Monthly Archives: February 2011

KICKBOXING AND ART–What Do They Have in Common?

Who knew exercise could be so educational!?

(This article was originally published on Wednesday, January 07, 2004)

What do kickboxing and pursuing a career in art have in common?

My kickboxing instructor had a handout for us recently. Entitled : “Cycle of Performance/Formula for Success”, it was a brief description of the learning process for, in this case, martial arts. It had four little phrases on it:

INCEPTION: Unconsciously incompetent

DECEPTION: Consciously incompetent

TRANSFORMATION: Consciously competent

IDENTITY: Unconsciously competent

We talked about it during class. It provided “aha!” moments for many of us. Turns out this little handout explains more than how to learn martial arts; It’s an insightful road map into any life endeavor we pursue. It goes something like this:

Inception, the first stage, is that wonderful, giddy stage of learning a new skill, the excitement of potential. I remember the first time I sat down to a wheel with a lump of clay. I was fearless! I plopped down the clay, centered it, made a cylinder and pulled out my first pot. It was great! It was easy! I thought so, anyway. ” I must be a natural!” I remember thinking.

I was “unconsciously incompetent“. I was gloriously unaware of what I didn’t know yet, and how hard it would be to recreate my initial success. I was so thrilled with with my “innate” abilities that I smashed that first pot down, confident I could throw another just as easily the next time.

You know what comes next. The next class, I sat down confidently to throw my next ball of clay.

And nothing happened. I mean, nothing right happened. I couldn’t center the clay for the life of me. I kept trying until I had a sloppy plop of drooly clay. I threw it aside and tried another ball. Same thing. Slightly daunted, but still game, I tried to raise a cylinder from the wobbly mass. What a disaster! I went home discouraged.

My next class was just as discouraging and I turned to slab work, making a few simple tiles and such. But I was overwhelmed with failure. I had entered the dreaded second Deception stage, “consciously incompetent“. I recognized how much I didn’t know, and how much I still had to learn. The ration looked something like 1:1,000,000, if you what I mean.

If you’ve ever taught, you know how difficult it is to even observe this stage in others, let alone go through it yourself. Frustration bubbles to the surface, masking everything else. You are totally aware of how bad you really are at this. No matter how many times you practice, you don’t seem to get any better. You can’t seem to do anything right. Pots plop, your kicks flick harmlessly, the souffle falls, the watercolors don’t blend right. It seems like everyone else is “getting it” except you.

Most people quit at this stage. They become convinced they are never going to get it, they aren’t cut out for this, they just aren’t good at that. They get angry–at their instructor, at the other people in the class who seem to be doing just fine, but most of all at themselves. (That’s me, anyway.) They may complain, or clam up. They quit trying, or even quit coming to class, convinced that this just isn’t for them. I believe most people who are afraid of making change in their life have let this stage totally defeat them, incorporating it into their very image of themselves. “I’m just not good at math.” “I’m just not very graceful.” “I’ll never be able to (insert your dream activity here.)”

But if you persevere, you will come to the next stage, well-named Transformation: consciously competent. This is what happens after thousands of hours of practice and drills. It may take a long time, but you will get there. You eventually begin to find yourself able to perform that skill. You can do it, but you have to think about it. You begin to see what needs improving and what needs strengthening. You may begin experimenting with minor changes, trying what works best for you and what doesn’t. You become more willing to plug away at it, perhaps even enjoying the process of learning for its own sake. (Think of the perpetual graduate student….)

Finally, as anyone who has ever mastered a skill, knows, eventually you reach the fourth stage, Identity: Unconsciously competent. The skill or knowledge has become a part of you.

You don’t even think about what you’re doing anymore, it’s just….YOU. You are a pianist, or a painter, or a doctor, or a black belt.

