I was challenged by the wonderful Emma of iwillnotliveinvain. My task: “Seven days. Seven black and white photos of your life. No people. No explanation. Challenge someone new each day.”
Here’s the first one. I don’t know seven people that Emma doesn’t know so odds are they’ve already been challenged! I will skip that part, please and thank you.
Here it is the end of the year and again I find myself spurred by some instinctual part of my primitive brain to create for the sake of creating. I have continued on the self-improvement track and have many changes to report. For one, I saved up enough money that I could safely swap my full-time day job for a 6-9 hour weekly commitment. I am relieved to finally be able to devote my time to art-making. I am struggling to set up a workable studio practice but largely I am taking things one day at a time and trying to make enough art that when inspiration comes along it will find me at my desk, ready to receive it.
This blog was founded as a tool to help me untangle the rats nest of expectations and societal norms in my head so that I might finally ken my one true purpose in this life. Even though many of my struggles were never published here I am happy to say that I have discovered my greatest desire–to fully realize my potential as an artist. The vehicle for this will be the journey of mastery; I want to create art for the love of the process rather than for the goal of producing salable products.
I know I am lucky to be in the place where I may embark on this long and arduous path and I am grateful. My barometer for success will not be reception or sales but how accurately I am able to portray the vision in my head. My chosen medium is colored pencil on black paper. I delight in the knowledge the journey will be never-ending and I expect to work for 5-10 years before I have achieved a remote semblance of mastery. It will be a struggle at times but as long as I am drawing my heart will be content.
The first step on the path towards mastery is to take my art practice back to the basics and try to learn a bit more about materials and technique. I am hoping this renewed focus on the mechanical re-presentation of life and nature will inform later works of imaginative realism. I have been supported by my peers and my friends alike in this mission and I am grateful to many for their encouragement and their advice. I am resurrecting this blog as I feel the need to give back to the community which has supported my efforts.
I aim to immerse myself in the online artists community and have found plenty of valuable advice and anecdotal experiences to draw from on my own art journey. To further my involvement with this community I plan to launch my own YouTube channel in February of 2018. Here I will be making videos about art materials, technique, theory and process. I will also be posting book reviews as I still find reading to be the best way to absorb teachings and meaning. Largely, I hope to catalog my art journey for myself and for other pilgrims on their own journeys. Creating in a vacuum has its perks but lately I crave connection to the larger art-making organism.
I finally feel like I have something to offer.
I have recently adopted a morning ritual of quiet prayer, meditation, writing, day-planning and reading. I was inspired by some posts I saw floating around on Instagram. It was easy enough to codify my disparate loves into one hour of concentrated, uninterrupted focus. Observing the ritual has been exceedingly rewarding, despite being scheduled for O-dark-thirty in the morning.
Today, however, I had to see husband off to work earlier than usual so I decided to take advantage of the early morning break in the searing Australian desert heat and go for a walk. I roamed northward, toward Spencer Hill and the Telegraph Station. I came around the other side of the hill and caught my breath when I saw her–a beautiful white gum tree, bursting forth from the grassy hillside, kissed by the morning sun.
I felt the goddess call and–despite my reticence to encounter one of the several deadly snakes that twist along in the Outback–I walked over to her, picking my way through knee-high clumps of stiff grass. When I reached her I paused, dumbstruck. I felt abruptly small, uncertain, ignorant, even. I didn’t know what sort of action was appropriate and I felt self-conscious even though I was certain no one was around. How does one greet a sacred being?
I placed my hands on her trunk and was taken aback by the velvet of her skin. I thought about how desperate I was to feel something, to have some kind of revelation or ecstatic experience as I stood in the presence of this obvious goddess. I dropped my hands and stepped back, gazing in awe at the tree, at her place in the world. I wanted to connect to this place, to glean a bit of wisdom about stoic silence, patient growth and inevitable decay.
I looked with my artist’s eyes. I admired the contrast between her body and the dim grass. The dance of her new-green leaves in the breeze delighted. I leaned in close, studying the striations on her skin; so fine and numerous were they that it made her skin soft, not hard and scratchy like most other trees I had met. Abruptly instinct seized me: I leaned in again and placed my left hand on her skin and sent out a simple prayer: “Teach me.”
