14 Sep 2020

Kenyon: When I Look Into the Face of My Enemy, I See My Brother

I Thirst by Megan Kenyon

A Look at the Heart Behind “Consider…”

By Megan Kenyon

“We have learned to fly the air like birds and swim the sea like fish, but we have not learned the simple art of living together as brothers.”

-Martin Luther King Jr.

Full disclosure: When I initially came up with the idea for Consider…, my vision for this show revolved around reaching a very specific group of people in my world. 

You know these people. I’m sure you have them in your life, too. (Heaven forbid you are them…)

The people who are so nice when you meet them! They would bend over backward to make you feel at home in their space. If you only saw them every now and again, you would think them excellent friend material.

But then, you start to notice the weird things they say half under their breath to you…things that make you a little uncomfortable, cause that’s not quite how you see the world. But you don’t want to offend them. 

You notice the things they post on social media. It’s like Facebook’s out to get you because suddenly the only posts you see seem to come from that person and your six mutual friends who think more like them apparently than you. You begin to notice those things they said half-under-their-breath to you at that graduation party last weekend, they are practically shouting now. Like, seriously, don’t they have anything better to do than be on Facebook all day sharing one salty meme after another?

It’s those people. I have a lot of them in my life. They come from all walks of life; rich and poor, suburban, urban and country, Republican and Democrat, gay and straight, male and female, old and young. They have two things in common: they are always right, and they will fight to the death anyone who challenges their views. 

Everything they do is driven by fear and pride.

Fear is a liar. Fear is a big, bad bully that comes up and steals your lunch, and then dumps you in the trash can for good measure. Fear takes all the beauty and glory out of the world around us, smashes it up, and then heaves us into the cesspit of suspicion, doubt, and comfort in the status quo. Fear makes sure we don’t ever stray out past the edge of our own worldview, like a dog wearing a shock collar. Should we even think about sticking a toe over the line, fear zaps us back with something that proves leaving our safety net of what we know and understand to be true is just not worth the pain.

View the exhibition: “Consider …”

I know this because I struggle with fear every day. I’m afraid of all kinds of things, real and imagined. I’m afraid of getting into a car accident on the highway, (which could happen), and I’m afraid there are monsters under my bed (which is a ridiculous fear for someone in their 30s, but here we are…). I’m afraid that people won’t like me, especially if they hear what I think or feel. I’m afraid of crying because I think it makes me look weak. I’m afraid of large crowds and tiny spaces. I’m often afraid of myself, of my own talents, and what my life could look like if I succeed or if I fail at the things I try.

I also know pride all too well…pride makes us feel like we are in charge, and being in charge feels good. Pride tells us that we are right, and anyone who challenges us is obviously either misguided, delusional, or else is a threat to our power and so must be silenced. Pride lets us play the gracious teacher, trying to lead that poor stray soul away from lies into the truth. But more often than not, pride makes us into the bully who will do anything to stay on top. Pride takes all the exploration and joy out of life, and makes everything about status, about appearance, about power and control.

I don’t like living with pride any more than I like living with fear. They are not welcome in my life, and it’s a daily struggle for me to send them packing. 

So, when I see friends who struggle to see past the narrow end of their own noses, I understand. I get it. I’ve been there, too. I’m still there way too often. Sometimes things pop up in my Facebook memories that make me cringe. I can hardly believe that 18 or 21 or 25 or even 29-year-old me believed those things with so much assurance. I have compassion for those whose fear and pride keep them from being able to consider another person’s way of seeing and being in the world as valid and equal to their own. My heart goes out to those who look at the world around them and see only enemies and not fellow human beings.

Initially, this show is meant for them.

It’s a love letter to people who probably won’t come. It’s a call to come and consider others in a safe space. This show is a chance to take a deep breath, and then plunge into another person’s world and experience, even if just for a half-hour. It’s a call to come and consider how deepening friendship with people not like you can make you more human, more whole, and ignite a beautiful sense of wonder and curiosity about the world. This show is an opportunity to feel the complex emotions involved in learning to see a new way, to acknowledge it’s scary and hard to change your views, to see in new ways, to accept new understandings of the world, but it’s a beautiful struggle, and you will come out the other side ok.

