I’m moving to Atlanta! Will hopefully update here soon with art and writing projects once I’m settled 😀
I’ll use this space to best document adventures and experiences in teaching and learning the arts. It may be something from the classroom, the studio, or my own personal work as a writer and artist. Stay tuned. Changes are on their way! 🙂 ❤
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.”
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 and 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. 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 being both a teacher and 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.
Writing is too. If I can not put my hands on the paper or paste or paint brush or pen, then I must at least be able to feel the work’s energy coursing through me–not terribly different from blood or lymph or cerebrospinal fluid. As much as I need a clear idea in my head, I need to be able to sense it in my body, within the walls of my heart: the form, its boundaries and edges, its consistency, its speed and rhythm. If it isn’t physical, if it isn’t in me as if some entity, it never leaves me, it stays stuck, whirling within the confines of my cranium, unable to descend south into the parts of me that feel, and out my finger tips onto paper or keys. I’m remembering, lately, how to open the gates, how to unleash floods or slow trickles, how to not stay trapped in my head, out of this world, lost in my own. ❤
For nine years, I’ve mostly hated painting and drawing. The two things that used to make me the happiest brought me only frustration, disappointment, and anger. I stopped making things regularly when I entered graduate school in 2006, and in 2007, I wrote my “thesis” paper (which I never finished) on how I had come to discover that if I wasn’t making things, I was unhappy and unfulfilled. If I wasn’t painting, writing, drawing, photographing, or crafting, my senses dulled, my vision narrowed, my heart slowly filled with cobwebs and dust. I vowed that upon graduation, I’d return to making things in my free time. But I didn’t. I tried, and it just wasn’t fun anymore.
I could write fifteen pages on the theories I have about why it stopped being fun, but that’s not what I want to share with you today. So let’s fast-forward to July 2015. I took this four day solo trip to a small cabin in Spencer, New York, with the hope that total isolation and lack of internet-related distractions would allow my creativity to spill forth, either into a story or a painting or drawing (or all three!). It did not. All that spilled out of me was pent up frustration, sadness, and confusion. I wrote pages and pages of that garbage. And when I wasn’t writing about all that, I was sitting or laying somewhere, doing nothing but staring at the world; at the sky, a tree, shadows on the lawn, the moldy edges of the yurt down the hill. But on my last day, something strange happened. While I was enjoying another one of my “lay around times”, an idea popped into my head. It was more of an image than an idea: a hardcover sketchbook with heavy-weight paper inside, colored pencils, water colors, markers, and graphite. A small, tightly bound sanctuary for my small fountain of creativity that was surely still flowing somewhere inside of me. As soon as I had internet access again, I went on Amazon and ordered all of the things I’d seen in my “vision”. I’ve been drawing and painting regularly ever since.
Mostly, I copy designs and images I think are cool out of books or off of Pinterest. I decided that imitating is better than doing nothing, and I really enjoy it. It’s like dipping my toes in the stream to feel the water before I disrobe and jump in; and who doesn’t love the feeling of cool water rushing over their feet!? Lately, I’ve been painting images of weavings that I think are beautiful, since I don’t yet have a loom. Occasionally, I will try to make something original. This is when I run into trouble. But this is also how I’ll learn, once again, to swim. So that, you know, I can disrobe and jump in without drowning.
Last night was one such night. In my sketchbook, I covered a page with several colors of tempera paint. I let that layer dry and started painting in coral-colored dots, and then something that resembled a sun. I hated how it was looking, so I found some patterns on Pinterest I liked, and tried adding a few, in a lovely ochre-colored chalk pastel, over the tempera. I was beginning to like it–the colors, the contrasting textures, the layers of paint and dusty pigment, the occasional flecks of shimmering gold (yes I use gold paint, who doesn’t!?). But it was missing something, I thought, perhaps a focal point or more contrast. So I decided to paint a flower in the middle, stemming up from the bottom. I found a reference to look at and started painting it in purple. It quickly became obvious that I had made a mistake. Not only was the purple a bad choice, the flower itself was poorly placed, poorly sized, and just plain ugly. I’d lost all the beautiful layers of color underneath; I could not remove this hideous flower, I just had to look at it, acknowledge that I’d made a mistake, and accept the fact that my carefully applied colors and textures underneath were gone forever. Many years ago, this is when I would have hastily torn the page out of my sketchbook and ripped it to shreds. Then I’d have likely avoided my drawing table for weeks following this little tantrum.
