This is a guest post by Athena Hacker.
Editor’s Note: Article contains bullying, murder, suicide, tragedy, triumph, and love. Don’t say I didn’t warn your heartstrings.
People with creative tendencies are often referred to as visionaries. Many people may feel this is because they work in visual media: they produce physical and aesthetic pieces of work for the rest of us to interpret. Why, then, is a progressive businessman also called a visionary? Or even a scientist that furthers our knowledge in their field? If you ask me, visionary is just another word for creative. And creativity is, in my humble opinion, the ability to look at the mundane, and see beyond it. To really see the beauty in that which is overlooked. Take classic paintings, for example. Many of the most famous subjects in art are bowls of fruit or maids going about their everyday business. Now classic literature: Folks of average-ness, doing things they would be doing with or without anyone watching. The whole point of art and literature is for people to relate to it in their own ways, to make it personal. And why do we relate to it all? Because at its core, art and lit are nothing more than the very mundane reality most of us are given but presented to us in a way the artist has translated. Some of my favorite art is impressionist for that very reason. I don’t want to see that which I already see: I want to experience it in the way someone else did.
Black and White, Life and Death
Like most people, I’ve experienced a good deal of heartache in my life—if I’m honest, probably more than most. But unlike most folks, I wouldn’t trade a second of that heartache for anything in the world. Each new experience, good and bad, is like being given a new paintbrush or color of paint to use in the artwork of my life. When we’re newly born, we see more of a black and white. Color is something we have to grow and adjust to see as a natural and beautiful part of living. When I experience something deeply, a piece of my soul is filled with color. Honestly, I feel that’s why art and creativity in general are so very important to me. It’s certainly more relevant now that I am doing graphic work for a living; but it was really always there.
In 2005, my six-year-old sister, in her sweet innocence, came to me and said, “Gramma and Grampa were killed with sticks.” Lightning coursed through my veins. There was no way that made sense, right? Our mother’s parents lived in Arizona, and she had never met them. Besides, how does one get “killed with sticks” anyway? Later that day, I found out my mother’s parents had been murdered in their own home. This was far from my first experience with death, but unbeknownst to 15-year-old me, it was the first of a great many I would go through in the years to come. All the bullying I’d ever experienced growing up would soon be little more than muddied paint water in comparison.
It was around this time I met a colorful ray of rainbow sunshine named Josh. A bouncy boy by nature, Joshie would become the person that finally saw me for who I was and would encourage me to be myself and trust people. In 2006, however, in an effort to settle the goings-on of the investigation of my grandparents’ murders, it was decided my mother, youngest sister, and I would temporarily move to our mom’s home state of Washington. We would live with her eldest sister—our aunt—and her family. We were set to move at the end of October. At 16 and about to move across the country, I thought nothing of the tiny disagreement and pettiness I had with Josh at the end of September. We were best friends, we’d be mad, we’d get over it, and we’d be back together stronger than ever.
October 6th, one week before his 16th birthday, Josh didn’t show up to the bus stop. I thought maybe his mom had come to take him to her house, that he’d be back next week or something. I sat in AP Music Theory, opened up my binder, and started to cram for the huge test we’d be taking in mere moments. The Principal’s voice interrupted for morning announcements. “Students and Staff, I’d like to have your attention, please. It is with great regret I tell you that last night the body of Joshua Shipman was found in his bedroom. We have guidance counselors from nearby counties available to all students who may have known this young man.” My heart stopped. My hands went cold. I tried to ignore the fact that every single face in that room turned around to me in my back row seat. My teacher got off the phone in her room and came over to me, asking if I needed to go to the office. I said I would be fine. Then her phone rang again. Someone else needed me. Someone grieving asked for me.
I didn’t think it was really real until I talked with Josh’s father. Until I saw Josh’s freezing and stiff body in the casket during the wake. Until I attended his funeral, hugged his friends and family alike—they were grieving in ways I could only imagine. There were people there I had no idea Josh even knew. Apparently, Josh had hung himself. The bullying for being gay, the bullying for being different, who knows what lead to that moment. Was it my argument with him the week prior over eyeshadow? Was it the argument with his dad about dyeing his hair? Was it when, three weeks prior when we were walking home, three boys called him “that faggot”? I have no idea. No one will ever know. All I knew was I had to do something. I had to DO something to show Josh, from wherever he was watching on from, that we would not forget him. We could never forget the day that a forever-cloud arrived in the paintings of all of our lives.
Flowers for Joshie
During the Gay-Straight-Alliance club meeting the next week, I whispered to someone that I wished we could plant some flowers around the school yard for him. Something to brighten the days of everyone’s lives. They whispered it to the row in front of them. That row whispered it across the room. And so began the Paul Laurence Dunbar High School Memorial Garden. One of our GSA members, Jesse, pulled in his mom. She was going to be the person to go-between and help us make this happen—if there was even a possibility of happening. We made plans, we drew designs, we had dreams of flowers everywhere with a strong tree right in the center. We went through months of zoning and school board meetings and measuring to figure out how far out we could put this. We caught a lucky break: the school had recently repaved the courtyard, and we had permission to use the old pavers in our designs.
At the end of October, while many of these meetings were happening, my family and I moved to Washington State as planned. It was about 5 months later, in March, that we moved back to Lexington, Kentucky.
