Creative in Grief
Desk Lunch IRL was a live event that took place at Stink Studios in Brooklyn, NY on March 7th, 2019 in honor of International Women’s Day. For the next couple of weeks, in lieu of our typical essay format, we’ll be sharing videos and transcripts from this event. We hope to have another IRL event in the very near future, and will keep everyone posted on details! 

Liz Wells
Next up is Sharon. She's a visual thinker out of Stanford University and the Art Center College of Design who primarily works in digital media. She's passionate about discussions around ethics of technology and the social repercussions of developing an online ecosystem. When she's not working at a startup called Knotch, you'll find her travelling or curled up on the couch with Netflix and a pint of ice cream. She was previously an intern here at Stink! So welcome back! 

Sharon Lee
I'm not as memorized as a lot of the other speakers so please bare with me as I look at my notes. Before I get started, I just have to say this isn't a happy story. I say this as you'll learn not only for your benefit but mine. It's been my experience that my ambition to be a great designer was born out of possibly a toxic need to please people around me. It's made me an incredible user experience designer, a job which literally ascribes me to cater to an audience. But it also has been a challenge. I constantly need for people to like me. I need to walk down the street and feel like everyone approves of me. I live for that moment when I give my work to a client or an employer and they're like "Oh my God this is amazing!" Anything less than that and I completely regret every decision to go into design and I think that I am worthless. So naturally that translated into a social media presence, yay! So growing up, I lived in a suburb a little bit outside of Los Angeles. The demographic is highly skewed towards upper middle class white conservatives, where being the tiny blonde cheerleader was the goal. We had the football team. We had the lockers, like all those TV shows you see of Americans like "Oh my God, I'm pregnant at 16 and I need to be in love with this one guy but he's also dating the cheerleader." That stuff is like my high school. 

And that really angsty art girl who wore way too much dark makeup and was probably dissing everyone?Hello, that's me. What I'm trying to get at though is that there really wasn't much space for art. To give you a little scale, I think one year the principal decided to use fifty thousand dollars to re-turf the football field. The arts department got five hundred dollars. Just to scale where my school's priorities were. So I really looked outwards, towards where can I find my inspiration. Where can I find a community of art for me that might not be really direct, but close by? I started looking to Instagram because it really had a community of artists. I was constantly going out trying to prove that I, too — coming from this little white suburban town — could also be a Creative, could also have an eye for design. I would take friends to the Arts District of Los Angeles, convince them to be models for me, buying them smoothies afterwards for wearing weird makeup that I made them do. And I really believed that despite being discouraged and being told that being a creative wasn't going to make any money or be successful. But being creative really was a way of looking at life. I looked around and I saw symmetry. I saw beauty. I saw people who were flaunting their confidence in their ability to put themselves out there. I really thought that that was what made life beautiful. It's really easy to look at somewhere and be like "oh there's trash on the ground" or “there's not really an aesthetic here.” But really looking for that is looking upwards and outwards noticing someone's shirt and the way that someone walks and just thinking like "This is really awesome!".

So that kind of like pulled in me this need to look around me. Look at this blue wall, look at how the stairs are positioned, and I would be like, I want to create something and take photos and put this view out in the world. Unfortunately, I came across a challenge in my life that really made it hard to imagine that the world would ever be beautiful again. 

In 2017, this is my little sister Beccs, she likes to go by Beccs, not Becky. Only I was allowed to call her that. Strict rule. It was 2017, I was sitting in front of a house I lived in at university and she called me. And for that week, she'd been having major migraines. She told me, "Oh I'm probably anxious about this boy." It's always a boy! And she was telling me that he's not giving her enough attention or he hasn't texted back or “we're friends now, I swear I can handle it.” And I was like "No you're not, and you can’t." But I was with my friend and I decided I should probably take this, it’s probably going to be this one long call about all that. But it wasn't. And I'm really glad that I picked up because she was in the hospital. She had a gown on. She was with her friend and she was like "Hey, Unnie," which is the Korean term for older sister. "Could you come get me. I'm at the hospital at Berkeley and they found a shadow on my CT. I don't really know what it is, but I just want you here.".

It was the scariest $60 I used to Uber over, and I spoke with her doctor. The doctor told me that this is pretty irregular. It's a 3.6 cm tumor. He's pretty sure it's a tumor. He wasn't an oncologist. He wanted to make sure to connect us with the right doctor, but he could tell that it was pretty sizable. For those of you who don't know the anatomy of the brain, it's about 16 cm this way and 14 cm that way. So for it to be 3.6 cm on the right side was pretty sizable in comparison to how much space you have in your head. 

