Long, long ago in a life I can hardly remember, I worked in the fashion industry. Designer, Fashion Buyer and Visual Merchandiser were all badges I once proudly wore. When someone asked me what I did, I was very happy be able to tell them something that seemed cool, creative and interesting. (Actually back in those days, no one knew what a Visual Merchandiser was.) I was bored, frustrated and unstimulated in these jobs, but I felt compensated by the “cool” factor. I thought that creative sounding careers were just that – careers that sound creative. I didn’t know anyone who was actually satisfied in their creative career. I was creatively numb, but I felt safe and accepted. My concept for the spring store layout and window display was approved by my boss before it was rolled out to 100 stores. My men’s knitwear range was discussed and tweaked and fine tuned by a team of people who knew their stuff before 1000s of units were shipped from faraway lands and distributed around the country. I confidently showed the product of my labour, it fit the brief, and everyone smiled. I’m not saying that the rag trade is all easy, but at that time for me, I was in a comfort zone with padded walls. I couldn’t lose.
These days I’ve swapped the safety, security and straight-jacket of those jobs, for the Tarzan swing of independent art (let’s be real – I swapped it for full-time motherhood and I wedge art into the spaces). I don’t have a senior colleague to run things past before I make a big move, there is no team to collaborate with on the next collection, no manual to consult over how things should be done.
There are a million different ways to work as an artist. My way right now is as a one-girl-band. I leap from assured self-confidence, sometimes swinging all the way across to trembling fear, often swaying somewhere in the middle known as vulnerability.
We hear from all corners lately that vulnerability is powerful, important, and the key to human connection. Brene Brown’s Ted Talk articulates this beautifully and if you haven’t heard it I highly recommend you do. My paintings are not finished until I am supremely happy with them, and once I’ve reach that point it I don’t really mind what anyone else’s reaction to them is because I’ve already spent hours and hours listening to my own inner critic and cheer squad. I’ve already heard it all, good and bad. That process is my work, and I love it.
One of my favourite quotes is from American artist Georgia O’Keefe who said in regards to her work:
“I have already settled it for myself so flattery and criticism go down the same drain and I am quite free”.
I really relate to this now, but years ago....not so much.
I used to be very reluctant to show my work to anyone in case they didn’t like it. I knew they wouldn’t say so, but I’d “just know” they didn’t like it and that would be awful. I was so reluctant that I would hide pieces when people came over. If no one thought badly of my work then there was still a chance that I was a talented artist with a bright future right? I know it sounds ridiculous now, and I a teeny bit embarrassed writing it here (vulnerability right?). In reality, my efforts to avoid certain judgement, shame, disappointment and embarrassment, were also ensuring I never experienced the joy, satisfaction, sense of accomplishment, and deep pleasure of embracing the truth of who I am and what I do. In avoiding the downsides, I was ripping myself off of the upsides and not just in my art, but in everything. The risk of showing who I truly was, was so great to me then, because if I failed at being me, then what else was there?
Clearly, the risk of not showing up as myself was so much greater.
I don’t expect everyone to rave about my work, nor to even mildly like it. When I exhibit new paintings, I’ve already had the tussle for hours on end in creating it, and enjoyed every minute of the tussle because it’s me. The idea was me, the painting is me, the imperfections are me. It’s my expression of who I was and what I felt during those hours. Each time I exhibit a painting, or snap a page of my sketchbook for Instagram, or spill my guts in a blog I'm reminded that now I get to be me. I’m not a fashion puppet anymore (no offense). There a little celebration going on inside every time, and it has nothing to do with how many “likes” I got. This is me being completely me, and the more me I am, the better I feel, the better I paint, the better I write, parent, connect, love. I feel vulnerable for sure, and occasionally it’s excruciating but it doesn't stop me from allowing people to see me, not anymore.
The fact is, we all spend our lives swinging on the rope of vulnerability. Being open to possibility means open to every possibility and if you are not willing to be vulnerable to the feelings you don’t want (fear, shame, embarrassment, disappointment) then you also won’t be there for the elation, excitement, the bliss. The pendulum (and the Tarzan swing) swings both left and right, or not at all.
I once lamented that I 'd never be able to paint or draw like the artists I admired. But I've realised that they also can't paint or draw like me. That's the whole point! We don't expect to be "as good as" someone else, just as good as we can be every time we apply ourselves to the practise.
I don’t expect to ever make a painting that will be loved and celebrated by all; in fact I don’t think anyone ever has.