When I started my art career, I was on fire. I was full of that same fierce confidence I wanted first for my children, and then for myself. Obstacles weren’t barriers, they were challenges. Maybe I couldn’t go through them. But I could go over them or around them, or perhaps even simply set them aside til another time.
When I did shows, I told stories about my work, and explained my process and choice of medium. My choice was relatively new then, and people were a little wary of it. I turned that around by sharing the “what” (polymer clay) and the “how” (a time-consuming, but satisfying faux-ivory-and-scrimshaw technique, and most importantly, the “why” (the stories behind the Lascaux Cave, and my own journey of “coming to light”.)
As the years went by, I got into more prestigious shows, and did more open studio events. I had repeat customers, and loyal followers, people who loved my work passionately even if they couldn’t afford to collect it themselves.
And along the way, I noticed something deeper going on with some of them.
It would manifest itself in ways big and small, wistful and very occasionally (very rarely, fortunately!) toxic.
I eventually realized these were people who were envious of what I was doing. Not envious in a bad way. I mean, they wanted something in their life that was as meaningful, fulfilling, and lovely as what I was doing.
They would say they wanted to work in polymer clay. They wanted to make little horses, too. Or they wanted to be inspired by the Lascaux Cave.
It’s a little daunting when people tell you this, but looking back, I now appreciate their honesty. It encouraged me to look deeper, past the “initial” reaction, and into their tender, yearning hearts.
And rather than take it as a threat, I also learned to make this a teachable moment.
I would say, “I don’t teach classes on how to make my horses, or bears. I don’t own the copyright to the Lascaux Cave, and anyone can make a horse…..”
“But just doing what I do won’t make you happy.”
I tell them my body of work is the result of years of denial, and then a stepping up to the plate with the work of my heart. The materials and techniques I use are a unique combination that spoke to me for years. They started out very simple, and grew as my stories grew. And the stories I tell are my stories, not theirs.
And then I ask them, “What is the creative work of your heart?”
Some stammer. Some deny they have creative work. “What pastimes bring you joy? What did you love when you were a kid? What do you wish you had more time/energy/talent to do?”
This often gets a deeper response: “I always wanted to dance!” “I loved drawing as a kid!” “I always wanted to write poetry…” “I love to sing…”
If it doesn’t, I broaden my definition: “I believe that anything that is a force for good in the world, is creative work. I believe that anything that brings light into the darkness, is creative work.”
I list examples: Making art, yes. Performance art, yes. Written word, of course! But what about…..
Curating. Healing. Building. Growing. Nurturing. Teaching. Mending/restoration/repairing. Humor/laughter. Supporting. Nourishing/feeding. And so on. (Add your own!)
These are all human skills that, done properly, and done well, make the world a better place.
Almost everyone I talk to is surprised to realize whatever it is that brings them joy, also brings joy to others, in some way.
It’s a validation that’s sorely missing in our modern culture. Even as there are thousands of ways to be a “maker” these days, there are makings we believe are “less than”.
We may believe others do it better. (Maybe. But not necessarily. And even if they are, so what?)
We might believe others make lots of money (or at least more than we do) doing it. (repeat the above.)
We might believe “success” is about fame and fortune. (Is that your only definition of “success”?)
My point (and I do have one!) is that whatever heals us, brings us joy, restores us to a place where we can keep doing the other things that pay the rent and put food on the table…if that’s the only benefit it brings us, that would still be enough.
Take it a tiny step further: Share it with the world. Because it will bring joy to someone else. (Isn’t the “good thing” about social media the fact that it’s so easy to share that funny cat video, that beautiful lily in bloom, the funny things our kids say, the picture of that sunset/trees turning in fall/odd blob on the sidewalk that looks like a gerbil?)
And if the yearning is being met, here’s the prescription:
Take a class!
Classes are powerful remedies for many reasons.
They force us to “make time” for our creative efforts. And they provide a dedicated space to do it.
They come with an instructor, who will help you learn the skills you need.
They come with all the materials and supplies you’ll need.
