WHO AM I? two versions by Pam Sutherland

I was asked by a student 8 years ago to answer this question for her Senior Project. Another student is resurrecting the same question for her Senior Speech this year, comparing the responses, and the subsequent evolution of each of the participants. Here is what I said, then and now.

I am Pamela Anderson, the first one, the unfamous one,
the one from Virginia.
A woman-girl who still feels 26,
who likes to make things
and talk and write and dress up and eat things
made out of tomatoes, garlic and starch.
The one who cries too much while
smiling, a daddy’s girl, a friend, an art teacher, a mentor
to the children she couldn’t have. The one
with the evil left breast who wishes all bad things would go away now,
but knows that’s life no matter
who you are or
where you’re from.
When my hair was longer I used to think I was an afghan hound.

(2016) I am a woman in the middle of my life. Literally. I am physically in the middle for sure. I am aging. My thumbs hurt. I have a pain running down my right leg that is ever present when I brush my teeth or browse Target. I can’t run like I used to. But that’s the worst of it. I actually like my crow’s feet now, my lopsided smile. My definition of beauty has expanded: because I like my life now more than ever, the underneath of me matters a lot more to me than my necessarily flawed outside. I’m happily married. I’m an accidental and grateful mom. I’m a devoted art teacher. And underneath it all I am an artist. I love making things: collages, classes, dinners, friendships, stories, outfits, love. Life is a giant act of arrangement and I am enjoying balancing the good with the bad.


Artist Q & A by Pam Sutherland

I was approached by former student, Alexa Evans, as part of her Art Seminar at James Madison University. The assignment was to interview an artist who has impacted her artistic journey.

Would you share with me what were some of your initial experiences with art?

 I always liked to draw, particularly the Peanuts comic strip. I copied Snoopy and Woodstock endlessly as a child. I took art throughout my high school years, and again copying was key—but this time realistic portraits from photographs. Several of my peers could also do this well, but I was always digging deeper emotionally with my work, wanting to tell a story of meaning and not just rely on technical acumen. This attitude definitely informs my work now as well as the lens through which I teach.

When did you decide to be an artist, and how did you know?

I always knew I wanted to be an artist, or rather that creativity would determine my career path, but I was not sure exactly what that meant in terms of a tangible job. That I earn my primary living as an art teacher is a good fit for me, as I am content to balance the inwardness/selfishness of art-making with the nurturing required of the best teachers. I realize now how this is not necessarily true of all artists. To say I decided to be an artist feels sort of false though. It was a natural evolution. I would not say the label“artist” felt genuine until about ten years ago, although the seeds of such an identity have always been a part of me.

 Where did you grow up?

I was born in Richmond, but raised from 5th grade on in Charlottesville with a brief interlude in 4th Grade in            Pennsylvania.

What was your family unit? Did you have brothers or sisters?

I have a sister three years younger. My parents were married 15 years and divorced when I was 13. Both of my parents married new partners when I was 15 (literally within one week of each other.) This resulted in a stepsister the same age as my natural sister. My mother was a depressive alcoholic throughout my childhood and the isolation and shame I felt because of that made art a natural outlet for me.

Were there teachers that influenced you? How so?

My high school art teacher, Waldo Johnson, was a very sweet, elderly African–American man who totally supported my art interest and talent. I do not remember anything he taught me beyond calligraphy, but he nominated me for the first Summer Governor’s School for the Arts, which was a real turning point for me. I quickly realized I was different from my peers in being able to spend many, many more hours drawing than any of them; hence my decision to major in art in college. I adored my ceramics professor from William & Mary, Marlene Jack, and I have inadvertently modeled my approach to teaching and students after her without even realizing it. My teachers in graduate school (Washington University in St. Louis) were disappointing within my discipline of painting, but I found many other teachers—those in printmaking and English—inspiring. Overall, though, life is the best teacher, and teachers that speak to those universal, human truths (alongside those of their specific discipline) are always the most memorable ones.

What was the most important thing you learned in school?

Ideally, that subjects that interest you are interdependent in terms of how you garner inspiration and content for your art. For me this has always manifested in a collaboration between art and English, image and text, drawing and writing.

Do you have mentors or other working artists who influence you today?

