At the Core

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They say that an element of being strong and certain is making decisions from your core–the center of who you are–your understanding of who you are and what is right.

It is what I try to remember when I am faced with tough choices and when everyone seems to have their own opinion of what I should do.

Decisions that seem complex are really not that complicated when you strip them down to their essentials. What is best for you isn’t so hard to figure out when you know what is fundamentally right.

Who am I? At the center, all questions are really this one, single, core question.

Just a Bit of Friction…

With just a little effort, I could go paperless at work.

I could bring my laptop to meetings and type up my notes instead of writing them in a notebook, like many of my co-workers do. Already, most of my copy editing is done in Microsoft Word using “track changes;” it’s less and less often that I mark up a hard copy and hand someone my suggested changes. And at work, we almost (almost!) have software that allows us to easily annotate and edit magazine page layouts PDFs right on the screen.

I look at the laser printer on my desk and think, “Boat anchor.”

But I ask myself: Do I want to give up pens, pencils, and paper? Do I want to give up handwriting?

The answer is no–or at least, “not yet.”

I have worked too hard to regain my writing to give it up so easily. (You can read about that here.)

And there is something about moving a pen or pencil, gripping it and balancing it in your hand, that seems so much more alive than typing onto a screen does. Our hands are amazing instruments that can perform many, many tasks. They can hold, pinch, grip, push, pull and more. When we use them for simply pushing down keys–or just touching a flat, smooth screen–it seems to be sad compromise of convenience. (And besides, you can’t doodle in the margins of your computer.)

Maybe I am being old-fashioned, or maybe it’s just that writing and drawing have become intertwined for me. After all, what’s the difference between writing a letter beautifully and drawing it?
Either way, with just a bit of friction, ink or pigment is left on paper. Simple lines combine to become ideas and images with a life of their own. It’s intense. It’s delicate. And either way, it’s art.

Feeling Good?

There is growing scientific evidence that, “…when in a good mood, people become more intuitive and more creative…”
I read this in “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” by Daniel Kahneman, and immediately my mind rebelled. After all, the assumption that an artist must be tortured is so well accepted that it has become a stereotype. It’s as if, in our minds,  suffering is a requirement to being great. And looking at the lives of Vincent Van Gogh, Virginia Woolfe, Edgar Allen Poe, Sylvia Plath,  and Frida Kahlo, I have a hard time imagining any of them ever being in a good mood.

Still, science is science, and there are lots of experiments that support Kahneman’s statement.
So what gives?
I’m not sure. I am not a psychologist and I’m only a wanna-be artist, and the only story I know–really know–is my own. Yes, I draw and paint when I am sad and troubled. If I am upset, making art soothes me. I get lost in the process and my brain gets quiet. I slip away to a peaceful place and when I come back, I often find that I am ready and able to face my problems with new insight.

I also draw and paint when I am happy, excited, and feel full of potential. At those times, making art is energetic–I try something new, I take a risk, and the results might be something great or complete trash.

But I guess the question really is: At which of those times am I creative? And the only answer I can honestly give is that I am creative at both times. In fact, I make art both when I feel creative and when I don’t. If suffering isn’t a requirement for being an artist, then feeling creative isn’t a requirement for making art.
And while I realize that a good mood might oil the wheels of the mind, making it run smoothly to creative, new ideas and thoughts, I also know that the very act of creating can create that good mood.
Can science explain that?

Who I Will Be

The kind of artist I want to be isn’t afraid to try a new technique or style.

The artist I want to be remembers that inspiration is everywhere–and, more importantly, remembers to look for it.

The artist I want to be doesn’t blow her weekly gas and groceries budget at the art supply store.

She’s an artist who knows her strengths and weaknesses. (And most of the time, she’s ok with them.)

She doesn’t save the good paints and papers for herself, but shares them with her sons when they show interest, because there is always more where that came from.

(But not the watercolor brush that cost $23 and was worth every penny. Hands off!)

The artist I want to be will always wonder what really happened with Artemesia Gentileschi (don’t you?) while admiring her brave Judiths.

And she will be silly sometimes, serious sometimes, and will smile a lot.

And also will continue (for this week, anyway) to recommend “Exit Through the Gift Shop” to anyone who will listen.

The artist I want to be is humble, grateful, and determined; and thanks God every day for art that can touch the heart and make us better versions of ourselves.

But meanwhile, the artist I am is having fun. I hope you are, too!

Taking Back What Is Twisted

A little more than 10 years ago, when I still lived in New Jersey, I attended a two-day workshop with collage artist Jonathan Talbot. It was a wonderful class and the techniques I learned have become staples in my art methods.

