Show Don’t Tell

Everyone needs a low stakes hobby. Lately, mine is painting. I’ve always only ever dabbled in the arts. When I was a little girl, one of my favorite ways to pass the time was playing “artist” with my sister. We’d pool our supplies and churn out piece after piece until we had a gallery-worthy collection. We usually trashed them before the day was out because the game was more about the process than the finished product. Mostly, I used markers and oil pastels to make abstract works like I imagined on the walls in art museums. I didn’t paint because I didn’t own paints. I didn’t set foot in an art museum until I took myself in college. My family wasn’t anti-art. My parents gave me supplies and enrolled me in classes. They are both creative, expressive people. My dad was a teacher by day but a musician at heart. He played the guitar like a man obsessed, in seemingly every spare moment. My mom loved to dance. However, other than an intricate sketch of the La’ie Hawai’i Temple by one of their old friends that hung in a place of honor in every home we lived, they weren’t much for the visual arts. Most of the pieces we had came from Deseret Book or the portrait studio at Sears. So, I muddled along, doodling in my notebooks, bringing home lumpy mugs, and taking pictures of clouds with a cheap point and shoot. I taught myself to paint with acrylics after my parents to busted me with weed and grounded me for the summer. I started decoupaging furniture around the same time. When I moved out, I obsessively colored and collaged while stoned. I didn’t keep a thing.

I quit making art when I quit getting high. Painting, poetry, writing songs, almost all of it fell by the wayside. It wasn’t a conscious choice. I just wasn’t inclined toward it. Or maybe I forgot how to access the more abstract parts of myself. Cleaning up kicked off years of sprinting toward the life I thought I wanted. Graduating from college with a double degree. Law school at a top ranked university. Prestigious job. Married by twenty-five. An updated apartment in the city that turned into a house in the suburbs. A baby by twenty-seven and plans for more. I didn’t have time for art. I was too busy making my life. I never stopped writing of course, but I hardly thought of myself as a writer. Somewhere along the way, I picked up the idea that becoming a lawyer, a wife, and a mom meant sacrificing any other identities I might once have had.

Time slowed back down when my daughter and I crawled out of the baby stage. Do you know how long a weekend is with a toddler? Together, we discovered that art projects were the most effective way to while away a Saturday afternoon. I started taking her to the Art Institute in the morning and when we got home I’d pull out a box of acrylics and let her go to town on canvases if we had them, plain printer paper if we didn’t. It would have been cheaper to use washable paints for kids but I didn’t know those existed. We ruined a lot of clothes. The navy sweatshirt I’m wearing as I write this is flecked in yellow all over the front and there’s a splotch of red on the sleeves that looks like ketchup, or blood. Our dining table is permanently discolored with streaks of shimmer copper and purple glitter. I should care but it’s gorgeous. Besides paints, we used crayons and markers and gel pens and colored pencils and stencils and stamps and construction paper and cardboard and magazines and scissors and tape and pipe cleaners and modeling clay and Shrinky-Dinks and watercolors. It was play in its purest form, for both of us. When my daughter was done with a project, I’d dutifully put away the supplies and not think about art again until the next time we went to the museum or happened upon a long stretch of time. I proudly displayed my daughter’s work on shelves and walls. I put mine in drawers. Most everything we made disappeared eventually. Chalk on the sidewalk, play-dough creations, dried flower bouquets, scribbled pictures on the back of restaurant menus–most of it wasn’t made to last and the things that might have (paintings, drawings, constructing paper crafts) there was too much of. I couldn’t possibly keep it all.

My relationship to art changed again in the pandemic. First, Robert gave me a set of watercolors. I’d seen them at a bespoke art supply store in Andersonville and practically drooled over the little lumps of pigment wrapped up in muslin cloth. They were too beautiful for words. Also, too expensive, and wholly impractical. I eagerly accepted the shop owner’s offer of a demonstration. I had to see how these paints–practically works of art themselves–worked. “Are you artists?” the shopkeeper asked as my daughter tested out pens and I took a pause from grazing my fingers over everything in the store to watch her work. The knocked me outside the flow of typical shopping banter. I didn’t know what to say. We, my daughter and I, weren’t artists like the shopkeeper was an artist, but I wanted us to be. Yes and no felt like equally dishonest answers, but the yes inside of me thrummed more loudly. “Well, we make art every day. So, I guess we’re artists.” When, six months later I unwrapped a set of paints from my husband for my birthday, complete with water brushes and a ceramic dish and thick, pulpy paper, I felt like I’d been waiting for them my whole life.