I gather with a few other women artists once a month to have critiques of our work and to discuss ideas relevant to the art world today. Most of my closest women friends who have stood the test of time, are artists themselves or creative in some way, and so we are often sounding boards for each other’s practices and/or frustrations with the elusive art “market.” While I try to remain abreast of contemporary art I think at this point I am at least a decade behind in terms of who is current or cutting edge. I think I choose a certain level of ignorance as many of the trends at the moment are less tied to formalism/modernism/transcendence, things I am motivated by creatively, and more so by political issues of the moment such as sustainability, globalization, climate change, etc. It is not that I am not concerned about such things in my own life, but more that art for me is geared towards issues that transcend those particulars—what it is to be human, beauty, poetics, mortality, etc. Artists I admire include Doris Salcedo, Louise Bourguois, Francesco Clemente, Kiki Smith, Janine Antoni, Felix Gonzales Torres, Jim Hodges, Wolfgang Laib, Anselm Kiefer, Thomas Nozkowski, Cy Twombly, Richard Diebenkorn, Robert Motherwell, Milton Avery and for me, the beginning of it all, Edward Hopper-for his love of value and his open-ended, emotionally charged narratives of isolation and loneliness. Theresa Pollak, a renowned and beloved Richmond artist and teacher, for whom part of the VCU art school is named, was someone I helped right out of college when she was in her mid 90s. It’s ironic and special to me how much my own art path parallels her own—something I could never have anticipated when we spent time together.

Would you say your occupation is the same as your career?

Yes, because my occupation as high school art teacher is inextricably linked to my mindset as an artist. I teach what I know, what I love, and what I do every day. I am grateful to get paid to affect young people with the things I believe in, and to parlay a fairly isolated avocation (art-making) into a more nurturing and collaborative vocation. To have to put into words and action on a daily basis the things I believe through the projects I create or through the evaluation process of critiques, has helped me understand and clarify my intentions creatively. I am a better artist as a result. And a better teacher for tangibly and transparently practicing the things I teach.

 Did you have any benchmarks in your career? By the time I’m X, I’ll have done Y?

 Never. I do not look at life that way, for better or for worse. I have always led my life trying to be mindful of the moment, giving the best I can in that moment in the most honest way possible, and trusting that the universe will deliver in the way it needs to bring out the best in me. I have a comfortable relationship with suffering and disappointment, believing deeply that such conflict is where true growth happens. I    would never want to rush such a process. I also think such an attitude runs counter to the ultimate point of art—that its power rests in the journey and not the outcome. Frankly, this benchmark attitude is what most worries me about young people today, the expectation of greatness/acquisitions/granite counter tops(!) before you even know who you really are/what it means/what its for. This “like” culture is dangerous, and enables an identity to form shallowly, without the true grit and struggle that imbues one with a unique and authentic sense of self. Artists, young artists, especially, need to be aware of this.

Were there any gatekeepers in the art world for you, people who either let you in or barred the way as you were coming through?

Yes. I owe a tremendous amount of gratitude to Kathryn Markel, a gallery owner in NYC, who represented me for seven years. While I have shown locally since leaving grad school, I was never formally represented by a single gallery in Richmond, and have often struggled to receive adequate press within my own community. For whatever reason, this has always been easier to attain elsewhere, often in much larger markets, from DC to New York. Within my art education, I was struck by how professors could be immensely generous, sharing their knowledge, wisdom and professional connections, or by contrast, competitive, passive aggressively denying you access to a larger audience. When I was young, I tended to think this was reflective of some deficit within me, but I know now, that as in any field, there are secure and insecure people. I prefer to work with people as generous and secure as myself. Sadly, and especially within the gallery structure, they are hard to find.

Are there any professional organization that you joined that you found particularly helpful to your career?

Becoming an artist board member of 1708 Gallery in my late twenties, upon leaving graduate school, was instrumental in connecting me to my immediate art community. It afforded me many opportunities to not only exhibit my work, but create programs like “Wearable Art” or curate exhibitions that broadened my definition of what it meant to be a working artist.

What do you think are the major turning points in your career?