I created this show with a specific group in mind, and my hope was that because they see me as a friend, they would trust me. They would let me guide them into a place where they could experience the grief and joy, the hurt and healing, the despair and hope, the fullness of humanity of others that they usually can’t see because of the blinders put up by politics, religion, tradition, etc. I earnestly desire to be able to lead them by the hand through each custom number painting, portrait, and collage, and allow them, even for just a second, to consider another person’s way of the world as equal, valid, and worthy of their time. 

But, even as much as I want to bring them in, I also wanted to challenge them, or really anyone who comes to see my work. Last spring, shortly before I sent in the proposal for this show, I spent some time reading about the Impressionists in France during the later bit of the 1800s. They often tried to get pieces into the Salon, but the art world and society of their day mocked and ridiculed their work, and most often denied it entry. Even when they could get a piece in, it was often lambasted in the strongest possible terms by the crowds who came to see the shows. Claude Monet and the others who started the movement decided to have their own show, but those early attempts were no more successful. For quite some time they were written off as hacks who couldn’t paint.

It’s not the first time (nor was it the last time….Piss Christ anyone?) artists have caused an uproar with their work because it goes against what is considered appropriate and artistic by the not-so-silent, silent majority. But it got me thinking; what would it look like to create work that would cause uproar amongst all the “nice” and “civilized” people in my life? What would it look like to take risks that didn’t try to sugar coat reality, but would call people to action? What would it look like to ask people to empathize and try to understand people they often actively speak against? And how willing would I be to face their ire if they decided they didn’t like being challenged and turned on me? 

This tension hounded me all through the creation of Consider…; trying to strike a balance between wanting to help friends out of their fear and pride, but also wanting to slap them about the face a bit with the boldness and beauty of human beings they often seek to forget or deny. You’ll notice each painting features many layers of articles in the background. I choose articles from all the sides I see presented on Facebook and Instagram every day. There are conservative views, liberal views, progressive views, even the occasional anarchist or fundamentalist thrown in for fun. But, at the end of the day, people’s opinions on things don’t mean as much as their actions, which is why the articles are mostly covered over by paint and other pictures. 

My mom is a wealth of catchphrases, but one, in particular, undergirded the work of every piece in this show. I first heard this phrase as a kid when fighting my brother for a toy, but it’s proven to be one of the most helpful reminders in my adult life, especially when battling fear and pride. She says people are more important than things. As a kid, it meant my relationship with my brother needed to be more important than my getting to play with some toy. She wanted me to see him as a human being, as my brother, as someone I love and care about, not as competition for something I want, and certainly not as my enemy. As an adult, this phrase took on a similar, but perhaps more nuanced meaning. 

People are more important than things…things like national security, things like pride and tradition, things like religion, things like borders and walls, things like money and status, things like power and politics, things like the status quo or the desire to return to an old way of doing things.

Focusing on things will never allow us to consider others. 

Focusing on things traps us, and allows fear and pride to wreck our connections to the world. 

Focusing on things means that even when we try to be altruistic or generous to others, our actions will be hollow and meaningless. 

Who cares if we packed a shoebox with toys for a kid halfway around the world when a kid just like him is sitting alone in a detention center on our doorstep? Who cares if we send money to build houses in third-world countries if we blame the poor in our own country for their poverty and make fun of them for trying to get assistance? Who cares if we voted for the right candidate if we spend all of our time demonizing our apparent opponents? Who cares if we are committed to being anti-corruption and pro-morality if we don’t listen to women who say they have been abused by men (or even other women) we like to have in power? Who cares if we invested in children’s education if the moment that they try to have a voice, we mock them, call them snowflakes, or tell them someone needs to give them a good spanking?

When what we believe, think, know, or understand about the world is driven by things and not by people, we lose our ability to have compassion, to be curious, to expand our knowledge of the world…we lose our humanity when we strip others of theirs and make them less important than objects, ideas, or beliefs.

I created this show with a few people in mind. They are the people who I prayed for daily and desperately, that they would come, they would see my work, and they would for even a second consider that there is more to this world than what they know and are familiar with.

As the pandemic descended, a lot of those people rediscovered that empathy muscle they don’t use often. When George Floyd was murdered, and the protests began, I saw an unprecedented number of them post sympathy and seem to actually seek to understand race in America.

For like two weeks it seemed that my show would land on hearts and minds open to the world, ready to be challenged to grow past their rhetoric and instead choose to love and embrace others as equal and human and whole.

