On being/becoming an artist and acknowledging the fragile moments, steps and stumbles on the path to an intimate understanding of my journey thus far. My most recent essay on Hello Humans.
I have a dilemma.
While updating inventory in my space at a co-op shop, a flash of horror came over me as I looked at several paintings. I stared at them as if I’d never seen them before.
I am an artist. Three years ago, I would have said “I make stuff” because declaring myself an artist felt weird, though I’ve created art and prose and poetry my whole life. In the past, I mentally dismissed compliments of my work because there were “real” artists and writers creating “real” art, stories, and poems. Not me.
I thought of creative efforts in relation to and as a product of my “real” life: job, family, friends – not fundamental to who I am or why I exist. And, I too often defined myself by my shortcomings, bad habits, and what I am not.
In that era of my life, I kept way too much stuff, hanging on to strange collections for abstract reasons. My sister Karie called it hoarding and I guess in some ways she was right. To her, the big tub of broken dishes and piles of blue bottles in my garage should be trashed immediately. She occasionally came to my house and worked miracles helping me create some order. Once, before Karie hauled off the recycling, I asked, “You know where the recycling center is?” and she responded, “oh I know where the center is — the first dumpster I see.”
That was back when raising my boys and teaching school filled my days and years. Back when there was little time for art outside of school projects.
Back then, I only had dreams and plans for those broken dishes – plans to create intricate, colorful mosaic art. I imagined the blue bottles in a giant bottle tree that I could weld – nevermind the reality that I had zero welding experience, know-how, or equipment. In my imagination, I could easily be a welder. The recycling? My honest effort to do good; but, with two jobs and two kids, I failed at making it a weekly (or monthly) habit.
I kept the bottles and the dishes (and a lot of other stuff) for years, steadfast in believing that someday, I would use all of it for art.
As my time became less structured, I did make those mosaics – dozens of them – and to replenish materials, I’d beg friends to save their broken dishes. In the Buddha garden at my studio, those same blue bottles (the ones that escaped my sister years ago) sway in the trees. And finally, recycling was picked up weekly.
Hindsight tells me if I had thrown out the broken dishes and the bottles back when Karie insisted, life would have revealed another path to making mosaics and bottle trees because I am compelled to create what I imagine – good or bad. And hindsight also says I should have put the recycling out with the trash guilt-free, because sometimes doing the best you can is all you can do, even if newspapers and plastic are heading for the landfill.
I began painting last year in desperation. On Labor Day, I broke my heel and ankle halting all concrete, metal, and mosaic work.
It started with rock painting, joining my son Lee and granddaughter Lily in painting designs for one of those groups that hides rocks out in the community for fun. I painted so many rocks that I often sub-contracted the hiding part of the process to my younger son, Zach, who could hardly say no to his crippled momma when asked to anonymously spread joy.
I painted intricate designs on 18 birdhouses pulled from a clearance bin (only 20 cents each!), because they might come in handy for some project. And they did; you can see a lovely birdhouse village, including a church and a school, on a fence in the yard.
One day, I came across leftover canvas board from some forgotten project. I didn’t have the right paints or brushes (you know, the ones “real” artists use) but, I started painting suns anyway. Lots of suns. Crazy suns. Big suns. Creepy suns. Colorful suns. Happy suns. Some boasted inspirational messages. Painting suns became my meditation. More than a few were well-received when posted online or entered in competitions. Soon, I bought more canvas and began painting regularly.
A peacefully impatient creator, I’d typically have two or three paintings going at once – busy on one while a layer dried on another. Eventually, the cast came off and I could walk again. I planned to get outside to make things with concrete and metal, my first loves, but hard manual labor in July held no appeal. So, I kept painting.
My awareness that painting had become a need rather than just something else I did surfaced when our beloved family pup died and I painted his portrait to give to Zach. Zach was Hans’ true master and his raw emotion and pain twisted my heart into achy knots. My own grief and acceptance of this loss began and then grew in concert with the image of our sweet Hans as I painted.
Until then, I did not understand my fundamental emotional well-being was entwined with art. I did not understand the meditative state (and really, still don’t completely) and the balance I felt. Before that, I only knew I wanted to paint more than seemed reasonable.
Here’s a cool thing about doing something a lot. We humans improve. We get better at things. And I got better.
But what about those paintings? Looking at them, I felt like a fraud. Like the real artists would will be calling me out any moment now.
So, that day in the shop, I dropped six paintings in my bag with an intention to make them better, too.
My plan: be true to original designs and colors, adding texture and clean lines along with depth and highlights. Good ideas. Too bad it didn’t work out.
With paint on a brush, I hesitated. It felt wrong.
Prior to that moment, I gave one piece a “maybe not so bad” verdict. My uneasiness with beginning the work on the other five led me to pick up my camera for pictures. Photographs help ward off tunnel vision. Pulling back for the broad view and seeing the whole, though I will admit to micro-analyzing every stroke on occasion.
I studied pictures of the possibly awful paintings for a few minutes. Individually and as a group – in various lighting settings, lingering on a few shots. And you know what? Those five didn’t seem so bad either. Maybe.
Confused, I put the whole redo project on hold.
When I notice this small pile of paintings now, I think about all sorts of things – what was going on in my world when I made this one or that, art I made as a kid, lovely things I saw my dad or mom make (though they would not have labeled their projects art). I think of paintings and sculptures and unusual art pieces I’ve picked up in unlikely places.
Perusing paintings in resale shops, I sometimes wonder what series of events land them there. If one holds my attention, I think about the artist and might create their life story in my head. I think about the person who chose to donate it rather than keep or toss it. I ponder pricing in relation to how much I like it and what guidelines the shop might use. The art either appeals to me or doesn’t, but I decide that for myself – and I can’t connect that to the artist or the fate of the painting since all I know is some fantasy tale I make up based on one creation I happen to come across in that one tiny moment.
Today, I’m imagining my five paintings in a resale shop and the character willing to drop a buck or so for one. What will they see without the benefit of knowing me?
How could they know what I did not, for decades, know about me?
They can’t know that in second grade, I ran from the school bus to my house excited about drawing a bear and some ants to illustrate the first short story I ever wrote. A small painting won’t reveal the moments spent alone with markers and paper, detailing folds on the flowing dress of an angelic figure I drew after my mother died (not that my mom ever wore flowing dresses – I probably should have put her angel in business casual with comfortable shoes). Or the hours I spent rearranging phrases in an 80 word poem. A poem few would read, but I wrote and rewrote, desperate to find a way to say exactly how it felt to lose a close friend to suicide.
In hindsight? Well, hindsight tells me to let these paintings be what they are. Each created in moments that blend together to make a real story of art and me – real, whether told or not – and maybe they’ll end up a tiny piece of another story. Maybe not. But, even if destined for resale or trash bin in the bigger story, I’ll return them to the shop. There, somebody else can decide if they are awful, not so bad, or worth a dollar.
Regardless, I am an artist.
And, in hindsight, I always have been.