Entries Tagged as 'vulnerability'

Exposure

Saturday, March 28, 2015

Exposure

I sat in Volta this morning with my nephew, sipping coffee and trying to read. Almost all the art I’ve made over the past two years currently hangs at the cafe, and I was distracted as I overheard several strangers pointing, commenting, and appreciating the work. A father and his young daughter came over and introduced themselves when they realized I was the artist; the daughter put a gleeful hand over her mouth as she registered her dad’s explanation that I was the person who’d painted the pictures she’d just been admiring.

These are warm moments for an artist, yet I’ve spent most of my shows trying to avoid them. For many years when I exhibited, I wouldn’t leave any contact information with my work, even though it was all for sale and I needed the money. People would have to hunt me down and inquire privately. I told myself I didn’t want to be identified because I was somehow “humble,” but the truth was, I didn’t want to be identified and rejected. I was worried that a critical response would impair my painting process and potentially my ability to paint. Even today, no matter how hard I try to maintain a psychic distance from my work–to see it as separate from me and not a reflection of me–I still experience my art as a deep part of me; it’s how I spend almost all my spare time, and whether I like it or not, when I sit amongst my paintings in public, I feel like there are pieces of my soul hanging all over the walls. Yikes.

This feeling isn’t new or unique, though; being creative in any endeavor is inherently vulnerable territory. Makers of all kinds put ourselves out in ways that are risky and therefore courageous. Artists battle myriad internal struggles to birth works of art, and then face “the public” to share beyond controlled studio environments. Maybe this is why many of the highly creative people I’ve known seem to hover just above or beyond the social fray, giving off an air of what seems at first sniff to be snobbery or elitism. Of course these aren’t ideal qualities–“too cool for school” vibes are exclusionary and unkind. But perhaps at the heart of this external thickening of the personality is simply a well-intentioned form of preservation, a way some artists have learned to navigate the uncertain world and still inhabit and converse with exquisitely sensitive inner lives. Maybe I’ve unwittingly come across to others as “too cool for school” as well, when really, I just felt tiny, frightened of rejection, and overwhelmed with the desire to curl up and disappear.

But then there are little girls and their fathers, pointing and smiling, and taking the uncomfortable social step to say hi and make themselves known to me because I was willing to make myself known to them.  I keep learning from these sorts of encounters, receiving gifts from the connections that come from openly identifying myself as the person who made the art. Maybe I’ll never find this part of it easy, but as I continue to paint regardless of shows or sales or public interest, I’m starting to believe it’s also worth it to stop treating the inherent vulnerability of art-making as a valid reason to stay hidden, unidentified, and socially aloof.

Start Close In

Friday, October 24, 2014

Start Close In

Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
thing
close in,
the step
you don’t want to take.

Start with
the ground
you know,
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
your own
way of starting
the conversation.

Start with your own
question,
give up on other
people’s questions,
don’t let them
smother something
simple.

–excerpted from David Whyte’s poem, Start Close In

Art-making seems to require a paradoxical combination of vulnerability and insularity. Artists need to be open to and touched by life, but also need an intimacy with self, a kind of “close in” listening. This listening allows us to hear whatever it is that sources our creative work, whatever tells us, in a world of so many other people’s questions and creations, to go ahead and make ours, anyway.

Like all transformation, the creative process begins close in, closer than we think, right in front of us, right inside. This responsibility makes it difficult to begin, yet is also what makes beginning–and continuing–possible.

The Art of Enough

Thursday, October 23, 2014

The Art of Enough

And the world cannot be discovered by a journey of miles,
no matter how long,
but only by a spiritual journey,
a journey of one inch, very arduous and humbling and joyful,
by which we arrive at the ground at our feet,
and learn to be at home.

