The Road Not Taken Might be Full of Potholes

A dear friend reminded me this week, with a wistful note from the University of Whatsis, just what it’s like to have a massive struggle with your direction and purpose when you’re still young enough not to have done so umpteen times and more, and recognized the inevitability of the Next One. Now that I’m older, if not necessarily any wiser but definitely more experienced, I can say with a certain amount of commitment that my credo may be morphing into “if at first you don’t succeed, fail, fail again.” Therein, much to my surprise, I have learned to find a better recipe for progress than in the mere trying. I wouldn’t know what my artistic successes looked like if I hadn’t first figured out how it looked when my art, or my life as an artist, sucked.Graphite drawing: Before

I don’t know if what she’s experiencing is anything at all like my first semester of grad school, but I was not at all confident I’d made the right choice, let alone that I had the necessary chops, when I was having my first major critiques, evaluations, mini-showings, and so forth. YIKES. It all freaked me out pretty seriously. But then I had the peculiarly wonderful personal-lightbulb moment of thinking (I seem to recall this actually happening in the midst of a big end-of-quarter or -semester evaluation in private conference with my main teacher/mentor, but I could be conflating events) that, if things weren’t working at all this way, then I would just force myself to start from scratch and do as much differently as I could possibly do.

No more black and white for now, I decided, despite being addicted to plain graphite drawings; all full-color. No more small scale; everything as gigantic as I could afford the materials and workspace to do. No more fussy detail and slowpoke timidity; be fast, loud, bold, loose, and reckless. Away with the still-life! Time to go all figurative, which I’d avoided like the plague. Down with pacing myself! Stay up for ages and do two, three, ten works at a time, even to the point of pinning up a long wall full of sheets and running from one to another and back again. I worked as fast as I could, using every material and medium I could scrounge up anywhere, gessoing over every image that I found unsatisfying immediately and reusing the paper/board/fabric from which it had been erased. I drew left-handed and I drew two-handed. I used dirt and food to draw with, and my works filled up both my trash cans and my portfolio. My teacher thought I’d gone nuts. My work was unrecognizable. I was unrecognizable, even to myself.Oil pastel drawing: It Figures

But I lost so much of my fear of failure in that burst of activity. If I made forty works for every one I’d agonized over before, then now I had thirty-nine extra chances to get it right, or at least, better. And simply by working more and faster and with so much less self-criticism in the moments of the making, I did get better.

I didn’t get perfect, and I didn’t go sailing through the rest of grad school, let alone life, nor will I, without continuing to have plenty of self-doubt episodes and artistic flatliners and emotional meltdowns along the way. But believe me, those have all lessened in number and intensity, and I have, after each of them, greater faith that the present moment of frustration and gloom and disappointment is not the end of the road, but just a big ol’ pothole in it. Some of those potholes may give me real artistic/creative flat tires or even a broken axle. But so far, I keep potting along and finding that what the potholes are often doing is just slowing me down enough to notice a side road or alternate route I’d not otherwise have noticed. I’m still a work in progress, always will be, but if I’m open to change and challenge in this, there’s good ahead.

Digital illo from a photo: Self-Portraiture as Work in Progress

PS—Thanks to my darling husband, who took the photo that I use for my Gravatar these days, and for the basis of this little sketch.

One in a Million

digital illustration

Homage to Popularity

My Distinction

If I should need some camouflage, should want to truly blend,

I’d better watch my persiflage and learn not to offend

By wearing last week’s trendy style, my hair too short or long,

Or failing, yet, to reconcile which Party’s Right (or wrong)

To run the government; which church is favored most by God,

How not to leave you in the lurch when I have been a clod,

Appalling with my social gaffes, faux pas and frightful fouls;

I may accept I’m built for laughs, but using the wrong towels

Or forks or traffic lanes, That Word in company unfit—

I hope I don’t seem too absurd as-is, but that’s just it:

My imperfections, my unique design as Me, are such

As might make me appear a freak if I am Me too much.

But, truth be told, while I may work to fit in with the rest,

I hope you won’t think me a jerk for liking myself best!

I will blend in, keep pace, behave, up to a point, to please,

But lest you think me fashion’s slave, I think it a dis-ease

To seek conformity and bow to other people’s rules

When I’m quite nifty anyhow, and others may be fools.