You may not even remember NOT knowing that skill. Do you really remember how hard it was to learn to ride a bike? Or does it feel like you’ve always known? Do you really remember looking at a page in a book, and having no idea what those mysterious squiggles meant? Surely we thought at one point, “I’ll never be able to ride a bike!” (I believe getting past this stage is what makes a good teacher: Someone who remembers ‘not knowing.’)

I’ve been thinking about this little handout a lot for the last few weeks, especially that deadly little second stage. It occurs to me that as adults, we’ve mostly forgotten the process of learning, and how truly awful it can feel. In fact, it’s so awful, most people probably quit when they hit that stage, feeling they are really “meant” to learn how to paint, how to knit, how to learn a new language, or whatever.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what people need to see them through that second stage, and safely into that third stage…because this is what life changes and pursuing your dreams is all about.

Sometimes, of course, we are forced to make changes. That becomes our determination. But what about when we choose to make those changes? It’s so important to either have a wonderful support system (a terrific teacher, encouraging friends or family, a great book that serves as a guide), or a tremendous sense of purpose, drive and determination. Or both.

How many of us have started out to change something in our lives, to pursue a new interest or tread a new path, hit that second stage and bagged out? What if we simply made a conscious decision to believe in our selves one more day, one more hour, maybe another five minutes–what could we achieve? How far could we really go?

When I started back in martial arts last spring (after sustaining a devastating injury by one of my previous instructors seven years ago) all I hoped for was to gain back some strength and stamina. I could barely do one push-up anymore. But I’m determined to stick with it, and now I can do thirty. (well….on a good day.)

When I started back with a dream of pursing art seven years ago, I was determined to stick with it, even if I didn’t turn out to be a particularly good artist. “Good” didn’t matter anymore. I knew that being an artist was so important to me, I simply had to try. And keep trying. When I look back at what I accomplished in seven years, I am amazed.

Type out this little handout, and post it somewhere where you can see it every day. The next time you feel discouraged about achieving your goals, look and see where you are in the process. Realize it isn’t something about YOU, but about the process. And stick with it, if just for a little bit longer. You may surprise yourself…..!

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Filed under art, craft, fear of failing, martial arts, mastery, mental attitude, perseverence

ARTISTIC LICENSE

What do you do for credentials when you don’t have any?

(This article was originally published on March 7, 2003.)

Recently, an artist on a discussion forum I participate in posted a plea for help. Her work was accepted into an exhibition. The organizers requested the usual artist credentials from her: resume, artist bio, degrees, etc.

After “wiping the tears of laughter from her eyes”, the she began to panic. Her work is something she’s picked up late in life. She didn’t attend art school. She hasn’t exhibited before. Though she feels her work is solid, she just doesn’t have the credentials. What should she do?

Here was my advice:

It would be tempting to puff up the slim credentials you do have (remember the ‘domestic engineers’ of the 1970’s?) Don’t do that.

Our society seems to demand credentialing for everything. If a plumber has to have a license, or a hair stylist, then maybe artists need one, too.

But what are credentials for, anyway?

It’s wicked easy to get caught up in the credentialing thing, and to overlook what’s really important.

A resume, bio, list of exhibits and a stack of art degrees amount to paper affidavits. They are “proof” to the world that you have been educated in your art; that you’ve paid your educational dues; and that you’ve made the effort to get your work out there through exhibiting and shows.

There are some situations in life where this kind of proof is important and necessary. We don’t want to have surgery by someone who “feels in touch with his inner surgeon” but hasn’t gone to med school.

Fortunately, being an artist does not require a license.

If you haven’t gone the traditional route of artist credentialing, then use another way to present a cohesive, narrative story about the who/what/when/where/why and how of “you, the artist.”

Who you are, what you make, why do you make it, and how did you get to where you are now? Where do you plan to go next? And how serious are you about this whole thing, anyway?? That’s really all that the bio/degree/award/exhibit thing is trying to say, in a more “official” format.

In my mind, a lack of credentials can be freeing. Starting from “nothing” gives you an open door to talk about your art in a more direct and down to earth way. Here are tips on how to do that:

1) An art degree shows you’ve taken classes to master your techniques.

