When I was in the 5th grade, Mr. Sharp – my teacher – was trying to get me to understand the concept of shadow. It confused me. In my mind, shadow and reflection were reversed. I don’t know why, but that’s what happened in my brain. We were supposed to draw a picture of an object, a light source, and the associated shadow. I drew a willow tree (my favorite) with the sun in the upper right corner. Sadly, I drew the shadow falling in front of the tree to the right (reflection) rather than behind it to the left (shadow). I turned in what I thought was an awesome artistic rendering.
Mr. Sharp held up each picture in front of the class and commented on it, then hung it on the wall with a grade. When he got to my picture (and I’m not making this up), he said something about the ridiculousness of the mistake, and he tore my picture to shreds in front of the class. I was embarrassed and devastated. In an attempt to redeem myself and my grade, I drew another picture. This time I drew a turtle with the sun directly overhead and a shadow directly underneath. I turned it in and hoped I’d get a decent grade. Instead, Mr. Sharp put a large, red “F” on the picture and hung it at the front of the classroom. Again, I was destroyed. It became my firm belief that I had no artistic ability.
I failed my 7th grade art class – well, I got a D. I’d never had a D before and I decided I hated art. I avoided doing art, avoided drawing, painting, working with clay – whatever. I was convinced that art equalled torture. Now – it’s not as if I was ever going to be Monet or Gentileschi, but there is a certain satisfaction in being able to convey one’s ideas in a visual form. But not for me. I convinced myself that and sort of visual art was tantamount to evil. I developed other means of visual expression – such as needlework. I can crochet a baby sweater in a weekend. I can knit one in a week. I can knit on needles that are no more thick than big paper clips. I can crochet with thread used for sewing machines. But it isn’t the same thing. Deep down, I really wanted to draw.
When I was a sophomore in college, I took a class called “Creative Expression” – it was a Liberal Arts credit, and it sounded fun. It incorporated dance, drama, acting, sculpting, and creative problem solving into one full-credit class! During one class session, we were told to doodle while we listened to the lecture. Our assignment was then to take that doodle and transform it into a visual representation of some sort. I hadn’t drawn or doodled in nearly six years, and it was a scary thing to do. I didn’t like the drawing part, and I certainly didn’t like the part where I had to make that drawing into something visual. But I did it, and it was liberating! I began to doodle a lot. Doodling became something I was quite comfortable with, and I use it to sketch out stories all the time. These are not artistic drawings by any stretch of the imagination – but they are at least not akin to chicken scratch.
Recently, boundaries of my dislike of art were pushed once more. One of my girlfriends convinced a group of us to join in a “Groupon” excursion to go up to Park City and take an hour and a half lesson in water colors. “We can bring our own wine,” she said, and I figured that – if nothing else – I could enjoy enough wine to make the painting part not matter. We did a simple mosaic style of painting, and despite my sheer anxiety at the activity (I literally was shaking when I put on my painting apron), I wound up not only enjoying myself, but producing a fairly good-sized painting. Okay – it’s not going to hang on a wall anywhere, and I absolutely wouldn’t call it good, but it was a milestone of sorts for me. I painted. Mr. Sharp would be rolling in his grave to know he didn’t defeat me (I’m sure he would have liked the idea that he had – he was a nasty spirited human). And though more than one person I know will undoubtedly criticize the results of my efforts, I am awfully damned proud of the fact that I had the fortitude to pick up a brush and silence the critics in my head.
Often in writing, the internal critics take their stabs at us and try to tell us what we should and shouldn’t write. Many would-be writers cave in to those voices and allow their work to be guided by what other people (real or imagined) tell them to do. All art is an act of courage. Writing, painting, sculpting . . . whatever . . . requires an investment of the soul of the person producing it, and an iron will to do so according to the artist’s personal integrity and not the praise or criticism of others. Sure, making an ugly oil painting isn’t much, but it was a start for me. I don’t aspire to have my paintings hung in a gallery somewhere. What I did was to rid my head of one more phantom voice that told me “You can’t.” Pushing the limits of my own beliefs and abilities opens the door for further creative exploration. Six months ago – or even six weeks ago – oil painting was behind a door labeled “Do Not Enter.” Thanks to my girlfriends, it now lays behind a door labeled “Let’s Do That Again!”