By far the most instrumental turning point in my life was being hired at Collegiate in 1998. Everything truly good in my life has stemmed from that opportunity. Kathryn Markel Gallery was a result of teaching a student who was her niece, and having that student ask me daily whether or not I had contacted her yet. One day I did, and the rest is history. I won a VMFA Professional Fellowship in 2004 after 15 years of applying for it, and that was huge in recalibrating my sense of worth and confidence as an artist. In fact, I’d say after earning that award was the first time I felt genuinely connected to calling myself an “artist.” I traveled to the VCCA for a residency in 2006 and adored that experience. Showing in NYC twice was a tremendous privilege and joy, and unexpectedly getting the Pollak Prize in 2009 from Richmond Magazine, very shortly after the death of my beloved father, was bittersweet but profound. To have come full circle from working with Theresa Pollak at 23 and at 39 receiving an award in her name was surreal, and yet very appropriate after all I had been through personally and professionally to get there. Accolades aside, the most profound turning point in my actual art practice was (re)discovering collage—something I had always used in making simple cards for loved ones---and incorporating it into my studio routine. It changed everything. For the first time, the work I made felt like mine.

What’s been your interaction with or relation to the public over the years?

Confusing. Especially now. When you earn these aforementioned accolades you get sort of pigeonholed artistically. The public wants you to keep making what you make because collectors/the market place/galleries deems that work valuable/salable. When you feel the need to change even in a small visual way, the public can be slow to catch on or reward you. I also have always had trouble determining how much people are responding to the actual work I make versus my role as a teacher, nurturing, for example a collector’s children in my classroom (i.e. they buy my work because their kid likes/liked me, having no real affection for the work itself). When I was younger I wondered if what I looked like or what I wore was being rewarded. This is much less an issue now at almost 50, although sometimes I wish it still was: it has never been easier for women artists in particular to milk that lens with culture’s emphasis on marketability through social media. In general, if you let the public determine your worth as an artist you are doomed. Art, at its core, asks that you be fully self-possessed; steered by your own intuition and values, often at the expense of what is popular or rewarded by the majority. True artists of all disciplines divorce themselves from the ego and celebrity that can so often these days come from “success.” Sort of like the gallery owners, these artists are hard to find. Steve Martin is a good example of an artist who has pursued many different kinds of creative expression throughout his career (curator, collector, writer, actor, musician) art being central to his being, regardless of what the market wanted him to be (i.e. a comedian).

What kind of control do you think you exert over your own destiny as an artist?

In so much as you retain your integrity and treat people fairly and with respect and kindness, I think you can assume you are doing the best you can. Good things come to those who wait---and to those people that are doing it because they need to, not for what it can get them. Idealistic? Maybe. But this is how I choose to live my life.

What are you own criteria for success as an artist?

You can probably fill in the blank by now. Fame in any context has never interested me. And so, my life as it exists now, is pretty ideal. I am able to make my work, not struggle financially, and have the freedom to make changes visually/conceptually if I want to as I am not beholden to a marketplace.  All I would add to the equation would be to develop a new relationship with a gallerist who I genuinely respected and trusted, whose space was a compatible venue for my work, and with whom I could show my work every few years. Losing the NY gallery in the last five years has been my largest obstacle: figuring out how to market my work in its absence and secure a meaningful audience for what is “new” work for me. But just looking at the world through an artistic lens is such a gift; it is the thing, as a teacher, I most hope to give students even if they never set foot in another art classroom.

Has money or critical success influenced your artistic decision making?

Never. I have always made my work for me first. If the marketplace catches on that is the icing on the cake. But again, I am fortunate to make my living through teaching, thus affording me the ability to snub such considerations.

Are you satisfied with your career as an artist?

Yes. Mostly. If I could solve the gallery issue (and I trust I will, just not right away) it would be ideal.

What do you think is your greatest disappointment in your professional career? What has been you greatest success?

I have to preface these answers by saying I have been enormously fortunate in my art life. Things in this arena have generally landed in my lap (especially when things in the personal arena were challenging). And so it is ironic, that just when I finally got married a 45 was precisely when I lost the KM Gallery. My work necessarily changed with this marked alteration to my life structure, and Kathryn did not respond to the work as much. With so much personal upheaval at the time, I did not initially notice this loss, but I have since regretted it, mostly because I genuinely liked and respected her and trusted her relationship to my work. It has been very difficult so far to find someone of equal intelligence and professionalism locally to take on my work. My greatest success? Just continuing to make art when it would be easy and expedient not to.

