Changing Directions

Digital illustration: Changing Directions

Do I move at the whim of the slightest breeze? Often enough, I suppose. But what really changes my direction in life? Chance? Passion? Accident? Will?

I’d say it’s been one or another of all of those at various times, and perhaps occasionally a combination of elements. What I would say most definitely and commonly is that I have rarely known very far in advance what direction my life would be taking, let alone exactly when. Living with uncertainty is at the heart of the human condition. We can’t know (nor would I wish to know) much of what lies ahead for us. Being an artist, and married to an artist, I have made some choices that guaranteed perhaps an even deeper and more frequent susceptibility to wondering what comes next. While both of us have taught at times, an occupation that has a degree of predictability and dependability absent in most other employment that involves our artistic skills and training, it never prevented the question from arising in other ways.

For me, as a longtime adjunct at the university, it meant that though I’d been there for nearly seventeen years (most of those, full-time) before I stopped teaching, I never had a contract in hand for more than a year at a time, nor was my class load or schedule in any way predestined; I taught what I was asked to teach, when I was asked to teach it. For my spouse, a tenured full professor and director of his division, he still had questions about how he might change and grow as a teacher, never mind whether to apply for or take any of the other positions on offer at other places from time to time.

We are, I think, pretty much the ordinary pair when it comes to that sort of thing. Even now, after many years of doing particular kinds of work at specific places and getting plenty of satisfaction from those various tasks, it doesn’t in any way stop us from asking, What next? Will we continue on the present path exactly as we are just now? Do we opt to  make any kinds of transitions, either changing the way we do what we do or the venue for doing it, or does something entirely new entice and draw our interest? If it does, is it attainable? Is there some utterly unimagined thing lurking just around an unsuspected corner, waiting to draw us in?

At times, it can make me feel as though I can never quite catch my breath or my balance. I tire of asking myself all of these whys, hows and what-ifs, yet I can’t resist scratching at the questions the minute I thought I’d put them to rest for a while. Even when I’m most happy and fulfilled and contented, I always wonder what lies ahead.

And that, of course, is the very heart of that human condition. We know that change is inevitable. We know that some of it will be by our choice, and much of it will be thrust upon us or sneak up subtly and surprise us all the same. And we know that, in some ways, the only guarantee we have is that we will all die wondering. It’s what we do, and it’s who we are.

Shadowy Façade

digitally doctored photo

There are endless supplies of guides on How To do something-or-anything; I’m more concerned with How Not to Do It. Much of the how-to tutorials seem aimed more at giving us a gloss of respectability in the subject, a sort of facade of excellence, than actual, practical depth. Expertise is, obviously, a relative thing, after all. It’s not all that hard to be considered an expert in or at something that is very rare or an extremely new discovery or invention: lack of exposure guarantees that few can have mastery. A whole lot more, however, is skill or knowledge that takes a dedicated effort to master to any level of real expertise.

My greatest expertise, if I can be said to have any, is probably in the category of performing ‘filler’ duties in most of the activities I try. Work as I may, I’m not likely to become great at most, and I seldom find learning anything all that easily or swiftly done. Being naturally lazy, I’m even less often found pursuing new knowledge and skills with great rigor and vigor just for their own sakes. So at best, I tend to end somewhere in the middle of the pack. I like to think of myself as the necessary delineator between the great and the mediocre.

All silliness aside, this seems to me an age in which we, collectively, have lost our appreciation for true expertise. Maybe it’s my imagination, but I get the sense that somewhere between the assumption that a speedy dash through Wikipedia will provide all the wisdom we need on any topic and our fascination with outliers—finding the novelty of savants and overnight sensations far more exciting than hardworking earned-doctorate intelligence—and the sense of entitlement our privileged modern existence gives us, we lose touch with the value of elbow grease and passion.

I wasn’t born either brilliant or extraordinarily gifted, and I’m not ashamed of that. But it’d be a pity to go to my grave without having tried to improve on what few bits of intelligence and invention I do have. If I manage to do my best in the present and keep moving toward an elevated horizon, I may not change the world for the better by a single degree, but I will certainly have bettered myself and I might have the slightest chance of shedding a little light around me as I go.

Looks like I’d better get moving!

