Sister Windy and the rough critique

Neal Slavin, "Channel Swimming Association" Sister Windy, Seattle actor Kevin Kent's loving if irreverent sendup of art-loving nun, Sister Wendy, once put her foot through a painting of mine onstage at the Re-bar.

It was a pair of English Channel swimmers I had painted from a photograph. The woman in her red suit stood squarely next to the large-stomached man in his yellow trunks, bathing capped and goggled in a bleak beachscape. I liked their proud plainness and the simplicity of the poses, head on to the camera.

I was dissatisfied with it, though. I had made several versions and this, the final one, had been through many phases. It felt overworked and I couldn't seem to revive it. Besides, despite color changes and much emphasizing of negative space, it was just too literal. Digging even deeper, I think it was my college self trying to prove yet again that I could paint the figure. And that wasn't taking me anywhere meaningful.

During the run of the show, people were invited, at their peril, to give Sister Windy things to critique onstage. That night I saw Kevin before the show and as I handed him the long, narrow canvas I told him he had my permission to do whatever he wanted with it.

When my turn came, Sister Windy held up my painting before the audience. After a brief review that focused on the swimmers' choice of togs, she pronounced it a failure, raised the skirt of her habit and slammed a booted foot through the middle of the canvas. 

A gasp went up. Heads turned in my direction. I sat grinning in shock. I wasn't prepared for the suddenness and completeness of my painting's destruction, or for the genuinely horrified reaction of the audience. It was exhilirating. Cathartic.

After the show, the owner of the venue came up to me and said, "You know, I liked that painting. You could have just given it to me."

I could have, but I couldn't have. I wanted the experience of seeing a painting of mine destroyed (by a fake nun), not because it was bad - it wasn't - but because it wasn't anything more than "not bad". No-one else would see it the way I saw it. It was for all its public theatricality an intensely private moment.

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Kevin Kent went on to perform Sister Windy: My Life as Art, and The Temptations of Sister Windy at the Seattle Repertory Theater, and is a founding actor and regular cast member of the wildly successful Teatro ZinZanni.