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May I confess something to you?
I’ve always wanted to be an artist.
I’ve wanted to be a gymnast, a ballerina, a writer, a painter–all arts that require years of practice and refinement.
In many ways, being an artist is the hardest profession you can choose. Your life depends completely on how people view you. Do they like the way you move? Do they resonate with the way you write? Do they feel something when they see your work?
Art relies on emotional connection.
And good art takes a very, very long time.
Last year, I painted for the first time. I’d taken mandatory art classes in elementary school and attended birthday parties where we painted pottery, but I’d never really painted. I’d never chosen consciously to make a piece of art.
So I walked outside to my car and drove the half mile to Wal-Mart. I had lived in New Orleans for only a few weeks at the time and I didn’t know my way around the store. So I walked nearly every aisle trying to find paints. I’d never before shopped for art supplies.
Finally, I asked someone who directed me to the back of the store. On an end cap, I saw an on sale sign with packages of canvas. Four 12×16 canvases for $10. I heard once that canvas was expensive, so this seemed like God’s way of encouraging my art.
I walked down the aisle to find paint. Rows and rows of colors and brands and types confused me. I didn’t know what type of paint you should use on canvas. I pulled out my phone and Googled what I was sure was the stupidest question any hopeful artist could ever ask. What paint do you use for canvas?
I paced back and forth waiting for my slow Sprint connection to give me an answer. I felt like placing the package of canvas back on the shelf and walking out of the store. I would buy eggs or something and pretend I came to the store with a practical purpose instead of walking out head down ashamed of my failed art. This wasn’t me. I was no artist. I am no painter.
I slid my finger across my iPhone screen and saw the word acrylic and I thought “great!” Because the small containers of acrylic paint cost only 54 cents. If nothing else, this would be the cheapest hobby I could find.
So I grabbed three containers: dark blue, black, and white.
I looked around for paint brushes and found a package of 15 for only $4. They looked good enough for my low caliber of talent, so I grabbed them. I awkwardly carried my loot to the front of the store, trying to balance everything on the canvas without dropping anything.
I knew exactly what I planned to paint on one canvas. The other three were blank reminders that I knew nothing about art.
I waited a few days before I opened the paint brushes. I waited for that feeling inside me to go away, that feeling that kept mocking me openly for thinking I could be an artist.
Finally, one night after work, I came home to an empty apartment, opened the blue paint and the paint brushes and sat the canvas upright on my bookshelf. Then I turned it sideways. Then upright again, trying to figure out where to start painting. I flipped switches on and off on lights to see how I could best light my canvas. Lighting seemed important for painters.
I turned on all the lights, left the canvas upright and looked down at my brush and my paint. I sighed.
I walked to my kitchen, grabbed a small ceramic plate that one might use as a saucer for coffee, and squirted my blue paint onto the plate. I had no idea if it would ever wash off.
I carefully dipped my paintbrush into the paint and ran it across the canvas leaving clumps of liquid that dripped down the canvas. I took a step back to examine my handiwork. I ran the paintbrush across the clumps and smoothed them out until my brush no longer spread color. I dipped it into the paint again.
I covered every inch of that canvas, and some inches of the wall that served as my easel. A wash cloth easily removed the wet paint and I breathed a little easier knowing that my mistakes could be washed away.
I waited an hour and painted on another coat. The next day I painted another coat. Then another. My dark blue paint did not need four coats, but I did. I needed to sink into the motions.
I found a ruler and a pencil and drew six straight lines across the canvas to become prison bars, because I knew exactly what would I planned to paint.
My boyfriend had a scrap of paper once ripped from a legal pad tacked on the wall of his apartment. In scribbled handwriting, it said this phrase:
Two men looked out from prison bars,
one saw mud,
the other saw stars.
I marveled at this quote. One saw despair, one saw beauty. Just like art. One feels nothing, one is overwhelmed with emotion.
I mixed the white and black into a grey and painted in between my penciled prison bars. I took a step back and watched them dry. No line paralleled another. My prison bars resembled a haphazard game of pick up sticks instead of an architecturally sound jail.
I grabbed a smaller paintbrush and began to paint the words of this quote on each terrible gray bar. My hand shook as I tried to write the words in my best cursive.
I painted small white stars across the dark blue sky for the prisoner who only saw the stars.
I think that might be what creating art is about. You don’t put in the hours of work and second guessing for the man who sees the mud. You create the art for the man who sees the stars.
[fruitful_sep] This post is an excerpt from my upcoming ebook, From Type A to Class C. This ebook will be available for free to all email subscribers to my blog.