Saturday, April 16, 2016

How to Be an Artist

I'm writing this post today for creative people.

And really, I think that's all of us. 

But specifically for those of us who really feel pulled, called, convicted, moved, or in any other way beckoned by an inner call to express, or to make something: be it a painting, a dream come true, a book, a product, an invention, a career, or even a life.

For those who may be reading this blog for the first time, I can give you my creative story in a nutshell. I paint. And, I really enjoy writing. I have ever since I was a little girl; I always loved reading, and I'm sure that has influenced my inclination to write. For as long as I can remember, this is what teachers from grade school on encouraged me to pursue: writing.

As for making art, I started doing that, with any consistency or investment, purely as a hobby, when I was probably 22 years old (I'm now 28), my sophomore year in college. So it's not that old- and the beginning, I assure you, it was not that good. 

Both writing and art have kind of just grown from there. I double majored in Comparative Literature and Science Journalism in college, and was strongly considering pursuing a Masters degree in Science Writing from MIT after undergrad. 

But somewhere along the line, something told me I'd rather just paint.

So instead, at that point pretty disinterested in more formal schooling (and student debt), and pretty turned off by the general politics of academia, I (eventually) got a marketing job, (eventually) quit because it wasn't very creatively stimulating, (eventually) saved enough money to travel to Peru and volunteer, and (eventually) came home to begin something of a whole new life- starting from the inside out. That's when I started investing in my Etsy shop, having prints made, and- timidly and shyly at first- telling people what I did.
So from a technical perspective, this post isn't going to be very helpful in terms of what art school to go to, program to study, trends to follow, people to show your portfolio to, places to apply for jobs, or designated routes to take in terms of career, professional, or personal accomplishments as an artist. 

I never did any of those things in any particularly 'official' capacity, and I still believe- really and truly- that in the end the only thing we have to share of any real and lasting worth is our story: who we are, what we dream, and how we imagine this life could be. 

And this may sound so cliche, so cheesy, and maybe to some so impossibly romantically dreamy, but I'm convinced that any honorable or exciting thing I've actually ever done with my life (as an artist or otherwise) has been purely a matter of heart.

It's not always an easy-to-trace trajectory, but if stories of the heart can shed any light on what it takes not to be discouraged when we're pursuing something we want, waiting endlessly for that thing's arrival, and trying not to self-destruct along the way, well, that's something I think I can speak about.

"Being an artist" has been the most fun, freeing, often ridiculous, rewarding, stupid, crazy, brilliant thing I've ever chosen to do with my life. Just thinking about the initial decision (which I probably, honestly, made and committed to more than once) to even try it makes me smile at what a crazy journey the last few years of my life have been. 

More joy, disappointment, hurt, fear, second-guessing, rejection, self-doubt, self-love, and total surrender has happened in these years than at any others in my life. And more insurmountable, immeasurable happiness has too: there's no better feeling than knowing every day that you are doing what you were made to do.

So what follows are insights, snippets, pieces, and hopefully some gems of wisdom on what it takes- and what it even means- to be an artist and to have- and be- whatever you want.
Be prepared to work always without applause

These are Ernest Hemingway's words, not mine, but they are the first words that come to mind when I think about how I got from point A: "I make art," to whatever point I'm at now: "people know I make art, and sometimes they even pay me for it."

It's a funny thing. No one seems to want to work without applause. We all want to be recognized and cheered on an applauded when we do a good job with something (and even when we do a not-so-good job). But I think it's also true that the most naturally and genuinely impressive person is the one who needs no validation from anyone, who works just as courageously when no one is watching as they would if everyone was.

To me, that's not only bravery but real self-confidence. Results and praise are not the most important thing: I truly believe there is a phase of time we have to go through where we know we are doing the right thing- the brave, true, creative, honest true-to-ourselves thing- even if no one else does, and even if some people stand against it.

This way of thinking has not only pushed me to keep making art even when notoriety honestly seemed hopeless, but it has also helped me in jobs, relationships, and other personal endeavors. It will help me in marriage, in a career, and with any other human interaction too, I know: life's not a score-keeping match. Sometimes we'll give more than we'll get and sometimes we'll get more than we can give; sometimes our deeds will be noticed and sometimes they simply won't be.

Our best work- and our best character- flows out of inner conviction and not from the hope of external validation.

Don't work for the applause of man or with the idea that your actions will be immediately met with praise. Sometimes you have to lay a foundation that no one can see until later. Colossians 3:23 is a reminder I always come back to: "whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as if working for the Lord and not for men." I think if you know who you're ultimately here to please- in things little and big- you'll be more inclined to work from the abundance of your heart rather from the lack that you may see around you.
Share yourself- even if imperfectly. Speak up about what your dreams are

This isn't an easy thing. I think sometimes we don't articulate (I mean within ourselves) what our dreams are because they seem impossibly far away, or the thought of them seems so distant from the present reality we're living in.

This has been true for me for most of my life. And I don't think I want to wait until I've 'achieved everything I've ever wanted' from being an artist to tell this part of my story- who knows how long I could be waiting. The truth is we are all works in progress all the time, and we hold ourselves accountable to our own lives, in a way, when we have the courage to get started- right here and now, not 'later,' whenever that may come.

