This past year of Pandemic retreat time has been awful in many ways, but turned out to be perfect for chewing and noodling and processing some insights that have come my way. The subject: myself as a creative person, my creative process, and creative living.
A huge challenge of mine is and has been equating my self worth/self definition with my success as a specific kind of artist and, further, my understanding of the word “success.” The limited way I've defined "success" has been: mastery of singular passion -> career -> $$$$. This has shifted recently, helped along by wisdom nuggets in Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic, and some pointed questions from my friend and creativity expert Sara Saltee. I've come to realize with their help that I can be an artist, make art, and share art divorced from the other stuff in that silly equation. Money, Career, Fame, blah blah blah: they are not a requirement. It's funny, I keep thinking I've got this figured out (see my past post HERE ), and yet here I am again. Sheesh.
Isn't it interesting how culture informs our perceptions of ourselves and our trajectory in life, and how sticky and pernicious those ideas can be? As an American White-skinned Gen X type person, the message I received (and maybe you did too!) was the following:
1.) Choose ONE thing you are PASSIONATE about!!!!
2). Master that one thing in college!!!
3.) Make a career out of that thing!!
4.) Succeed at that career by making lots of lettuce!!!
Since according to the previous equation of success I had to narrow down all my interests to ONE THING, I chose ART. Art was something that I couldn't seem to stop doing if I tried: making art things was and always will be my jam. Since I had to master this passion in order to make a career out of it, I studied Illustration and Graphic Design. Then I headed out into the world to make the dollar bills. Result: Eh, not so much. I’ve had mild success as a designer type, and there is so much I really love about it. But that love never offset enough the dislike of the challenges of a design career.
Fortuitously for me, I had partnered via marriage to someone who did have a successful career in the realm of money and health insurance, so I had room to ditch the whole Designer/Career idea and take the risky step towards…an ARTIST career.
I couldn't just call myself an artist without trying to do the career part, because If I didn't make art into a career, was I truly an artist? I was pretty sure without the career and attendant cash money, I was just an.....amateur*. The horror!
The unfortunate result is that I have saddled my creative process with the pressure of my idea of what an artist is supposed to look like, what a career is supposed to look like, and the amount of money I earned from my artwork.
Oh, what a WEIGHT I have put upon my creative self!
Elizabeth Gilbert talks about the creative muse as magical, conscious ideas that seek out a human to manifest them into the physical world, going from creator to creator until she can be made physical. I have had real world experiences that confirm in my head that Gilbert is onto something: I can't tell you how many times I've had amazing (and oddly specific) ideas that then I've seen manifested into the world by someone else, including a mixed media painting that I had sketched out and planned that I then saw on social media a few years later created by another artist!
That is the Big Magic that Elizabeth talks about; getting to collaborate with Ideas-in-Spirit in order to make them Real-in-the-World.
And that's it, that’s the agreement.
Things that this amazing contract does NOT include: the promise of dollars, the promise of fame, the promise of self worth. Things the contract does include: the joy of partnering with creativity and the joy of creating.
Just to clarify, it's not that artists have to be poor and money isn't allowed, or that there isn't such thing as lucrative art careers. The epiphany was really more around the idea that career/money doesn't define success as an artist. Having gallery representation doesn't define success as an artist. Having fame doesn't define success as an artist.
Being an artist means not being able to stop making art things.
I am and always will be an artist, regardless of the other stuff. Going back to super smart-pants E. Gilbert, she tells a story about herself as a young person making a promise to her Writer Self that she would always do whatever it took to continue writing. So, she would get jobs to support herself and give her Muse room to create with her on projects. It turned out that writing became a career, but that was never part of her promise.
That just resonates with me so much. Instead of asking my Muse to serve me in order to have a career/wealth/fame, what if I served Her instead? Or even better, collaborated as a partner?
So now the question I’ve been posing to my Muse during this crazy lock down year: what if the sole goal for me with art wasn't to have a lucrative career, but rather primarily the joy of interacting with my muse and seeing what we come up with together? What does my creative life look like if I unyoke it from the pressure of money making, and unyoke it from my grasping ego?
....to be continued.
Some Resources for Creative Living Wisdom Nuggets that I've been inspired by:
Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert
Art and Fear by David Bayles + Ted Orland
Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron
Amelie (2001) Written and Directed by Guillaume Laurant + Jean-Pierre Jeunet
* The original definition of the word amateur is to do something purely for the love of it, regardless of fame and fortune. The condescending connotations only came later. Prolly with the prevalence of capitalism.
It's rare, I think, for there to be an actual moment when you know your life has changed - not outwardly, but inside yourself, in your understanding of you and you in the world and the world itself. In January of 2010, I had one of those.
Ok so this may come as a surprise to you, whoever you are, reader of my blog, that I have had in the past a hard time calling myself an "artist".