 What advice would you give someone who wanted to be an artist today, as opposed to when you started?

 Where do I begin? I’m not sure I would want to be a young person now, navigating a life as an artist. That is not to say there are not ten times as many opportunities open creatively to young people today as art is conflated with so many practices now. But that is the danger. Can anyone be a photographer now because of Instagram.? Are you an interior designer because you have a Pintrest page loaded with wallpaper swatches of your favorite bucket chairs? Does having an Etsy shop stocked with homemade feather earrings make you a jewelry designer? Yes and no. As far as design goes, I think it is anyone’s oyster. And social media and the internet have made marketing one’s identity as such so much easier, but also significantly more competitive. Increasingly, though, design and art are considered one and the same and they are not. This is something I try very hard to make the distinction between with my students: the difference between, art, craft and design. Most critically, I would ask every “creative”/”maker” (the big words floating around now that I would argue have little to do with the original meaning of artist)  to ask themselves why are you doing this? Making a living from something implies certain boundaries. So does seeking fame. Making a living as a portrait painter who relies on regular commissions and has a formulaic, craft-driven approach to art-making is a very different kind of artist than someone who follows the interior threads of their emotions and life experiences as they sway and shift in order to more fully know themselves as human beings, all the while never knowing (but not necessarily caring or needing) the public to acknowledge that search. Which are you? What are you? Who are you? This is something one needs to ascertain to fully reach his/her potential in any creative field.
































Self Check Out by Pam Sutherland

            The people in my checkout line were impatient. I had chosen self-checkout reluctantly due to endless lines elsewhere, and now, with their faces cemented in a single linear glare, I had become their inadvertent scapegoat. I had eleven different vegetables, tiny peppers in shades of orange and green and three versions of red apple for a still life my class was drawing, none with scanable bar codes. It was taking a long time. “DO YOU HAVE ANY COUPONS?” the touch screen moaned. I shot a glance at the bored, hovering cashier leaning against a nearby podium; someone presumably competent, but unusable. I wondered what I was doing.

            I had house flies careening like tiny airplanes around my house. I killed at least nine a day, smashing them with the same paperback until their flying parts resembled wet figs. I was good, really good at this task; I could take out two in less than five seconds. But here I moved slower than I should, my mind sticky. I was relieved when the beep indicated I needed assistance (I had punched in the wrong code on purpose), for then Daneesha showed up: name tag hanging crooked, eyes sunken by too much blue eyeliner, her gum trapped mid chew. She considered an apple.

             “You need to take that off the scale.”

            The collective sighs of my fellow self-checkers fortified me. “You know I get such a sense of empowerment from being able to do this myself.” Daneesha seemed to get my sarcasm. She elicited a slight smile, crooked too. I continued. Serious.

             “Do you actually like standing there, waiting for us to mess up? Wouldn’t you rather be doing something?”

            Daneesha thinks. She looks down at the tile and then up “I dunno. I guess so. But it’s kind of fun watching people get mad.”

            I decided to prolong everyone’s agony by inserting exact change, seven tattered dollars and six pennies, into the sprawling, automated cashier. I received a tapeworm receipt for my efforts including some coupons it will prove too tedious to use should I find myself here again. (Never!) As I walked out of the store, I thought of all the other things I find tedious about America lately, about Richmond, and what they might have in common.

Starbucks calling a small “tall.”

Starbucks selling mix cds.

Starbucks making mints.

Fandango (that name!) fooling you into thinking your movie night has been made simplerby being able to purchase the tickets online (assuming you own a computer) only to arrive at the theater five minutes prior to show time (normal time, you do have a ticket) and realizing the only seat left is the one where your head is craned at a 90 degree angle to the screen. Why bother?

The cinemas themselves touting more choice when, in fact, even if you can choose between 20 films only ten people can fit into each theater now anyway.

Parking at the mall. Just getting to the mall. It’s almost time for satellite parking and shuttle buses. Where and why is everyone going?

Building two malls that start with the same two letters, S and P, at the same time, in the same city, and expecting anyone to know the difference.

