A few weeks ago I wrote about realizing and embracing my tortoise nature. It was an important shift because it’s a step towards accepting myself for who I am, and accepting my way of making art for what it is. I think I was able to make this shift by changing the way I looked at art making.
When I was young and started to get positive feedback about my art, I began to see art as a way to prove myself. “Look! This drawing is pretty good! Finally, this is something I’m good at! I am good!”
I was using art to prove my worth as a person.
But as I grew older, I realized that’s not what art is about. And as I grew much older, I realized you can never prove your worth if you don’t believe in it yourself.
And ever since that realization began to formulate (putting it into action is a whole other ordeal), I’ve been thinking and writing about what art is about. Because if it’s not about proving yourself… then what is it about? And that search has slowly developed into an entire creative philosophy that I’m constantly exploring and expanding. It’s what inspires these essays, informs my courses, and guides my artwork. It’s what art is, to me.
Art is seeing our inner world.
First and foremost, I’ve realized that art is a form of communication. Sometimes we use art as a way to communicate abstract, complex thoughts and emotions to others when nothing else can do the job.
But for me, the more important form of communication happens first inside me. I use my art as a way to let my inner self—the subconscious or spirit or soul or whatever you want to call it—speak. Art is a way to take my confusing inner world, and resurface it in the physical world.
Because I’ve learned that I have all these blobbies and worries and thoughts inside me, and if I don’t recognize them, listen to them, and do something with them, they just keep piling up, gunking up my mind.
“And there is the thing that one does, the needle one plies, the work, and within that work a chance to take thoughts that are hot and formless and to place them slowly and with meticulous effort into some shapely heat-retaining form…” –Mary Oliver, poet
Art is making the formless real.
Art is about taking something ambiguous and invisible and making it solid and real. It’s about taking all those inner thoughts and beliefs and feelings and passions and worries and sculpting them into something to be seen. To be seen by others perhaps, but most importantly to be seen ourselves.
“…board by board and stone by stone, like a house, a true life built, and all because I was steadfast about one or two things: loving foxes, and poems, the blank piece of paper, and my own energy… And that I did not give to anyone the responsibility for my life. It is mine. I made it.” –Mary Oliver, poet
Art is a way to embrace the inner self deep inside of me, and use it to create a life I love, instead of following the life other’s have prescribed. The blank page, my own energy, and a steadfast nature is all it takes to look inside, become empowered, and step over the edge.
Art is forging our own path.
And what lies beyond that edge? What lies beyond the moment we give up trying to win other people’s games, and become attuned to our true nature? What lies beyond the certainty and stability and knowingness of following someone else’s path? What happens when we forge our own unique path? What happens when we make our own art in our own way?
That is where the extraordinary is found.
“No one yet has made a list of places where the extraordinary may happen and where it may not… It likes the out-of-doors. It likes the concentrating mind. It likes solitude. It is more likely to stick to the risk-taker than the ticket-taker… Its concern is the edge, and the making of a form out of the formlessness that is beyond the edge.” –Mary Oliver, poet
Art is practicing patience.
For us to get to that edge, and for us to get to the moment where we can mold our inner thoughts into a shape, see it and learn from it—all this takes an enormous amount of patience. And in our world of “hustle harder”, it’s hard to cultivate that patience.
We want success now, we want expertise now, we want to be masters now. But if we always approach art making with that impatience, we’ll either always be unhappy with our work, or more likely, we’ll quit.
“The most regretful people on earth are those who felt the call to creative work, who felt their own creative power restive and uprising, and gave to it neither power nor time.” –Mary Oliver, poet
We have to give our creativity the power to speak and the time to do so. We have to put in the effort and hard work, but we also have to allow it time to develop.
Art making is a winding road with no direct path from beginning to end. It’s a process of just wandering around blindly, bumping in to things, learning a little bit more which each bonk of the head, and progressing a little bit more with each tiny step.
Art is living.
I don’t believe we’re here on Earth to be hares racing through life. I believe we’re here to live. And not to just blindly live day to day, but to see the life we’re living, to see what lives inside us and around us. I believe we’re here to see it all, try to understand it, and share it with the world.
“Instructions for living a life.
Tell about it.”
― Mary Oliver, poet
Because in the end, we’re not making art to simply fill time and make life go by quicker. We’re making art to see and experience life as it goes by. To see it, think about it, form it into a shape, and share it with the world. I’m here to pay attention and, mark by mark, make my art.
I no longer make art to prove my worth to others.
I make art to show myself the worth that was in me all along.
I don’t make art to prove my life exists, but instead to see and save the life I’ve got.
Thanks for reading this week’s essay. Let me know what you think by commenting on the website or replying to this email. See ya next week!