But there was a lesson he taught that has followed me even beyond art making.

In the early part of the class, he showed us a page torn from a book. He explained that he would pass around the sheet so we could each tear off a piece to use in a collage. Everyone must tear off a piece, he explained, it was not optional.

When the page came to me, I immediately recognized that it was rag paper–very old rag paper. Plus, the print on it (was it letterpress?) had those funny ‘s’s that look like ‘f’s. I held my breath, tore off a piece, and passed it to the next student.

Once the sheet had made the rounds, Talbot asked us if we knew how old the paper we had just destroyed was. “One hundred years old!” someone guessed. “No, more like 500,” I said, my heart simultaneously racing and sinking. What had I done?

“Yes, 500 is a good guess,” Talbot responded, and everyone in the class groaned. But then he continued, “Ok, before you get too upset, answer this: What language is that on the page?” I looked down at my scrap and saw the phrase, “Gracias al Señor,” or “Thanks to the Lord,” so I said, in practically a whisper, “Spanish…”

“Yes!” he told us. “Anyone hear of the Spanish Inquisition? Good. So what you just tore up was a set of instructions for burning heretics. Now do you all feel better?” Relief passed through the class. “Nothing is too precious to be destroyed,” he concluded, and we went back to our works in progress.

The collage I made that includes that scrap hangs in my living room. I think about Talbot’s point often, and have reached an understanding of what he meant, and also what he didn’t.

That’s because to me, the lesson is also that there is nothing that cannot be redeemed. There is nothing that cannot be used as the raw material for art. Nothing is beyond hope.

In Letter 9 of C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, one devil explains to another that only God can create, and all tempters can do is twist His creations so that they are used unnaturally. (Devils did not create wine, for example, but they can tempt people to drink too much of it too often.) So I like to remember this: Art allows us to take back what is twisted, to take our own fires of The Inquisition and use that heat and light to restore beauty.

Trying It Out

Art is the only way to run away without leaving home.
Twyla Tharp

My first try at oil pastels!

A friend and I recently had a conversation that wandered to the topic of how younger women dress. We wondered out loud, “What does it mean if they are dressed provocatively? Does it mean they want attention? That they want to be looked at?” (Of course, we asked with curiosity, not condemnation.)

I tried to remember back to my own time in college. What did I wear, and why? What was I thinking when I dressed each morning? After all, from what I recall, my outfits could range from worn-out jeans and a tee to skirts, blouses, and blazers. The jeans might be tight; they might be loose. The skirt could be any length. Surely everyone around me, including me, was confused about what I was doing and who I was.

And you know what? That’s ok. That’s what you do at that age–try out roles, identities, and personalities. (Some of us do it with more than clothes!) How else can we decide, as women, if we are comfortable being looked at? How else will we know if we would rather others make assumptions about us based on the careless or meticulous way we present ourselves? All we are doing is trying something on to decide if we like it enough to keep it. There’s no right or wrong answer.

I realize I still do this today, but with art. Sometimes I’m working on a gesso panel with acrylic paint, sometimes I am creating a collage in a journal, sometimes I’m relaxing with a pencil and a sketchbook. Maybe the results are something cute, or not. I wonder if I should be more consistent–pick one thing and get good at it–but now I realize that it’s all ok. I’m trying different things to learn what I like, and I might like them all. It’s fun. And a fun discovery–whether about art or about myself–is the whole idea.

Too much?

I wonder about an alcoholic taking his or her first drink. Do they know, immediately, that what they just tasted might own them, control them, take their life? Do they know right away, and do they already feel that it is too late to turn back?

Yes, I have written about creating with feeling. I have written about my efforts to think less while making art. And I don’t take any of that back–and yet–I also wonder about the power of raw emotion. It’s uncontrollable power. Can it be destructive?

Sometimes when I am finished with a drawing (it might or might not be a good one), there seems to be such an amount of direct feeling in the lines on the paper that it defies the effort I used to create them. I wonder where that amount of emotion came from, and it scares me when I don’t know. Why? Because, somehow, it seems like a lack of effort to control my drawing, or to discipline myself, and that seems both irresponsible and dangerous.

I think of, years ago, watching Nirvana give their Unplugged performance on MTV. Anyone who saw the performance of the last song could have guessed that Kurt Cobain’s death would be tragic. Watching it, you see him express raw emotion that escapes him and will take control and torture him until he succumbs.

Maybe, being less talented that Kurt Cobain was, I don’t need to worry. Then again, I think I might strive for balance, just in case.