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On Being an Artist

Updated: May 14

It took me a long time before I ever called myself an artist. I was well into my 40's before I could say I was one. Probably not until I was 50 to be able to say it with any measure of confidence. I often think about why it took me so long.


In high school I would longingly watch students coming and going from the art room, or walking to their cars with their big pads of paper after school. My schedule didn't have room for art, my parents, especially my mom, kept me on the university track and I had to focus on physics and three years of a foreign language. During college it never even occurred to me to take art classes. Those were for other people. But the longing was still there. After college, when I was 22 and living in Tokyo my roommate, a fellow American, started taking sumi-e classes, classic Japanese ink painting, and I was so jealous. But because of her, I finally worked up the courage to go into the art supplies section of a multiple story department store. I was so overwhelmed by all the choices, the hundreds of brushes, the different mediums like water color, pastels, oil paints, and colored pencils. I had no idea where to begin or what to choose. I left without buying a thing and felt utterly defeated.


It took me until my early 30's to finally take an art class. It was a water color class at the local senior center. I was younger than everyone by a good 30 years. We would take photos and learn how to replicate them, creating very realistic paintings of our pictures. I enjoyed it but felt challenged ~ and impatient ~ by the attention to detail that was required. I took a second water color class soon after with a different teacher. Her style was very loose, encouraging us to just pick something and get busy, she didn't concentrate on technique. It was frightening and exciting at the same time. One day toward the end of the course, an older gentlemen looked at what I was painting and said, "I don't think water color is your medium." There was to me what seemed like an interminable pause, one long enough for me to feel crushed. That he was telling me I was no good. That I shouldn't paint. Or be an artist. All the doubts I had had during my school days and through my 20's came rushing in. But finally he said, "no, you need something more like acrylic or oils, to better capture all those bold colors you're trying to paint." Oooooh! What a relief! This was that painting.




Next I took an introductory art class at a nearby community college where I learned all about perspective, shadows and highlights, value and tone, and all those other terms that artists need to know. Or so I thought you needed to know, you know, to be an artist. We had to critique each other's work and I was at least ten years older than most of the students. One of the assignments was a "memory" painting, something we remembered from childhood. Mine was of a pair of leather sandals from Mexico. It reflected a moment when as a six year old I had stood up for myself to my mom over those shoes (she had wanted to me to get something else because the sandals weren't practical.) When I described it to the class, including the meaning and the feelings behind it, I was met with blank stares and radio silence. Everyone else had interpreted the assignment very differently. No one else was sharing about their emotions behind their drawings. It was an all too familiar experience for me, me going super deep about something and overwhelming the folks in the room. It's all good now, I love this part of me now, but at that moment I was embarrassed and definitely questioned whether I was any good or if I should even continue.


But then life changed pretty quickly. I fell in love, got married, had a baby and art got put on hold for a while. When I slowly worked my way back to it, there were online resources by then, and I learned about art journaling and finally how to use acrylic paints to paint all those bold colors I loved. I joined online classes and "met" amazing women from all over the world. I even went on a 5-day retreat in Sedona, and got to meet some of those women in person, where 13 years later I'm still in touch with them and cherish the encouragement and support that we provide each other along our artist paths. Because at some point, finally, I was able to start calling myself an artist.


Yesterday, being Mother's Day, I had a conversation with my mom's friend ~ who is like a second mom to me ~ and we were talking about some paintings my mom did before I was born. I often reflect on my mom's artistic path and wonder about how it affected mine. She started out in college studying interior design. But her mom, my grandma, had to have back surgery, and at one point my mom had to come home to help take care of her. During that time my mom got a little lost and told me the story many times of how, her dad, my grandpa, sat her down and told her she needed to get serious. No more of this goofing around stuff (my words, not his). She went back to school, switched to an education major, and set out to become a teacher. Because that was the practical choice and what many women of her generation were encouraged to do as a career choice, one that fit neatly into being a mother and a wife.


