File Feature: Q&A with Artist, Denise Tillman

Walking into a room where you don’t expect to know anyone gives some people a sense of paralyzing fear. A lifetime of expecting to meet the unexpected has taught me to come armed with wit, but I never know quite what to count on when I’m among strangers other than that awkward feeling of vulnerability. I’ve gotten better at networking over the years, but it can still bring back those feelings of searching for someone to sit with in the lunchroom at a new school so I didn’t have to eat my PB & J in the bathroom alone (again).

I first spotted Denise at a communications conference sitting in the front row writing in a leather-bound Hermes notebook. Her dark wavy hair was pulled back away from her face where dark-framed glasses rested on her nose. Her petite frame donned a suit and stylish loafers that she wore neatly and confidently. I was basically in a more sloppily-set jeans-and-boots look. I am not sure what vibe I was giving off, but in sitting next to her, I chose an opportunity to just be open.

Talking to Denise felt comfortable, and while we only spoke to each other for mere minutes at the conference, I felt like I’d known her for years. My moment of vulnerability paid off big time: I met an amazing woman and up-and-coming design artist who is also a talented illustrator. Like me, she grew up in a military family and her confident exterior appealed to me since I feel like mine needs work. I wanted to know more. She confronted her own vulnerability and sat down with me for a one-on-one interview. Her first words to me: “we’re not like other people who feel emotionally tied down. At any time we could have to get up or move, let go of our possessions in that time, and be okay with it.” No, we’re not like other people at all.

BFD: What makes you feel the most vulnerable?

DT: “My grandmother raised us to ‘objectively speak’ – feel how we feel, but raise it to others in an objective manner because no one cares about your feelings in the real world. No one in my family likes to be seen as weak. When it comes to vulnerability, my family values strategic vulnerability: don’t be weak with your vulnerability. At some point, you have to own up to your weaknesses and not be taken advantage of.”

BFD: When was the last time you felt most vulnerable?

DT: All the time.”

“I’m a perfectionist, competitive and always on my game, so I feel vulnerable a lot. I feel most vulnerable when people start to ask me about myself and my family. I don’t have all of the answers to their questions and they don’t always have great suggestions for talking about it. My vulnerability is tied to my family’s vulnerability because talking about them to strangers could mean making them feel vulnerable. I would never want to make my family feel vulnerable as a result of my actions. I feel like I have to take responsibility for the people around me because my actions are a reflection of them.

Talking about myself makes me feel really vulnerable because I’m opening a door to myself. I’m letting you in. Accept me for me. This is really hard to do because a lifetime as a military brat teaches you the tactics you need to survive day-to-day, but not necessarily the tactics it takes to make friends by opening up and sharing your authentic self with strangers”

BFD: I know first hand that being a military brat is all about discovering coping strategies!! What is your coping strategy for vulnerability? What do you do when you feel vulnerable?

DT: “I am very open and honest, but I’m always in my own head and have words and phrases planned for different situations. I try to think of the positive way to respond, over the negative. I take deep breaths. I go slower. I clean my surroundings.”

BFD: I got that sense that you were more a lover and less of a fighter. But what makes you feel inspired to fight? What do you feel is worth fighting for, for you?

DT: “I grew up a very angry child and got in a lot of fights! I learned from that and when I started to meet kids who were angrier than me, it was eye-opening. Fighting is the result of feeling vulnerable sometimes. I always thought I should stand up for who I was and what I believed in, but I learned you can do that without being angry or getting physical. You can say how you feel without shutting down.”

BFD: What do you do when your brain starts to whisper into your mind’s ear every possible disaster scenario/completely assuring you of an impending and absolute failure?

DT: “My manager tells me I’m too humble, which is probably a result of self-doubt, but I’m really big about not being egotistical. When my mind starts to whisper doubt, I clean my surroundings. When your spaces are cluttered, it can also clutter your mind. Then I reflect on previous situations and try to get others’ perspectives. Order really helps with that anxiety, but I do love chaos every now and then. When you don’t doubt yourself, you can’t grow. Someone could kick you off your high horse and you’re not prepared.”

(I laughed out loud at the honesty and awesomeness of that statement, and we kept going.)

BFD: Would you say you’re a work in progress when it comes to exercising vulnerability?
DT: “I don’t like to ever not be a work in progress! This will always be something I need to work on and will be working on.But you never know what life will throw at you. The risk in opening up and sharing yourself or what you’re going through with someone else can also have great rewards. Maybe they can help. Maybe you can help them. Those rewards offer a good incentive to keep being vulnerable.Be honest about your crap.

(I loved it when she said that.)
Denise is reading a fascinating and multilayered novel called “The People in the Trees.” She’s also offered an original illustration for this newsletter, drawing how she feels about vulnerability. Check it out below and connect with her on LinkedIn to see more of this up-and-comer’s great work.

You Might Also Like

Previous Story
Next Story

Leave a Reply