the making of a brassy woman
by Maren Nelson
brassy adjective \ˈbra-sē\
1. a : shamelessly bold <a brassy reporter>
b : obstreperous
I often say I was raised on both the arts and sarcasm. Brought up by a children's book editor and a music educator turned accountant in the "Deep South" of Minneapolis, I grew up in a household that valued the arts far more than I ever realized.
We weren't showy or pretentious. My mother didn't wear all black and seek out art openings or poetry readings. Dad never listened to experimental music or read arts and culture sections religiously. We were Scandinavian Lutherans after all.
When we spent money on concerts, it was the Minnesota Orchestra. I learned very early on how to behave at a concert and that Beethoven just lasted far too long for 8 year-olds and 38 year-olds alike. One time Mom took me see Peter, Paul, and Mary and I think she was more excited than me.
I woke up every Sunday morning to the sounds of classical MPR, my dad conducting the music with his toes while crinkling the Sunday paper. Sometimes we went to his concerts with the Minnesota Symphonic Winds, and sometimes he let me "play" his clarinet. His friends would come over and chamber music would float up from the basement.
Mom made miniatures. Not a medium of great esteem, but they were beautiful. Creative, small, and exquisite, her little shops and houses were things of wonder to a tiny human. Collecting art and furnishing a home is expensive, so Mom did it herself. "Crafty" or "handy" doesn't begin to describe her skill set: refinishing furniture, designing rooms on a budget, or assembling the most perfect Barbie mansion for me out of cardboard and found objects. Most of what she did never screamed of fine art, but everything was just as valuable. It brought her joy, it didn't need to bring her money.
I used to write and illustrate stories, color environmentalist propaganda posters, and arrange my Barbies for little Barbie photo shoots the local photo shop diligently developed. I was allowed to be creative, head-strong, and unreasonably picky. My parents put up with my compulsive playing of "My Heart Will Go On" and I was given my first camera when I was eight. I made sand candles in my sandbox and stood on my feminist soap box ranting about equal pay when I was five. Before the Backstreet Boys and *NSYNC, my walls were covered with drawings and the book posters Mom brought back from conventions. My book collection as a child rivaled that of a rather large bookmobile, and I avoided some Caldecott winners simply because I hated the illustrations.
It is incredibly wonderful to know that I grew up surrounded by creativity and that the person I am today is due in large part to the freedom my family gave me to be myself. I threw shade like a pro at the age of five but was encouraged to use coloring as the great equalizer during frenemy play dates. At my most vulnerable tween-age period, I sought refuge in my clarinet, the solitary sketching of art class, and the collective efforts of choir. Despite honor classes and a temper that could blow up Vesuvius, I was supported in all my music, theater, and art activities throughout high school. I never had to choose, instead my family helped me make sure I could do what made me happiest: Create.
It wasn't until I graduated from college and started trying to find a job with my art history degree and museum-filled resume that I realized just how much my family valued the arts. More than just entertainment, they valued the arts as a lifestyle, as a life force. For years, while I stumbled around in various fields and ill-paying jobs, refusing to compromise, never once were there snide remarks or judgmental looks. My parents defended my choices to their "pragmatic" friends and listened to me vent about the occassionally unhappy result of my own decisions. There was a collective understanding that things were not necessarily going to be that easy and an acknowledgement that I would have to figure out what an art-inclusive life looked like for me.
In a moment of mild frustration and honesty, my mom once said I was going to be a brassy old lady. Both annoyed and slightly entertained by the possibility, I have since taken that to be a brilliant complement. I see that brassy woman as my past, present, and future: Bold and unmanageable, free to express herself.
It took 28 years, but this head-strong young woman has finally figured out how to live a creative and fulfilling life. ...Maybe. ...At least for now.
The truth is, had I not grown up in an environment that celebrated my forceful nature and allowed me to explore creatively, I would be a shell of who I am today. Had I not been surrounded by a family steeped in the arts and various modes of self-expression, I don't know who I would have become. It may have taken 2.5 decades to realize it, but for this woman, to be brassy is to be fully alive, confident and creative. Raised on the arts and sarcasm.
August 10, 2015