Chipotle, Barnes & Noble, Pet Smart, Old Navy, Crate and Barrel, Target, take your pick. (even Walmart sells decent jeans these days). The little neighborhood, perfectly branded, places we call home and that dictate what we buy. What brand we “are.”

Bluetooth. People out to dinner with their family with the tooth still in. Still on.

People driving while talking on their cell phones and eating the same Panera Tuscan Artichoke Chicken Sandwich the third day in a row.

Grown men in business suits passing the time on the airport shuttle bus by playing games on their V-cast phones.

Anthropologie advising me on what I ought to read.

Green tea and pomegranate infused anything.

Green tea infused half caf soy milk no whip caramel chai latte.

From Starbucks.

            So where’s the common ground? 

            With any of these, wherever you are, whatever it is, you are everywhere and nowhere at once. There is no moment to actually be in. No place that looks any different from any other anymore.  Withcita’s Outback Steakhouse is the same as Omaha’s. Drive down any highway that ultimately becomes a small country road and you will pass the same series of stores saddled by strip malls, repeating endlessly like a bad act of hypnosis.  Life’s “joys” are measured by how benignly convenient they appear to be and by how much they allow you to do two things at once. How much they allow you to “be” with others (e-mail! text messaging! I-Ming!) without being) with them at all.

           As if these gifts of modernity weren’t enough, you now also live in a world where you can be instantly transformed from tasteless to tasteful; unhealthy to health-obsessed. And so can everyone else. All it takes is a simple swipe of a card, of cards plural, to insure that no one is better than you. Even the trucker from Detroit is aware of the benefits of soy.  And don’t forget that you are able to move at the speed of light now, connected to that magnificent, benevolent wireless network that monopolies like Comcast lure you into believing only costs $33 a month.  But multiply by 3!  You need all  three! And you end up paying 99 dollars plus tax. But you can and you do, along with everything else. Therefore, you are smart and independent. You are looking good : you’ve got your Seven’s on! And you’re going places. In fact, you are going to lunch at Panera to sip from your Styrofoam mug ofFire-roasted Tomato Bisque in front of their fake fireplace! Then you are going to dine on Beef Carpaccio andPorcini Ravioli at Brio! You’ve read The DaVinci Code! You’re workingon your fitness like Fergie! Who needs a checker at Kroger? You can do it yourself, albeit with a hollow-voiced robot prompting your every move.

            But you know what? I need a checker. I need Raymond. Raymond works at the Carytown Ukrop’s and whenever I am there I make sure I am in his line. He knows me. Addresses me by name. “How you doin’ ,Pam?” The thick gold chain around his neck hangs alongside the numerous good service gold stars on his vest, these when coupled with his large white teeth cause him to glisten. Raymond has worked at Ukrop’s for 27 years. His voice literally purrs, slow as real maple syrup, southern and kind. No matter how many items I have, no matter how many people are piled up behind me, he takes the time to connect with me, to smile, to thaw me out from whatever set offrozen tasks have defined the mostly unmeaningful map of my day. He does this while effortlessly scanning bars of soap, weighing non-stickered seckel pears, and possibly changing cash drawers with another less seasoned checker. In short, he knows what he’s doing. He’s good at it. Not just technical good, but hospitable good. Raymond cares. He cares about doing his job well and, fortunately, a big part of his job is caring about me.

            There is something inherently sad and frightening about a world that is moving so fast that courtesies like Raymond’s--basic customer service-- are facing extinction. Even letter writing, let alone letter receiving, both old world courtesies, have become almost dinosaurish acts. What was once one of the simplest and most intimate avenues for human connection, something you wanted to take the time to do and to save because handwriting and paper were evidence of apowerful tie to someone else, has been reduced to an e-mail that gets filed in a virtual “favorites” folder. Like the plethora of credit cards rapidly replacing tangible currency, nothing seems to really “be” anymore. What is money anyway but an abstraction on a computer screen? Certainly not meant to hide under mattresses anymore. And to argue that this same technology has afforded us a more authentic connection to others through its infinite conveniences, is to say that my self-checkout at Kroger was a better grocery experience than my one with Raymond, or Daneesha, were she actually working on my behalf. Quicker? Maybe. But better? Only if the end point is held in higher esteem than the journey. And that’s what worries me.

