One of my greatest artistic idols is the web cartoonist The Oatmeal.
He’s witty. He’s bold. He’s profound. I read his work to laugh, but even more so, I read it to think.
Which is why I devoured his most recent interview with the Seattle Times. With the headline, Hardworking, ticked off, “driven by rage and anxiety”: The Oatmeal isn’t who you think he is, the article provides thoughtful insight into Matthew Inman’s (The Oatmeal) life as an artist.
What stood out to me the most was this paragraph:
“I enjoy things most when I suffer beforehand,’’ he says. “I like to suffer, suffer, suffer, and then you get to enjoy something.” It’s why he took up distance running — not just marathons or triathlons, but those absurdly punishing races that push people past the point of endurance into the darkest parts of their psyches.
This week, I finished my most challenging painting to date. It was a photo of my parents’ hobby farm property, shot from the back of the house on a misty morning. There was a low fog drifting around the back fields, so I grabbed the SLR and shot this from the back of the house, looking out on the barns. Those barns are no longer there; they were in danger of collapsing, so my parents elected to have them torn down instead of restoring them. Due to the value of barn wood in restoration and upcycling projects, we had no issues in having the wood dismantled and taken away, and I am even going to be getting a harvest table out of the wood, which will be handcrafted by a carpenter as a wedding gift for my partner and I. So, in a Something From Nothing kind of way, the barn itself will live on in, reincarnated as beloved furniture.
This is why I titled the piece “Relics” (2016, 22″ x 36″, oil on canvas). The Google definition of a relic is: “an object surviving from an earlier time, especially one of historical or sentimental interest.” The barns, by this definition, are relics, silent observers from a bygone era, when cows still roamed the fields and tractors zigzagged lazily across fields of hay.
Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? So idealistic, so nostalgic. Perhaps the knowledge that this was painted in a studio makes you think of it being peacefully and lovingly crafted. I’ll give you the image I had visualized back when I dreamed about having my own studio: picture an airy room, with the sunlight streaming in and quiet jazz playing from a radio in the corner. There’s a mug of tea sending steam swirls into the air as I paint calmly. If I had my way, there’d be a studio cat, napping in a basket.
I can’t even write anymore, because aside from the jazz (I’m partial to Big Band music), the rest is a load of tosh. And this freaking barn painting nearly sent me over the edge; not once, but multiple times.
My creativity is not a sassy lady in a toga à la Disney’s Hercules, or a loving friend who gently passes me ideas via mental notes.
No. My creativity is a raging torrent of fear, anxiety, mania, and insecurity. It is a beast, and it lives inside of me at all times. It forces me to fixate on minute details or mistakes that I have made, often obsessively, often late at night. It says I am not good enough, I don’t work hard enough, I’m not skilled enough. It keeps me from moving forward by creating unnecessary plateaus. It creates montages of all my inadequacies and displays it on repeat.
This barn. Took me six weeks. Six. Frigging. Weeks. It has nearly every single colour in the rainbow. The fence alone has over ten different colours in it. The barn has been painted over approximately five times, because each time, something just wasn’t “right” (Barn 3.0 was probably the best, but Barn 5.0 is pretty darn close). The Beast absolutely loved this piece because there was so much for it to attack.
Let’s go back to The Oatmeal and the concept of suffering.
Back in 2012 when I was in training for my Ironman 70.3, I spent well over ten hours a week running, cycling and swimming (which, by triathlon standards, is quite light). I used to cycle the 80 km between Toronto and Hamilton in a morning, and return on a GO Bus. On weekends, I’d take my bike out to Caledon or Muskoka, and cycle hills for 5+ hours. Cycling was my favourite, because it’s the closest I’ll ever get to being able to fly.
But there’s a bizarre strength that comes when you’re hurting. I’m currently reading Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild, and she nails it on page 95, “…hiking the PCT [Pacific Crest Trail] was hard in a different way. In a way that made the other hardest things the tiniest bit hard. It was strange but true.”
When you’re a creative, and you take up part-time residency in the land of make-believe, it’s sometimes a bit of a gauntlet run to get past the Beast prowling the conduit between worlds. Pretty much every artist I know has a method to cope, but mine is to do something even scarier and harder. Then, in comparison, making a whoopsie while painting doesn’t seem so bad.
I may not be able to slay the Beast, because it’s a part of who I am…but I can outrun it.
So here’s what all of this is leading towards: in the summer of 2013, my beloved Cervélo triathlon bike was stolen. I haven’t done long-distance cycling since. I’ve decided that I’m going to try and get a nice bike on sale at the end of this season, and get back into the only thing scarier than art: triathlon.
Doing the Ironman 70.3 opened the door to incredible transformation in my life. When you can drag your body across 70.3 miles (113.1km) of water, metal and pavement, you feel a deep sense of power. If I can swim 2km, cycle 90km, and run 21km, I can do anything. It’s what gave me the push I needed to make tremendous, positive life changes, leading me from Toronto to North Bay.
I don’t know what distance of triathlon I’ll feel ready to tackle next year. But all I know is that I’m ready to fly again. From Toronto to Niagara Falls, all over Muskoka, I’m ready to connect my feet to the pedals and just go as far as I conceivably can. Sometimes distance training hurts, but that’s almost the point.
Beast/rat/artistic ego…you’re in for a drubbing. Or at the very least, I’m going to take you and turn you into a bird.
Two Studio announcements:
First, I’m hoping to make the space as close to zero waste and plastic free that I can. That means weening out the plastic bottles being offered during Paint Nights. But don’t worry, I’ll keep you hydrated: I’m going to get one of those neat, oversized mason jar water dispensers along with glasses to use. Just don’t put your paintbrush in (it’ll happen, guaranteed).
Second, if you want to receive advanced notice of classes being offered in October, please write to me via the contact me page. I can’t put my email directly here because then I’ll receive spam mail from robots, but the form is easy to use.