Being an artist means a lot of things to me.
Being an artist is how I connect to my surroundings, its how I make sense of the world.
Its a calling that I can’t ignore, not just a hobby. I’ve been making “art” since I could hold a crayon.
The only reason I am a “professional artist” is because I can’t imagine doing anything else with my time. So it has to work. I have to somehow make it work.
Art has been the hand that I held throughout a traumatic childhood. It accepted me when I felt rejected. In a way you could say it has been the foundation to my personality. My paintings were my friends when I didn’t feel like I had any. I would even venture to say that art is my identity.
And that is where I need to stop and re-evaluate.
Art is a part of my identity, it is not my identity. And ultimately, I am not even my identity. I am so much more than that. I am a living and walking miracle, perfect in my nature. I am already the creation that I am always striving to create. Do I believe this?
Sometimes, but not always.
When push comes to shove, I’m willing to let the whims of my creative process push me around like an abusive boyfriend. Funny enough, when I believe in myself the most is when my art wins awards, or sells, or when I feel confident about what I create. When all the right forces come together in a painting and I am channeling something of the divine. But what happens when the forces of the divine don’t blow through me and onto an eight by ten inch masonite board through the medium of paint? What happens when I’m sitting in a room full of talented professional artists and I don’t win any awards? I don’t sell one piece. The paintings are not even recognized by the public, by the magazines, or by the other artists, even.
Yes, this happened to me recently. I hit a real deep low in the desert for a few trying days. I felt like a failure, beyond rejected, a blundering joke unworthy of the title artist. Maybe even unworthy as a person. But those are my deeper insecurities coming out, veiled by a normally flowing stream of creativity and other distractions and maybe some sales or acceptances along with the rejections. But here I am in the desert, feeling alone with only this rejection, and nothing else. Faced with the very thing that I fear the most. The desert is a strange and sublime place. On one hand it will test your “identity” and on the other it is this giant container that will hold you through that process. “The truth” is all around you. And if you ignore it, it will haunt you.
I’m realizing that I had fallen into a recurring pattern that I’ve had all my life, and that I’ve worked on since a traumatic accident I had right after I graduated from art school, that kept me in hospitals and in rehab for a year. And the healing process took even longer than that, I would say that I’m still in it. I used to measure my self worth or self love in how much I weighed, or what other people thought of me. How much love they could give me, or the illusion of it. As artists, we have to be careful of our self destructive behaviors, of our obsessions. Even one’s art can become self destructive, it can become an obsession if you’re not careful. And I noticed the line between “my art” and “me” began to blur again.
I spent the whole summer, painting more than I have in a long time. I made the switch from studio painting and creating outdoor studies, to plein air painting. And while I thought this transition would be easy because I’ve been oil painting for such a long time, its actually been very challenging. No refuge or distance between “studio” and “home.” The mess of my life in one large messy heap. I’ve been looking forward to the Escalante Canyon Arts Festival in Utah all summer, thinking I would really have the opportunity to advance my career as a “professional artist.” We got there the first day, in a total rush, and I barely caught the daylight to paint towards the end of a long hike in the hot sun. The next few days were full of emotional and physical stressors, hiking in the unforgiving canyons, through slick rock, cottonwood brush, and sand. Mud was caked on my back from sweating as I toted around my big backpack filled with art supplies. My shorts smelled like urine from drinking so much water and constantly squatting to pee. No shower or creek to bathe in afterwards.
Thoughts in my head were geared towards, what will the judges, what will others think of this. And as anyone knows, this is creative suicide.
The ego, in my opinion, is the anti-thesis to art. And I was very much in my ego. The whole notion of being in a competition and being the best, made my painting suffer a lot, and that showed. It made me suffer a lot.
My mom always tells me that suffering is created by having expectations. Nothing is a given. Not even the person you love the most and that you think will always be there. I made the mistake of having a lot of expectations, of myself, and the artwork I produce. Of thinking that “I” = “my art.”
Art is less like a linear progression, and more like waves in the ocean. Progress peaks, and it falls. It flows, or it doesn’t. No matter how professional and quantifiable you try to make your art practice, neither are givens. Not if your creating from the soul, anyways. Not if you allow an once of subjectivity to enter into your objective process.
Art is inherently subjective. Yes there are those that will try to equate it to intellect, or science, genius even! But art in my mind is the spirit in motion. For the record, I saw many paintings that didn’t sell or win awards that I would have picked, that I really loved. And I am a Pratt graduate, an individual that spent years among old masters and contemporary masters alike in New York City. Art, even good art, will face rejection. Contrary to some other blogs that I’ve read in attempt to not feel so alone, sometimes I face more rejection than acceptance, sometimes a lot more.
After days in the darkness, the light began to poke through again.
I suddenly had a rush of a revelation. “I” am so much more than this. I don’t really know where it came from. We’ve been meditating all week every morning together.
And then I said, ah ha, It was after my morning yoga practice that this happened, that I allowed myself, just for an hour, to be alone, to be empowered in my mind and in my body. But somehow I had forgotten to practice during the week of the competition. I had forgotten to put myself and my healing first. Or perhaps it was just the practice that I needed to cement the mounting truth that my negative self talk was trying to bury, deep in the sand of my being. Perhaps I needed a moment in the darkness to recognize the light again. The yoga sparked the little seedling of truth that was crying out, asking me to look deeper, to be compassionate, asking me to love myself and have gratitude, without conditions. I almost felt like I was possessed, not by evil, but by the spirit.
What I produce is not a measure of myself worth, my value as a human being.
A good or a bad work of art does not determine whether or not I am lovable, whether or not my life is worth living.
“I” am not determined by art sales, awards, or positive recognition.
My therapist and “zen mentor” once told me before I left for this trip, “Don’t let your art pull the wagon.”
I was offended at the time, secretly saying in my head, “You don’t think I can do it!?” While I nodded in agreement, trying to appear wise and on her level.
And I understand what she meant now.
Does this mean I will stop entering competitions, or trying to be “a professional artist?” No, quite the opposite actually. By some strange twist of fate there is another plein air competition next week in Moab, Utah, and I plan on participating in it. What has to change is my mindset. What has to transform is my own sense of self, belonging, and worth. Every step forward is another opportunity to practice that.