In third grade my parents bought me, at the Disneyland Tiki Hut gift shop, a wooden flute. I asked my teacher if I could play in front of the class. Walking to the front of the classroom, I realized I had no idea how to actually play the flute. I blew a few sad notes and then died and went back to my desk.
Ten minutes before sixty or so of my best friends--Peter invited EVERYONE--were supposed to show up for the opening of twenty portraits I had painted, we were still waiting for the printer to deliver two of the panels and all of the cards that actually explained the show. I thought, I've had this terrible feeling before. Oh yeah, I don't even know how to play the flute!
Months earlier, I had asked the director of the American cultural center if I could have a show of my paintings. I sent her my portfolio in January and she said yes to a show based on the March theme of Women's Rights Are Human Rights. I made a schedule for completing the work for the March 30 opening--I really didn't want to be working on the paintings as we were hanging the, ten minutes before the doors opened. I planned to do 16 to 20 pieces, two and sometimes three works each week, totally doable.
Right around that time I saw a video of a young person saying they'd never read the U.N. Declaration of Universal Human Rights. I thought, wow, I haven't either.
Sitting at my desk, starting to work on the portraits, I asked Peter and his sister Ludmilla--how about if we display the Declaration of Human Rights, then read the stories of the women whose lives exemplify each of those rights? It's only three times more work than just doing portraits! We agreed, as did the gallery director, that that sounded like a big project, but really interesting.
Friends on Facebook helped by telling me women they admired; researching the lives of those women for the short bios that accompany each portrait was one of the most interesting aspects of pulling the show together. I balanced the show with some favorite heros, and some less well known. The paintings depict women from different parts of the world, ranging in ages 6 to 92.
For the back wall, I designed two floor-to-ceiling banners of the Universal Declarations of Human Rights--in English and Ukrainian. The biographical label next to each portrait is numbered to correspond with the human right each woman exemplifies. Lesya Ukrainka's portrait features butterfly wings made of her poetry. Weeks ahead of time, I gave the printer the files for a giant version of the wings to flutter next to the panel telling the history of Eleanor Roosevelt drafting the rights the U.N. adopted in 1948. I gave the printer the file for postcards to announce the show. The food was supplied by the gallery, but we had to buy the wine--Peter and I spent days trying to figure out how much.
The opening was supposed to start at 6:30. At 6:15, a nervously sweating mess, I resigned myself to the show opening without the printer delivering the panels. We had wine, who needs panels?
The Russian and Ukrainian languages adopted the French word for art opening: vernissage; the word comes from the artist allowing guests in to see the art during the final touches, the varnishing. At 6:20, the printer delivered the panels and cards. The gallery director, in her haste to attach hangers onto the back of a panel, stapled it to the floor. Even though I had finished all the paintings and graphics with time to spare, the event was certainly, because of the local printer, very much a vernissage.
Using a screw driver, we pried the panel from the floor and attached it to the wall. We asked our first guest if it was hanging straight or not. Then, champagne was passed, the room filled up and art work was taken in. I took a million photos of my friends with wings. The Public Affairs Section is going to include a mention of the show in the cable to Washington about Women's History month events. The Ambassador visited the show and wrote me a lovely note complimenting me on the art work and the concept.
I don't know how long it takes to learn to play flute, but given the opportunity, and eight weeks and ten minutes, we can grow wings.
More details about the artwork at dinabernardin.com.