Don’t Blame Me, My Teacher Did It

photoThe drawing professor responsible for mentoring me in my undergraduate specialization in drawing and printmaking had no idea he was creating a monster. Safe to say there was nothing especially distinguished about either my skills or my scholarship in those days; he may be forgiven if he thought there was little hope of my passing his classes, let alone succeeding in being an actual artist at any point in the future. But for whatever reasons of commitment and kindness and selfless dedication to his pedagogical efforts, he took it upon himself to tutor and nurture me in my studies besides working wonderfully hard in the general studio sessions he taught.

Like any teacher, he had his characteristic methods and terminology, to the degree that any of us who took more than one semester of classes from him had our own favorite little catch-phrases and loving parodies of his work. One of the most frequent phrases (so we thought then, at least) to leave his lips was ‘texturally rich’—and you can bet your sweet pencil sharpener that any of us giving any imitation of him was bound to quote that one.photo

No surprise at all, then, that as soon as I started teaching, which thanks to his intervention and my subsequent hiring I did for the first time out of grad school in the very classroom where he’d taught me, it was as though I was instantly possessed by his spirit. I think I may have visibly started when I heard myself say that mystical phrase, standing there in the very spot where he’d once stood and repeated it to my classmates and me, never having remotely suspected that I would ever quite understand the term let alone use it so glibly and with such conviction a mere few years later. In my turn, I found it became a true favorite topic of study and tool for art-making and there were undoubtedly students of mine who thought it a funny catchphrase of mine and parodied my use of it.

That’s the way this stuff works, isn’t it. We become our teachers. First we find ourselves imitating our parents and siblings and playmates, learning from them both the persistent bad habits and, if we’re lucky and perhaps not too dumb, the worthy and useful skills and knowledge that will stay with us as we grow. Then we turn to teachers outside of the walls of home and neighborhood, as we get to school and move forward, and learn to imitate them too. This, not to put too fine a point upon it, is what helps us create for ourselves our texturally rich lives.photo

In art, it is the visual or tactile form of texture that I most often seek, finding in the wide variety of possible touchable or perceptible patterns and surfaces worlds of ways that I can shape and delineate and describe whatever subject I choose. As I work to make the art deeper and more complex, the textures I seek include less concrete, more metaphorical and philosophical ones that lend further meaning and impact to it. And that is where it begins to intersect with the learning and growing processes of life in general. A life well lived will be inherently texturally rich. I had no idea of the magnitude and import of this when my professor was saying that simple little phrase. But I’m very glad he said it often enough that I did internalize it, ponder it, carry it with me, and eventually, find a wonderful and purposeful truth in it.

Perhaps even fine teachers like him can’t make me into what I never was, a great teacher myself, but there was clearly a place in my heart and mind that resonated to the phrase ‘texturally rich’ happily and hungrily enough for it to take root and teach me good and useful things long after the echo in the classroom had faded away.photo

Tree-Totaler

I have a new toy! I’m not an early adopter when it comes to tech; in fact, I’m a slowpoke, and pretty much a big chicken, since learning new things intimidates the heck out of me. I know things come slowly to me, so it takes a while for me to even get up the nerve to try. But I have a new toy, and I’m liking the process of learning what I can do with this one.digital illustration

It’s an iPad, my new toy, and I bought a stylus to use with it, and downloaded several drawing programs (freebies and super-cheap ones, of course), and I’m having a grand time fiddling around and trying to see what I can do with the new artistic tools I’ve gotten. No amount of technology can make me into what I’m not, but some of those things I can do with the things I’ve now got could help me to make myself, however gradually, into a better artist. And that’s a fun thing to the degree that it does a remarkable amount to overcome my normal reluctance to trying to learn anything new.digital illustrationIn times past I have managed to kill a lot of trees in pursuit of my artistic growth. In my heart I am a great big tree-hugging plant lover, but my instinctive urge to make art has often trumped my tree love, at least to the degree that I make many works on paper. It’s easier to use when making marks into drawings than other, non-flat surfaces. I’ve been happy to use recycled material when possible, but paper is paper and, well, finite too. I’m liking the option that electronic tools give me of deleting or, better yet, erasing, layering, and redoing all kinds of things over and over again without needing to go to print unless and until I’m good and ready to do it. Here goes!

