Creative Philosophy

The Barn and the Beast

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.

Credit, The Oatmeal, from the comic "Making Things"

Credit, The Oatmeal, from the comic “Making Things”

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 isthe 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.

More on this later.


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.

Relics Compressed

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.

Hercules

It would be so awesome if my creativity was like this…

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.

la_ca_1217_the_hobbit

This is unfortunately the preferred shape of my artsy-ness.

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.

Bob Ross 2


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.

How Bad Do You Want It? Attempting to Go Pro

One of my favourite motivational videos of all time asks, how bad do you want it? Accompanied by a spoken word sermon by Eric Thomas (AKA the Hip Hop Preacher), the footage showing Giavanni Ruffin training in the NFL off-season gives insight into the pain, suffering, and overpowering desire to succeed that professional athletes must bear.

I watch this whenever I need a boost for my motivation, because this desire to become proficient in any field comes with a similar level of both sacrifice and hunger for success. It doesn’t matter if you’re an athlete, a contractor, or a creative; the struggle is real.

I have this crazy dream, that one day I’ll be a professional artist and arts educator. In this dream, I’m able to travel all over the world with my camera – shooting landscapes, people, and wild animals – and bringing the world back into my studio to translate it into a painting. In this dream, when I’m not traveling, I’ll be teaching, working with local groups and schools, helping students find that same sense of satisfaction and empowerment that I feel whenever I realize that my painting is actually going well. Bob Ross

This month, I actually took the leap to make this dream a reality. I found a space, rented it, and spent the past few weeks painting and preparing so that it feels like a professional art studio. When I walk into my studio, it feels calm, serene, and so beautiful.

Despite this, on the first day that I was going to go in to work on a painting, I was gripped with anxiety and fear. What if I had put in all this effort to create a studio space, only to realize that I’m actually a terrible painter? Had I overestimated my abilities? With the acquisition of a studio, failure was no longer an abstract concept; it was very real, and very possible. Until I had taken the leap to pay for my own space, there was no real risk to my art practice if I didn’t sell any paintings or book any commissions. But now, if I don’t keep income steadily streaming through the door, I will lose my studio.

So that morning, I pushed against the desire to stay at home and stew over my worries and cycled to the studio. There are few things in the world that I cannot solve after a bike ride, although some problems require longer distances than others. As a grounding method, I highly recommend it.

Upon arriving, I sat in front of my easel, and tried to calm myself. I can’t screw this up, I can’t be bad, I can’t have put all this effort into perfecting the space only to be terrible…

Athletes train their bodies so that when push comes to shove, instinct takes over, and their muscles fire on their own. Artists can do the same, and this is precisely what happened. A little voice, which sounded suspiciously like Olaf Schneider’s, started to take over and tell me what to do.

You’re wasting time. Time is commission money. Stop fussing and start mixing your colours. Take the time; get them right. Hm, that’s too purple, lots of chroma in there. You need to tone it down, add a little burnt sienna. Closer. Good. Keep your brush clean. 

I let autopilot completely take over. To be honest, I don’t remember a lot of what happened over those two hours. Part of that was due to the fact that I was listening to Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers on audio book (more on this later), but I zoned out and painted in a state of flow, guided by instinct and training. And my god, it felt good. Rather than worrying, I switched the anxiety-ridden part of my brain off and simply worked for two hours. I gave myself permission to enjoy the process.

Malcolm Gladwell asserts that in order for anyone to find true mastery in their chosen field, they must put in 10,000 hours of conscientious, good practice. However, most people are unwilling to devote that much of their lives to study, as 10,000 hours broken down works out to be 20 hours a week over the course of a decade. I myself am perhaps around the 500 hour mark. But for comparison’s sake, I want to show you two paintings, separated by 14 months. The first was painted using dollar store paints, and the second was a commissioned piece using Golden acrylics.

Pink Asiatic Lilies (2014) - 16" x 20", acrylic on canvas

Pink Asiatic Lilies (2014) – 16″ x 20″, acrylic on canvas

Morning Meditations (2015) - 18" x 24", acrylic on canvas

Morning Meditations (2015) – 18″ x 24″, acrylic on canvas

Anyone with eyeballs can see the level of improvement. But it’s not just the hours that I spend in front of the easel. It’s also the time I invest training with professionals (Arlie Hoffman and Olaf), while positioning myself so that opportunity can be seized. This is critical to Gladwell’s theories of success; talent and genius are not enough, decisive action and self-positioning are critical to reaching peak potential. Even so, innate ability isn’t necessary to attain success; even someone of ordinary ability can push themselves to reach elevated status in their vocation through hard work, practice, and a willingness to learn. I find this completely reassuring. It’s so easy to look at professional artists and credit their success to their talent, which makes their work appear effortless. But talent is random, part of the genetic lottery we all play while in utero, while the hard work and dedication that leads to mastery is not.