She was quickly diagnosed with malignant brain cancer. Brain cancer doesn't have stages, it's too volatile and complex. So they will either tell you it is malignant or benign, and that's kind of all you get. Please support brain cancer research. It was 13 months of an absolutely excruciating time of my life. My family decided that I should go back to school. And so I tried to keep connected with her, tried to understand what she was going through. Having people come up to me and tell me like "Oh I saw on Instagram that this was happening." Or "I saw on YouTube, your sister is making videos for her friends that this is happening." It was really odd to confront a platform that had become a part of my voice, my aesthetic eye, my decision as a designer, and it became an intrusive window into the most personal aspects of my life without me really inviting anyone in.

During that time, I really stopped creating. I didn't think that anything was beautiful anymore. I would look at a wall be be like "Oh, cool, that's a wall". I was constantly distracted and what I really confronted was this peer pressure to produce something. There were friends saying "Oh I didn't see anything on Instagram, how's your sister doing?" or like "Could you tell me how she’s doing? I saw this one YouTube video. She seemed really happy, are things okay?" Social platforms became this pressure to put something out there because others expected that to be the proper big sister response. 

Rebecca Lee passed about five months ago, in October.  And I think that even at that time a lot of people kept expecting me to say something publicly,  either make one those huge posts on Facebook that you see where it's like you have to scroll all the way down to the bottom of the caption. Then there was this pressure where I was sitting there, I would see something beautiful and I want to take a photo of it, put it out there, show the world that I could still see beauty in the world. And instead I felt this backlash. What if I did that and someone thought, "Actually she's not really depressed. This must have not really affected her. They must be not that close." These were sort of like the anxieties I had around being in a social media space that really doesn't know how to handle grief. I was scared that putting really sad information out there wouldn’t get likes or views, and that would mean my grief wasn’t important. Or even worse, would get a ton of likes and I would still feel alone. 

And I began this speech with a warning to you that it's sad because I think that that excuses this behavior, which is actually grieving. And I realize this tendency because even when my friends asked me how I was doing, I would shut down. I would not tell anyone. I didn't want to offend them. You never want to go to someone and be like "Do you want to sit down and be sad?" Like that's never the real reaction that you get. My friends are incredible and have offered to be sad with me, and I think that that's what I'm trying to get out.

Being a creative is really dependent on having an audience. Whether you're having audio audience, or a visual audience, it's really about making that person feel a certain way. And when your medium becomes almost your enemy, like you don't want this person to feel a certain way, you want them to be happy, you want to encourage them when you don't really have anything encouraging to say. I would say, it's really good and OK to step back. 

Just because you don't make something, doesn't mean you're not creative. Just because you're not being artistic all the time, or you’re wearing sweatpants, or not in the newest Acne Studios outfit does not mean that you are not as valid in your perspective, not as creative in your production. Or just not as artistic as the next person. These milestones that we put out for ourselves, really put a pressure on us, and I felt those. Even when I was going through the most challenging time of my life.

So, I conclude with - this is my dog by the way - I meant to say that I would post a photo of my dog. And I would be worried that people would think that I loved my dog more than my sister. So that was the weird relationship I had with Instagram Stories. What I meant to say is I think that being a creative in grief is a lot about giving yourself self space to produce internally, to kind of think about your thoughts in a creative way internally. You don't need an audience, and if you have one, if you can find a friend who is willing to listen, to be sad with you, to be fully prepared to go into this experience with you, bless you. That's an incredible blessing, but sometimes you just need to sit in a tub with a bath bomb that turns your bath into a yellow abyss and just listen to music and be totally fine with that. 

I want to complete with a wish, because I think that a lot of my challenges was that people saw Instagram, saw Facebook, saw any social media presence and thought “oh this is how she is. This is how she's feeling. I can read through one of her pages and immediately know. That this is what she's going through and this is the sort of story she has.” And it's really not. So many people in the world put a highlight reel out there because they believe that this is what people want to see. And this is how I want to be remembered. But it's so much bigger than that to be human to actually be socially connected, means reaching out to people on your side, reaching out to people when you're angry. It also means being someone that someone can be reaching out to when they're sad, when they're angry. And so I ask that we are sensitive in a digital space that often filters out our experiences and really be forgiving when it comes to people who might piss you off. That person might be going through something really difficult that we don't even know. Thank you for listening to my Netflix comedy special! 
Sharon Lee is a visual thinker out of Stanford University and Art Center College of Design who primarily works in the digital medium. She's passionate about discussions around the ethics of technology and the social repercussions of a developing online ecosystem.  When she's not working at a start-up called Knotch, you'll find her traveling or curled up on the couch with Netflix and a pint of ice cream.
Art used in this issue: “The Unicorns Came Down to the Sea” by Kay Sage
Desk Lunch is a community for all creative people of marginalized genders.

Desk Lunch is supported in part by SuperHi, an online school and community helping creative people learn and thrive. Follow them on Instagram and Twitter.
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