So perhaps a little background -here's a quick(?) history of me and art:
I've always drawn well, as long as I can remember. Both my brother an I have a natural talent for art, as does our father, where we probably inherited that gene.
So I always wanted to be an artist, or rather, as a child it just seemed a given that that's what I would do with my life: art. Or a librarian. But as I grew older, a combination of self doubt and "reality" altered that "given" into what I should do that would be practical, and make my parents feel justified in spending large amounts of money on my education. They never said I couldn't be an artist, but of course worried about their daughter being able to support herself. My own father gave up any dreams of being an artist for the practical choice of becoming an architect, which could (and did) support his family.
So I chose illustration/graphic design for my degree, which seemed like a fair compromise. I had also stopped believing I was good enough to be an "artist", and was afraid of that lifestyle anyway - all that black clothing and smoking and talking about art - I was most definitely not that cool. It took a far greater degree of confidence than I, at the time, had.
However. I didn't seem to have enough confidence/talent to succeed as an illustrator/designer either. I half-heartedly pursued it, while supporting myself with a myriad of pay-the-bills jobs, without really committing to it, over a period of - ok, a really long time. And it wasn't linear: I'd give up the idea of being an illustrator or a graphic designer and look into other career choices (culinary arts, alternative health, psychology, education, retail business owner, wife and mother - still have the last two), and then swing back to spotty illustration jobs or design work within whatever other job I was doing.
Around 1997, there was a little shift back towards plain ole' art for art's sake: I started doing pastel paintings and fell in love with the medium. At the time I was working a couple of waitress jobs, and both restaurants let me hang my art in them. It was crazy, all of a sudden I had art hanging in a public space like I was an artist or something!
But I still didn't believe it, and had to justify it in some way - for example, one of the pieces was of my ex-boyfriend's dog, Nesta. I drew her as an angel, and it turned out really well. This elicited many requests for dog portraits, and I enthusiastically latched onto this: I was supposed to be a pet portrait illustrator! Until.... I could not bear to paint ANOTHER DOG. EVER. (Except my own. Those turned out super good)
That had been a recurring theme: I did a piece of artwork that was "successful", and then I would decide that THAT was the route I must go! And I would reign in my creative juices and try to funnel them down that one river, where it would quickly dry up into a trickle and then I once again would doubt that I was an artist at all....
So I continued this way, sort of having jobs, sort of doing design and illustration, sort of being an artist, and not committing to any. If I did commit to any of them over the other, I looked for signs of success, which would tell me that I chose correctly. But it didn't happen. Success.
So I decided to pursue design AGAIN as a freelancer...I had finally gained enough confidence in that skill area of my life. So I made a business card and started working on design projects for friends and family. I discovered a real pleasure in designing websites after collaborating on an online boutique with a good friend of mine, and wandered down that path for awhile. Meanwhile, I was still painting, and displaying my artwork at local cafes.
Then I had to give it all up, because Lulu was born. Oh I didn't mention that I had gotten married and pregnant? Yah that happened around that time too.
For a brief moment, I thought perhaps, this is what I am for: motherhood. I don't have to keep wondering what I am going to "be" when I grow up; here it is, my most wonderful beautiful perfect daughter. All else pales besides this visitor, this luminescent being, this all consuming relentless user of all my energy and time. And that is true: that is my number one priority, my biggest most important role of all, Lulu's mommy.
But if I'm going to be a good mommy, I have to do my own stuff. So I continued with some design jobs, and some painting, when I had a spare moment. Then this happened: a stupid, stupid dispute with a printer of a job I was working on. I had no time to paint; arguing with these chuckleheads was what I was working on. And it pissed me off. I wanted to paint. Lightbulb. I wanted to paint!
My daughter had provided me, by limiting my time, with the one thing I never could give myself: permission to give art priority over all else. (That and my husband having a well paid job. Thanks honey!!)
Perhaps you think that is the end to my story: girl decides to be ONLY an artist, finally. But that wasn't the revelation; rather that was the precursor to the revelation.
You see, I still found myself looking for life, people, the world to give me success to prove that I made the right choice. That I am "supposed" to be an artist. I was looking for validation.
I chose illustration/design in order to gain validation from my parents/family, and I looked for validation from the public in all of my other career/life choices. I would tentatively try something and look for confirmation outside myself.
So with art. I kept waiting for the sales and accolades to prove I AM AN ARTIST. When that isn't what defines being an artist. I define it. I am an artist, whether or not these things happen. Realizing that gave me permission to love my art and give it the time and nourishment it deserved.
I finally gave my art the respect it deserved: first I decided on giving it the TIME, and then behind it I gave it the FAITH.
(Cue George Michael singing "I gotta have FAITH FAITH FAITH. Man I love that guy)