Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Where Did Your Artist Go?

I used to teach art to elementary students. It was fascinating to watch the sheer abandon the younger children had as they fearlessly smeared paint across paper, mixing colors, obscuring the white. They painted for the joy of it, and because they wanted to feel it, to see it, and to find out what happens. Art for them was an experience to be enjoyed. I noticed though that as I moved up in the grades, teaching older and older children that they learned to be self critical fairly quickly. Art became a skill to be learned and those who could draw or paint were the only one's who still enjoyed it and really it's questionable how much they even enjoyed it. I'd hear even the most gifted students talking disparagingly about their work. They didn't get the hands right, or the perspective, or the color. Often teachers who were teaching art like any other subject would judge the art critically with the idea that they needed to assign a grade. Without being artists themselves they judged as best they could on the technical things. Does it look right? Did the students use the "right" colors, did they show a proficiency? These things became the criteria for "good art".

When I teach I try to encourage my students not to judge their work. I try to show the difference between a self critique, where you look at your work and propose to yourself what you might do different, or how you could have solved such and such a problem, and a self criticism where you basically tell yourself that what you did is wrong or bad. The second is the trap I think we all get stuck in, as we begin to compare what we did to what we see as ideal and if it fails to measure we take that as an internal blow to our very selves. We judge ourselves on our ability, our work, and how we measure up to others.

Is it any wonder that so many drop art as an interest as they get older? Academia very squarely puts art in the "elective" category, and as something that isn't as important as other classes. Looking down the road, the career of the artist is murky, the road unclear. This contrasts drastically with other possible careers that have a clear path delineated as well as a projected salary scale. That murkiness gets worse when we believe we have to have "talent" as well as skill. Talent is not quantifiable, it's something we feel we need to be labeled by others with. To label ourselves as talented is simply not done. So we need skill, we need talent, we need a career path, the list of things we think artists must have is long. It gets longer when we add things out of fear, like an artist needs to sell their work, an artist needs to be obsessed, or we'll even decide that a true artist spirit is a touch crazy or unstable. The perception of the starving artist makes this uncertainty worse. What is your list? What do you believe an artist is? How would you describe one?

It's not a pretty picture. Yet so many of us hit our twenties, or thirties, or fifties, with a desire deep within us to be an artist. It's a dream that doesn't die although we try to satisfy it with a career in design or decor or education. It's just not the same and we feel that difference. We sometimes ache with it. But by now we have more perceived strikes against us. We may be busy with a family that requires us to sacrifice our time and desires, we may have debt that we feel ties us to a job that gives us the ability to pay it, we may have a lucrative career we spent years carving for ourselves that we just can't see walking away from. We may have a job that allows us to help others and it's hard to find value in something that we feel only helps ourselves. The list again is long and overwhelming. Yet that desire doesn't die. We become frustrated, crabby, twisted or resentful as the older we grow the more aware we are of time, and how we spend it or don't.

And we're fearful. So fearful of wasting our or others time or money on our dream. If it weren't for that inborn desire I don't believe there were would be any artists out there at all. It propels us against our good sense to take that online course, to browse the art section of the library and come home with a stack of books to work from, to find the blogs of other creatives, to walk into the art or fabric store and stay even if it's uncomfortable. To spend our small amounts of time creating and our small amount of play money on supplies. Because for every little bit we make, we discover that we were wrong. We can do it, we can make something and that act of creating is an act of self discovery that awakes and exhilarates us. We look at the evidence, that something we created and try to realize that this really did come from inside us. We're amazed because we still weren't sure if we could. That's the beginning. It starts with the desire to create and truly begins once we've taken the action to create. 