At the end of the day, it all boils down to the question, how bad do you want it? Badly enough that you’re willing to train, slog through the tough projects, put in the time, face the prospect of failure, and endure the critics?

My answer to that question: yes. To achieve mastery in visual art is a dream, one I’m willing to make sacrifices for.

500 hours down, 9,500 left to go. I can’t wait to see where I am in a year. 


Are you working towards achieving mastery in your field? I’d love to hear your thoughts and stories. 

Discipline = Happiness?

When I was training in Toronto with Olaf Schneider, the first thing I noticed was how disciplined he was. Every day, without fail, Olaf takes a break from the canvas to go work out for an hour. He credits it with keeping his energy and focus levels high. After spending the week in his studio and accompanying him on these exercise expeditions, I would completely agree. I’d usually be soaked with sweat, and mentally complaining the entire time, but the endorphins and subsequent focus was worth the exertion.

Over the past three years, I have lost a fair amount of the discipline that I’d developed while living and working in Toronto. In the city, I worked a 9-5pm job, trained for a Half Ironman on the side, and maintained an anonymous personal finance blog that had started to gain some serious traction. I lost a minimum of an hour per day just to commuting, and yet somehow managed to squeeze everything in.

All of that changed when I went backpacking from April to July, 2013. For four months, I went wherever I wanted, stayed as long as I felt, and went through the slow and organic process of self-discovery through late nights, early mornings, and the cliché walks on the beach. There was no need for discipline. Instead, I just wandered.

Before: when I rocked a disciplined lifestyle to achieve my dream of completing a 70.3 Ironman

Before: when I rocked a disciplined lifestyle to achieve my dream of completing a 70.3 Ironman

My time as a hopeless wanderer in Southeast Asia; discipline, what discipline?!

My time as a hopeless wanderer in Southeast Asia; discipline, what discipline?! I just want to eat, sleep, and explore.

Going back to school in North Bay after feeling the full weight of adulthood in the big city was exciting. Depending on my Bachelor of Education class schedule, I could sleep in, or simply do a few hours of school and head home to watch Game of Thrones. Of course, there were the 12 weeks I spent as a student teacher in Toronto, where I’d be out the door by 7am to get my hour-long commute underway, but when I returned to North Bay I’d relax into being a Lululemon-wearing, Tim’s-drinking student. I got my exercise by exploring nearby trails, but rarely visited the gym.

It got worse when I started my Master of Education. Despite being in the same city as my university, the entirety of my classes were online. I could’ve done my entire degree in my pyjamas and no one would’ve been the wiser. I allowed this to torpedo the last remaining dregs of my discipline; sure, I painted, but sometimes it was out of loneliness and boredom. I often felt unproductive and housebound, yet lacked the motivation to do anything about it.

Fast forward to now. I’m busier than I’ve been in a very long time. I am working both full and part time, and am being trained as a volunteer for the local sexual assault crisis centre. I’m in the final stages of preparing my studio space for use and teaching, and I’m healthier than I was when I was doing endurance sports, thanks to an improvement of diet and a renewed commitment to the gym and training. And even though I’m running around like a madwoman, I’m happy. 

That’s right. I’m not chasing it. It’s not some weird, elusive state of being that will only be achieved when I obtain X material good, or have the Y experience, or Z happens in my career.

I’m happy.

Sure, I have challenges in my work, and there are many days when I come home exhausted, cranky, and irritable. But I’m at peace with being a supply teacher for next year. I like the flexibility it offers and the opportunities I can create for myself when I’m not working. I’m excited about the possibilities that will evolve out of my new studio space. I’m optimistic about building a sustainable career as an artist. I delight in being able to volunteer and contribute to my community and its people. I like my apartment. I love my fiancé.

