How “Showing up” is a true representation of what it feels like to be an artist.
Warning: this article contains many spoilers.
“Showing up” (directed by Kelly Reichard and released in 2022) tells the everyday life of an emerging artist, Lizzy (Michelle Williams). She’s a sculptor and arts administration assistant. She has an exhibition coming up, so she has to work to be ready for it. But right from the start of the film, it’s clear that it’s not going to be easy.
First of all, Lizzy has no hot water because her boiler is broken and her landlord Jo (Hong Chau), who’s also an artist, doesn’t seem to care. What’s more, Jo rescues a pigeon and ends up forcing Lizzy to look after it. Lizzy also worries about her family, particularly her father (whose house is occupied by hippies) and her brother, who is clearly paranoid. Finally, one of her pieces of art is burnt.
It’s easy to sense Lizzy’s growing nervousness and wonder how all this will affect her show.
The show finally takes place, but doesn’t quite go as Lizzie had planned.
The everyday life of an artist
I’m glad I watched this film because it’s a great description of what it feels like to be an artist. I totally recognised myself in Lizzy’s character, because I know what it’s like to want to concentrate on your work, but everything gets in the way. You want to create new things, but life keeps you from doing so.
Lizzy works as an art administration assistant at a school run by her mother. She doesn’t seem to enjoy this job, but it’s probably the only way she can earn money.And we can assume that she would prefer to devote her time to creating her work.
Unlike Lizzy, I really enjoy my job. I’m an instructor and I really love that, but I’d be lying to you if I told you it didn’t take up a lot of my time. Being an instructor means preparing lessons and exams, marking papers, taking the time to talk with the students…in short, it takes a certain amount of time. So I always do my best to find times in my weeks when I can send in submissions and prepare my shows. And when it comes to creating, I tend to do it when the periods are less busy or when it’s the holiday period… and that’s when everything can get complicated. For example, I took 3 photos in the first few months of 2023 and nothing after that… because life took its toll on me for so many months. A lot of difficult things have happened in my life and working on my art is not something I was mentally capable of doing. I couldn’t focus on it.
Today, things seem to be going a bit better and I‘m trying to get back to my artistic work. What’s more, I know that creating is good for my mental health.
If I’m talking about my personal life, it’s to tell you that Kelly Richard has shown very well that being an artist is far from easy because, even when you absolutely want to create, life can be full of bad surprises that will prevent you from focusing on your work.
I also think Jo is a good example of ‘rivalry’ in the art world. Fortunately, I’ve never experienced it (I’ve rather met some very nice artists), but I know that it exists and it can make relationships very tough. There are also differences between Jo, who can put her work first (not least because she’s financially secure and has a lot of support) and Lizzy, who has to have a day job and whose artistic work isn’t really recognized by her peers and family. This is something you can see in the real art world too. Some struggle a lot because of the lack of money and support, while others are helped in many ways.
I also really like what happens during the opening, because it shows that this kind of event is always unpredictable. You never know what’s going to happen, who’s going to come, what people are going to say, what the exhibition is going to ‘bring’ to you… which is why it can be very stressful and exciting at the same time.
As much as I loved “Showing up”, I found it hard to guess the message behind the pigeon (the fact that it is injured, rescued and finally flies away). For some, the pigeon reflects Lizzy, but I’d really need an explanation to understand that. Lizzy is morally wounded (as I said, no one cares about her and it seems to hurt her) but she’s not rescued.
Perhaps the link with the pigeon’s flight is that Lizzie finally accepts that life is what it is and that you have to deal with it. When she leaves the gallery to look for the pigeon with Jo and walks quietly through the streets, she seems a little more “relieved” and even at peace. And when you’re an artist, you have to accept that not everything goes according to plan. So you carry on doing what you’re passionate about, whatever happens.
I don’t think this film appeals to everyone, as it lacks action at times. But I’m sure a lot of artists can relate to Lizzy. I’m glad Kelly Richard has portrayed what artists really go through, even if it can be seen as something frustrating, whereas some directors could have shown a much cooler life, but certainly not true to reality.