Updated: Apr 25, 2021
I'm writing this blog in order to share my journey as an Artist in hopes that it will help others learn from my successes and failures and whatever else may happen. Like many people I know, I've always had a fascination with the lives of artists because they seemed to exist on a different plane than the rest of us, but now I'm thinking that's not so true. No matter your occupation, the truth is that we are all artists in some regard, we manipulate and create and do all the things that Artists do, but the Independent Artist is a little bit like a Pirate in the sense that he/she lives outside of the system. We make our own hours and our own rules, so we really have to do decide what we believe will lead to success and happiness. Most people work for an organization that has its own system that makes a lot of those decisions for them. Anyway I'm rambling, let's get down to business (to defeat the Huns).
I was scared as hell to make this transition into being a full-time artist at 32. I tried not to admit it to myself but that was the Truth even after I had begun my work I was scared. I'm still scared in a lot of ways because in this line of business, my prospects are somewhat unknowable, but this is also what makes this work exciting to me. I've painted on the weekends for some time and have spent endless hours pondering my coffee cup version of Van Gogh's sunflowers but relying on my own (sometimes unsteady and untrained hand) for my bread was and is a scary proposition.
Fear is a funny thing. I played college football, returned kicks and (sometimes) caught passes over the middle against linebackers whose only job was to hit me as hard as they could, but I felt more fear going into the art world than I ever did in a football game. What I wanted out of my work and what I was getting in the Education field had become too distant for me to feel I was putting myself on a path that could approach self-actualization. What I wanted at this point in my life was to put everything I had into something, put my stamp on something, and leave my little marks behind.
This means that when I create a painting I put my mind, heart, and soul into it. What you're seeing is the best I can do at any given time. There are many paintings that have gone into the trash bin but when I present a painting I'm saying that I'm standing by it as a representation of my best self. When that painting is rejected, I feel a sense of rejection and that never feels good even if it's by a little kid. Little kids are often the worse because they're usually right and they haven't learned to have a filter yet. I could probably speed up my artistic process by inviting a brigade of second graders into my studio and let them tear me apart. Maybe I'll try that.
The first painting I posted to the world was "Two Trees". I was proud of it and am still proud of it because of what it is and also what it represents to me, which is my first step into being a professional Artist. It will always hold a special place in my memory. It's balanced and colorful and exudes energy. My type of thing. Is it the best painting in the world? No. But it's a cool painting and I like looking at in the morning. I want to sell it dearly but I'll also be sad to see it go.
Before I posted Two Trees to the Internet and began showing it to people. I was terrified. I had never before opened myself to that much criticism of my visual work. I can remember sitting there looking at my phone thinking "post the damn thing" and then "maybe it's not quite done yet, I should work on it for another day". Eventually, I posted it and didn't look at my phone for some time and then when I did, I received mostly very encouraging feedback. Now that I've been making paintings for a few months, the feedback loop has been a secondary Judge in my process and in my mind. I am learning to become my own judge through prayer, meditation, study, and adjustment and process. It turns out this new job that I romanticized for so long is not so much like my old job.
One difference I have found in living the artist life is a profound shift in my ability to be vulnerable with people about who I am, who I want to be, and the work I am doing to make that happen. I had a really hard time introducing myself as an artist at first because it just wasn't my identity for so many years. Once I started to make that claim though and have a little work to present, I began to ease into it. It still feels strange in some way.
In the classroom, I couldn't be fully vulnerable with people. I was forced to be a disciplinarian, to be guarded in order to establish power. I did not like that. There is great power in vulnerability. If you're willing to open yourself up to the point where people will give you their honest thoughts, you can learn so much about what makes people excited or impressed, and what you look like from the outside and how you might change what you do in order to make what you feel is on the inside match the outside, and if you can understand that, and you can train your mind to understand the possibilities of your medium, and train your hand to create work adeptly within that medium, I figure you can make a pretty good painting. Just by showing my stuff to family, lawyers, engineers, bar tenders, and whoever I've learned so much. I tend to watch for their initial reaction before they've decided how they're going to lie to me to make me feel what they think I should feel. This works both ways. Sometimes people who like me as a person will reserve negative feedback while others who dislike me as a person will reserve positive feedback.The initial response is pretty tough to hide unless they have some skin in the game and some poker experience.
I also have a few people I've found that will give me honest and productive and life-affirming feedback. My Grandmother Bennett happens to be one I think about a lot. She's a big fan of art (and a children's book writer/illustrator herself). She's also a big fan of her family so she wants me to do well in this but also knows the dangers of life as an artist. I showed her a painting I was having a good deal of trouble with one day and she told me "It looks Paint by Numbers" and I had to laugh because it was spot on. All of the soul and the spontaneity had been left out of that one. People sometimes laugh when I tell them I show my stuff to my grandmother because they think it's some type of weakness to yearn for the approval of family, but they haven't met my grandmother either. She works hard not to approve and disprove in a binary way and provides me with honesty. That's extremely rare and she just so happens to be my Grandmother and that's pretty neat.
My studio-mate Eva Gichina is also an early career artist, a providential find, and an invaluable resource for me. We are very different painters. I paint like a mad man and usually make a big mess in my corner of the studio and she's extremely organized and methodic. She's taught me so much about planning a composition and slowing down and enjoying the ride. I hope I've been a positive influence on her.
Then of course, there's the OG Zaeed Kala who taught across the hall from me for several years. He is a highly skilled visual artist and one of the best in the teaching business and he wants to see me succeed and is perfectly willing to send me into bouts of depression for me to do that. We are also very different people. He talks at 120 miles per hour and I sometimes go days without talking but we have a mutual respect for one another and I am so glad to have met him.
While this work is very isolating day by day because I am alone in a sunless studio etching tiny markings into canvas that may or may not produce any fruit, I have also found that by sharing my work and my journey with others, I am able to connect with them at a far deeper level than I would have previously. I'm far from where I want to be but I'm excited (most days) about the journey and that seems to be the important thing to me now.
I realize I've written very little about the actual technical aspects of painting in this post, but I think that will be better saved for next time. What was it the great Arnold Palmer said about golf? "Golf is a game of inches. The most important are the six inches between your ears."
Oh one other thing I've found that is a freeing notion is that 99.99 percent of people don't give a shit that you're using oil paint to make images on canvas. When I was younger, I probably would have taken offense to this, now I find it very freeing.