Remembering My Creative Self

I was never actually taught how to paint. One day in my high school art class, which was more of a loose "let's hang out and do something other than math" time, I noticed there were a bunch of oil paint tubes in the closet and decided to use them. My first painting was a copy of an impressionist work I saw in an art book. The memory of those first moments of working with oil for the first time is very distinct. The texture of it, the smell, the way it gripped the surface of the canvas board. I was a big fan of using the palette knife to layer paint in thick globs like icing and then moving it around on the canvas. The way the pigments would mix to create new colors was mesmerizing. Ah that distinct smell of turpentine and oil paint... I loved it. I was hooked. I ended up taking the oil paint home and stayed up late night after night painting. My subjects were all from magazines and books of things that I thought were beautiful: sexy Calvin Klein models, National Geographic photographs of beaches, Prince William. Painting was so easy. It wasn't something I needed to learn how to do, it was something I remembered. Other people noticed. Teachers and other students were impressed, they called me "talented." It seemed logical that I would decide then to pursue art as a career. 

I wonder now whether I would have made that decision if I knew what it entailed. I think fondly of those first few years of making art in high school because once I entered college, everything changed. Painting was not something that I knew anymore. I remembered wrong. I actually didn't know anything and every decision I made was evaluated according to a system I did not understand. So I made it my mission to "figure it out." I thought if I got to the bottom of what it meant to make good art, I would finally feel comfortable within myself, I would feel safe. Making art became a struggle as I was second guessing every decision, analyzing my choices, trying to make and critique what I was making at the same time. With every work of art I felt I had to be a few steps ahead of everyone else, anticipating the questions and criticisms. I made more work than most other students, I spoke up more in critique, I befriended my professors, I pursued a second degree in art history in addition to the fine arts degree, I went to art openings and lectures, I watched art films. I was in a constant state of anxiety, always afraid of falling behind, of being embarrassed, judged, disregarded. 

It was last year when I moved to Portland, OR, fatigued by the process of overhauling my life, that I began to recognize my discontent and my inability to "keep up." I was planning on plugging into the new art scene, meet the gallerists, get to know my colleagues at PNCA where I was hired to teach, attend lectures, go to museums. I went to the museum twice, I attended no lectures, I visited the galleries once, I looked for every excuse not to be in the studio. Instead, most of my time was spent dancing, thinking about dance, talking about dance, watching dance videos. I did not think of myself as a dancer and did not even think that I could dance, but I realize now that what I was experiencing was similar to my first encounter with painting. I was remembering something that I already knew, I was recognizing myself in a new way. There were no expectations, there were no definitions, there were no rules... yet. 

The insight that I am arriving at now, perhaps, is that the pursuit of art, of creating, of expressing, is the desire to skillfully embrace the unknown and recognize oneself within it. The actual facing of the unknown is a scary process because it always entails plunging into the darkness within yourself without knowing what lies on the other side. The learning of actual techniques for crafting something, deconstructing, analyzing, philosophizing, are all practices in preparation for that moment when we step into the new frontier within ourselves. Here I come back to the metaphor of diving. I spent a lot of my time pacing back and forth on the edge of a cliff, learning about what it meant to free fall, best techniques for falling, what other people thought and have written about falling, discussed the benefits of falling, taught others how to fall. My discontent and fatigue that I experienced last year was really a realization that it was time to stop preparing and actually dive. It was time to let go of the practice and face the next dimension of the unknown within myself. I have not figured anything out, I still don't know what it takes to make a good work of art, I don't know if anyone does. What I am learning is that being creative is an inward journey and the most important successes and rewards can only be experienced within. The visible work that comes is a result, an echo of that process.