So how did you learn yours? Did you take workshops? Read a book? Stay up late after work and on weekends, painting/knitting/carving into the wee hours? Did you teach yourself? Do you now teach others? Did you swap sculpting lessons for babysitting? Did you apprenticed yourself to a potter?

Talk about the passion you discovered in yourself for this art stuff, and what lengths you went to acquire the skills to do it.

2) An art degree shows you had a vision or goal to make art part of your life. You studied it, and put in the time and effort to get a degree.

You can demonstrate that you, too, have a vision for your work, and that you have steadily pursued it. What are your processes and techniques? Did you experiment? Did you develop them yourself? Did you research antique processes and recreate them? How did you come up with that particular approach or outlook? Have certain artists, cultures, whatever, influenced your style?

3) Use the education you have.

I have two college degrees. Neither of them are in art. So I mention them in relation to how they’ve influenced my work. For example, coursework for an education degree taught me the importance of storytelling. My art history classes provided me the original inspiration for my Lascaux cave-themed imagery, as well as a well-rounded education on art made around the world, and throughout history.

But don’t just stick in stuff hoping to “fill up” the page. Whatever you put in, make sure it relates in some way to your artistic self.

4) Exhibits show that you’ve made a serious attempt to get your work out in front of a variety of audiences, and that your work was good enough to be selected.

Remember: We all have to start somewhere. Everyone has a ‘first show’. So, this one is yours!

You can present enough “credentials” for this purpose by providing a brief summary of what you’ve done to get your art out there. You can show you’ve been making the same kind of effort. Have you done craft shows? Do you have an audience, and steady sales? How has the audience for your work grown since you started?

Awards simply show that someone thought your work was pretty darn good, or unusual. Are there other ways for you to demonstrate that? Anybody famous buy one of your pieces? Has your work appear in a magazine or on TV? Did you get into a terrific, exclusive craft fair the first time you applied, just because your work was so drop-dead terrific?

4) Credentials only encourage a collector who already likes your work.

Keep in mind that ultimately, the person who purchases our work isn’t really buying it because of a list of shows or exhibits I’ve been in or how many awards we’ve won. It may help them feel more confident about their initial desire to buy, but that isn’t why they buy.

They buy it because it moves them emotionally, and because it says something special to them. Something powerful is going on in the work, and they respond to that. Everything else is just icing on the cake.

In fact, years ago I revised my own brochure.

I used to have a list of exhibits and books my work has appeared in, in an attempt to establish myself as a ‘serious player’.

I took it all out,. I replaced it with a little blurb about why I make the art I make.

I’m learning that people only have to talk with me a few minutes to realize I’m a ‘serious player’. Ultimately, it’s all about my work, not the hoops I’ve made it jump through.

When you put your piece together, avoid the ordinary. Be bold! Don’t go on about how much you love color–heaven help us, all visual artist love color!

Don’t make too big a fuss about how much you wanted to be an artist when you were little. It’s cliched. Say what you did. Me? I papered my freshly painted bedroom with hundreds of drawings, all carefully hung with six or seven pieces of scotch tape, as high as I could reach. (Standing on furniture to do so.) My parents were impressed, but not in the way I’d hoped.

Think about the special things in your life, things that may seem ordinary to you from familiarity. Is your studio on a mountain top? Did you build it yourself out of hand-hewn lumber? Are your materials unusual? Do you go dumpster-diving to find your stuff, or hound recycling centers for their glass bottles?

What do you do that no one else does? What is your inimitable style? What is your personal story?

On the other hand, don’t get all obtuse on us and try to bury your lack of credentialing paper with high-falutin’ phrases and five-dollar words. As Bruce Baker, a consultant and speaker for craft and art world issues always says,

“People have a built-in bullshit meter. If you rock that meter, then they will never believe whatever else you have to say. Make sure what you say is true.”