The scary thing about putting creative work into the world is that not everyone will like it. Not everyone will see it, believe in it, want it, or appreciate it. It's like this with any dream: but you have to start somewhere or you'll never possibly finish.

And eventually, you will. I've learned to appreciate that touching hearts along the way is more important than touching millions. In fact, I think it's really the only way to start. If we're not satisfied by helping one person, or sharing with one person, or investing in one person, what makes us think we will a.) be satisfied with more, or b.) even be given it.

You do the best with what you have, and you trust that what you have is what you need right now. When you steward that well, you will be given more. Authentic art does touch people; it does speak to others with a special universality when you share who you are and what you think from an authentic place. 

So keep your dreams alive and believe that they are valid and interesting- even when other people don't. The more you become in touch with your heart, the more you will find the liberating truth that your story is not between you and the beliefs or opinions of other people.
Live a life that proclaims thank you.

This- probably, initially, to the discouraged or new creator- may not be exactly what you want to hear: it was one of the hardest things for me to believe at first too, any time anyone would tell me, 'you have a gift.'

I hated hearing it because I used to feel like if I had a gift, certainly it should be more appreciated. Or useful. Or worth looking at. Or worth more. The list goes on as to why, at first, it wasn't so great to me that art, creativity, or expression were gifts. I wished my gifts were more useful, or functional, or helpful to the world and beneficial to myself.

But slowly I learned that that's not a very appreciative way to look at gifts.

Something softened in my heart in regards to 'being an artist' that actually made being an artist a lot better. Now I'm at a point where if you truly searched my heart for what I believe my art is worth (and I don't mean monetarily or in the eyes of others), I would say- humbly, of course- that it has infinite and undefinable value.

It inspires people. It brings beauty into the world. It is a labor of love: something I work hard for and am proud to be growing. It spreads a message, and it tells my story.

And the fact that I use it, this 'gift,' means that I am grateful for it. 

It's so much nicer to create, to give your gifts back to others, to share them: it is a proclamation of thank you, of gratitude that 'something I am blessed to have' may also bless others. Finding this appreciation through art has resulted in it spilling over into all of life: I am grateful for what I do have, not cynical or discouraged over what I don't.

Appreciating abundance always brings more; focusing on lack always makes us feel like lack- the absence of what we want- is all we actually have.
Remember that we're not made for emptiness. Feel, don't detach, be passionate, and fill yourself up

For some people this might go without saying. But there was a while there in my life- in art and other things- that detachment seemed appealing.

'Not too much investment, not too much weight on outcomes, not too much consideration, not too much commitment,' I used to think ... and the result was not too much actual caring. A weakened character.

It seemed good for a time, but there was one problem: if you get what you give; and what you invest in this life is what you get back out of it; then being too detached from your choices and the fruits of your efforts is not an effective solution to living abundantly and well- for you or for others.

There's a quality of aliveness that was lacking in my life and my art for a long time, and it started going away when I started becoming less full of myself- but not totally empty. I think a good artist (and a good human being) humbles themselves, gets out of their own way (largely by getting out of their own head), but also by realizing that they are wired to feel this life and live it passionately.

Are we often scared of commitment, and failure if something doesn't work? Of course. Do we not want to mess up for and in front of others? Yes. Would we prefer if everything worked on the first try and we never had to process failure, endings, losses, or missed marks? Sure.

But that's not life, and we only cheat ourselves when we pretend it is.

Unless the solution to our shortcomings is to meet them with more bravery and faith and less cowardice and detachment, I've learned, we'll never find beauty and wonder in the life we've been given. 

Sometimes you don't get the job, the gig, the yes, the award, the position, the title you're going for. And I've learned that when these things happen, it's no good to convince yourself that 'you didn't really want it that badly anyway,' or develop a devil-may-care attitude. It's better to get up and fail over and over and over again- feeling it all- until you finally do succeed.
Keep, keep, keep trying, and don't be discouraged by 'failure'

I think I've learned that failure is something we hold mostly against ourselves: as adults it's usually not a cage that anyone else puts or keeps us in, which makes it interesting that it holds so many of us back from trying (and re-trying) for what we want.

If we're not able to imagine failure, we won't be able to imagine success. I could never have actually imagined that my life making, selling, and sharing art would look like this: I don't have that kind of foresight, and no one does! 

I didn't sit down five years ago and say: in order to be an artist, what will happen is I'll be turned down from several creative jobs I thought I was perfect for, I'll make about one Etsy sale a month for the first two years, and I'll have to work two jobs to pay rent for an apartment and studio space just to be able to make a lot of paintings before I move to a whole new state for new inspiration and start 'all over again'- all while dealing with the other complications, issues, questions, and struggles of a twenty-something trying to figure life out on her own.

And yet, that's kind of what has happened.

Sometimes it dawns on me that life itself isn't an easy road; if I'm going to struggle (which, let's face it: I am), I might as well do it with some purpose. And that purpose might as well shine a light on what it means to create, to be alive, and to genuinely live.

It doesn't always work seamlessly, but it has always worked eventually. The journey really is the most important part of our story, and we can't really write it unless we choose to really live it: failure, success, and everything in between.


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