When I was in college, pursuing my Bachelors Degree in Fine (Studio) Art, Professor D. made a comment about a former college classmate of his that I found startling at the time. He mentioned her work in reference to a technique we were practicing, a technique she had obviously excelled at. Clearly, he respected her as an artist. She’d had some degree of regional fame – he mentioned this as well. But she no longer practiced art-making as a discipline, he informed us. This artist had apparently, after a decade or so of establishing herself in the art community where she lived, decided she needed more from life and moved to India, where she still resided.
“She doesn’t make art anymore,” he’d said, shaking his head sadly as if he were speaking of some great loss to humanity. “I guess she still considers herself an artist, but last I heard from her, she said she didn’t really have the urge to do any art these days. She’s having an adventure instead,” he shrugged.
At 23, the age I was when I pursue that particular degree, I was so in love with the idea of expressing myself with paint that I could not imagine any time in life when I would not have the urge to make art. It WAS my life, in a matter of speaking, and being an artist directed the flow of my life in multiple ways as I grew older. It was an identity I fiercely clung to. I read biographies of artists and modeled my life practices after their dedication to their craft. I worked various odd jobs and several ‘real’ jobs to survive, and diligently painted at night, early in the mornings, or on weekends. I worked tirelessly honing my skills and marketing my work. And finally, I began to enjoy some degree of regional fame and success….
…and I found out that I don’t really like regional fame, so it stands to reason I would abhor national fame and absolutely freak out if I stumbled upon world-wide acclaim. The center of attention is not my choice place to be. The year I was chosen as feature artist for a music festival, I attended a formal event where I was asked to stand while my painting was unveiled, and the round of applause was deafening. I wanted to sneak out the door; I felt so out of place in that moment. What on earth had I done to receive such applause, or the standing ovation that followed? I’d ducked out as quickly as possible from the event. Was I grateful? Yes. Being chosen to represent my community through art was an honor. But I’m more of a ‘behind the scenes’ type of gal; even a birthday party held for me by dear friends last year was a little too much ‘spotlight’. And as time passed and I matured, I remembered the story of Professor D.’s friend who had walked away from a promising art career in a major metropolitan US city to live abroad in a foreign land, simply because the people and the colors delighted her spirit.
And finally, I got it. I knew exactly why she didn’t have a need to create art for galleries and exhibits anymore. Before she left, according to Professor D., she gave much of her art away to friends and collectors so as not to have to be concerned with storing it. At that time I could not imagine simply giving my work away, it seemed so pointless to even make it if I was just going to part with it so easily. But, in the past few months, I’ve given a great deal of art away, something I never imagined doing. I’ve done it carefully, making sure the work had a good home, but I’ve found a great deal of joy in seeing my art bring happiness to people. Last night, I gave a small painting to a friend for her birthday, and the delight on her face warmed my heart. This was what I wanted for my art, or anything else I created, really – to bring happiness to other people, not fame or heaps of accolades to myself.
And what has become more and more important to me over the past couple of years isn’t art-making or achieving success, its living. It’s life. It’s being in the moments I’m in, enjoying my days, and not slaving over an easel into the wee hours of the night so I have something to show or sell, but relaxing in the evenings - working with fibers, reading, talking to a friend on the phone, writing a letter or email. In the pursuit of artistic fame and success, I shut myself off from many activities I wanted to do because free time was such a rare and precious commodity. Now I’ve come to realize just that – free time is a rare and precious commodity, as is life in general. How we spend it comes down to moments, precious moments which create our stories and define our lives.
A few days ago, I ran into an old friend whose first question was, “How’s your art going?” I just smiled. There was no need to tell him that if I made art at all anymore, it was simply for myself and that the last time I’d painted anything was weeks ago when I added detail to a small wooden bangle bracelet. There was no need to tell him I didn’t have a desire, at this point in life, to express myself with paint or charcoal and that I’d recently turned down a commission because I simply didn’t want to do it. There was no reason to tell him that I wanted to embrace new things in life, that I had dismantled my big easel and recently made a few cards for friends but beyond that, I was busy being a mom, practicing yoga and meditation, gardening, knitting like a fiend and learning new skills and techniques I never thought I'd be able to master, and becoming more deeply involved in the personal relationships in my life. There was no reason to try and explain to him what a ridiculous question he’d actually asked…how does one’s art actually ‘go’, anyway? I just smiled and said "Fine," and kept the planned adventures I have for my life to myself.
No doubt had I told him the truth, he’d have reacted the same way as I did to the story of Professor D.’s friend, who has become something of a role model to me these days as I reflect on the adventure she was able to give herself only by letting go of all that she had created, including her identity as a painter. Where she is now I could never know; I don’t even remember her name. But I remember her story, a story that made no sense at the time but has now become my story as well. What I once could not understand about her has become the one thing I want others to understand about me. Let me grow, I want to say. Just because I’ve spent two decades doing this doesn’t mean I want to spend the next two doing it. There is so much more to experience in life, and God knows there is more to me than just the fact that I can paint. Let me grow, and I will let you grow. I will never try to define you by labels you gave yourself years ago...I'll encourage you to grow, grow tall like the seeds I nurtured in my patio greenhouse, and grow wild, like the garden I planted this summer with those very seeds. Grow and be free, like the wild thing I rescued, healed, and returned to its habitat even though I could have tamed it and kept it as a pet. Grow like the giant sunflowers my son planted, sunflowers whose seeds we dried and harvested and will feed to the birds in our backyard this winter. Grow, grow wild, and be free, especially of labels that others use to define you, or that you've used to define yourself. Be bold enough to step out of what you cling to, and grow...
...because there is so much more.