I got hum­bled this week. Like, bring-me-to-my-knees-after-a-lot-of-frus­tra­tion-and-swear­ing hum­bled. As if that’s not bad enough, I have to con­fess it’s not the first time, and I know for sure it won’t be the last.

When it comes to being an artist, some mis­takes have to keep being made. That might be true of the human con­di­tion in gen­er­al, as well as life and its lessons, come to think of it. But I want to focus on the artis­tic process here.

Let the Painting Talk

The mis­take I refer to is know­ing when the hell to get out of the way and let the paint­ing say what it needs to, and how down­right scary that can be. Pol­lock might have said he had no fear (I doubt it, though, giv­en the life he led), but I can admit that quite hon­est­ly, when it comes to my art, fear enters as an unwel­come vis­i­tor all too often. And it always comes just when I think I’m about to hit my stride.

Dammit. You’d think I’d know by now how to pre­vent, or at least cir­cum­vent, that phe­nom­e­non.

But noooooo. I waltzed into the stu­dio, so hap­py with the pre­vi­ous paint­ing I cre­at­ed, know­ing, just KNOWING, I’d made a huge break­through, so eager to start a new one and dis­cov­er some­thing equal­ly as thrilling, that I couldn’t wait to put loaded palette knife to can­vas.

Easier Said Than Done

It was love­ly in the begin­ning, the way it always is. I moved my arm back and forth, watched how lights and darks inter­played, got that feel­ing of div­ing into the paint­ing, paid atten­tion to the emo­tions I was feel­ing and tried to con­vey them through col­or and tem­per­a­ture.

I was think­ing of a June day last year when I went to see the famous lupines in the White Moun­tains of New Hamp­shire (the Fran­co­nia Notch area, to be more spe­cif­ic). I didn’t want to depict the lupines real­is­ti­cal­ly; rather, I want­ed to con­vey the stir­rings of life I felt as I made my way for­ward in my brand-new iden­ti­ty of Wid­ow Now Dat­ing. (I was on an ear­ly date with the man I even­tu­al­ly fell in love with.) I was in an in-between place, a place of stir­ring hope but also of trep­i­da­tion (and some­times sheer ter­ror), a place I call The Mean Time.

What was I walk­ing into? Would this new rela­tion­ship bring hap­pi­ness or more grief? If it was hap­pi­ness, would it be too fleet­ing, or would I be able to rely on it for a while? So many ques­tions. So much uncer­tain­ty. And yet … a blind faith that my feet (and heart) insist­ed on fol­low­ing as they took nec­es­sary and shaky steps for­ward.

Which Story Wants to Be Told?

In my paint­ing, I want­ed to con­vey that ten­sion between the hope and the trep­i­da­tion. Hun­dreds of lupines dot­ted the land­scape, some straight as sol­diers, some going rogue, curv­ing, Qua­si­mo­to-like, either bent by their weight or heed­ing an insis­tent dri­ve to reach the sun, with no way to tell which was which. I was struck by that because I was a walk­ing metaphor for those forces myself.

The lupines man­aged some­how to be glo­ri­ous in their sub­tle­ty, under­stat­ed yet pow­er­ful against the back­drop of the majes­tic Whites. They did what they’ve done for who knows how many hun­dreds of years: spring forth and mul­ti­ply, then die qui­et­ly, all with­in a span of two months.

It had been a year and two months since my hus­band passed. I was still think­ing a lot about death then, and still feel­ing so much loss, but I was also begin­ning to under­stand and appre­ci­ate the spirit’s strong insis­tence on life and rebirth, no mat­ter how fleet­ing in the grand scope of things.

I didn’t think about these things so much as feel them when I paint­ed. I want­ed instead to lis­ten to the qui­et stir­ring inside, pay atten­tion to what it was try­ing to say.

What Happened

photo of the failed lupines painting

The first phase of the lupines paint­ing, when I real­ized I was telling the wrong sto­ry.

