Practice Sessions

Mo Willems, Goldilocks and the Three Dinosaurs (via poetrist)

I’m writing this while horizontal; kiln-loading and super-heavy-box-o-clay-lifting has done my already geriatric lower back no favors. But anyway.  I am feeling so pensive, and also exhausted. I’ve not only taken on an extra class at school, I’ve also started working a second (and thankfully temporary) job a couple days a week. I’ve noticed that at school I’m constantly busy. I never really sit idle. I’m teaching, prepping, cleaning, making copies, writing lesson plans, making visuals, whatever. As busy as I get, I never wish that I could just sit and do nothing. I don’t mind the busy because it’s interesting–it’s either intellectually stimulating or truly necessary or just plain fun. But in the evenings at my second job, the work is so boring and arbitrary that I seriously wish they’d just let me stand there and do nothing, waiting for customers who need to cash out. Doing nothing is something I’m good at because I love to daydream and my brain does like to idle out at times, as it’s often going very fast and needs breaks. My brain, however, cannot handle the dull ache that’s associated with sticking security tags on a hundred wool shirts or straightening clothing racks or what not. It makes me want to pass out and I obsessively check the clock, which only makes it worse. Luckily, most everyone I work with is pretty nice, which does help.

But it’s been enlightening, and it has served as an important reminder: I can never have a mindless or dull or ‘easy’ job as a means of supporting my art. I’ve tried that before, and I failed. While living in Portland, Oregon, I worked as a sales girl in–get this–a salt shop, and as a secretary at a local university. I would get insanely bored. I would feel like I was about to explode. Sometimes, I’d waste the entire day dreaming or scheming and planning my evenings and weekends, and than I’d work like a fiend for an hour or so and get everything done. Decently, too. I don’t do very well when things are easy, simple, or routine. I do well when things get difficult, complex, when the challenges that come at me shift and change. I do well when things are a little chaotic, uncertain, and fairly demanding. I have my limits of course, but these are general rules.

It reminds me of something else, too: that I need to be on the ground. That I need to be in the world. And yeah, sure, working retail is “the world”. It’s the world… but not really. It’s the world but it’s packaged, it’s perfected, it’s designed to be appealing and make you want more. It’s predictable, calculated, and planned. Life, in general, is not like this. The world is not like this. I suppose that’s just one reason I love teaching: it changes, it reflects the real world (however terribly), it anchors me in reality, in what is, right now. Of course, there a hundred other reasons I love teaching art. I mean, I get to play with clay, ya’ll, all day, and get paid. I get to plan lessons that require students to get their hands dirty. I get to help kids feel comfortable taking risks and making mistakes. I get to help them take an intangible idea and make it into a real thing. For me, I don’t doubt that this is the job for which I’m most suited, and I love it.

That being said, something is missing. Something has always been missing. And I know exactly what it is.

For most of my adult life, I’ve denied that I was an “artist”. So many times, people have asked me: “Oh, are you an artist?” They see my drawings or writing or hear that I’m an art teacher and this is a natural question. I always say “no”. But, here’s the best part, I say that I “aspire to be.”

Damn fool.

Seriously. I’ve always had this insane, highly esteemed and sacred definition of the word “artist”. But recently I’ve been thinking that this definition I have should be reserved for what one might call a “successful artist”. Recently, I’ve come to realize that the word “artist” does not denote any particular achievement, rather, a state of being.

I’ll tell you how I’ve always been: obsessed with understanding the world. Obsessed with learning. Also, obsessed with death, how we all have to do it, how everything we love goes away. Too: desiring change, novelty, and most of all, beauty. Beauty of all kinds, both conventional and strange. I live to create beauty, too. Not just to write a sentence, but to write the most perfect and pristine sentence. Not just to draw a line, but draw the most sinuous and arcing line. Most importantly, I have this insatiable urge and need to document and express, document and express, document and express. I cannot go through life without writing everything down, without drawing it, without turning it into a poem or a story or a painting. Everything shines, glimmers, begs to be stared at, understood, touched, and shared. And I love it all so much I that I do want to share it with people. If this is not being an artist, then I don’t know what is. Maybe it’s different for everyone, but this is how it is for me.

What’s missing is that part of me–the artist that I am already, not that I aspire to be someday. I know that I cannot work some schleppy job and go home to my drawing or writing table. I know that I need to be in the world, teaching or helping or sharing, so how to do both, then? How can I be in the world, and how can I also pull myself out of it and into my own little world so that I may sift through everything inside of me in order to turn it into art? Maybe writing or art that no one will ever see, but that I need to create so that I won’t become some real-life version of the walking dead. It’s for real, folks, I’m as good as a corpse when I’m not regularly creating. But… the balance feels impossible, because blog rants and doodles in my sketchbook aren’t enough. Sometimes I want to do something bigger. Sometimes I need to get away, and go deep into somewhere else, for a while. Sometimes I need to exit this world for several days and come back when I’ve finally got every thing I need in order to make. I don’t actually mean physically (though that’s fun, too), I mean in my head. I can’t teach my classes when my head is spinning around Saturn or the Ecuadorian coast. It’s too far away, and it’s too tempting, and I know there are gems out there, waiting for me. But I always have to pull myself back, out, and away. I know I can’t go too deep in there for fear I won’t want to come out when I need to.

So, this has prompted me to think long and hard about a lot of things. I am certain I will always be a teacher or helper. But I will also always be an artist. So, I have to learn how to be be both. There is no other way. Whenever I do one and not the other, I end up feeling empty and incomplete. All this thinking leads me to think more, about decisions I will have to make that won’t be easy, that will require loss (my archenemy), uncertainty, the possibility of colossal error, regret, and maybe even more loneliness than I experience now. I don’t know. But do we ever?

Nah, I don’t think so. I think we like to pretend we do, though.

Yesterday I lead a “clay practice session” with my sixth period high school class. I warned them several times NOT TO GET ATTACHED to anything they made because this was just a practice day and they’d be balling it up at the end of the period. But, of course, they got attached anyway. How can you not? They made beautiful spirals of clay and perfectly executed coil pots. I reminded them again: “Don’t forget guys, we’re NOT keeping ANYTHING we make today!” They looked at me like they didn’t really believe me.

But then there was five minutes before the bell.

“Alright everybody, time to clean up! That means it’s time to turn your spirals and pots back into lumps of clay!” I held my own creation over my head and squished it in my hands. My students looked at me, horrified. Like: she actually meant it!? We really have to destroy our work!? But it’s so beautiful!

Yes, we do. And yes, it is.

But they did it. Reluctantly at first (some even said “no” and shook their heads), and then fervently. They pounded their projects into perfect clay balls, coated them in water, and tossed them back into the bag. They left all smiles, everyone was OK, and everyone had a hell of a lot more skill in clay than they’d had forty minutes before. Once I unleash them into our experimental choice and super-independent clay unit, they’re gonna kick some serious ceramic booty. And all of that destruction and loss will make sense.

We don’t always get to take shit with us. Sometimes we have to leave things we love because it’s just a part of a bigger process. Sometimes we even have to wreck things, lose things, or let things fall apart. Sometimes stories snake, wind, and leave us wondering what the hell is going to happen. But it happens. No matter what, it happens.

I still have no answers or certainty about my future, where it’s going, where I’ll be, or how I’ll best figure out how to balance working both in THE world and as an artist. But I do know one thing: however I get there–however messy or uncertain it is, however lonely, however many times I just don’t know, how ever many beautiful things I have to leave behind–I’ll get there.



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