I was not certain what lesson I may garner, what I might need from this White Goddess, but I sought to remain open to receive it when it came. I walked back to my home, my heart at peace, my step sure, and my eyes and ears open to receive the blessings all around me.
Back at home I rested, pulled up my regular social media platforms and sent a couple photos out into the world. I began to scroll–tentatively, as I had plans to work on some art and I know how easily I can get mired in the morass of other people’s carefully curated lives–and I felt my mood crumbling rapidly.
The abruptness of the emotional change shocked me–these brief, ethereal, digital encounters can have so much power over me. I chide myself now: how can I stand with my heart open in a field full of life for a half hour and remain only vaguely affected somewhere deep within and yet a few moments indulging in social media releases a veritable shit-storm of emotions?
Jealousy, guilt, betrayal, disgust, anger, self-loathing: these and more flashed through me. I took the time to catalog the experience because my focus for personal growth has been to increase my emotional strength and grow my self-confidence. I usually hide away from toxic social media but today I wanted to feel it: to weigh my emotions, to analyze my reactions. Where once I ran from confronting my deeper self I now held myself in the crucible, willing my flesh to harden, my will to be tempered, until I come out a more resilient alloy.
Primarily, I grieve. For my friends who are suffering, for the world which is suffering, and for the time and creative energy lost to the act of scrolling.
Here, perhaps, is the lesson of the White Goddess: grieve and move on, keep growing, putting out roots and twigs. No matter the storm, continue to carefully place one green cell in front of the other.
No matter the storm.
…continued from The Orphan, pt 2
“You need a vacation,” was the collective good advice. A vacation? From work? So I can be with the wailing in my head? I shuddered inwardly and plugged along, determined now more than ever that I would not falter; I would become the best non-commissioned officer and most adept technician that I could be. My military career was everything to me…wasn’t it?
I couldn’t see anything more than a few inches in front of my nose, so deeply was I focused on my tasks; yet somehow I started to make mistakes. Small ones at first which drew little more than shrugs and kindly excuses: “She’s just been under a lot of stress…she will sort it out.” I nodded frantically in agreement and refocused my efforts but I hardly heard their voices over the shrieking in my skull. Then, a blunder of epic proportions resulted in my boss suggesting again that I take some time off. The closed door and the stern expression on his face as he regarded me across his desk told me it was hardly a suggestion.
Without work to fill my day I wandered like a wraith, moving from room to room in my house. I avoided people. I organized my books. I cleaned my fridge. I lingered in the garden. I played with my cats. The feeling that I was standing tip-toed at the edge of a precipice frightened me, and yet it was exhilarating; I could do whatever I wanted. Anything. I could drive to Texas for some real barbecue. I could order in Thai food and watch bad movies. I could read Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time in it’s entirety (or at least attempt to). There were so many possibilities–I had so much time now!
So I sat on the couch, paralyzed by the wealth of choice, chiding myself for being so lackadaisical. I was confused at first, but then I began to get angry with myself–truly livid–disgusted by my lack of motivation to do any damned thing. A small voice reasoned that I was on vacation, so maybe I should be resting? I snapped back: No, this is ridiculous–the howling monster must be fed and it likes productivity…right?
“Maybe you should change its diet,” the little voice whispered.
I leapt from the couch and strode with purpose to the spare bedroom, shoving the door open and breathing in the stale air. As my eyes adjusted to the gloom dismay bloomed in my heart; this place was a real wreck! Where did all this crap come from? Disappointment settled like a weight as I realized I would have to clean this room before I could do anything else. I started to sort things into piles, falling into old habits while the beast roared its hunger.
There. My eyes found my drafting table—a gift purchased to replace the one I had lost to “the flood”—folded and forgotten behind a mound of assorted goods; all of it suddenly seemed extremely useless as I scrambled over the dross to pry my table out. Something crashed behind me and a long gash appeared on my calf as I yanked the table free, stumbling with the ungainly thing over to the door. In the living room I restored the table to its functional position, tucking it against the wall under the skylight. With a small groan I returned to the room to retrieve some art supplies, fighting valiantly against the urge to stay and clean.