But I know she took some art classes at some point, because when I was growing up there were three large oil paintings that she had done ~ two in the house I grew up in and one in her friend's house ~ the same friend who I celebrated Mother's Day with yesterday. The three paintings were landscapes, one hung over our living room couch for many years. I'm not sure where it ended up once she and my dad divorced, but I have a photo of it. That's me, with my parents, I was just a couple weeks old. And that's her painting behind us.




The second painting of the three is still at the home of her very good friend ~ who I spent Mother's Day with yesterday. The painting was based on a photo taken on a back packing trip they did up in the high Sierra mountain range in northern California. That photo, and the painting, turned out to be of a place very near where I would end up moving to and where I still live, and where she would end up retiring to as well. Even better, a side note, that very good friend, with her husband, ended up retiring here too, living just a couple blocks from my mom's house, just like the whole time I was growing up. She still has the painting.




So anyway, where was I? Oh, right. On to the third painting. My mom passed away nine years ago, and I thought I had that third painting packed up safely somewhere in my house, but when I went to look for it today, where I thought it was, I couldn't find it. I'm not sure what happened to it. Which makes me really sad. I know she didn't like that one, it was a forest scene, and she thought it was too dark and the composition was all wrong. But I liked it because, well, she painted it. I hope I just put it somewhere else and I'll come across it eventually.


But those were the only three she ever painted. After having me and my brother, she never went back to it. She painted plenty of bedroom walls, some furniture, and even one of those little ceramic Christmas trees with plastic lights that have become all the rage. But she never went back to either interior design or art.


Before my mom passed away, there was one painting that had been in both her house and before that in my grandparent's house (her parents). It was the one and only thing I knew I wanted to have after she was gone. It was a water color painting of irises, done by my great-grandmother Francine in 1906. She was my mom's grandmother, but she never met her. Francine had died when my grandpa ~ my mom's dad ~ was only fourteen. Now, my grandpa was a pretty stoic man, very serious, and he didn't talk much. He was extremely methodical and even kept a mileage log on his honeymoon with my grandmother. When they drove from Pennsylvania to Florida he recorded every single mile, every drop of gas, and calculated their mileage for each leg of the trip. Super romantic. With his no-nonsense approach to life, I can see why he wanted my mom to forget about artistic pursuits and to focus on something practical like education. I often wonder if his mother ~ my great-grandmother ~ had lived longer, would she have had any creative influence on him? Would he have been able to tap into his artistic side? I know I'll never know the answer to that question. But her painting survived, my grandpa had it his whole adult life. Then my mom had it, and now I have it.




It hangs today in my studio. I often look at it and think about my family and art. My mom never encouraged my artistic path. Her biggest dream for me was to settle down and get a job in an office with retirement benefits. She was very much her father's daughter. But despite the very practical leanings of my mother's side of the family, there has been a thread of creativity and art under the surface, quietly existing, waiting to finally be explored. It's taken me much of my adult life to pursue art, and I wish I could have started sooner, but life is, well, a path of learning and exploring who we are after all. Today my son is taking art classes at a community college, he's doodled and drawn since he was a wee small child. He already considers himself an artist, whether he ends up pursuing an artistic career or not. This is my gift to him, he didn't have to wait until he was a grown man to have permission to explore his creativity.


There's a huge gift in being able to explore a creative or artistic path (whether that's painting, singing, dancing, playing an instrument, or any other form of expression). And this post is already pretty long, so I'm not going to go into all those reasons here. But if you've been following along with me for any length of time, well, I've shared the benefits of art and creativity in other places, and I will continue to do so.


But you can see why it's something I'm so passionate about. I had to wait a long time to be able to be an artist. I had a lot of voices in my head telling me it wasn't practical. That it's a waste of time. But those voices couldn't be more wrong.


If your family has told you that a creative path is a waste of time, you need to be in touch. Because I plan on spending the rest of my life supporting and encouraging anyone who needs it, to pursue a creative life. So reach out. Call me. I got you.

 

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