It’s not mindset alone. I’ve noticed that on the days that I drag myself out of bed early to hit the gym before spending 11 hours between my full time teaching job and part time piano teaching job, I have a higher degree of energy. If I was disciplined enough the night before, I’ll have my healthy lunch packed and ready to go. Between ensuring I’m eating healthy, exercising, sleeping enough, and mapping out everything I need in advance, I can essentially run on autopilot while also feeling like a boss for being able to accomplish so much in a day.

I feel happiest and the most satisfied when I’m accomplishing challenging tasks. I love the feeling of finishing a painting, or completing a race, or teaching a lesson that was out of my comfort zone. Basically, I like to spend as much time as possible fulfilling the upper echelons of both Bloom’s Taxonomy and Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.

Maslows_Hierarchy_of_Needs

Funnily enough, before I got into the habit of being more disciplined, the bottom end of these pyramids completely disinterested me. Cooking for myself? Boring. Cleaning? Bah, I’ve got more important things to do. Even my friendships would tend to suffer; many of my friends can attest to my vanishing act that occurs whenever I get busy on projects. Now you see me, now you don’t.

Bloomtaxonomy I’m happy to say that I’m getting better at taking care of my basic needs. From a mechanical perspective, it simply makes sense to take care of the machine that’s carting your brain from place to place. But it isn’t easy to set aside time for basic body and relationship maintenance when there are other commitments constantly tapping your shoulder and demanding your attention. Who has time for healthy eating when you’re hauling butt to get from A to B? Just grab some take-out and mow down as quick as you can.

My housekeeping also isn’t nearly as strong as it could be; I frequently get frustrated by my less-than-sparkling home after a long day, but I often collapse into the couch and watch reruns of Buffy the Vampire Slayer instead of fixing the problem. Never mind that an extra 10 minutes of tidying would make a world of difference on my mood when I woke up. Once I’m even more settled into my routines I’ll be working in designated housekeeping time. Being in a tidy home makes me happy. It’s worth investing the time in.

My commitments forced discipline back into a central role in my life, but my god, it’s been wonderful. I’m actively working on so many dreams at once; my dreams of having my own studio, my dream of being a teacher, my dream of being so fit that I could reasonably expect to join the cast of Buffy (nerd alert, but come on, who wouldn’t want to be a vampire slayer?!). If that means getting up early, extra meal planning, more trips to the gym, and ignoring that needling voice that whispers, wouldn’t it be more fun to just veg and watch Netflix? so be it. I have the exact same amount of hours in my day as so many of my heroes who are out there living the dream.

With discipline, I’ll keep living my dreams too.

Theme of 2016: Live Your Values, Part One

Yowza. It’s been a long time since I sat down to write for this blog.

The ultimate goal of this blog is to document and explore creativity, whether it’s sharing my own creative ebbs and flows and utilizing the blog as a reflection and growth tool, or interviewing another creative person who is making a go of their craft.

Due to an insanely busy January I’ve been unable to write either. Although the next few months are set to be pretty busy, I’m still hoping to make time to reflect on my artistic and creative practices via this blog while sharing stories of artists and creative movers and shakers. It’s a pleasant excuse to do some non-academic writing, and to unwind my thoughts from the tight little tangle of complex, and at times pompous language that forms my thesis.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about how I want my 2016 to look; in addition to graduating from my Master of Education program, I’m hoping to make this an amazing year for my art business, and hopefully earn enough to take a sizeable chunk out of my student loans so that my sweetheart and I can look at buying a home. But more importantly, I want to make this year matter; not just in terms of ticking off some goal boxes, but also in terms of making some important adjustments that bring me to be more in line with my values.

Live Your Values

Why Living Your Values Matters

When I was working on my recent painting, Sarah’s Sunset, I listened to the audio book of The Compound Effect by Darren Hardy. The book was recommended by the blog Un-Fancy, which is one of my favourite blogs of all time. Darren Hardy is the publisher of SUCCESS magazine, and has made his living both studying successful people and applying the principles of success in his own life. One thing that successful people have in common? They live their values.

When I sat down to plan out my 2016 and all the projects I want to take on, as well as all the life adjustments and changes that I’d like to make, I thought about ways I could alter my habits to be in better alignment with what I believe. Creating change is a work in progress; regardless of whether I’m tinkering with a painting or making major shifts in my behavioural patterns, there’s always something to tweak. Here are some of the goals I’ve set for the year to come.

Life Principle One: Quality over Quantity, aka Live More with Less

love this concept. I have read countless books on the subject. Now, I just have to live it.