Things I Used to Know

In olden times, when I was young and Apatosaurs snacked on the treetops, I knew stuff. I’ve forgotten more since then than most sentient beings learn in a lifetime, although in fairness to them and to my own addled and limited brain capacity, much of that was only memorized and not really understood or applied. And what little I have learned or known has mostly long since been reduced to dribbles and scribbles and other forms of rubble.

digital illustrationI once knew how to ice skate and roller skate. Not particularly well, mind, but I could stay upright and toddle around a rink or lake without breaking ice or ankles, which for a person of limited grace and less skill is good enough. I could ride a bike, row a boat and climb a tree. I read books intended to make me smarter and ones intended only to amuse me, and a fair bunch that had the possibility of doing both simultaneously. I sang in every section of a choir that would let me in, played the piano poorly but enthusiastically, and learned about four chords on the guitar from Dad.

Much of this is gone, forgotten or so rusty that it would be somewhere between horrifying and laughable, or possibly both, if I were to try my hand at any of it now. And I’m not proud of that. But I’m not too worried about it, either, nor am I ashamed. I’m probably not all that different from most people when it comes to such things. I wouldn’t mind, though, if the opportunity arose to revisit any of those things and I discovered that (a) it’s true what they say about bike riding coming right back as though I’d never left off the practice, and (b) everything else I’d ever once loved doing would come back as easily as zipping around on a long-neglected bike. Before all the rest of me freezes over, as it were.

I also used to know how to leave the house without much thought of what lay outside its doors or worry over what I was to avoid and/or accomplish before returning to its safety. I had a firm grasp of many, many things that didn’t matter in the slightest in keeping the earth rotating properly or making my part of consumerism fully sustainable, let alone in achieving and maintaining world peace. As a supposed grownup, I learned to worry and fuss a great deal over that sort of stuff, even (or especially) when I knew full well I hadn’t any hope of challenging my born impotence in these matters.

But one thing I have learned as an adult that is remarkably useful–assuming I can keep it in mind, an increasingly slippery endeavor as I age–is that no individual human ever did really have any control over anything of this great importance. Occasionally, one of our kind manages to break through the barriers or even simply to fall into a solution by being in the right-or-wrong place at the right-or-wrong moment, but most of us are not able, alone, to learn or do anything much more complicated and meaningful than reading or singing or ice skating. And most wonderful of all, I’ve learned that that’s okay. It’s important to care, and to do and be the best that I can, but it may be equally needful that I grow wise enough to stop banging my head against any brick wall that practice has taught me will never actually budge and, yes, be content that I made the effort, not carry around pointless guilt that I’m not killing myself with further useless striving and angst.

As much as I loved ice skating when I was young and owned skates, and lived near a park where I could use them in winter, I don’t feel terribly cheated that decades later I’m fairly certain I couldn’t even remember how to skate. I’m happy to hang up those old blades and let someone newer and nimbler learn how to ice skate, and finally to get old enough to forget it too, in turn. The world itself will probably continue turning, with or without us.digital illustration

Be a Good Sport

digital artworkIt only just occurred to me that the admonishment to ‘be a good sport’ has little to do with showing athletic prowess and a whole lot to do with someone cajoling someone else to do a thing that the other person has no desire to do. What a to-do!

Perhaps this little guilt trip was meant, if the person saying it to me had any thought about it at all, to encourage me to discover that I actually enjoyed those activities (sports or other) under consideration once I willingly participated. Maybe those who said it even thought I had a hope of becoming skillful, adept, if I just faked a bit of enthusiasm until I got more properly involved. Cynic that I am, I harbor some doubt as to the former and, let’s face it, find the latter somewhat laughable. I can’t think of anything anyone would trouble me to do by telling me to Be a Good Sport that would be necessary to my survival or the rest of the world’s well-being, so it seems pretty plain that I was being chided to do that thing in order to please the person who was scolding me.

If, by not wishing to participate in the present extravaganza (whatever it may be), I am not a Good Sport, then it seems to me a bit like when those demonstrators and activists and yes, politicians, who cheer on their personal causes by insulting and tearing down and attacking their opponents rather than by simply extolling the virtues of the cause and letting it win converts and participants by its own evident excellence, and said promoters are then utterly mystified and stunned that others don’t flock to the cause willingly. You may well surmise from this that I never did buy into the value of group-think much, and in turn, haven’t ever warmly embraced the ‘popular’ activities. You can call me a meanie, a wimp, a curmudgeon, whatever you like, but please don’t label me a Poor Sport for having different wishes and tastes than yours. It’s just not sporting!

