Don’t Prove Yourself: Be Yourself

Stop! Stop! Stop!

I wanted to scream at the cynic talking to the young artist last week. The cynic was saying, in effect, “People creating art in South Dakota are just fooling themselves; they aren’t doing anything of worth. Art only matters if it is validated in major art centers like New York City.”

When I tried to offer another perspective, he talked right over the top of me. I finally pointed out that I listened when he spoke, and asked him to listen when I spoke. He agreed, but couldn’t seem to help himself. I was not allowed to complete an entire thought.

I finally got my message down to a sound-bite: “better” is not a word you should bring into a discussion about creating art.

My art is not better than the work that dear friends create, nor is their work better than mine. Our work is not better or worse than well-known artists working today. Rather, our work is different.

Even artists creating work within the same movement have individual, recognizable styles. I can tell a Monet from a Renoir even if I am not familiar with the individual pieces. That’s the beauty and joy of being an artist — that the medium we choose gives voice to what is in us, gives voice to who we are as remarkable individuals sharing a journey through life.

After that discussion, which disturbed me more than I could articulate at the time, I found myself thinking of my artistic journey. I stumbled into being an artist. In my heart of hearts, I longed to create images from the time I was young, but I didn’t have much natural talent. Still, when the opportunity arose, I took a design class, thinking a design class wouldn’t require talent, that I could learn something about creating art without revealing how hopelessly inept I was.

What I found was a mentor, though Signe would probably not see herself in that way. Signe helped me to see that art went far beyond what I imagined. After the design class, I took a drawing class, a color theory class and a painting class. With that foundation, I just began to practice.  Signe believed in painting from life, so I painted still lifes — often fruit and vegetables, but also plants and pieces of pottery or copper from my kitchen.

I would challenge myself with color exercises, limiting my palette to three or four colors plus white to see what I could accomplish. I would paint at night after my children went to bed, first at the kitchen table and later in a studio I set up in the corner of my living room. I would paint to find a center of peace that existed no where else in my chaotic world.

My abusive marriage was ending; I was a single parent; I had dreams of becoming a university professor but didn’t know how to get there. In the midst of all that, I had to provide emotional stability and a home for my children. I also had bills to pay, and little money with which to pay them. When I painted, all that dropped away and I entered into the present moment in a way that healed and strengthened me.

I have often joked that I paint to stay sane, but it’s not really a joke. It was my truth then, and it has been my truth every year during which I have painted since that time. Granted, sometimes I’ve allowed life to send me on a meandering detour which took me away from my brushes and easel, but when I paint, I am whole and more authentic than when I am not creating art.

It’s not about the art. It’s not about the validation of public recognition. It’s not about proving myself; it’s about being myself. It’s about being authentic, about being the person I was created to be.

I was well into my 30s when saw a major art exhibit for the first time. A friend and I went to the Chicago Art Institute and I saw the work of Cezanne for the first time, and Renoir and Seurat and Monet and Van Gogh and Georgia O’Keeffe. I saw other works as well, but it was a piece by O’Keeffe that tipped the scales for me.

The Modern Art wing was under reconstruction so “Sky above Clouds IV” was hung over a doorway. I looked up and thought, “I could do that.” I’d been at the museum for hours by then, and was suffering from what I’ve since learned is called museum fatigue. My response probably seems disrespectful of a great American master, and I could probably claim fatigue.

In truth, something else entirely was happening. An inner shift was occurring. Having studied the Impressionists and Post-Impressionists intensely, I’d strolled casually through the other galleries, pausing here and there to look at work by an artist whose name I recognized. I was saturated with richness of it, with the diversity of styles and images, with the timelessness of it.

I had realized that creating art is about bearing witness. Creating art is about staking a claim in the great ocean of time and saying, “This is where I live. This is what I see. This is what I experience as true in this place and time.”

When I said, “I can do this,” I wasn’t talking about replicating that piece. I was acknowledging my call to be an artist, to be a witness. I knew in that moment that unless I created art, my life would be wasted.

Nearly 30 years later, I feel the same way even though entire years have passed when I have not picked up a brush. I feel that creating art has given meaning to my life even though I’ve not gained national, international — or even regional — acclaim. My art — and my writing — are my legacy, but they are also more than that.

Creating art is an honest and public acknowledgement that I am living in this world in a way that is authentic, that uses the gifts God has given me and allows others to bear witness with me of life in this place and this time through one set of eyes. That’s enough. That’s all any of us ever needs to do.

We just need to live authentically. We just need to be ourselves.

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