Living in a society where our collective livelihoods are dependent on capitalism and consumerism, it’s rare to ever feel enough. There’s always something missing, a product that can fill the gap in your living room, your driveway, or in your beauty routine, that will somehow bring happiness. Obsessed with attaining peak levels of whatever, it’s unusual to hear someone say, I have enough. I am enough. I have enough things. I am healthy enough. There is abundance in my life already, I don’t need more.

Since September, I’ve been working diligently to eliminate the clutter from my life and replace multiple items that I sort of like with one item that I really love. Rather than feeling dissatisfied with many items, I sought to become very satisfied with fewer objects.

It started with my closet; I went on a purge and got rid of a huge portion of my clothes. I’m slowly replacing them with staples that fall into the guidelines of a capsule wardrobe, or a French wardrobe. The idea is that you have a small amount of clothes, but they are all relatively neutral, match with everything, and fit well, taking all the stress out of deciding what to wear every morning while guaranteeing an elegant, polished look. From a mathematical perspective, one item that looks fabulous > five items that are too loose/tight/see-through/whatever. See an example below, taken from Un-Fancy:

Photo Credit: Un-Fancy

Photo Credit: Un-Fancy

Last year, I went in an entirely different direction. I thought that I would try to live in alignment with my belief that we as a society place too much of an emphasis on physical appearance. I believed that this would make me a better person; after all, I was transcending our image-obsessed culture, and forcing people to look past my appearance to see my positive qualities. I allowed my highlights to grow out and my grey hairs to grow in. I didn’t put on makeup. I wore old t-shirts with silly messages on them, sometimes at the same time as my pouffy orange cotton pants that I picked up while backpacking in Indonesia.

No one took me seriously. And really, can you blame them?

My new philosophy is dress how you want to be treated, and less is more. Truth be told, I’m not that great when it comes to fashion, so turning to a capsule/French wardrobe just makes sense. In addition to the above link to Un-Fancy, I strongly suggested checking out The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo, and taking a look at Pinterest’s results for “capsule wardrobe.”

Of course, this doesn’t only apply to clothing.

This applies to pretty much everything, which is why I consider it to be a core value. Fewer friends, but richer relationships. Fewer objects cluttering up my home, but each one has a purpose or brings me joy. Fewer projects, but each one is more meaningful and receives my full attention.

This week, I sold a bicycle rack that mounts on the back of a sedan vehicle. Four years ago, I bought it for $300. I haven’t owned a vehicle for three years, let alone a racing bike that I’d want to transport with it. Never mind that it no longer served any function whatsoever; I had paid good money for it, and therefore I felt that I had to keep it. Until I realized, hey, I’m being ridiculous. I sold it for $75, a fraction of what I’d paid, but put the money I received into a jar to go towards a new watch. Rather than having something useless take up space in my closet, I now have the means, in cash, to buy something I’ll love.

I took the same principle and applied it to my decor. I moved into my current abode 7 months ago, but the walls are still mostly empty. Rather than cluttering them up with posters and knickknacks, I’m taking the time to select pieces for my space that are in harmony with my vision. It’s a slow process, but I’m in no rush. I’d rather have a proverbial blank canvas primed and ready to go for when inspiration strikes than allow something mediocre to serve as a placeholder for the extraordinary.

This goal has everything to do with art

In 2015, I fell into being an artist. It didn’t happen on purpose; up until January 2015, I had simply painted for the joy of it. Suddenly, I found myself negotiating commissions and getting paid for my work. With more paintings equalling greater income, it seemed natural to want to squeeze more work into my schedule. Before I knew it, I wasn’t doing art for fun anymore. Although my projects were each uniquely enjoyable to work on, I no longer had time to create for myself, or to experiment, or to have a margin of error.

So, when I set up my schedule for 2016, I kept that in the forefront of my mind: quality over quantity.

I could realistically squeeze in another commission or two this year, and work solidly until Christmas. But to what end? My walls are still empty, and I feel that they are nudging me now to fill them with new work. And so long as I’m unable to experiment, play, and dabble in other media, I face a sincere risk of stagnation.

As an artist, I crave growth. But if my practice becomes an assembly line, then I may as well give up and go get a desk monkey job. Heaven knows I’d likely be making more money as an office worker, so as long as I’m dedicating myself to art, I may as well be an artist in the sense that each piece requires mastery, patience, and vision.