I shut the door behind me, excitement growing in my belly. What was I going to draw? Well, it didn’t matter, as long as I did something. I began to sketch, tentative at first, scared of what I might end up with. A figure emerged and I began to lose myself in the process, the howl fading to a warm humming as I sat, bent-backed and scribbling over my precious drafting table. In that singular moment, I was reconciled with my creative spirit.
Years and experience have taught me a great deal about how creativity works in my life; I have become adept at identifying the various leg traps that way-lay me, despite my best efforts. I recognize that creativity needs space, and it’s less about the physical studio and more about the space I am willing to give it in my life. I see this allowance as more than mere vanity; it is a necessity. I have written this account again and again in various phases and times of need in my creative life. In the writing I am reminded how easy it is to lose track of myself, to ignore my spirit’s need to create.
The purring kitten becomes a raging monster, demanding I make the sacrifice or be consumed. Once I face the beast, stare stoically into the gaping maw lined with poison-teeth, I have but to acquiesce, to bend my head in solemn homage and put my tools to work in order to return the beast to its demure form.
The catharsis from such surrender cannot be overstated; I was so relieved to know that my creative spirit was not dead, but that it lived on; I learned to love the monster, even as it transmogrified back into the well-fed beauty lounging on the edge of the stream of my subconscious. I learned how to properly nourish and care for this creature, and she has been as stable a companion as any orphan could ever hope for.
…continued from The Orphan, pt 1
In my crisis I found myself becoming more and more acquisitive, despite the slight amount of money I could call my own after I paid the bills; I started to buy beautiful things, things that struck something inside my heart, loosening the armor a bit so the spark could breathe. I bought striking things for my apartment, lovely accessories and shoes, and yes, even art supplies. I inhaled the aroma of oil pastels and newsprint as if they were a wholesome meal waiting to be devoured. I promised my little spark that, once I had all the things I needed, I would let it out to play.
Soon enough I had all the materials any artist could want; but I lamented that I did not have the proper space to create. Visions of grand 7-foot tall easels and white-washed walls with high windows teased my senses; yes, I needed to make the space for my art. My mother, a freelance writer, has a cozy office in her home from where she works and writes. Behind her desk is a framed cross-stitch piece with the carefully stitched phrase “My Little Corner of the World.” That, I told my little spark, the hungry beastie growing in my heartspace, is what we need in order to create.
Despite the mounting credit card debt and the already-pinched space in my apartment, I bought my own drafting table. I played with the location, trying to carve out a space that I could call my own: a space that would inspire me to create. The table found a niche, tucked in the dining area easily enough since I was accustomed to eating at the coffee table in the living room. Here I carefully set out all my supplies, neatly stacking the boxes of sundry sticks of material and leaning the great pads of papers of various weights against the legs. Satisfied, I perched upon the flimsy folding stool, waiting for inspiration to strike.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a pile of dirty dishes; once these were conquered I suddenly recalled how long it had been since I had cleaned the toilet and—wouldn’t you know it?—the bath towels were dirty, too. I sighed resolutely and promised the beastie whimpering for sustenance that it would be fed, when I had the time. The drafting table began to gather papers, junk mail, receipts and the like, and the materials were lost under the layers. Disgusted with myself and convinced that somehow I had lost my ability to create I decided I could no longer bear to look at the thing; the table stood as a reminder of what I could have been, of the dream that had been stolen from me when I was first orphaned.
And then I committed one of many acts of self-orphaning; I folded up the table and stuffed it into the closet on the porch, where it would be forgotten and eventually ruined by the rain that would periodically flood the porch. Even though I said I was done—that I would not go back to drawing again—the beastie within whined, it’s tiny voice staying my hand, pleading for temperance in the face of my pain. So I kept my supplies, despite my sinking certainty that I would never use them again. I carefully boxed them up along with my other things as I made up my mind; it was high time I got a “real job.” Lured by the promise of an education and a career in science and technology I enlisted in the United States Air Force. Perhaps I could claw my way out of the muck after all, I thought, as I readied myself to “cross into the blue.”
