The Year I became an Artist
“There is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.”
― Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own
As a writing teacher, I am always reminding my students not to stop with a word’s simple meaning. “Give the dictionary a chance,” I urge. I try to remind them that, when we analyze the work of any artist, our only real intent is to reach a reading that is ours, not someone else’s. And the best way to do that is to look for the tricky meaning of words, to find places where the plot and language are in tension. I have realized recently that what moves about writing and painting are the same. I am inspired by the space in which the story being told is at odds with the means of expression. “Look for trouble,” I tell my students--not in life, of course, but in the exercise of analyzing it. Don’t go for easy because most things aren’t. And I hope for them, as I hope for myself, that their minds remain open, that they know their options in contriving meaning, that they never let anyone tell them what to think, unless they themselves have tested the position.
All of this would be easy to say, if we didn’t live in a time of so much information, so much feedback, so much careless opinion, that the “easy” position is even more tempting, especially when confirmed by those we trust. For as human nature goes, there will always be someone more than willing to relieve you of the burden of thinking for yourself.
But I am grateful today, because I am hopeful. And my art has become a vent for that hope. For like no other language, it is built upon tension, upon uncertainty, upon the multiplicity of meaning. Art confounds us because it isn’t easy. And because it makes us work, it reminds us that thought is not a burden but a privilege.
What does all this have to do with success? Well, this is the year I gave myself a gift. This is the year I first called myself an artist. I have been writing since I was a kid. But I never called myself an artist until I started painting. I think this is because, as a writer, I was always too conscious of my intention, which was to “make meaning” of the world. I wanted to say something so profound that everyone would understand what I meant. But meaning isn’t something that I can create. It is already there, though it may look different to every person, depending on the definitions they choose. If they look closely enough, the meaning will be theirs and theirs alone. All an artist can do is create a moment, or simply frame it, and ask the viewer to slow down and look. We cannot control what someone’s meaning is. We can only control the language we choose to express whatever is meaningful to us.
Another gift I gave myself this year was to do the Instagram 100 Day Project. As I write this, I am one third through. My intention is to track my progress as a creator--under the hashtag #100daysofbecominganartist--because I think I will never stop becoming an artist. I started out making mixed media pieces with watercolor bursts and more constrained acrylic shapes. I am moved by this idea that we can’t create order--that order, like meaning, already exists, and all an artist can do is highlight it. As a kid, I remember reading about Chaos Theory, and loving this idea that even things that appear to be chaotic bare underlying patterns and order.
About one week into the project, I felt something shift. I had this instinct that the shapes wanted depth (that maybe they already had it), and when I looked down I was making collages. I was so happy that it happened that way, without a plan. So much of my life is planned and ordered. I don’t like clutter or mess of any kind. But my creative space has gotten pretty messy! I don’t only mean that my paints are everywhere, which they are. I mean that my process is messy, that I don’t plan things as I do in my writing, that I allow myself to trust intuition. It’s been so broadening and freeing for me to be happy with the mess, to see it as part of my creative process, to see it not as a flaw but as a manifestation of being unconfined.
And so, in this year in which I finally call myself an artist, I also call myself a success--as a friend, a partner, a woman, a maker, a sister, a child, a writer and a painter. I am a success because I’m not giving up, because I’m still pushing forward, because I am not afraid to change my opinion. I am a success because, although I’m afraid, I keep on creating.