            Everyday we have the opportunity to ask ourselves, where am I? In noticing where we are we often discover who we are. In the larger culture’s efforts to brand and sell, to homogenize, to “empower” by honoring convenience and conformity over genuine engagement or identity, we lose something precious. We lose ourselves. We lose our rich connection to others and to the concept of other itself.  When every student is encouraged to take as many AP’s as possible, to load up on mindless extracurriculars, in order to remain competitive for college admission, how is any student expected to stand out or get in? When the same gourmet restaurant is available in any town across America, what, then, defines that place as unique when compared to somewhere else? And when a person is actually asked to stand and watch as someone else, the supposed customer, does his job, all in an effort to increase efficiency, I can’t help but think: at what cost? Self has checked out indeed.

            I wonder if there will come a time when my annual mammograms will become self serve too? As awkward as it is to place your breast between two cold sheets of metal andlook away as it is squeezed into an unrecognizable sheet of dough, it helps having the nurse there. Guiding you. Comforting you. Making you a little less worried about what may or may not be growing inside of you.  But then my doctor used to call me with the results. Now I get a small white card in the mail with a check mark next to the appropriate typed reading. VCU’s cutting back they tell me. It’s more efficient this way. I comfort myself with the fact that it’s kind ofa “letter”. And at least there hasn’t been any bad news in it yet.  But what if the wrong blank gets checked? Would someone real, not some plastic answering machine voice, reach out to me then?


            “Today is a marvelous day, Miss Pam, “ Raymond coos on a day when I manage to hand him the exact change. He’s right. It is an extraordinary day, sunny and hot forearly March.

            “Yes, it is” I reply, sure that I am better for this exchange. Sure that I am safe. I

haven’t returned to that awful Kroger in months.  I notice there are less self-checkout lanes here and that only one is occupied despite an undeniably large pooling of carts.

            “Do you ever use those, Raymond?,” I ask, pointing the enemy’s way.

            “Naah. No need. I already got my job. And I like what I do. Besides, the less machines the better. I gots to know myself you know?  If anything, we need a self check IN, don’t you think?”

            “That’s what you are,” I say.

            “I know that’s right!,” he chuckles.

I step into the sun with my brown bags. I smile inside. Check.












A Predominance of Mulch by Pam Sutherland

I never knew how much mulch mattered until I moved to the suburbs. The other day I drove home to find $900 worth of mulch spread evenly across the beds in our front yard. Absent were the seasonal inch worms that a week before had been hanging and spinning webs and defecating from our oak trees, gone were the mustard tendrils of pollen and the scattered sticks that are a daily reminder that we live in the woods. In their place was a uniform brownness framing the equally costly quilt of greenness we had paid for. It was beautiful, as if the yard had just been vacuumed. I got my new iPhone out and took a few pictures of the illusory perfection, knowing it wouldn’t last.

As a high school art teacher I often advise kids of the importance of negative space: the space around the thing they are drawing, not just the thing itself. Good photographers know this rule. When taking a picture of your friends drinking margaritas in the sunshine, or your husband proudly holding the lid of his new smoker in the air, or your nine-year old stepdaughter trying on bright red readers in a Myrtle Beach souvenir shop, try to think about the space around these assorted smiles. The space, the frame it makes, usually makes the picture better.

When I got married for the first time at 45 I thought I had finally reached the placeyears of unsuccessful dating had told me I was longing for. Within two years of meeting my husband, suddenly I was a step-mother of two, a co-owner of a four-bedroom, three and a half-bath house whose backyard could or would accommodate a soccer goal, a basketball hoop and a tree house, and a woman who would learn on a nightly basis what it meant to sleep on the couch (my husband snores). I had not lived with anyone, let alone three other people, since having a roommate in college. My existence prior to marriage had been fairly solitary—an artist living in a cute 1920’s bungalow with a detached, dilapidated garage as a studio--and dare I say it,I liked it. At least that’s how I see it now that my frame of reference has shifted.