The military, it would turn out, provided a novel, if demanding, way of life. It seemed that art would literally have no space in my new life, and as I went about trying to convince myself that I had outgrown the need to create, the beastie with the little voice grew claws and began scratching at the inside of my brain. I fed it excuses to quell the tumult in my heart: I don’t have the time; it’s just not that important anymore; I was never any good to begin with; no one will look at the stuff anyway, let alone buy it, so what is the point? Plus, I don’t have the space anymore. I filled my heart with excuses as I sopped up all my time with work, volunteering and friends. I didn’t have the space in my life for grief, for anger, or healing. I filled my heart with bitterness, the orphan certain of the cruelty in this world. Those pretty emotions make me weak anyway, I reasoned, cringing as I recalled how the men at work treated me, deriding me for being “such a girl,”
I was being “productive,” filling my daily agenda to the brim. Those tasks and projects became the armor I placed around my heart, but after a time even they couldn’t keep me from hearing the beast howling. It began as a dull rushing sound, persistently underlying all my oh-so-important tasks. Then it built to a piercing wail and all of a sudden I felt like I was slipping. I honestly wondered if I was having a nervous breakdown. My heart would race without provocation and the energy required to simply stand in place made me feel weak and dizzy. Suddenly I felt threatened by everything, regarding familiar people with suspicion, safe places with wide, frantic eyes. “This isn’t where I need to be,” the howling beast said, “This is not who I was meant to be!”
…to be continued…
A bird does not sing because it has an answer. It sings because it has a song.
Joan Walsh Anglund, 1967
This observation–even as it projects the human trait of motivation on a wild thing–hints at one way to answer the burning question: “Why create?“
In searching for the attribution to the above quote I came upon several lengthy explorations of the needs of songbirds to vocalize in their peculiarly lovely way. William Hazlitt, British literary and art critic, offers this particularly relevant insight: “The thrush…does not sing because it is paid to sing, or to please others, or to be admired or criticized…” (link).
Conflict rises in me as I reread this statement. If I have ever felt these things while creating then am I doing so for the wrong reasons? Should I cease the work and move on to something else, something that comes from the spirit without any knowledge of motivation? I have been paying careful attention to the way I feel when I make work lately and I find I am often working from one of two modes.
In the first mode–the most satisfying instance–I am creating something raw with little notion of where the work will go from the outset. I feel myself descending into the deepest parts of my psyche, reaching towards that indescribable center. I am in the work, and the work comes easily. While the critic may pipe up intermittently at the beginning, the sheer ecstasy of being so deeply ensconced in my subconscious drowns it out. Ego is a distant memory. I am dancing with my spirit.
In this mode thoughts of success and praise do not enter my mind. I am fully engaged in singing my hearts deepest song. And when I return to the topside world I am revivified.
The second mode in which I make my work involves starting with an image or motif I want to explore. This process is natural enough for an artist and I struggle with placing the blame for my creative blockages at the proverbial feet of such a monumental practice. In other words, I do not malign the preparatory sketching and the making of studies nor do I wish to turn my nose up at commissions and freelance work. However, as I begin in this mode the critic is quite vocal and obnoxious. It chides me for thinking myself clever, berates me for wasting my time on something so cliche or–if the project was specifically commissioned–it henpecks me over technique and representation.
“You know most folks value representation above all else in their art and you simply do not have the skill, poor dear, to pull it off.”
Even after I silence the critic my mind remains too alert, too conscious. I begin to obsess over technique and how I will finish the piece most efficiently. I ponder how I will display it, where I will upload its likeness, and what the reception will be. I keep my work at arm’s length.
This fixation with success has lead me to question whether or not I should even keep creating. I am in anguish over trying to divine the inner motivation behind my need to create. I feel I must either accept that success is my primary motivator and learn to work with that or I need to stop creating from this place entirely. The sense of urgency puzzles me somewhat but I feel some tugging in my psyche which wants an answer.
The songbird may not vocalize an answer but in his act of singing may be my own answer; if I garner satisfaction from creating in the first, deep mode then am I like the bird? When I can happily tell the critic off, move beyond the nagging, negative voices that beg to know, “What…why?” and simply create from that space deep within my spirit then I feel the most satisfaction.
I am singing because I have a song.