Like a number of artists and photographers, I have a portfolio of self-portraits that range from serious to silly. Many of the earliest ones, taken while I was studying photography in college, were inspired by the immensely talented Francesca Woodman, who tragically took her gifts with her when she took her life. Her self-portraits were beautiful and haunting, the images of a young woman at the beginning of her journey. She was only a few years older than I, and I felt a very personal connection to her work.
A few years after college I met a photographer, Margie Arnold, who traveled the country and took pictures of herself in abandoned bathtubs. Nude self-portraits, they were, and their settings ranged from the Badlands of South Dakota to the outskirts of Birmingham. Margie was in her mid 70s at the time. She and her husband Warren, a retired banker, got the biggest kick from her self-portrait adventures. The pictures were stark and funny; Margie always made sure her 70+ year old body (fit as a fiddle – she’d played tennis at Wimbledon) was modestly covered by the bathtub.
Their stories of the photo shoots were hilarious. They told them, talking on top of one other, in thick Boston cadence. They giggled like schoolchildren at how mischievous it felt to strip naked on the side of the road (Warren stripped too, so Margie wouldn’t feel alone), hop into a strange bathtub and click the cable remote attached to her prized Leica. Margie gave me several prints for Christmas one year, carefully wrapped in a box that once held a tube of personal lubricant. She was the youngest, most prank-oriented 70-something-year-old I’ve ever met. One day I hope I’ll find those photographs tucked in the pages of some book I packed away when I moved back to Memphis from Boston, and I’ll laugh all over again at her beautiful absurdity.
I learned from Margie not to take myself, my art, or life in general, too seriously. Gone are the days of haunting self-portraits, though I don’t anticipate ever delving into anything like Margie’s bathtub series. I have, at 47, a sense of humor in self-reflection that was entirely absent in my youth.
So why, I wondered today, should my written bio not follow suit?
This afternoon I was working on answers to a profile questionnaire that a local business publication is going to run in a few weeks. As part of my response, I have to write a short bio about myself. I was looking through the ones I’ve put together for speeches and others articles, all of which should be titled, “Meet the world’s most boring woman.” I hate having to write a background blurb for myself, but I hate more that somber cataloging of education, experience, and awards that I’ve been hauling around in my professional career. Life is short; I should be more like Margie.
Instead of “A graduate of blah blah blah… She has worked at blah, blah, blah,” I threw at them this, which I wrote last month on a whim as an assignment for Tina Seelig’s “Crash Course on Creativity” (Stanford Venture Labs):
A well-trained Southern girl by upbringing, Jennifer Larkey Balink intended to spend her adult life as an organized homemaker, since becoming Nancy Drew seemed unlikely. Instead she took every detour that presented itself, met interesting friends, traveled interesting places and made a life map of her own. She has spent the first half of her life studying books and the second half studying people. She is an independent thinker, problem solver, public speaker, writer, photographer, business strategist, community planner, tennis player, dog lover and cook who hasn’t a prayer of ever being organized. She learned from her father to laugh at herself. She learned from her mother that life is full of magic and that detours are the only roads worth taking. She currently works at Lifeblood, the community’s only non-profit, volunteer blood center.
So, friends, what crazy bio can you craft from your life’s twists and turns? Life’s short; give it your best shot.