I gave myself permission to take a break from art, and to include time in my schedule to work on non-commissioned pieces for my own enjoyment. I’m training for a week in Mississauga in oils, which will open up whole new possibilities for work. But most importantly, I’m allowing myself to focus on my thesis, to get it out of the way, rather than splitting my focus between school and art. Right now, school comes first. When it’s done, art will take over. Each discipline will be the better for it in the long run, and the quality of each piece will ultimately be higher.

Which is in alignment with my value of quality over quantity.

Which fits the very definition of success; growth, quality, satisfaction, and joy.

Which means happiness.

Which means a life well lived, the best any of us can hope for.


I have a few other core values or life principles that I want to develop this year…I’m excited to share them in subsequent posts. 

And if you haven’t already, you should definitely check out The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. 

Putting Yourself Out There: Sometimes, It Sucks

One of the most challenging parts about being creative, artistic, or innovative is the vulnerability aspect, a.k.a. putting your work on display for the world to judge, weigh, and critique.

In fact, I’m going to be bold enough to lay out the plot line that I think characterizes anyone who has taken a stab at creative entrepreneurship and/or self-publicity:

1. You perform some sort of creative work, and post it on social media. You receive messages of support, “wow, this is so amazing! You should do this professionally!”

2. The what if bug plants itself in your brain…what if I could do this professionally? What if I’m actually good enough to make a go of this?

3. You begin the vicious cycle of narcissism and self-doubt.

4. Someone officially hires you to do creative work. That pushes you to set something up; a website, a Facebook page, a Twitter account. You begin publishing your work, convinced it will soon lead to fame and fortune.

5. One month later. You’re not famous. Your friends smile when they see you, and when they ask how your creative endeavour is going. You smile back and say, “it’s going great!” In reality, it isn’t enough to support you financially. BUT it is stressful enough that you’re starting to feel tired at your full time job.  

6. You get your first troll comment. “LOLZ ur so stupid this sux.” It’s poorly spelled enough that you know it isn’t personal, but it still ruins your day. 

7. Something wonderful happens. You take a big commission, or are booked to photograph a huge event. You sell an article. Someone you really admire compliments your work. It’s enough to temporarily silence the self-doubt. 

8. Repeat steps 2 through 7 for the rest of your life. 

So while many of us are doomed to repeat a cycle of emotional highs and lows, successes and failures, one of the most difficult parts is that, as artists, we usually do so in the public eye. J.K. Rowling’s follow-up to Harry Potter, The Casual Vacancy, received lukewarm reviews. Rolling Stone panned Led Zeppelin’s debut album, calling it “unimaginative.”

As much as we may create for the internal satisfaction, it’s the external validation that pays the bills. 

My personal experience as a working creative follows this pattern to the letter. I had posted a few of my paintings online, including the one below.

"Turner - Golden Phoenix Rooster" (2014) - 30" x 40", Acrylic on Canvas

“Turner – Golden Phoenix Rooster” (2014) – 30″ x 40″, Acrylic on Canvas. Artist: Marianne Vander Dussen

A month later, a former professor who had seen the art contacted me with an offer to commission me. He wanted to have his home represented in an acrylic painting, to present to his wife for her birthday. Woo hoo! I thought, this is how it happens! I’ll be a working artist before I know it!

I poured my heart and soul into making it the best painting that I could. I stared at the reference photograph that I’d taken, sometimes for hours, trying to tease out the subtleties. Eventually, I finished it and publicized it. The outpouring of support was incredible. I secured several additional commissions. I made a Facebook page. I felt on top of the world.

"Tilden Lake" (2015) - 18" x 24", Acrylic on Canvas. Artist: Marianne Vander Dussen

“Tilden Lake” (2015) – 18″ x 24″, Acrylic on Canvas. Artist: Marianne Vander Dussen

Except something wasn’t right. I didn’t feel energized anymore, I just felt tired. Meanwhile, I had (and still have) other life commitments to honour; I’m currently completing a Master’s degree, and I’m on the supply list for my local school board. I began to watch other successful artists with envy…they were so talented, I thought, they have thousands of loyal followers, and here I was with my 100 or so Facebook likes, thinking that I was all that. I started to take critical comments to heart. I felt embarrassed that my social media had failed to attract more followers.

