Did you see that film about an art heist? The art market? That super famous genius? Not that one, the other one.
Movies about art promise insight into the elite, unwieldy world of creativity and commodity. Typically, the artist is presented in a romantic light, detached from reality — either as a mysterious and triumphant anomaly or as some version of an Orphan Annie who dreams of being plucked from the doldrums of side-gigs and obscure venues. The film Showing Up (2023), directed by Kelly Reichardt, uniquely tells a story of an artist working far from any monetary goals or God complex. It is a meditation on observing as a skill, making as habit, and the goal to simply sustain both.
Lizzy (Michelle Williams) is an artist who works as a receptionist at an art college in Portland, Oregon. In fact, all the characters in the story are artists, from Lizzy’s dad to her landlord, rendering the label creative a little less extraordinary than usual in film. When Lizzy tends to her ceramic practice it is an act wedged between feeding her cat or checking on her brother. Making art is a routine.
To develop the characters, Reichardt and co-writer Jonathan Raymond observed artists from Black Mountain College and Portland’s art scene, such as Cynthia Lahti, the original maker of Lizzy’s ceramics. Showing Up so successfully mirrors the lives in small art centers that it may almost feel like a documentary — from the sweaty cheese cubes and small children at an opening to the passing reverence for a visiting art resident from New York to humorous comments, like describing a ceramic pot as “spontaneous” or declaring “you have to listen to what isn’t being said,” which are both annoyingly performative and endearingly familiar.
The art college buzzes with the energy of weaving, painting, molding, and dancing, which accentuates how stiffly Lizzy moves through the world. Her arms don’t swing when she walks, her shoulders hunch, and her face is frozen in one expression. But in a beautiful scene, the frame hugs her closely as she works on a gray clay female figure that has air dried. Lizzy swiftly snaps the figure’s two straight arms that cling to its sides. “Sorry,” she says while prepping the rough elbows. The new limbs are bent and outstretched, posed to carry weight. Lizzy is her art, but unlike ceramic, she is not fragile. She may never quit her day job or pull whatever levers we hope will ensure success, but she will never stop making art; it is the only time we see her eyes brighten and her demeanor lift.
The movie’s main tension revolves around whether Lizzy’s art is taking her anywhere and if it will all work out. Yet she doesn’t question why she is an artist or where the effort will lead — audiences do. The practice is the prize.
Showing Up is in theaters nationwide.