When I was a little girl we had a special place for creating, a little table for us little kids at the back of the family room. Nearby there were paints and crayons and coloured pencils and markers, not to mention loads and loads of paper. We had colouring books and sticker books and paint-with-water books. We hodge-podged and decoupaged and made 3D art with cards and double-sided tape. Making visual art was a joy and a given.
It’s also where I received most of my art wounds. I remember well triumphantly bringing art to show my mom and her saying, “That can’t be art. It didn’t take you long enough.” (As I said in my speech for my mom, she apologized for this many times and now I see how it may have been the words of a tired mom wanting her energetic kid to spend more time busy!) Over and over, I found myself pouring great love onto the page and being discouraged by both the result and the reception.
As I scan my history with the visual arts with a fresh eye this month at the studio, I notice also how many mixed messages I received. I remember low marks for a fashion design I did in grade 7. To this day I remember the crude lines and flat paint, so rudimentary compared to what others were doing (truthfully, not so different from my self-portrait above). I also remember being over the moon at being one of the few chosen to do a landscape on canvas in grade 8. I was so proud and so passionate, until I got stuck on mixing a shade, had the teacher help and then received low marks for the lack of contrast that colour provided!
As I go through each piece and the feedback it elicited, I see how earnestly I received them as the truth about my gifts. When my work wasn’t good or was criticized, I was pained by my lack of talent. When a piece was pleasing and well-received, I thought maybe there was something in me. I internalized every reaction to every piece. I didn’t see that each creation was just a piece, a piece of my work, a piece of me, a moment in time, an example.
It took me a long while to understand that there were actual skills to learn, that it wasn’t just a matter of discovering whether or not you were gifted, that you could enjoy and improve your art through practice and learning. I look back in heartbreak and anger at all of the art classes I attended in which we were never taught a technique or a skill: not shading, not perspective, not how to clean a paintbrush. (I learned that last one from Shannon. Thank you, Shannon!) This was true in school and it was true in courses I explored as an adult.
In a heartfelt commitment to follow my desire to express myself visually I threw myself into classes that pulled me apart at the seams each week. I’d come home crying with frustration and despair at feeling absolutely incapable of fulfilling the class assignment. I felt physically bound, like I wanted to dance but was strapped to a table, like I was strangled by the need to scream or sing or whisper. I felt like a baby thrown into deep waters and expected to swim.
I kept going. I kept hoping that somewhere, somehow there would be a clue, a key, a foothold. One day the teacher stopped and taught us simple shading. Simple shading. Circles evolved into spheres. Triangles transformed into pyramids. The whole WORLD is made up of shapes. I’d come up for air.
There is so much healing and learning for me to do in the visual arts. I’ve learned to hold it lightly, to let each piece be just a piece, and to balance that lightness with my dogged determination to learn. As I do, I allow myself the sheer sensual pleasure of creating: the traction of the pastel on the page, the vibrant aliveness of colour, the familiar scent of markers, the sound of coloured pencils as I play. I try not to take it personally when colours turn to mud and figures fly out of proportion or when my art looks just like it did when I was 9. I try to recognize it for what it is, a moment in time, an experience, a piece of my personal art history.
How about you?
- What are your memories of the visual arts?
- What joy have you found in this form of expression?
- What healing is still to be done?
- What is your Visual Art History?
- What new Visual Art stories would you like to create?
This month we’re exploring our art history at Jamie Ridler Studios. I’d love to hear your story. Feel free to leave a comment or email me, if you want to keep it private. I may not be able to respond to all of your emails, but I promise to witness every word with love, respect and compassion for you and your art history.