Wendell Berry

We live in a world of constant stimulation. Despite our best intentions, many of us struggle to be present for even the most important, meaningful moments. The mainstream culture bombards us with messages that we’re not enough the way we are–not attractive enough, wealthy enough, fashionable enough, fit enough, smart enough, successful enough, popular enough, young enough. Not enough. Shame, the fear that we’re not worthy of love or belonging because we are lacking in some way, thrives on messages of “not enough,” and shame is highly correlated with addictions and mental health problems of all kinds. For creativity, too, these messages can be lethal. Not good enough. Not talented or skilled enough. Not enough time. Not famous enough. Not original enough. Not enough.

The basic need to be “enough”–to be worthy of acceptance and connection the way we are–is both adaptive and prosocial. Yet when chronic and unchecked, fears of not being enough can drive us away from the very sources that can truly fill the void—our own present-moment experience of reality, and our connections with others. Though I try to stay present, I can easily get sucked into the material world and its trap of finally having, indeed finally being, enough–if only I do more, have more, look differently. Nice things are nice, and external approval feels good. But I always return from these endless missions to realize that the material world does not equate to a good life, and external approval lacks the deep salve of self-acceptance and inner contentment.

So how does this apply to painting? Overtly, my paintings are about growth, change, loss, and renewal processes in the natural world, but they are also, more fundamentally, about simplicity. Each painting is a conversation with the question, “What is enough here?” What’s enough detail, color, form, and movement to describe the simple essence of the natural world I love? How much space does each flower and tree and leaf need around it in order for me to actually slow down and see it? How much of an outline indicates that I’ve painted each individual form carefully, to honor its role in the larger whole, and when does the outline make too much noise and detract from the overall harmony? How much empty space do I put in a painting to see the true shapes of things?

These questions lead back to wondering what I need (and don’t need) in my life to really see the beauty and gifts of what I already have, love, and am.

I suspect that rich, creative, and satisfying lives are as much about what we eliminate as about what we include. Too much stuff—too many details, too many options—they distract and scatter us. We rent ourselves out to everything at the risk of experiencing nothing. This emptiness only deepens the void that stimulates such endless seeking.

My paintings are places where I’ve slowed down, wondered about what is enough, and tried to remove what feels like too much. I don’t always get the balance right, but this question is at the heart of my compositional decisions. Waiting to have the right materials, the next art show, the sense of having enough talent or experience or time or vision or inspiration—waiting to have these things blocks my access to what is already here, what and who I already am, my relationship to the natural world as I engage with it now, and my relationship to others just as we are, all of us: Enough.

The Baby and the Market

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

the baby and the market

Recently, a therapist quoted me a line she attributed to Carl Jung, “Don’t take the baby to the market.” It reminded me of the question of when to share our creative initiatives, and when to protect them from outside influences. When we  first start making art (broadly defined), even if the ultimate goal is to share with others (and there’s nothing wrong with that–connection is why we’re here), there may be rightful time for incubation, a sacred phase in which we need to keep something safe in the womb, just for us, while it’s gathering strength for the outside world.

I wish I’d known this at 21, when I decided to share a series of intimate black and white drawings with a public audience. I was in college studying political science, and I had stumbled upon drawing during my part-time job at a telephone survey center. I had a lot of idle time on my hands waiting for people to answer the phone and reject me, so one day I dusted off an old high school sketchbook and took to doodling to pass the  hours. However, I soon realized that the images were anything but doodles; they arrived whole with their own style and seemed to carry messages about parts of myself that needed healing, parts I didn’t want to acknowledge and didn’t know how to consciously face.

Drawing at work felt way too exposing, so I started coming home from classes and work and drawing every night. I had no idea what would come; I was just so curious, so fascinated. I didn’t ask any questions about what the drawings meant. I worried that doing so would stop the magic portal that had somehow opened to my soul. Probably the more likely truth is that I just didn’t know how to deal–let alone heal–so I was afraid to recognize how hurt and fragmented I was. So I just came home and drew, and the images kept coming, and I suppose they were their own kind of healing, though I didn’t know it at the time.