Stick to the essence of who you are and what your art is. Make it interesting, and make it unique. Keep it true. Keep it simple. Make it powerful.

Oh, and remember…Use the credentials of this show as credentials for your next one. There! Your first official credential!

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Filed under art, artist statement, craft

CLEANING THE STUDIO Redux

Lord, I hope “redux” means “revisited”…. Just checked Wiki–yes!!

It all started when we cleaned out our daughter’s old room. She came home to help. I had visions of the two of us cutting a swatch through the piles o’ stuff, filling bag after bag of stuff to be tossed, given, moved or….or….what else do you do with a 1942 manual on identifying enemy planes?

Instead, we spent a leisurely afternoon of Robin browsing through old journals, school notebooks and yearbooks. We tried on the hats we bought on family trips to Boston. (We once defused a family spat by stopping in a little shop on Newbury Street called TOPPERS. We all bought hats. Now it’s a family tradition.) Finally, after hours of delicate sorting, Robin announced she’d salvaged everything she wanted. I was free to take care of the rest. (My professional writer voice is calm and dignified. My mother voice is about to scream.)

From there, I’ve managed to keep up with my goal of removing one bag o’ stuff a day from her room, the attic and my studio. It feels like truly sisyphean task. I comfort myself by doing the math. If I keep it up, in a year I will have removed 365 bags. Not too shabby, hey?

This has all happened before. It will all happen again. (Who says you can’t learn something important from Battlestar Galactica reruns?

Sometimes it helps to know how you did it before. Other times, knowing what’s in store can add to the overwhelming nature of the task. (The first words out of my mouth when I tore my ACL the send time were, “Oh, NO, NO, NO, NOT AGAIN!!!” I knew I was in for another surgery, I knew I was in for at least six months of recovery, I knew it would be at least a year before I felt back to normal.

I couldn’t face it. But….

I did it anyway.

So today as I dig in once again, I share with you three thoughts and resources that are helping:

1) “Leave it for someone else.” Too many of my clutter–er, collecting–impulses are fueled by the thought that I’ve discovered something wonderful, and I need to save it from oblivion in the thrift shop.

But now I ask if I truly love it or have a use for it. If not, I know it will be found and cherished by someone else. So….I leave it for someone else.

2) “Would I buy this again today?” I can’t believe how much this helps me decide what will stay and what should go.

3) This website, Clutter Buster, by Brooks Palmer.

I can’t remember where the first two questions came from, but will credit them when I track the source down.

In the meantime, I need to go fill another bag.

What strategies help YOU clean out?

Happy spring cleaning!

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Filed under action steps, art, cleaning the studio, craft, perseverence, recycling tip

PRACTICE AND NOT PERFECT

I was writing my morning pages today. And I got stuck.

I did what I tell my students to do when they get stuck. Just write something, no matter how silly or tedious. For me, it’s often, “blah blah blah” or “I can’t think of anything to write. I can’t think of anything to write.” I kid you not.

Today I was writing, “Keep going. Keep going.” Actually it read like this:

keep going keep going keep going

Because when you’re doing morning pages/free journaling, the trick is to not even stop for correct spelling or punctuation. No editing, no anything. Just write.

And the miracle happened. As it always does.

Sometimes this silly repetition keeps my inner critic/left brain busy, just for a few seconds–long enough for my inner wizard/right brain to grab the steering wheel and hit the gas pedal. Many of my insights, over-the-hump strategies and yes, gentle readers, even blog posts, come from this wild ride in the kidnapped taxi cab that was going nowhere slowly.

Today’s insight was the writing itself. Though I rarely focus on good penmanship when I doing this exercise, suddenly the repetition took me back five decades, to third grade. (Yep. I’m old.)

I wasn’t a bad kid in grade school, but I would get in trouble for talking (surprise!). Or for drawing pictures when I was supposed to be paying attention. And then I’d be assigned that infamous penance: Writing 100 sentences that began with “I will not….”