But, like a dog returning to its own vomit, they went back to their old positions and diatribes. It felt like holding a bunch of marbles in my hands, and then someone jostled my elbow, knocking all the marbles out of my hands, and being unable to do anything but watch them scatter and roll away faster than I could possibly scoop them up. They quickly settled back into deeply held beliefs and trolling Facebook, thinking that will fix the world.

I say I created this show with one specific group of people in mind, but that’s not quite the whole truth. I also created this show for the people who I knew would listen; whether that’s because they can identify with one of my paintings because it represents some of their lived experience, or because they are like me, with a curiosity and a desire to know the world around them without the lens of fear and pride warping things. 

Even as I thought about, prayed for, and mused on the first group, I thought about, prayed for, and mused on the second group. I considered how they would receive my work, I worried about telling stories that weren’t mine to tell, I obsessed over choosing imagery and symbols that could be triggering. I thought about those who are represented by the various paintings in my show, and I found the courage to not pull punches, but to also not lose my compassion in my frustrations with people who don’t want to listen and to learn. I prayed for those who would try to listen, to look at my work and understand it, that they would have open eyes to receive, and that the work would do mighty things in them. 

I dedicate and give this show to anyone who will come and consider. Let those who have eyes to see come and see. Let those who have ears to hear, come, and hear. Hear stories that are not your own. See ways of being in the world that may be different from you. Hear the cries, the joy, the pain, the determination. See the love, the fear, the courage, the need. Come and consider what it feels like to be passed over and forgotten about. Consider what it feels like to be denied your full humanity. Chances are you already know what that’s like…we’ve all had experiences where we are new in a strange place, not unlike refugees who flee to uncertain shores looking for a new home. We’ve all have times when no one listened to us when we were gaslit into thinking our emotions or needs were ridiculous, not unlike victims of sexual assault. We’ve all had times where we just needed to be loved and accepted for who we are, like folks who are in the LGBTQIA community. 

We are all human, and at the end of the day, more connects us than separates us. 

So, if you come to my show, welcome! I’m really glad you’ve come. I’m glad that you took the time to consider my work. But what I hope is that you take even more time to consider the people in my work. I hope you approach each work with the question, “What don’t I know about….” and fill in the blank. As one of my favorite U2 songs says, “We thought we had the answers, it was the questions we had wrong.” So, start with the place of not knowing, of being curious about another person, of genuine desire to learn, to listen, and to understand. Don’t let fear or pride keep you from discovering something beautiful in someone not like you.

But, consider not stopping there. My hope is that at least one of the pieces in this show will grab you by the heart as well as the mind and that it will prompt action. 

The simplest action we can take is to approach everyone we meet with a willingness to listen; a willingness to see a friend and not an enemy. Not everyone we encounter will allow for this; there are some people out there who we may not be equipped to listen to safely. But, if we start with considering others as equal to us, as valuable as we are valuable, as worthy of our time and attention, we’ve made a huge first step towards healing our communities and our country. This is why, though that first group of friends frustrates me, I refuse to see them as my enemies. They may not listen, they may lash out in their ignorance, their fear, or their pride. But, at the end of the day, they are people too. Until we can see all people as our brothers and sisters, as our neighbors, as humans, we will continue to polarize and divide.

Perhaps you are ready to do more; in which case, I would highly encourage you to look up resources for the particular painting you are interested in. In the coming weeks, I will be posting a resource list to my website with books, podcasts, Instagram accounts, documentaries, and other types of resources I found to be helpful in my journey. These are just a starting place, but they might help you focus your search and your journey into understanding others.

Love Your Neighbor by Megan Kenyon
Love Your Neighbor
What She has Done is a Beautiful Thing by Megan Kenyon
What She has Done is a Beautiful Thing

One resource I highly recommend if you loved the painting What She Has Done Is A Beautiful Thing is the Netflix documentary Athlete ARachel Denhollander is one of the ladies interviewed for the documentary, as well as being the central figure in my painting, and her work and words both in the documentary and in her memoir, What is a Girl Worth? are impactful and incredibly helpful at understanding victims of sexual assault and what we can do to make sure no one has to live through that sort of trauma. If you were interested in my painting Love Your Neighbor, then I highly encourage you to check out the documentary 13th, which is currently on Netflix and is free on YouTube. 

