seen the people who work at these galleries? They're silent and wearing kimonos and horn rimmed glasses and the art is for sale and they know good and well you're not buying any of it so why are you even there, anyway? Luckily for me and my social performance anxiety though, we were with our uber cool prof who breezed in, kissing cheeks and calling gallery girls by name.
I can't remember the name of this one gallery, but there we all were, roaming around taking notes and trying to look pensive, and out of the corner of my eye I see a bald man in a wheelchair in the next room over. I thought to myself, haha weird that totally looks like Chuck Close's wheelchair. and THEN I thought to myself....haaanngggg oooonnn a tick....that IS Chuck Close's wheelchair. Because that's Chuck Close sitting in it. There he was, folks, one of my heroes and masters of modern art just casually spending an afternoon checking out the newest art in Chelsea. I looked all around me for some sign of recognition on any of my peer's faces - like, are you seeing this? What should we do? We have to do something! But not one single one of my classmates recognized him and it was driving me MAD.
And so, it was my Chuck Close sighting that finally made me overcome my shyness and speak to one of my classmates. I whispered to the closest girl....I think that's Chuck Close. And she said, what, where?!?! And soon everyone in the class knew that Chuck Close was visiting the same gallery we were in and they knew I was the person who recognized him! Suddenly, I was in the middle of it all, recounting the dramatic double take I did when I realized who he was and exactly how far from him I'd stood. Everyone was buzzing around me and I'm pretty sure I could have sold a few autographs. Even my professor gave me props for my sighting skills.
That night, I went out to dinner in Little Italy with a few of the girls from the group. It was fun - still a bit awkward, sure, but I finally felt included and like I had something to offer and like they cared about what I had to say....though I'm pretty sure if I'd leaned over to one of the girls on the first day of class and just said, like, "hi", I would have been included way sooner.
At the time the class and the trip felt like a fun, educational( if a bit emotionally challenging) singular thing that I got to do. Looking back on it though it was obviously way more than that for me. I mean, because of it, I'm finally comfortable checking out new art galleries and chatting up potential new friends - like just life stuff, you know, I'm cool - though I'm still terrified of hipster baristas in hipster coffee shops thinking I'm lame.
Oh, and one other thing I learned on that trip. If you find yourself breathing the same air as one of your heroes, make sure you say something to them. I was in a room alone with Chuck Close and I said not a single peep to the man. It's something I still think about and something I still regret. Even a "hi" and a head nod would have done me just fine!
So, happy birthday, Chuck! Thanks for your innovation, contribution to modern art...and for helping me feel a bit more cool.