Shortly after my birthday, I ordered a copy of Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. I can’t remember what I was thinking when I decided to buy this book. I certainly was not trying to become a painter. I was doing a lot of writing at the time. I’d been blogging sporadically for over ten years, and hacking away at a memoir for what felt like the same length of time though in reality it was only months. My best guess is that I hoped that the book would unlock in me the discipline and consistency to become a real writer–that is, a writer whose words people want to read. The Artist’s Way is structured as a twelve-week course. You read a chapter a week, work through exercises, and respond to prompts in a journal. You start writing morning pages every day on waking. You take yourself on weekly artists’ dates. Sometimes the work was incredible exciting. I could feel my mind expanding and my creativity pulsing in the center of my chest. Other times it felt like homework. By the time I reached the end of the book, the words were pouring out of me. I was also painting and drawing and dancing and singing and playing guitar, often with my daughter, but equally as often on my own, after she went to bed or while she lingered over dinner or played with her dad. The biggest change was that I no longer had any qualms about calling myself an artist. I figured out that it didn’t matter if anyone read my words. It didn’t matter if I never finished my book. What makes me a writer is the fact that I write. What makes me an artist is the act of sitting down and making art. Art is process of trying again and again to transform my experiences and the world around me into something lasting that can be experienced my someone other than me. All I had to do to be an artist was to show up and lay claim.

A few months after finishing up the Artist’s Way the afterglow wore off and the well of words dried up. I was going through something. Often, struggle and pain are what I write about write about, but this struggle wasn’t generative. Often, writing helps me process difficult emotions, but this time I wasn’t finding any answers on the page. Trying to write was like chasing the monkeys around in my mind. It was painful to see my neuroses and unresolved issues all splayed out on the page day after day. There was no clearing out, only adding to the noise. And then there as this: I didn’t trust myself to say what was true. So I stopped writing and got to work on healing instead. I’ll write about what I mean by “healing”–what I was healing from and how I did it–at some point but I’m not a wellness influencer yet and this post is about art, so for now we’re going to leave it at that. My blogs, Instagram captions, my many Google docs stood silent. My works in progress, my beautiful drafts, refused to budge. This time, I didn’t stop calling myself a writer, or an artist. Like a lot of people battling through pandemic-induced burnout, this is was a year about accepting and respecting my limitations. Taking vacation doesn’t make me any less of a lawyer, just like being done having babies doesn’t make me any less of a mom. Even people with dream jobs take vacations, sabbaticals, breaks. Artists aren’t machines. Our gifts don’t exist for us to churn out content on demand. We have to make art, like everything else, in a sustainable way if we want to do it for the long haul.

The result of the healing work I’ve done this year, which is still very much in process, is that my mind is quieter. Meditation and therapy and exercise work wonders; so does an SSRI. In this quieter phase, the words are not spinning out of my brain at the pace they once did. Where writing was a compulsion, it’s now a choice. If writing was emergency medicine, now it’s play. In the space that remains is a primal urge to record the world in a new way. In my work, I want to see more of the world and less of me in it. I want to never forget the things I am lucky enough to have seen. The curve of the angels wing. The angle of the downtown buildings in a 4 PM winter sheen. The depth of the evergreen against the powder blue brick of the abandoned church on Oak Street. The stark raving beauty of a dog running free on an abandoned beach. Every type of fruit cut cleanly in half. The gas station sign I saw some fifteen years ago and never got out of my head.

A few weeks ago, I pulled my paints out and haven’t been able to stop. I’m watching tutorials on YouTube and Instagram. I’m keeping a list of things I want to paint. I’m daydreaming about what I could do with better brushes, what could happen if I kept this up for a year. I fall asleep thinking about lines on the page. When I finish a picture, I’m giddy like a kid and want to show it off. I need someone to frame my work or hang it on the fridge for me, though, because I can’t do it myself. I went on a painting bender after Thanksgiving and wanted to share my work on Instagram, but when I went to post something stopped me. Shame, I think. Only a moment before, my paintings were beloved masterpieces. I couldn’t believe how much better I’d gotten in a year. But when I thought of sharing them with anyone else, they seemed painfully amateur. Clicking on a hashtag filled my screen with stunning images and suddenly I felt disappointed and embarrassed that I put so much time and excitement into a hobby that yields only mediocre results. I had to tell myself that the finished paintings were not the point. The point was how much I enjoyed making them. But also, I really liked the finished paintings. I had to remind myself of that.

I closed Instagram that day, actually deleted the app off my phone altogether, but I keep revisiting the idea of sharing my art. I know there’s something of value here. It’s not the finished work. It’s the idea that a mom can have a hobby that’s not exercise or drinking wine. It’s the idea that a lawyer can have a hobby that doesn’t come with a networking benefit. It’s the idea that person can try something new and be bad at it. It’s the idea that showing up makes you better. It’s the idea a serious adult has time to play. It’s the idea that the things that moved you as a child never stop moving you. It’s the idea that you can bring things you love back into your life. It’s the idea that there are things out there that can light you up and get you out of bed in the morning that aren’t drugs and don’t depend on other people and you might not even know about them yet. It’s the idea that you can give yourself beautiful things. It’s the idea that you can make a beautiful life.

Maybe being an artist is not about the art you make or about the process. Maybe it’s a way of seeing and being in the world. Maybe art is about how we live. Maybe it’s about love. Maybe our hobbies are not so low stakes after all.

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