Erin Sweeney, New Hampshire Portrait by Lori Pedrick

Erin Sweeney, New Hampshire
Portrait by Lori Pedrick

Art and Beauty

I started to write about the time a man behind a deli counter in Florida said to me, “I bet this young man has a big appetite!” Or about my nickname in high school: Hogbag. But then I started thinking about a colleague of mine at NHIA who approached me during a faculty meeting last year and told me I was beautiful. When my shocked face didn’t register her compliment, she simply said, “we should tell each other this more often.” 

       But there’s more to this conversation—of course we all think about beauty and aging, especially at forty-four. My neck is doing a weird wobbly thing these days that I cannot prevent. I can’t deny wanting to be “beautiful.” But these days my thoughts on being a woman are more than beauty and aging. It’s about the work. I feel most confident when at work. In my studio, running a printing press, a sewing machine: using my hands. In my classroom, teaching, demonstrating: using my hands. 

       My parents split up when I was twelve. I lived with my mom and younger brother, and my mom’s sister was at our house most weekends. My mom worked full-time as assistant to the CEO of our local hospital and did part time work most evenings. My aunt was repeatedly a top salesperson at Lindenmeyr paper, as one of the few women working in her field. My aunt’s best friends were women working in competitive markets, and they would spend weekends at my mom’s house. Martha, Christie, and Janey would make curtains, install complicated hardware systems, fix broken dishwashers: using their hands and laughing.

       My mom gave me a plaque with an Emile Zola quote years ago. It says, “The artist is nothing without the gift. The gift is nothing without work.” I have always felt like I had to work a little bit harder to be a part of any group, but I have never felt like there was anything I could not do. Whatever it was, I knew I could move in this world on my own, and I could do anything I wanted to do.

       I think the work is what makes us beautiful, and it shows in our hands. 

— Erin Sweeney