“I will not talk during geography class.” “I will not doodle while the teacher is talking.” “I will not wait until the very last minute to ask permission to go to the bathroom.” (That was an awful day!)

I didn’t mind it, though. I loved to write, even the same stupid thing over and over and over.

It became a little game to me. How perfectly could I form each letter, each word? And could I actually write the entire sentence perfectly, beautifully?

I never could, of course. At the last second, my pencil would skitter, or my lead would break. Oh well. Plenty more sentences to try!

And suddenly, I realized the beauty of that 8-year-old’s spirit. Perfection may be only a few pencil strokes away. I never got there.

But simply trying was…..fun.

Somehow I knew, and accepted, that it wasn’t about being perfect, or doing perfect. It was the practice that brought the joy. There was plenty of paper, and a pencil sharpener right near the door. I had all the time I needed. (I wasn’t in a hurry to get back to geography, after all.) I liked being indoors and didn’t mind missing recess.

With another stroke of insight, I realized this powerful attitude drives all my practice. All my interests and processes.

Except, of course, when I’m not messing myself up by falling into the adult’s version of private hell….PERFECTION.

Lose the striving for perfection, and I’m in heaven.

It’s why I can write about the same topics in my life, over and over, and never feel like I’ve written the definitive take yet. It’s why I love to ride horses, though I’ll never be a great rider, and was certainly never a natural rider. It’s what kept me going through tae kwon do, kick boxing, and back to tae kwon do. That’s why I can do kata all through tae kwon do class, and never feel like I’ve quite mastered Basic 1.

I may never get back down to fighting weight. I may never get my black belt. In fact, as I struggle back from yet more injuries and another upcoming surgery, I may never even regain the level I was at six months ago.

None of that matters. Just the practice.

It’s about the joy, plain and simple, we can find in our practice, if we let go of the outcome, the “finished product”. Because we are human beings, and there is no “finished product.”

I read a review about this book Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses by Claire Dederer. (It’s being billed as the not-so-exotic-and-more-domestic version of Eat, Pray, Love.) Some people love it, some people hate it. But what I loved in the review was the comment that the practice of yoga isn’t about getting to perfection in yoga. It’s about practicing yoga imperfectly and doing it anyway. I like that.

So yesterday I went to yoga, for the first time in six months. I’ve lost strength, and flexibility. I have to watch the twists, and I had trouble bending.

But it felt…wonderful.

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Filed under art, craft, inspiration, martial arts, mental attitude, mindfulness, perfectionism, writing

LET’S NOT DO WHAT WE OUGHT, BUT WHAT WE WANT

This article originally published on Sunday, March 30, 2003
The advice still applies.

Let’s NOT do what we ought, but what we want

A cry for help appeared on a list serve I subscribe to. An artist gave up painting for years. She’s now determined to take it up again. Unfortunately, all her paints are so hardened in their tubes, they are almost unusable. Can anyone tell her how to salvage them??

I’m not sure how welcome my advice would be, but it’s clear to me the universe is sending a message here, loud and clear.

BUY NEW PAINTS.

What a huge obstacle she has overcome! The urge to paint again is wonderful, and I wholeheartedly tell this artist to go for it.

But the artist is already stuck again. “I can’t paint until I fix my paints.”

Where have we heard that before?

Well, I used to hear it every day. And sometimes, when I’m down or overwhelmed with the simple problems, I still hear it:

“I should do the laundry first.” “I really need to run a few errands first.” “I’ve got to get this mailing out this week–I’ll work on some new art ideas later.”

Sometimes it feels like my passion for my art, the work of my heart, is the last thing I take care of.

To that renewed artist, I’d say….

Maybe those paints are ruined for a reason.

Maybe the universe is sending a message here. You can paint again, it says, but maybe it’s time to really start anew.

Here’s a powerful thought: Maybe you don’t have to do penance by fixing those tired, dried-up old paints.