And when you goof up (and everybody—EVERYBODY does!) a class comes with a built-in mistake expert. Because believe me, the instructor has made, or encountered, almost everything that can possibly go wrong. I used to tell people, “If you make a mistake, I will show you how to fix it, correct it, erase it, modify it, incorporate it, or cover it up so no one will ever know! Or we’ll just throw it out and you can start over.”
And they also come with another superpower I learned recently:
A ready-made community. Your fellow students all showed up because they have similar interests and desires. This could be a source of future friendships and/or meet-ups to pursue your creative goals. (Er…that one know-it-all that annoyed everybody else? You can exclude them if you want.) (Or, hey, invite them anyway! Maybe the making will heal them, too!)
I suggest they take an introductory class in polymer clay. Or a quilting class, or a beginning jewelry-making class. There are classes in writing, there are endless opportunities to sing (I used to sing in church choirs, even in churches I wasn’t a member of, because I simply wanted to sing.)
Yesterday, a delightful customer stopped by, and I asked them these same questions. And when they shared what spoke to their heart, I realized I’d seen an ad for a class with those same skills, in an area magazine, the day before. Can you say, “modern miracles”??
To artists who are already on their journey, but feel stalled, stymied, stale, I would suggest the same. Step outside your comfort zone, and explore something new. And if you find it speaks to you, enfold it into your current practice.
It could be a class, or it could be something else.
It could be a way to get calm–perhaps Tai Chi. It could be a step back to something simpler—like papier mache. It could be something challenging, like a class outside your skill set. It could be something crazy, like a trip to somewhere you’ve always dreamed of. It could be starting a journal, and noting where that takes you. It could be an artist support group, where you gather with like-minded, sympathetic folks who encourage you to spread your wings a little wider.
Once I took a class on making “spirit cards”. Just simple collages, with images from magazines and such. Cut and pasted onto 5”x8” mat board. There was more to the class, but I enjoyed the simplicity and peace of making those cards. And so I elected to stay with it through most of the class. I still have them, and I see something different in them every time I take them out. I want to make more!
So to summarize:
Recognize—and respect–what’s already in you. (But if it’s not clear yet, also know you may have to experiment and play to find it.)
Start small. (My first “studio” was the dining room table, which we only used to pile stuff on until we put it away, and a china hutch dedicated to my art supplies.)
Get bigger! (In spirit, and skill.)
Go further afield! (There is joy in simply having a good time, and constantly experimenting. It’s okay to “play” forever! Amateur means “doing something simply for the love of it.” And there is “unique-ness” in combining multiple methods and media, like I did with polymer, fiber, and jewelry.)
In last week’s article, a reader commented, “The list of reasons why I can’t do it seems endless.” I want to invite them for coffee. I want to ask them, what is the work they dream of making? I want to help them find 30 minutes a week to spend on themselves. I want them to believe they can create a tiny space, in their home, in their life, even if they can only finish one item a month, or a year.
Because something and little steps are better than nothing.
And the power of little steps can bring great rewards, physically, personally, professional, emotionally, and spiritually.
If you’ve had a setback where making your art seemed impossible, tell us how you found your way back. Your answers matter, to someone else who’s on that same lake, in a different boat, today.
*Okay, I said “cure” but a cure fixes things. I like the word “healing” better, because some things can’t be fixed—the need for a second income, the lack of funds for renting a studio, health issues that compromise our resilience and abilities, etc.
But there are small steps we can take to help alleviate the pain and discomfort, and get us back to our happy, creative place.
**Years ago, an artist said they didn’t have time to make art, and weren’t sufficiently motivated to do it on their own.
As I looked at their body of exquisite work, I asked them when they made it. In weekend painting workshops, they replied. I asked them how many paintings they could make in said workshops? They replied, “I’m fast. I can crank out anywhere from six to a dozen!” How often were such workshops offered in their area? Oh, at least one a week, they cheerfully responded. (Big urban area, but even smaller towns have a plethora of offerings, if you look.)
“So,” I said, “You could take one workshop a month, for a year, and you would have a big enough body of work to pitch an exhibition to a gallery….?” Uh….oh. Yeah. Yes! They’d never thought of that.