But even then the fear can intensify and the self criticism returns even more forcibly. We wonder who we think we are to be doing this at our age, or without a background in art, or a degree. It seems audacious of us and that I think can make us feel ridiculous. But thankfully I think that internal desire and love for the act of creation rescues us. It's not something we can help, this want to make something, to pull something out from within us. We must do it. We become artists in spite of ourselves but are oh so careful to call ourselves something else, in case someone misunderstands. We claim to be a crafter, or a hobbyist, or someone who likes to dabble. It may take us fifty years or more til we can claim again, as we did as children, that we are artists. It's a seemingly sad story but if we concentrate on it as a journey I think we can be a little more understanding of ourselves. Because in a journey it doesn't necessarily matter how long it takes you to get someplace, just that you set out and that eventually you reached a place you want to be. Twenty, thirty, fifty years, it doesn't matter- you're there now. That matters and I believe our hearts recognize that. We become different people, who enjoy and encourage others. Who are excited and maybe a little obsessed. But that rightness and joy in creating is just so great that it assures us that this is what we were meant to do, this is what we need to do, and this is what we were made to do.

It's a horribly long blog post today, but sometimes I get a little possessed myself and find a message I want to share. So I hope that whoever it was that today's blog was meant for  takes it to heart and feels encouraged in whatever stage of the journey they are at. You are doing just what you were meant to do- just believe it. :)


Carrie said...

So many truths in one post! It seems to be ingrained in us to see art as a frivulous and unimportant hobby and this makes it so difficult to label ourselves as artists to other people. And yet a beauty therapist, hairdresser, fashion designer, chef etc has no such problem but how are their proffesions any more important than ours? When I lost my mum in very sudden circumstances, art seemed such a waste of time in the big scheme of things and yet it was art that actually kept me going through the dark times. We should tell everyone we are artists and be proud of it because if we don't take ourselves seriously then how can we expect anyone else to?

Amelia said...

ah lovely, long, interesting post that makes me want to sit and write an equally long comment but I know I should keep it brief! Having just spent most of the day hanging work for an art event that opens tomorrow and wondering 'what am I doing?' (ie, it's hard doing all the 'other' things that go with being 'an artist'!) and yet reading this post reminds me that I am DOING THE BEST THING IN THE WORLD and that really and truly it makes me so happy. And I learnt that abundance isn't just financial, (for me) it's having the time to do what you love (in my case art) and I had to find a way to do that. Even if it meant going to art college one day per week for 6 years in between child-raising and earning to get that art degree. I love it so much which is part of the reason I designed the art e-course I run - sharing with others is the best. And the art you talk about is what it's all about ie. not getting it 'technically correct' but allowing ourselves to play .

Thanks for this wonderful post. At long last I can call myself an artist and I don't ever regret taking that plunge :)


sugar Creek said...

I so agree with you on the issue of art in schools. My son can't stand art at school. He says the teacher gets on to him because he didn't do it right. How can you not do art right? So instead he likes working with me at home. He says it's much more fun. I let him do whatever. I say here are the tools do what you like! I feel I Have to make something everday! My hands get itchy to work on something whether it be jewlery or a collage or just to smear some paint too!

Anonymous said...

A very well written piece, all so very true. I must say that I got a "D" in art when I was in high school and after that I didn't paint or do any type of art for many years. That teacher was not a "real" teacher. She crushed my dreams. But HAHA, I'm Back!!!

Lisa said...

Thank you for the fabulous thoughts and encouragement to all of us!!

Sherry said...

Thank you for the wonderful post. I want so much to break through this wall I have built. My children are grown and have gone their individual ways and I have a very supportive husband. I have all the materials I need. Today is the day! Thank you!!

E Makes Art said...

What a wonderful post! You must know this will help many people out there, and trust that the ones who truly need to hear it will be lead here to read it! FAntastic!


pigwidget said...

I'm going to have to re-read this post to soak in everything you say, but I know exactly what you mean and need to hear these words. And going back to your starting dialogue, I will always remember my high school art teacher saying I had mis-coloured the mountains when I had painted them blue: to me they are blue when seen from a distance and that was what I was trying to portray... :)