Maybe the message is, “Go out and buy wonderful new paint. Buy some of your favorite old colors, but try something different, too.”

Maybe it’s time start fresh with new ideas, new inspiration, maybe an entirely new direction.

Maybe it’s time to play with colors again, to regain the same sense of wonder and excitement when you first began to paint. And then to move ahead in a different way. Forge a new path.

But to do this, you need to get rid of everything that held you back the last time.

You have found your inspiration to paint again, and you’re determined to really set aside the time and energy it deserves. And that means not wasting time and energy working to revive dead paint.

What a lesson for me today! I’ve been sitting in the middle of an overwhelmingly messy studio, bemoaning the fact that I “should” clean up before I get back to work. Then I get the note about dried up paint. Sometimes what is easy to see in others is what I need to see in myself.

Maybe it’s really okay to just jump right into making something today, messy space notwithstanding. Maybe it’s okay to do a little cleaning up after I have fun.

Hmmmmm… Okay, I’m putting away the dishcloth now!

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Filed under art, choices, craft, creativity, inspiration

MAKING ART FOR ME

There’s more than one way to get your art out into the world.

I wrote in my journal this morning, dragging my feet as usual. (I often start out writing “blah blah blah”. No joke.)

I was writing–no, complaining–about not being able to hear myself think over the noise of Jon’s radio. Until I realized it was coverage on the Egyptian people, fighting for the right to govern themselves. Just as I stopped to listen, I heard a woman’s voice saying, “I just want to be a real citizen…”

So then I wrote how embarrassing it was to complain about the noise of freedom….

Then suddenly, I found myself writing, “I want to make a XXXX–for ME!”

(Forgive the mystery, I’m just not ready to talk about these new projects yet. I don’t want the energy of talking about it to replace the energy of doing it.)

Where…did THAT thought come from?

It took me totally by surprise. And I immediately found myself wondering how it could be done as a new product, a new line.

Just as immediately, another thought popped out:

What is it were something I simply made for MYSELF?

I write all the time about respecting your inner spirit, your inner source for ideas and inspiration. I urge others constantly to make the work that makes their heart sing, and worry about finding an audience for it later.

And here I sit, my brain immediately hopping into “How could I sell this?” How embarrassing! (Again.)

So I write, “I don’t have to make something to sell. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do. And I can make it for myself. It’s something I would love to have in my home.”

Buzzy brain bites back: “You HATE it when people refuse to share their art with the world! How come it’s okay for YOU do it??!” (Buzzy Brain is rollin’ today.)

I write all the time about the importance of getting our work out into the world. I love Martha Graham’s famous quote on how we are the only people who can express that unique vision, how others need to see it and do the same. (I’ve posted links to other articles I’ve written about her quote at the bottom of this one.)

So where is the power in making something for myself?

Well….a lot of things started out as something for me. That freedom to please only myself, the peace of working out the details in a place free from outside comment or criticism, the power that comes from making work from my heart…that’s always been my modus operandi.

But then I realized there are other ways of getting that energy, that vision, out into the world.

I can write about what I’m doing, and why. (Ta da!)

I can tell others about that process (of working from my heart), and encourage them to do it, too.

And I can let this process help me be a better person.

I can learn to be aware, to be in tune with the creative force of the universe. I can learn to be someone who knows the joy and the passion and the power that comes from doing our heart’s own work.

Down the road, the private work of my heart may well become public. Perhaps a solo exhibition or an installation. Perhaps a book. Maybe even a new product. I have no idea.

But the freedom to simply make something that will please me is my gift to myself today.

And my heart rests easier knowing, somehow, someday, it will also be my gift to the world.

A list of other articles I’ve written with Martha Graham’s wise words you might enjoy:

BLESSED UNREST
THE DEVIL AT WORK IN THE WORLD
MEAN PEOPLE SUCK #2a: PROFESSIONAL JEALOUSY PART DEUX

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Filed under art, business, courage, creativity, criticism, inspiration, writing