But last night, I chose to instead just sit there and look at it. “Oh well,” I thought, “you win some you lose some.” I recognized that while this page was “ruined” I’d learned something about what colors and textures look good together for future paintings. I was a little sad, of course, that this one was lost, but it wasn’t the end of the world. So, I decided to try fixing it. I painted the flower pink and placed little white dots around it. It looked OK, but it wasn’t what I had wanted. I wished I could rewind thirty minutes and choose NOT to paint the flower at all. But I couldn’t.
As I sat there staring at my mistake, I said out loud to J: “Maybe this is why I hated painting for so long. When you make a mistake, it’s so…visible, and sometimes irreversible. You can’t hit a delete key and you can’t just start over. You can try to fix it, but what’s underneath is lost forever.” Every time I’ve sat down at my drawing table for the past nine years, I expected to create a masterpiece, or at least something beautiful. And every time I didn’t, it was “proof” that I was no good, that I had no vision, and no real talent beyond my technical skill. I failed to realize that we learn how to make things beautiful by making mistakes, by losing something beautiful to something “ugly” and learning how to create it again. I failed to realize that we develop our style by experimenting, and that even if we “ruin” a piece of our work, that does not undo what knowledge or skill we’ve accumulated in the process. But what’s most difficult to accept is that “ruining” things is not always an accident. I consciously chose to paint a flower over my pretty background, and that decision cost me the pretty painting I’d made underneath. I had to accept that my decision simply wasn’t the best, and that that was OK, I’d still learned a lot in the hour I’d spent painting it.
This may seem incredibly simple. And maybe for most people, it is. But I like to think about how it applies to living our lives. I like to think about how pretty much all of us want to be happy, successful, and purposeful. I like to think about how most of us are probably at least a little afraid of doing the wrong thing, making a mistake, or losing something (or someone) beautiful or cherished. I like to think about how when things go wrong in life, it’s not always by accident, sometimes it IS because we’ve made a poor choice. As fallible human beings, we consciously choose things that sometimes end up hurting ourselves or others (or both, that’s really a special occasion). And we have to accept that. We have to look at our lives and think: “I did that, I did something that hurt her, or I made a decision that made me really unhappy, or I did something that cost me a promotion at work.” And that doesn’t include all the stuff that happens that is beyond our control–accidents, losses, illnesses, deaths. There is so much in life that is difficult to accept, difficult to look at, and sometimes, seemingly impossible to live with after the fact.
But I like to think that all of us are capable of indeed doing so; that we can make peace with our mistakes and wrong-doings and pain and loss and move forward more knowledgable, experienced, and whole. I like to think that we can all learn to stop angrily or sadly tearing our mistakes to shreds (and then pretending they never happened). I like to think we can instead learn to just sit with our mistakes, look at them, find within them the gems (however small) uncovered and revealed to us in the process of living our imperfect and messy and uncertain lives. I like to to think that we can accept the fact that not everyday will be a masterpiece, that we will destroy things, that things will destroy us, but that we can keep going. That, perhaps we can create more beauty because of all the destruction. An empty sketchbook is a perfect sketchbook. It is clean and white and crisp and beautiful. It is devoid of ugliness, of accidents, failure and mistakes. But it is also devoid of risk, of courage, of experience and experimentation, of success, of joy, of learning, and, perhaps most of all, it is devoid of purpose.