As the drawings accumulated, I showed them to a few people who suggested I do a little art show. I was excited about this and scheduled an opening at a casual local venue. I invited friends and family; friends and family came. A few people were even kind enough to buy things; that made me feel good.  I drew some more, and did another show, and then another.  But by the third show, something was wrong.  Some people liked the drawings, but others were whispering that they were disturbing. They didn’t connect. They didn’t know what the pictures were about.

Neither, in fact, did I. The problem was that I hadn’t gotten enough distance to see the messages in the work, to know how deeply personal the pictures were. I showed them to an audience before I understood them, which was equivalent to revealing a wound to people before I even knew its dimensions. When people didn’t understand my drawings, I felt like they didn’t understand me. And because I didn’t understand me yet, I couldn’t clarify, couldn’t even find my own ground inside where it was enough that I understood myself.

So I shut down. I packed up all the art supplies and slid them under my bed. I felt what I now know was good old shame. In her book Daring Greatly, researcher Brene Brown describes shame as the warm wash that makes us want to hide away our vulnerable parts, because we’re afraid that we’ll be deemed unworthy of love and belonging if others see us so exposed.  I’d exposed myself; I’d taken my baby to the market before I even knew its name, and my baby had gotten bumped and bruised. At that time in my life, this was too much for me. I wasn’t ready to stand with my art on my own terms, or even with myself for that matter. Sure, I was courageous to share, but in retrospect, I shared too early.

The shame was so great, I didn’t touch art supplies again for several years, until I started painting.

How I Started

Thursday, July 10, 2014

How I started

I usually say that I started painting in my mid-twenties, but I was pretty excited by my second birthday, apparently.  I got away from it, though, like so many children do as we get older. I returned only when I was floundering during  graduate school, in need of an intuitive form of expression. I was studying Mental Health Counseling, excited about the career but weary of formal education settings that had overly conditioned me to value external approval, measurable outcomes, and competitive achievements.

It turned out that good counseling—the kind that actually seemed to work—involved engaging in process, and process, contrary to my academic training, was messy. Process meant showing up as I was and connecting to my clients as they were. Process meant sitting with a lot of pain and discomfort and not necessarily knowing what to do with it. Process meant trusting my intuition (whatever that was), using the information of my senses (remember those?), and daring to be vulnerable, authentic, and perhaps hardest of all, accepting of life as it was rather than as I wanted it to be. This was a completely different way of being, one that I found both excruciating and profoundly helpful.

It was during this time that I began (again) to paint.

In the beginning, painting was something I did not know how to do, which both appealed to and terrified me. (Almost a decade later, I still reach a point in every painting where I feel the same way.) I had no experience with painting, save for a wonderful high school teacher who encouraged me to do my own thing. Every imaginable doubt and insecurity came to visit as I sat on my bare apartment floor and filled my first canvas with a small, hideous, square-shaped tree.

This was not what I’d had in mind.

 I promptly threw it in the dumpster and returned to my apartment, wondering if I’d wasted 150 bucks on supplies I’d never use. Yet as I saw the materials scattered around, I realized I still wanted to paint. So I put the square tree out of my mind and filled another canvas, this time getting lost in the process and making a silver-lit stand of puffy blue trees. When I emerged from the creative trance with something I loved and had never seen before, I had my first lesson in keeping at it.

Despite this heady first “success,” I soon found that if I didn’t want to paint the same thing again and again, I had to be willing to not know what I was doing each time I painted and show up anyway. I had to take risks, learn on the job, start over, trust what felt right to me and adjust what didn’t. I had to let my intuition tell me to stop when an image suddenly sang with a surprising wholeness, and keep going when it (I) wasn’t quite done. I had to value the process even when I didn’t always love or understand what I was creating. In short, painting meant practicing the same basic process I was learning to trust in counseling.

I completed my master’s degree and then a doctorate in counseling. It was a long road and not easy.

The paintings accumulated; many sold.

I kept on painting.

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