I bought mulch at Lowe’s then, three bags at a time, and spread it myself into my crowded flowerbeds. Sometimes, when my back hurt, I would cuss the lack of a husband to help me but for the most part I felt content. When I went inside my house I was able to control the spread of top soil that came with my boots; when I swept or vacuumed it stayed clean for a while; when I had to wrap a gift I could always find my scissors; when I was sleepy I could lie down in the afternoon in front of Oprah without guilt or interruption; when I needed something beautiful to look at I could place the coil-built vase on the mantel in a precarious position and know it would not fall. When I needed to think or feel or reflect, I could. A space of one’s own is a lot like mulch.

I also went on lots of dates. I had a lot of boyfriends. One took me on a drive in a red Ferrari and three hours later showed me how to bake bread. One was married to someone else the eight years we dated but taught me how to properly eat an artichoke and laugh until I cried. One died of a heroin overdose. The last saw me through my own cancer diagnosis and death of my beloved father to the same disease. Despite dating me for four years and sharing the best and worst of ourselves with each other, he could not commit to me or to us. And commitment was the point, was it not?

What is it about being a female that presupposes marriage is the endpoint? Despite having a fulfilling career, an abundance of friendships (the true hallmark of singledom), financial independence, and a truly active social life that connected me to my community, I remember positively yelling into the phone when I was 35: why hasn’t this happened to me yet?. While I had to eventually accept the irony that my faulty breast and advanced age would preclude me from having children, I could never settle in my heart for ending up alone and partnerless. What I underestimated, and have now come to appreciate, is how much my solitude shaped me. And how much I miss it.

Which brings me back to mulch. When you are little and you see your parents working in the yard, their herculean efforts seem pointless. The yard looks fine. But when you are older and coupled and the labors of that love are endless (the dishes, the laundry, the soccer games, the in-laws), it’s then that the neat brown borders make sense. Mulch holds it all in, at least giving the illusion of control and neatly tended, perhaps even private, space.

I’m a high school art teacher who is also an artist. Before marriage my artwork was made of scraps of pale blue paper sewn together with tiny, surgical marks of pencil mimicking the threads. It was hard to tell if the compositions were struggling to stay together or celebrating falling apart. Now I work on wood, paper’s more commitment-minded sister. Where in the past there were vast expanses of emptiness and very little color, now strokes of salmon, black and ultramarine saturate the puzzle-like panels, affording the viewer a shadow box landscape of subdued chaos. My New York gallery saw this new work and promptly dropped me. Too busy they said. Where now I wondered when the shock of the loss abated. To the studio: to myself, by myself, to make. Alone or together, single or married, the rhythm of the studio is the same: it demands solitude. And space. Space to feel, space to think, space to see. Abandoning myself to the process, to the clarity that comes from a well-honed intuition, assures me of a product free of external measurement and assures me that I am exactly where I need to be, gallery, husband, family or not.

I am grateful that it took so long to find Kevin, and I have to believe his late arrival was my destiny, for I cannot be faulted for not trying. I often tell people it took losing the one truly great man in my life, my father, for me to not only recognize but require an equally great man like my husband. I cherish the way that age made me choose someone like me, not different, for both of us are fully formed adults who seem to know how to manage a partnership without sacrificing ourselves. I love the way he smells, the way he scratches the back of my arm when we watch Homeland, his complete parental competency, and the unexpected pleasure he has afforded me of being a pretend mom to Noah and Emma. The two of us can dream of retiring to our glass country house and know that when the enemy strikes again we have each other to shoulder the blow. Marriage is good, a good place to be now in my life, just as being single was a good place to be then.

I’m a high school art teacher who advocates negative space. I remind my all girl advisory when we meet for bagels on Thursday mornings that even though marriage might be their ultimate goal, that from my perspective, it’s not better than being alone, it’s just different. Both states can be wonderful, but not when you are in the one wishing for the other. It’s important to trust where life leads you. To leave a space for the unknown. To bloom where you are planted, despite the weeds. To believe.

 It rained really hard this afternoon. The new mulch ran over its borders and bled down our driveway. Our new kitten jumped up on the dining room table and broke my favorite vase. My husband has a bulging disc in his back that makes almost any household chore impossible for him at the moment. And Emma has a cold, the third one this spring. Life is messy and unpredictable. Mulch helps, albeit temporarily. But so does love. Permanently.