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.
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.
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.