I am an observer. Even as a child I would rather watch than participate. And my kids will tell you I can be obsessive in my observing. If asked, they’ll drag out their favorite photographic proof: in sequence - view driving toward the tunnel, view in the tunnel, and view exiting the tunnel. (I think there was another one called Mom falling down the side of the road in search of the perfect view, that that one mysteriously disappeared twenty years ago.)
I don’t necessarily believe I am obsessive. I’ve realized that before I became a painter, I was recording my observations in other ways. Whenever we traveled, I would stare out the window, photographing every dip in the landscape that caught my attention, what I secretly called my “drive-by shootings” before that term took on such horrific meaning. What I’m trying to point out here is that as artists we automatically observe the world, taking in every nuance and experience. That is a remarkable gift, if you ask me. We can look at artwork created in the past and participate, vicariously, in another existence. A continuing thread, thousands of threads, a memory veil if you wish, that shows up in different forms in our own work. An ongoing conversation. Lives lived that are each unique and yet filled with common experience.
That might actually be the core mystery behind creativity. And as Elizabeth Gilbert writes in her book, Big Magic, we don’t need anyone’s permission to express our creativity. Yet artists often struggle with the belief that they do need permission. If they don’t get that commission, or a gallery response to their portfolio, or accepted into a prestigious show, the sense of rejection can set the studio work back for months. I speak from experience. And it isn’t just the rejections, but the sense that we must do more important things (important to whom?) before we can justify stepping into the studio and paint yet another painting that won’t see the light of day.
Again, I speak from experience. Due to unexpected circumstances, I returned to work three years ago, spending endless hours doing emotionally draining and exceedingly boring work and leaving my full-time studio dedication behind. It paid the bills. But the drip, drip, drip of the mundane did far worse for my sense of creative entitlement than the lack of money ever could. That, my friends, can feel deadly. It’s as if you don’t deserve the muse. Pointlessness again creeps in and logical arguments grow proportionally. With each step you move further away and it becomes harder to return, because, after all, now you are a full-fledged fraud calling yourself an artist when you can’t even get into the studio more than a few times a month.
But I don’t think creativity cares. Let me tell you a story. Back when I was living the Real Artist Life I met a fellow artist who became a role model for me. She was my age now when I met her over a decade ago, and during the 1970’s, while I was busy with young children and photographing tunnels, she was discovering her unique personal voice. In the 1990’s, while I was merely feeling restless, she was living in Mexico and Guatemala, creating works on handcrafted paper made of corn, perfecting her unique style reminiscent of Marc Chagall, and creating highly acclaimed work in her teaching studio. When we finally met, I idolized her while I was sure she hardly recognized me. But one day I opened a wonderful email from her expressing admiration for my work. Now, I am not attempting to connect myself to a famous person here, because this story does have an important lesson. Perhaps a year ago, now, I was back visiting with my old gallery director, and I asked about this artist. She was fine, my friend explained, leading me back into her shop and pulling out several canvases. They were in various stages of the initial drawing or first few bits of paint. My role model, she explained, was very happy, but she had forgotten how to paint. She could not remember enough to finish the work. I left that day with two of her sable brushes and several canvases, in various stages of development, which to this day and into the future will remain just as they are. And that’s ok.
We do not have time to worry about whether we are entitled to or have earned the right to be in our studios creating pointless works of art. Nothing is pointless, just as nothing is so earth shatteringly important that if it isn’t perfect or accepted by the world than it shouldn’t be done. It takes courage to resist the voices so eager to tell you no, not yet, this isn’t your time, me first. But for many of us, we don’t get brave enough until we actually see the finish line of our own lives, and realize if not now, then probably never.
But late-blooming bravery is ok too. Because the way I see it, when I paint, I am doing it for myself, recording, exploring, analyzing my experiences as I work my way through life.
Which is really the only way I want to live my life.