The #PRETTYMEAN Project (2015)
I was playing around with the paints the other day, and one of my friends texted. There'd been a classic Sydney Summer storm the night before. All thunder and lightning and clammy tension broken by glorious drenching rain. She wrote, 'that storm was so hectic that a dildo washed up in the gutter outside my apartment block'. First I thought, jesus. Then I thought, god wouldn’t it be delightful to see the phrase ‘dildo washed up in the gutter’ painted in beautiful calligraphy, like one of those irritating ‘dream create succeed’ inspirational quotes that are always clogging my Instagram feed.
So I dug around my brain, and thought of other things that would look ridiculous in that style: clothing care wash instructions, newspaper headlines delivering terrible news, the worst insult I'd ever received (that time my ex-boyfriend said my face looked like it had been run over by a tractor?). Ah, perfect.
My sister called that night from Sweden and I asked her what was the worst thing anyone had ever said to her. In retrospect, her response matched the response of almost everyone I have interviewed for this project. First step - denial. I've never really been insulted. Second step - admission. I mean, I'm sure people have said bad things about me. Just not to my face. Third step (usually after an hour or so) - acceptance and full blown enthusiasm. Well, there was that one time so and so said I was terrible at my job. Do you mean like that?
What followed was an onslaught of all the hurtful things that they'd secreted away to pull out for some self-hate spiral validation. The words didn't always sound so bad to me. Like, what would I care if someone called me a hypochondriac? It is invariably the person who said it that brings the sting.
I asked friends, relatives, friends of relatives and strangers on the internet. And #PRETTYMEAN was born. Decorative insults. The worst thing anyone ever said to you, made pretty.
It’s fair to say some people didn’t get it. They thought I was coming up with this stuff all by myself. Others shut it down, probably thinking, what’s the point? Why do I like them? Well I think they’re great because they make light of what was (often) a quite hurtful moment. And it gives people a chance to tell someone about a moment that's stayed with them, and in the retelling it gets re-remembered, because now the story has the added layer of "remember that time I told my worst insult to a girl and she painted it in pastels and loopy text and posted it on the internet?" Might as well let it out into a silly little watercolour and be done with it.
Some of the insults are ones I can imagine many people have heard at some point in their lives. Others are so specific that they shock. Some words are too hateful and no amount of watercolour will gloss over that. They are the ones that don’t get painted. As I said to a friend, we’re in ‘mean’ territory, not truly wicked.
I’m grateful to the people, especially the ones I don’t know from a bar of soap, who have emailed me their insults to play around with. As one of them reminded me, these are vulnerable moments I have in my care. I hope I do them proud.