An Artist and Her Ever-Changing Identities
Hi, I got married last week–but let’s hold off on that for the moment. I want to talk about identity. What defines us? What do our names mean to us? Names are pretty impactful when it comes to your sense of identity.
Some of you were given really cool, distinct, names at birth like Harlow McAllistar or Juniper Williams or Coriander Harrington or maybe you have a couple unique middle names to choose from in your adult years as you go through identity crises.
That wasn’t me. I, this majestic and magnificent human before you, was born with a painfully generic name in all regards; first, middle, and last. I’ve been trying to figure out who I am for as long as I can remember and I’ve had a few identities over the years. Like:
Identity #1: The default factory setting.
I kid you not, my first name came from my mother’s favorite childhood dog, Kelly. And my middle name, Marie, is arguably one of the most popular middle names of the last century. I tried to find statistics as proof and found this Buzzfeed post instead. I feel validated.
And my maiden last name is a super common, two-syllable name with the ‘-son’ suffix, which is boring, but it’s also a lie because of a juicy family secret that my grandmother insists ends with Bing Crosby being my great-grandfather. Also a lie, but humor me here, because I LOVE this story.
The way my grandmother tells it, my great-grandmother was an unmarried woman of loose morals who loved to frequent clubs to see live music (#lifegoals), resulting in her allegedly fooling around with Bing Crosby, hiding away an unplanned pregnancy, having a hushed birth, and subsequently giving the baby, my grandfather, to her married sister to raise as her own so he wouldn’t be labeled a *gasp* bastard. My grandmother has weaved tales of large payoffs, fancy homes in St. Paul, and even carried around a side-by-side comparison of my grandfather’s picture next to Bing Crosby’s to really solidify the story. Kelly Crosby does have a nice ring to it, don’t you think? Alas, my grandmother is a creative spirit with a penchant for fiction.
Though, I do find some poeticism in my grandfather’s struggle with his own identity. He learned when he was drafted into WWII that the name he carried was a lie, and that lie was given to his children, and then given to me. I’m starting to realize this may have created a bit of a ripple effect through the generations…
Identity #2: Don’t Call Me Becky.
Anyway, that name of mine. It never felt like me, but being a woman in this patriarchal system of ours allowed me to look forward to the social norm of changing my name when I got married. Which I stupidly did at 22 when I met a guy that checked enough boxes that I could ignore our glaring incompatibility and take his last name. Ah, what fun the whims of youth can bring.
For a time, I embraced this new name and started signing all my art with it–and then the ex-husband and I came to our senses and were like hey, we don’t really like each other, and then we parted ways.
But there I was, disconnected from my identity again. I couldn’t go back to my maiden name, because ew, boring. Also, I could have made up a new name when I filed for divorce, but I had no idea who the f*** I was, so no to that. Instead, I kept this strange last name that resulted in people accidentally calling me ‘Becky’ for the last 11 years. No offense to the Beckys of the world–but *cue The Ting Tings* that’s not my name!
Identity #3: MEA, I guess.
In 2014, I started this blog called Messy Ever After because I had too many creative disciplines and urges preventing me from staying on one path and I wanted to write about it. Why choose one thing when you can try everything and be an absolute mess of a human? With art and with life, I can’t stick to one thing too long. I can’t fit into a mold. Careers, schools, hobbies, relationships, you name it–I was just winging it. Instead of running from that truth, I embraced it. Since around 2017, I started signing all my art as “MEA” and “Mea Kelly Marie”, omitting my last name entirely.
Although MEA felt like my best option at the moment, it still didn’t feel like home. I knew MEA was a placeholder until my true identity revealed itself. I’ve been in identity limbo since I was born and I’ve been itching to take a new form–which has its own ripple effects that I’m just now starting to realize.
I couldn’t take myself seriously as an artist without a real name, and I’m not cool or mysterious enough like other creators with pseudonyms to stomach actually asking people to call me MEA. It all felt incredibly inauthentic to me, but I still had no idea what the alternative was. So, I just started to view Messy Ever After as an extension of myself, and that identity served me well. It’s a vibe, ya know? Be a mess. It’s okay! We’ll figure it out as we go!
But maybe I don’t have to be a mess forever.
Messy Ever After is my baby and it’s how you probably got to know me, but it just doesn’t fit anymore.
I was talking with my mom a few weeks ago about my life, and I found myself saying “Mom, I’m not a mess anymore,” and then I couldn’t help but laugh. I have been on quite a journey in my adult life and the last few years have been especially transformative. After a lot of struggle and trial and error, I know what I want in my life. I know who I am. I have clarity and peace.
I’m not a mess.
Identity #4: Bye, MEA.
In early 2021, I met a guy named Michael, and my world is forever changed. I feel it’s really important to say that I have never needed a man to complete me or define my identity, but I have always known that I’m one of those people that craves a partner. Man or woman. Just be my best friend and grab my butt sometimes. I’ve begun to realize that a healthy partnership is one that reflects your true self back at you. And the reflection I’ve been shown since meeting Michael is the one I’ve always known to be true.
Wait–did I only think I was a mess because that was reflected back to me in past relationships and friendships–and I’ve actually just been this version of myself the whole time?! Motherf***er! Oh, I’ve got some unpacking to do…there will be another blog post in the future with my findings.
Anyway, when I met Michael, I was still healing from past nonsense (like being told I was a mess, for one!), but he saw all my “flaws” and was like “That’s nothing. Wanna see mine?” And then we moved forward together, sifting through our histories, rewiring our brains, confronting old trauma, redefining ourselves, dreaming of the future, nurturing our strengths and having compassion for our weaknesses, laughing at everything, and expressing gratitude for every moment. In the process, we’ve found the most comfort and safety that either of us has ever known.
I knew really early on that I wanted to marry the shit outta this guy. It’s about as corny as it gets, but I’m my best self with him. And then it all made sense. Fuck the patriarchy! Let’s get married and pick a new name!
New name, who dis?
Do you have any idea how difficult it is to come up with a new last name that fits two similar but vastly different people? We compiled multiple lists of names, but none of them felt right. They felt too disconnected from us. And then I realized that creating a new identity would never feel right if we tried to completely erase our old ones. We didn’t want to be new people or run from the past, but to redefine ourselves. We wanted something that was ours, but still honored where we came from. So I took half of his last name and half of mine and combined them.
et voilà: Helsinger
I married my best friend last week, and the relief I feel to be anchored to someone and something that feels true and authentic is too big to fully articulate. I think it’s enough to just say I’m home and I am finally myself.
Now what about Messy Ever After?
Alright, so the MEA identity is done, but what does that actually mean? I have been waiting a long time for this feeling, and this means that a lot will be changing around here. This is what I know for sure:
- This blog will continue to exist and I will still publish new posts here. Like I said before, Messy Ever After is a vibe. And I assure you, I have a lot of stuff to continue writing about. But:
- I will never sign my work as MEA or MEA Kelly Marie again. That chapter is completely closed. If you own any of those pieces, congrats! You now own a part of a finite collection of art that didn’t involve my death! Woo!
- A sale is coming. It’s time to purge what I have in my studio and clear out the MEA collection. I’m done with it. Claim pieces here: shop.messyeverafter.com
- I may leave @messyeverafter as is on Instagram. I thought about changing the username, but I just can’t do that yet considering I’ll still be maintaining this blog. I’d rather start fresh. So, meet me over at @kellyhelsinger while I figure things out.
- I have a LOT of new art coming in the future and I have big plans for my career. This is just the beginning of a very fun new chapter.
-Kelly Helsinger (That will never get old.)