In April of 2007, Jesse was on his way to school. He was supposed to ride the bus with me, but that day, he opted to carpool with friends that lived on his street. When I saw him in the back seat of their car as they moved beside the bus, he leaned back and waved at me with a huge grin on his face. We waved excitedly at each other, because today was a special day. Today was the National Day of Silence, a day where students across the nation remain silent by choice to highlight the epidemic of bullying wherein students are silenced every day. We were doing this for Joshua, our friend and the driving force behind our beautiful garden-to-be.
That little red car tried passing front of our bus. We moved in tandem for a while, until the car started fish-tailing. It started slow but sped up, faster and faster, until the car whipped to the right, barely avoiding two semi-trucks in the outer lanes. I spun my head as hard as I could to follow the car, but it was out of sight. The whole bus fell silent. I broke my own silence to say, “That was Jesse . . . ” Our Jesse. The rest of us were terrified, because most of the people on that bus knew Jesse. As our bus arrived at school we heard what sounded like thousands of sirens drive by. We knew where they were going.
He fought for a few days in the hospital, but that crash ultimately killed him. I was in Spanish class when his death was announced. That morning, I’d made arrangements to carpool to the hospital to see him. To suddenly know that was never happening was gut-wrenching. I collapsed in the hallway after storming out of the classroom. I remember punching the cement walls as hard as I could until my knuckles were bruised and falling to the floor in tears. My guidance counselor found me and brought me to the library where the other counselors and students were.
Work on the garden continued. I bonded extremely closely with a beautiful girl named Hannah as we worked on the memorial project, and we grieved the loss of now two of our closest friends. We were approached by a group filming a documentary to talk about loss as a high school student, particularly loss related to bullying. What it was like before and after Josh died, and how things may or may not have changed.
Hannah did amazing things with her life, and she was my next real inspiration. I started challenging myself artistically, drawing friends of mine with 6-piece crayon sets to see if I could translate that beauty into basic colors. I drew the Eiffel Tower for French class in pencil. I drew words in Sign Language. When she died in a car accident, in May of 2008, I found out after a night of hanging out with my friends. How could this be happening? Why were such beautiful people, such creative people, such inspiring people, being taken from this planet? Who would fill our lives with the beauty that they were no longer creating? They were artists, and they were visionaries. They were our future. And now, we had to make a future without them. I walked two miles at three in the morning to my ex-boyfriend’s best-friend’s house. He opened the door, saw my grief, and walked with me to the quiet church on the corner to comfort me, even though he was hanging out with my ex. My ex followed and came to comfort as well. From that experience, I learned that grief can be as beautiful and connective as it is painful and disruptive. I vowed then and there, to those two boys at that dark church, that I would not just sit around and never give something beautiful to this world. I had to. I owed it to all three of my friends that had their creative paths cut short.
Oh Yeah, Life Goes On
For a solid year, I had a reprieve from grief. I got to focus on school and connections with friends. I did everything I could to make sure life was as beautiful as it could be for everyone that surrounded me. If someone’s boyfriend forgot to buy them flowers or forgot a date with them, I would do it. I brought food and candy and drinks to friends and loved ones at school. I participated in GSA, the anime club, the guitar club. I helped coach people vocally. I went every Saturday to our memorial garden and shed sweat and tears to turn soil with other grieving people. I listened to stories, and I told stories. I even graduated high school. In 2009, I got word that someone from school had killed herself. She’d been one of the super popular girls, always surrounded by love and people. She had just come home from visiting Greece and Europe with her brother and sister. She’d been one of the few people kind to me before I met Josh. I still have no idea what reasons could have driven her to such a decision, and I can only imagine what pain she had kept hidden inside.
Pouring One Out
From then until now and beyond, I have chosen and will continue to choose to be as creative as I can. I spent several years working with a company as an affiliate, testing and reviewing beauty products and sharing them with folks that wanted to know what they were like before purchasing. I got heavily into nail polish and creating designs on my nails. I even got wind of having inspired a woman into creating her own nail polish brand! I always created something, somewhere, no matter what I had to do to survive.
Now, I channel that creativity into Twitch.tv. I take my inspiration from broadcasters and now create channel emotes and graphics for them to use to further their own creativity. If I could select a dream job right now, it would be to work as a Twitch Staff Member in Partnerships to be able to connect with people and potentially push them further in their dreams of being a professional broadcaster, enabling them to create their own things for others that inspire. That’s my dream.
For now, all I can do is give them some images I spend my day making. In the future, maybe I’ll be able to take it further. And in the far future, I hope to see myself owning my own cafe—my own life-long dream—and using that venue to inspire creativity in others. I hope to channel my creativity into that place and into creating a safe space for young and old alike. I want everyone to know that no matter what life throws your way, the best way I can think to handle it is to step back and look at it like a painting.
Because in the end, that’s all creativity is. Looking at the things around you that lack luster, and seeing something more. Your life is a painting, and you are the painter. Every experience is a new color, and there is nothing stopping you from using that to make your painting even more beautiful.
Athena Hacker is one for dabbling in as many pots as she can stick her nose into. You can check out her website to track her down and see some of the things she loves most in the world: cats, beauty, and art!