Perhaps you are ready for action and are looking to connect personally with people. In the resource list, I will be posting, there will also be organizations, local, national, and international, that I have found to be reputable and who have a variety of ways you can practically get involved with listening, loving, and knowing your neighbor, be they in your city, your state, your nation, or the world. Most of these are continuing to innovate and find ways to safely serve others even in an age of social distancing, and there are plenty of opportunities for you to get involved. Again, it’s not an exhaustive list, so please feel free to do your own research, and find something or someone who is doing work that you can get excited about and participate in. 

Fishers of Men by Megan Kenyon
Fishers of Men

By way of getting you started, if you loved Fishers of Men, you should definitely check out Welcome Neighbor STL. They work with local refugee populations here in St. Louis and provide some awesome ways to connect people so they can learn about each other’s cultures, including a supper club that they now do as a drive-thru event in this season of pandemic and social distancing. Another group that I found (and whose members inspired the painting I Thirst) is No More Deaths/No Mas MuertesThey are an organization that provides aid to migrants along the border, and they have dozens of ways for people to get involved in helping migrants. Their Instagram account is also full of lots of helpful information and opportunities!

I Thirst

In the coming weeks and months, both before and after the election, our nation is going to need us to be the kind of people that can say no to fear and to pride, and instead consider others and create moments of connection and community even with people we disagree with. Our world needs us to be willing to know something beyond our view of the world and to be willing to love people before things. It won’t be easy…in fact, it will probably only get harder as we go along. For whatever reason, loving our neighbors as ourselves is a more revolutionary act than it should be. You might get called names. You might have tough conversations with people who think your priorities are crazy. You might feel all alone.

You are not alone. I am not alone. We are not the only ones in this world who are willing to come and consider. I hope the artwork I have created for this show inspires you, challenges you, and gives you the opportunity to consider others, to find your neighbors in a variety of places, and gets you pumped to love your world a little more. And, if you are someone who identifies with one of the paintings by number I created, I hope you know how loved you are, how worthy you are, how gloriously human you are, and that we need you! I hope you are encouraged and energized to keep speaking your truth, to keep looking for those who will embrace you, and that you don’t get discouraged by the haters out there. 

And, if you are one of those people I initially set out to create this show for, if you somehow managed to set aside the fear and the pride for a moment to come and consider, I praise God for it! I’m so glad you came too. This is a safe space for you to try to understand, to be challenged. I hope you consider how you can make a change in how you see the world, and in so doing, help make this world a more loving and less violent place for all of us.

I created Consider… as a way to try and shake us up, to challenge all of us (myself included) to change how we see and how we know, to bridge the gap between those who see enemies everywhere and those who just wish to be seen. I tried to honor the vision I received for this show, to make it a place where people from all backgrounds and persuasions can come and consider, and find each other, even if just for a short moment. In the process, I learned how to better listen to, love, and forgive my neighbor. I learned how to lament with those who are still weeping. I learned how to not make people a monolith, and to take the time to listen to individuals and try to understand. I learned how to find joy, even in the midst of hardships. And, I learned that to be a peace-maker means dealing with the violence that resides in my own heart first before I attempt to bridge the gap between people, to be truly able to look at others not as enemies but as human beings like myself. I remembered daily the wisdom of my mother; that people are more important than things, and I looked for ways to root fear and pride out of my life. It’s been a crazy journey, and it is my joy and honor to share it with anyone who is willing to come and consider.

I dedicate this show to those who have the courage, the creativity, and the conviction to consider others as just as important as them, who are willing to look past differences, who are willing to listen and to learn, and who are willing to take steps to make this world a place of real peace and true joy, where everyone is welcome, and no one is unloved. 

So please, come and consider.

Peace to all, 

Megan Kenyon

Megan Kenyon is an artist and grad student living and working in St. Louis. Her primary medium is oil, but she loves to dabble in everything from pen and ink to ceramics. Her work focuses on making space for empathy and understanding between disparate groups and/or ideas, looking for common language in both words and pictures. Her work draws on religious and cultural imagery to create pieces that are accessible and yet complex, allowing the viewer to set aside presuppositions and prejudice to experience something new. She has shown work with Webster Arts, being one of the selected artists for the Connecting Communities: Meacham Park show, as well as in their Small Works XII show. Megan also leads The Makers Art Group and helped to host its first art show at Crave Coffeehouse, MADE TO GROW, in 2019. Megan is a graduate student with Fuller Theological Seminary pursuing a degree in  Theology and the Arts. You can check out more of her work on her websiteor on Instagram and Facebook @servantscrystudios.