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The illusion of shame

Updated: Jun 11, 2023

A set of vintage Yakity-Yak Teeth became the impetus for my painting, The illusion of shame (shown at the bottom of the page). Purchased in a junk store years ago, the teeth are the original 1949 design. First created as a gag for pranksters, the plastic novelty has become ubiquitous and a similar product is still manufactured today. I can’t explain why the goofy yet slightly creepy disembodied dentures intrigued me. They were just something I wanted to explore.

When I started working with the wind-up choppers, I was mainly focused on their silly aspects, thinking they would stand for something humorous or absurd. But after placing a few light-hearted objects with them I realized that other cute or comical things just didn’t feel right. The more I worked with the teeth the more they began to take on a sinister personality. It soon became evident that the story was going to be a little dark and very personal.

During the process of assembling the still life, the teeth came to represent the relentless chatter directed at us our whole lives. And much of the chatter we hear tells us what’s wrong with us, how we should act, and what we should do. To our detriment, we often internalize the barrage of words flowing our way from sources like religion, culture, advertising, and other institutions. However, for some people, the most incessant and damaging chatter comes directly from their families.

If you were unlucky to have landed in a family that used words as weapons, the sigmas created in childhood have long-term implications affecting self-image and a myriad of actions and decisions made throughout life. The constant negative chatter of the past plays like a recording in the brain. It grows fainter over time but never completely goes away. When triggered by emotional stress or insecurity, old wounds bubble up to the surface and the negative chatter that’s barely audible most of the time can become deafening. As a means of coping, unfortunate behavior shows up that seems irrational to everyone else who doesn't have the same inner chatter playing.

In my family, a consistent narrative of judgment, accusations, and blame created a powerful sense of shame and inadequacy. As children we believed the story we were told about ourselves, absorbing it as truth. But of course, it was not. Still, that sense of shame persists deep within our identities like an impenetrable veil so sheer that we are not even sure it's there.


The illusion of shame

Oil on linen, 30 in. X 40 in.

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