This is why sometimes, it sucks to put yourself out there. Whether you’re posting a clip from your latest acting reel, or an original poem, or a YouTube video of your latest song cover, you’re vulnerable. You expose yourself to negative attention, or lack of attention altogether, which can sometimes be worse. Creatives peel back layers of themselves to expose their core beliefs, emotions, and hopes…it’s easy to feel crushed if even just one naysayer chooses to target your work.

"Storm Hunter" (2015) - 14" x 18", Acrylic on Canvas. Artist: Marianne Vander Dussen

“Storm Hunter” (2015) – 14″ x 18″, Acrylic on Canvas. Artist: Marianne Vander Dussen

That being said, there are some incredible joys that come from publicly sharing your pieces. A random stranger could find your work and give you a compliment that boosts your day. You could receive a commission that fills you with joy and excitement. Or maybe, just maybe, something you do opens the door to a lucky break, that you might otherwise have never had if you had chosen to hide your talents. Exposure can entail some suffering, but if you weather the storm, it could also lead to opportunity.

Is it worth it to put yourself out there? To face the intense vulnerability? The scrutiny? The criticism, the negativity? Enduring the people who not-so-secretly hope you fail?

Yes. 100% yes. To the moon and back, yes.

Being creative means being brave. It means continuing to draw from within you, putting it out on display whether people like it or not. Art can be intentionally disturbing and unsettling; and sometimes, people need to be disturbed and unsettled, whether they think so or not. Sometimes, your work may actually be worthy of some authentic criticism; perhaps it isn’t your best, or your experiment failed. But it’s our job to head back to the lab and keep tinkering away at our craft.

Not because it’s easy, but because it’s our calling.

Have you ever experienced vulnerability that made you want to give up? leave a comment!

Why Create?

Creative. It’s the word that always springs to mind when asked, so who are you? I make things, where before there was nothing. I take ideas, smush them through a medium, then filter it through layers and layers of criticism and analysis. Hopefully, I’m left with the desired message at the end.

Sometimes, I create simply to make something beautiful. Other times, I don’t have a choice; an idea is rattling around inside my brain and I’m left with no option other than to channel it into being.

Ken Robinson-7But these answers are also scraping the surface of the rich mystery that is creativity. All artists, dancers, designers, musicians, chefs, writers, sculptors, and other creative types know that our landscape is pitted and marred by times of deep despair, financial impoverishment, and intense loneliness. This isn’t new knowledge; creatives have long been known for their melancholic disposition, social eccentricities, and perfectionist obsession with their work.

Yet even the awareness of the stigma and fiscal dangers isn’t enough to stop droves of people from gambling a so-called “safe” future in favour of the possibility of success in a creative venture. If we’re to look at Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the artists are usually the ones willing to forsake the basic physiological requirements (food, shelter, sleep) at the chance of achieving the highest tier of existence – self-actualization.

Image source: Matthew Larsen Morava via LinkedIn

Image source: Matthew Larsen Morava via LinkedIn

Anyone who’s tasted those precious moments of alignment – that moment when you’re staring in wonder at your final piece, unable to believe that you made that – knows that it’s a high unlike any other. Finishing a creative project is deeply, deeply satisfying. Who wouldn’t be addicted to something so sacred and precious? Certainly, the allure of finding that elusive alignment again is enough to make anyone turn their head from a safe, stable life in a career field dominated by pre-determined tasks for a creative vocation defined by its uncertainty, vulnerability, and fragility.

To those who have made this choice, I salute you. Your willingness to engage in calculated risks is inspiring. I am so excited to actively seek you out and discover what motivates you to pursue your vision for a more beautiful world through creative transcendence.

The purpose of this blog will be twofold: the first mission will be to profile the movers, shakers, dreamers and doers of my community and beyond. If you’re an artist or innovator living and working in the North Bay area, watch out! My camera and recorder are coming for you. The secondary reason for writing this blog will be more self-serving, to provide an outlet for my own creative process to be chronicled, potentially for future research. As an artist, designer, writer, and academic, I recognize that reflection and documentation are critical to growth. It’s also a small snapshot into my world for the curious passersby. Let’s face it, we’re all immensely curious about each other.

It’s exciting to start a new blog and a new project…and scary. There is so much happening in my life right now that beginning a new venture doesn’t make very much sense. But when the idea starts to tickle, there’s little relief until I scratch the itch and allow it to come into being. I can’t wait to explore this new venture with my friends, family, and readers.

“The beginning is the most important part of the work.”  – Plato