Dude, You’re Harshing My Mellow

I was darning my husband’s sweater (they were only small holes, so not worthy of being damned) and in mid-stitch, was thinking that perhaps this is one of those many things that tells my age on me. As it is, I will readily admit to my advancing age–a thing of neutral value in my estimation, balancing fairly comfortably so far between worthwhile accumulations of experience and adventure and the brink of crepitation that will begin my final free-fall towards oblivion. So it’s not a touchy subject.photos x2What really struck me during this little bit of mending was that however cloddish my technique, it was still a very antique skill that I had learned from Mom in my youth and she, in her turn, from hers, and right on back into the impenetrable fog of history. Furthermore, a skill that you’d think a truly slothful person like I am at heart would find just a teeny bit repellant; you’d honestly expect something more like my flinging the sweater in a pile of give-away items as I slouched by on my way to the nearest chaise longue. I live in a disposable and spoiled society and it would be quite conceivable that I would far prefer to go with the flow of self-indulgence, lean back in the shade comfortably sipping sweet tea, and buy a new sweater with no untoward holes in it.

But along with that darning bit of old-fashioned fashion in me are a few other quirks of age. It’s clear that my multiple personalities are coming out of the woodwork in all of their glorious contradiction as I grow older. I am more able, for example, to recognize what would be the more mature thing to think, say or do in a given circumstance, but less willing to conform to that with every day that slithers by. I grow lazier–I would say by leaps and bounds, but that would imply energy being exerted to do so, obviously a misrepresentation, so let’s say by exponential expansion–that’s another thing, coincidentally, that I’m doing along with age, since I eat more and exercise less whenever I think I can get away with it. Even when I know I can’t. And yet another of these oddities is that while I grow lazier as quickly and surely as long blue-green hair grows on expiring vegetables, I also grow more stubborn about getting some things repaired in ways that will last longer and prevent my having to repair them next week yet once more. So I darn the darn things.

Everyone and everything else continues to age right along with me, so I feel safe in assuming a certain amount of knowing sympathy among my crinkled compadres, as well as understanding when I say that I am also simultaneously getting more profligate and more tight-fisted with my money. There are so many things that in days gone by I would have continently held in heart-thrumming abeyance as long as I could stand, both to see if I truly craved them enough for the sizable expenditure and because I thought it more fiscally prudent and Mature. Now, I’m often apt to shrug with a rich Gallic moue and say to myself, But Darling, you could, howcanIsayitdelicately, CROAK tomorrow! And POP! goes the wallet.

Some things I have learned actually do fall under the get-what-you-pay-for rubric, making up in the long term what they scared out of me in the present expense. Such, for example, is this cashmere sweater I mended. I am quite fond of bragging that I’ve bagged most of my non-shoe wardrobe for under USD $10, but on a couple of rare occasions I have seen one of a kind items either at surprise availability or better yet, on sale (perhaps resembling in this my brother-in-law, whose middle name we have occasionally joked should have been HalPris, or Half Price, for his amazing zest and gift for finding bargains)–when those moments come, it’s time to pony up and make the grand purchase. Because (a) high quality does last longer and (b) some outrageous things are just too jolly fun to have. So as I’m loath to cast off a slightly moth-eaten cashmere, it was worth the effort of the purchase enough that I’m willing to undergo the momentary exertion of actually mending and maintaining such a thing. It’s like a smaller and less complicated version of the relationship I have with a house: I know that things will constantly require attention and maintenance, and what falls within my limited skill range must be determined to be either worth the trouble or not, destined to be cheaply slicked over or staring me down with the necessity and value of genuine, if expensive, care and improvement.photoAs for the sweater with the holes in it, I just did the best I could making them disappear with some discreet back stitching and re-weaving of the threads. It deserved to be darned. The moth that munched the wool, him I did damn to perdition for his maleficence in undoing the pristineness of my husband’s only nice and slightly expensive sweater. Go back to your weed patch and chew on a rabid squirrel’s ankle or something, you mean MothMonster, why don’t you! And then I’d blow him away on a dandelion parachute, while lying back once again on my chaise as the sun drifts gradually down the afternoon sky.photo