On Lessons, Part 1

Thursday, July 24, 2014

On Lessons

I was wary of lessons. I was wary because I’d been a dutiful, studious girl since I was five years old, and I had a lot more lessons ahead of me. I was twenty-five when I caught the painting bug (or it caught me), waste-deep in student loan debt rising all the time, and six years out from Phinally Done. I couldn’t escape the desire to paint and ultimately succumbed to the call, but the last thing I wanted was to take another lesson before I could do what I wanted to do.

This posed a bit of a problem, though, because I didn’t know how to paint, and everyone around me suggested, kindly enough, I suppose, that I take some lessons to get started. They had a point, after all: I’d spent my high school art classes shirking the still lifes and nudes for the potter’s wheel, and during undergrad, I’d studied political science. Between high school and grad school, I only made some personal, abstract, and frankly disturbing pen-and-ink drawings. I was neither talented nor skilled at realistic rendering; nor did I derive any enjoyment from it. To me, realistic art felt like copying.

The way I saw it, why try to paint realistically when I could just take a picture? I know, I know–the capacity to depict something realistically is supposedly one of the artist’s finest tools.  And if I’d had a whole life to lead alongside the one I was living, I’d have happily studied formal painting while dressed in a fine corset, big hat, and high-laced boots alongside beret-clad, bad-breathed flirty Frenchmen on the shores of the Seine. Only I didn’t have that other life, I just had the one that I was in, broke and busy and full to the brim with lessons and homework and rudiments and administrative hoops and boring lecture upon boring lecture.  I didn’t want to study painting. I wanted to paint.

I knew from prior exposure that even beloved trailblazing artists were deemed more respectable because they’d birthed realistic art babies before they abandoned them.  This notion, however, sounded rather like hazing to me. Why spend years trying to acquire skills that my favorite artists had gleefully abandoned? Besides, I didn’t particularly like realistic art. The finest realistic stuff I’d seen in the museums wasn’t art I’d actually want to live with, work under, or even gaze at while recovering from a serious illness. I could certainly appreciate the Renaissance masters, marvel at how uncannily life-like their depictions were, to say nothing of how much time that must have taken, but those paintings, drawings, and sculptures didn’t move me. There was almost a chilly quality to that kind of precision, an absence of the soul, save for subtle distinctions in brush strokes, pigment quality, lighting, blah, blah, blah…

It was all so…safe.

I much preferred the wild, off-kilter work in which the artists had broken free of their formal training (if they had any to begin with). Those artists seemed to have gone off shrieking naked through the fields to get to new places where they found themselves reborn and brought us back the same tired world through their glowing never-to-be-alive-again eyes. That art wasn’t safe. That art made me want to rise, wiggle and shake. That art moved, and I moved with it.

I wanted to do that, too. I wanted to move and be moved by my own paintings.

Which brings me back to the matter of lessons. I was clear I didn’t want them, and equally clear that I wanted, possibly needed, to paint. What to do?

The first thing I did was buy some paints and canvases from the local art store with a little of that wonderful student loan money I keep mentioning. The second thing was to sit down on my floor, spread it all out, and put some paint on a brush and then on the canvas. The third thing was to keep going when I made work I didn’t want to live with, and the fourth thing was to accept that if I wasn’t going to take lessons, I would have to make my peace with learning on the job.

Making my peace with learning on the job meant that I had to define what success meant to me, since I wasn’t going to be defining my work against the work of others or assessing its merits according to other people’s standards. And if I wasn’t comparing my work to other people’s standards, how could I know if my paintings were any good? Indeed, without this external frame of reference, how could I even know if I liked my own paintings or not?

How I sorted this out could fill another dissertation, but I promise I won’t do that to either of us. I will write a little more on this later, but for now, suffice it to say that I did, gradually, stake my claim to a self-directed creative life. The liberation involved me stepping, one by one, through a substantial array of stinky piles, piles I didn’t even know existed until I was in them, piles I didn’t smell until I was learning to paint, learning to trust myself, and learning to clean my shoes.

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