LEARNING TO SEE #10 (and LESSONS FROM THE GYM): Hidden Places are Powerful Spaces

It’s been months since I’ve been to the gym, and I miss it terribly. Not the workouts! I’m pretty lazy at heart. But I do miss the friendships made there, and the wisdom I’ve gained from overhearing conversations between those professionals and their clients.

Today I’ve been thinking about what to encourage people to write about in their email newsletters and other online media.

We know what we’re ‘supposed to’ talk about: Our awards, the honors we’ve accrued, the famous people we’ve studied under, the prestigious shows we’ve done and the respected galleries that represent our work. The medium we prefer, the subjects that inspire us, the schools we’ve attended, etc. All fine and good.

For a lot of people, it’s harder to share what people really want to know about us, and our work: Who we are, and why we do what we do.

Then I brushed my teeth. (Bear with me here!)

Something clicked. (Not my toothbrush. My brain.)

I once overheard a therapist at that facility tell a client (and me!) that all humans have a quirk that unites us all:

We tend to focus on our ‘fronts’. That is, we unconsciously focus on what we can see in the mirror: Our face. Our (outer) teeth. The front of our body.

For example, when we brush our teeth, we spend more time on their outer surfaces. (My dentist confirmed this!) We spend less time on the insides of our teeth, because…well, nobody (except our dentist or dental hygienist) sees that.

The therapist said something similar. We tend to focus on strengthening the body parts we see in the mirror easily. Our biceps (but not our triceps.) Our pecs (but not our lats, or delts.) Our stomach (but not our calves.)

Yet the ‘front view’ is only 50% of who we are. And what goes on inside our bodies—breathing, digestion, blood circulation, etc.—is immensely more complicated that what we see on the outside.

We artists often focus on the outer things people “see”: Those diplomas, those awards, those events and galleries listed on our resume. We know our chosen medium is important. There’s a hierarchy in 2D art, and those who work with the most respected ‘naturally’ get more respect themselves. When we host an open studio, our first instinct is to clear the mess, arrange everything beautifully, and fill every surface with work people can actually buy.

And yet, the most powerful human connections are those that connect our ‘insides’ to each other: The “rear views” and inside workings of our (figurative!) heart that reveal who we really are in the world.

Social media suffers from this anomaly. The ‘influencers’ show their perfect lives, filled with constructions of perfection, showcasing their perfect environment, their perfect wardrobe, their perfect bodies, messages about their perfect lifestyle.

Even when we know this is a structured, highly-curated persona, we can’t help but compare our own imperfect, messy, ‘unattractive’ lives to theirs. We hesitate to post anything that might come off as ‘less-than’ to our online audience.

This can be a death knell for our art.

Because all of the choices we make about our art—what we make, how we make the way we do, why we use the materials we use, even the stories we tell—are our unique, imperfect, very human story.

When we have the courage to share our personal ‘why’ behind those choices, we reveal something deeper, something with integrity, something imbued with our own unique human preferences. We show who we are, and who we want to be in the world.

Some folks treasure presenting the illusion that they are perfect, that they have it all figured out, that they have a talent and skillset that no one else has, that no one else will ever have.

In a sense, that’s true. We are all unique, from our background, upbringing, personalities, likes and dislikes, innate characteristics, and those we’ve acquired: education, skills, etc.

Striving to appear perfect, though, only appeals to some. Because learning who we are, what we are here for, what the work of our heart is, making our art, means making mistakes. No one is born knowing how to play the piano. What got us to where we are today is making mistakes, lots of mistakes—and persevering because we wanted to learn. We wanted to get better. We wanted to be the best we can, and we want to continue to improve. We want to make the work that is important to us, the only ‘me’ in the world.

The WHY of who we are is what makes us human.

Sharing those vulnerabilities, our mistakes, our twisty life path, and the insights and ‘aha moments’ we’ve learned along the way, can actually make it easier for others to connect with us, and with our work.

Now, I’m not saying we should point out all the mistakes in our current work! Most people would never even see them unless we point them out.

But it’s okay to share the struggle of fixing the composition of a still life. It’s okay to share that we don’t have a prestigious degree because we took up our art late in life, or that we’re self-taught. You might encourage someone else who can’t go to art school, who doesn’t have access to those prestigious workshops, who wants to make work that is like no other.

It’s okay that our story is personal, filled with sidetracked interests, twists and turns. It’s okay that we share our own stumbling blocks. Someone else may get the support they need to get through theirs. It’s okay that we sometimes share our own doubts and feelings of ‘less-than’. Others may realize we’re all in this together (and my favorite rejoinder, “…and no one gets out alive.”)

Showing others how we solved our roadblocks, and the insights we gained, may encourage others to hold their ground with their own work.

Because all of these things we go through are what makes us human. And it’s our common humanity that creates a need for our art in the world. If it uplifts us, it can uplift others. So might our own experiences.

Our art may not be for everyone. Mine certainly isn’t. That knowledge early on gave me the courage to persevere in the face of every roadblock, obstacle, rejection, and self-doubt. That knowledge is what drives me to encourage everyone in the world to find their own creative work, without giving in to the very-narrow definition others live by.

Social media can be a gift to creative people. It gives us free, easy access to the world’s attention.

But if everyone focuses on presenting the “outsides” only, it can distort our perspective, erode our own self-confidence, and cause us to doubt the value of our own life, and art.

As Anne Lamott said in her amazing TED Talk, “Never compare your insides to someone else’s outsides.”

Be a little willing to share your “insides” on your favorite platform today! (Except, please, not what you ate for lunch!)*

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

–Mary Oliver

 

*Okay, you can post a pic of your lunch. But you could share who you were with, why you choose that eatery, and what you loved about that dish. Share the experience!