WHAT I WISH SOMEONE HAD TOLD ME ABOUT ARTISTS: Make Room for Art in Your Life!

WHAT I WISH SOMEONE HAD TOLD ME ABOUT ARTISTS: Make Room for Art in Your Life!

 

Bear has a story for when life gets hard.

Life is not “all or nothing”, you can make as much—or as little—room for art as you like!

More in the series about sharing my hard-earned knowledge with young art students. This one was hard.

I told them how I’d wanted to be an artist since I was three years old. Making stuff mattered deeply to me.

But my opportunities for learning and practicing were scarce. Materials were scarce, art teachers were scarce, art classes, even books about art were just not available. I got to the point where I dreamed of going to art school, college. I put away all my dreams until then.

And then it didn’t quite work out the way I thought it would.

I’ve shared this before, so to make it short:

I struggled. My teachers were either unengaged (they probably knew how few of us would go “all the way.”) Some of them were harsh. I didn’t enjoy drawing from life: eggs on a sheet of white paper, etc. My grades weren’t great, either. I wasn’t accepted into that school’s art program (I lacked a portfolio), and so I fell back to art history as a major.

I felt like I was simply not a good artist, and I let it go.

But that left me in a hard place for decades. Until (again, I’ll keep this short, I’ve shared it so many times before) I realized I was aching for art in my life again. And my total surrender to it—saying I didn’t care if I were a GOOD artist or not, I just had to do it—was a turning point for me.

For years, I felt like I’d wasted all that time, until I realized it created a unique path for me. And my revelation on how important it was to simply have in my life gave me power I’d never had before.

Over the years, I’ve met a lot of people who went further down their artistic path, and then fell away. Their work didn’t sell, or the gallery they tried to manage overwhelmed them. They didn’t think they were good enough. Or they didn’t have the time anymore, what with having “a real job” now. They believed if their creative work wasn’t painting, or sketching, then it wasn’t “real art”.

I’m happy to say that, meeting people where they are, telling my story, and simply encourage them to take small steps to put it back in their life, has actually worked! Not for everyone. Not all the time. Not right away. But there are people who have come to the same realization I did: When we are doing the work of our heart, whether it’s full-time, part-time, a little bit of time, whether they earn a living, make some money, or only a little money, or….none….that they simply feel better when it’s part of their life again.

And that’s what I told those teens.

Our lives are rarely a “sound plan” that we can maintain our whole life. We may change our priorities, or they may be changed for us. We may pick up a different kind of creative work, one that’s not officially “real art”, but fulfilling to us nonetheless. We may have to take a class to carve out that time, or get up an hour or two earlier in the morning. We may be so overwhelmed with those soul-stomping events in life that we have to step back temporarily.

But just like “putting on your gym shoes” in my series “EXERCISE FOR SUCCESS” I wrote here awhile back, sometimes those little efforts pay off. We say, “I’ll just carry a sketch book with me when I go to lunch today.” Or we write a page of our novel while we’re traveling on business. (One page.) Or we collect paint samples from the hardware store, or we take up embroidery, or pinch pots instead of throwing on the wheel (because we can do it in the living room while we watch TV here.)

We watch our kids fingerpaint, and suddenly, we want to squish paint around, too! Or we find an image online and the color palette fascinates us. “What if…..?” we think to ourselves and suddenly, we are inspired again.

Time and fortune will come and go, opportunities will expand and fade, life will be full and rich, and suddenly barren and sorrowful. We can only count on so much, and not nearly as much as we think.

But we can always….ALWAYS….choose to keep our creative work in our life.

The all-or-nothing approach never worked for me. It doesn’t really work for most people, actually. We forget that we have the power of our choices. We get to choose, every step of our way, how, when, where we fit our art in our lives.*

Because the “why” is always the most important part.

Why? Because it restores me to myself.

Why? Because it heals me.

Why? Because, even under crushing events, there is a tiny window of faith, of hope, a small opportunity to make room for art.

Why? Because when we share it with others, with the world, there is always someone who needed to see it, hear it, read it, that day.

And when we share our art, and it helps/encourages/inspires someone else, well, that’s pretty close to being a hero, in my book.

“I am an artist. What’s YOUR superpower?”

* My bear artifacts appeared during a difficult time in my life, and you can read the bear’s story here.

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…..!