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Fingerprint Beats Homage

Struttin’

digital illustrationIt’s especially nice, when I’ve caught myself wallowing in self-denigration and insecurity for a bit, to think on those things that actually, really, truly are pretty darn good about me. It’s no sin to appreciate the gifts we’ve been given, and their relative smallness in comparison to others’, as there are always people for whom we have [possibly unwarranted] adulation as exemplars of all those things we long to be, is irrelevant. Safe to say that every one of those great and mighty high achievers has some hidden insecurity and certainly, all have imperfections. Our inability to see those reflects more on our own worries and wishes than on who anyone else genuinely is.

So I go off looking at the astonishingly skillful artistry of others and am ashamed at how little I’ve accomplished in my artistic life thus far and feel inadequate and cheap, and sulk for a moment or two, and then I need to pick up my tools and get back to work and remember that I do this, to be fair, for the love and joy of doing it, not because I need to impress somebody. And I remind myself that despite my ordinariness, I am in my own way new and improved in comparison to where I started my artistic journey.

The same holds true for looking at others’ writing, cooking, gardening, housekeeping, home decorating, DIY projects, you name it. If there’s anything I do that I wish I were better at doing—and anything worth doing is worth getting better at doing, no?—the reason I have such a wish is that I know I’m far from the best, and I can only know how far I am from the best if there are others leading me there by example. In fairness to my meager position in the relative scheme of things, I need to recognize that most experts spent a tremendous amount of time and energy becoming the avatars that they are, that if I did think I were nearly perfect at anything it would be foolish and delusional and hubristic and, well, tiresome, and that I do improve over time, if not quite at the rate I would fondly hope I could.

This is not a pity party for Poor Little Me, lest you be misled by my maundering start: it’s a self-reminder that I am very fortunate, and yes, a little bit gifted, too. My gifts may not be the kind that were evident from my birth and improved exponentially over a shining, prodigious span of growth and productivity and marvelous output. But incremental growth and modest gifts can be celebrated, too, and since I have no need for fame or (however pleasing I may find the idea of it) wealth, it matters none whether anyone else celebrates them. That they do, and indeed, tell me so, is a kindness and brings the kind of wealth and fame that have a far greater value than the more worldly sort, when I accept them wholeheartedly.

I know I’m not the greatest of or at anything. But I like who and what I am and think I’m on a slow upward incline regarding what I do, and that’s reason enough to hold up my chin and puff out my chest a little and march on forward with a smile on my face and my head held high. I’ll bet you could do it, too, even if you merely do so by letting yourself believe what the people who love and respect you tell you. They don’t love and respect and admire you for no reason at all, and who are you to question your admirers’ integrity! Go ahead, own up to being the new and improved you. Preen a little. You deserve it.

Shiny Objects & Flying Illusions

Beetling Brow

Inside my skull’s a fizzing insectarium

of mystic, magic, merry little things

so wildly pretty that my brain can’t carry ’em

without the power of all their tiny wings,

Abuzz with sparkling brilliance and their fleeting,

so speedy that they’ve utterly forgot

regard for gravity or need for beating,

become instead bright vestiges of thought.

Now, you may think I’m just a bugged-out entity

with not a thought for anything of sense,

but every person has his own bugs, hasn’t he,

and with their glittering gleam, the joy’s immense;

I never really cared that much for images

or what all others thought my problem was,

but just embraced my inner insects’ scrimmages,

and love the shiny ways they make me buzz.digital collage

Little Dragon with a Big Appetite

Ever feel tiny? Like everyone and everything else in the world is, by comparison, huge and powerful and towering and you can’t begin to compare, let alone compete? Have you let yourself be measured in comparison with anyone or anything else? Yeah, me too.graphite drawingBut isn’t it worthwhile to break out of that miniscule self-containment somehow? Isn’t the most valid measure of my worth found more truly in what I do as my best self, in what I become over time by growing into a finer and grander version of me? What you see is what you get–for now. And then I plan on continuing my progress as well as I can manage, for as long as I live. That’s all I can promise. With one little [ahem] caveat: I know that the best defense against seeing myself as inadequate to any task is the blessed ignorance of my true inadequacy. So I promise as a small [ahem] part of the larger issue that I will do my best to forget that there is such a thing as the improbable, let alone the impossible, and just get on with living my life, however insignificant it may seem likely to be. [Come on along.]