The tricky part about paint­ing lupines and moun­tains and spring, though, is that it’s so easy to suc­cumb to sweet­ness and light and for­get the ten­sion that makes things mean­ing­ful. And wouldn’t you know it? That’s exact­ly what began to hap­pen.

I was crest­fall­en. In my imag­i­na­tion, I was going to cre­ate a stir­ring, evoca­tive scene that would speak on so many lev­els about the mean­ing of life. (Ha! That’s where hubris will get you.) Instead, I looked at a slight­ly sac­cha­rine, deriv­a­tive, pas­toral scene that … God for­bid …  bor­dered on trite.

It hap­pened because I got scared. I hit the place in the paint­ing process that my good friend and men­tor Stan Moeller calls The Mid­dle Uglies, and I lost con­fi­dence. I got too attached to con­vey­ing the real scene instead of my feel­ings about it, which meant that my voice got lost, too. I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll put some light into it because the sky is too gray and needs to be worked on. Maybe if I loosen up and move my knife the way the grass moves, that will help.”

photo of the second failed phase of the lupines painting

I tried to beat The Mid­dle Uglies by adding light to the paint­ing. It didn’t help.

It didn’t.

I cre­at­ed a paint­ing that had too many things going on, and the eye wouldn’t know where to rest. I for­got about what the paint­ing want­ed to say; instead, the scared part of me took con­trol and made it try to say too much.

That’s where Pollock’s quote comes in. Vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty, too.

What I Learned

I know from expe­ri­ence that if I con­tin­ued to fight the paint­ing and force it to be some­thing it didn’t want to be, I’d cre­ate a mediocre piece I’d nev­er be hap­py with. I could have stayed safe and done what I know how to do already. But some­thing inside me is surg­ing with new growth yet again with my art, and it means tak­ing a risk the same way I took one on that June day by going on a date. It doesn’t mat­ter if it’s art or life in gen­er­al: tak­ing the risk is essen­tial if one wants to live ful­ly, glo­ri­ous­ly, to one’s poten­tial. So, I did what Pol­lock said he did: I made changes and destroyed the paint­ing (or, rather, cov­ered a big part of it up so it could have room to grow into its own).

photo of the third phase of the lupines painting, where I painted over half of the canvas

Paint­ing over more than half the can­vas changes the direc­tion. We’ll see what hap­pens next.

What Now?

As for the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty part, I agree with Brené Brown on the sub­ject. I know from expe­ri­ence that true strength lies in allow­ing one­self to be vul­ner­a­ble. So many peo­ple think artists are mys­te­ri­ous crea­tures who have a divine and direct con­nec­tion to the Cre­ative God and that paint­ings some­how burst forth from them in a light­ning rod of inspi­ra­tion.

If only! The truth is, it takes a lot of study, hard work, and con­sis­tent prac­tice. We artists swear a lot when it’s not going well. This usu­al­ly means we’re grow­ing and need to catch up with our­selves, but we don’t see it quite yet. We also burn failed paint­ings, or smash them. Or we hide them, face down in a pile or face away against a wall. No short­cuts exist. We show up; we paint; we take the risk. Some­times, we end up with a mess; some­times, we sur­prise our­selves.

This time, I end­ed up with a mess. This time, I’m show­ing it to you, which, frankly, scares me a bit. Why? Because you might think less of me and my work. I’m allow­ing you to see the truth behind the scenes. The mess is nec­es­sary. The artist’s life is not glam­orous.

But here’s anoth­er truth: the messi­ness does not mean one is less of a painter. It’s exact­ly the oppo­site. Mak­ing the mess and learn­ing from it means we’re on our way to the good stuff. If I hadn’t had the expe­ri­ence I did, I would not have writ­ten in such depth about it. I wouldn’t dis­cov­er the real sto­ry the paint­ing want­ed to tell.

So, thanks, Jack­son Pol­lock. I’ll show up again in the stu­dio tomor­row and see what hap­pens. I’ll lis­ten and get out of the way. Because if there’s one thing I know, the paint­ing real­ly does have a life of its own.

Stay tuned.