Chasing Wonder

When I graduated from art school, it took me a while to remember why I loved art. You'd think after spending four years studying everything from cave paintings to post-modernism, learning innumerable theories, and practicing new techniques into the wee hours, I'd have at least some inkling of why I wanted to do this. But there's a shift that happens when you take something you love purely for the sake of indescribable wonder it instills and put it through a meat grinder, break it apart, pound on it from every angle, and squirt it out the other side with a graduation cap and a diploma.

For me, I first became aware of the shift during critiques. Before art school, I looked at art with awe and amazement. Even when I had no clue what it was or what it was trying to accomplish. Someone had made this creation in front of me and put something of themself into it in a way that no other person could, and now I had the privilege of standing there in front of it and trying to figure it out. It was an indescribable experience. But art school critiques force you to shoehorn that experience into the very limiting medium of language. What was the artist trying to accomplish? Were they successful? How was the concept articulated? What elements of art were utilized and how effectively? Blah blah blah. Don't misunderstand my blahs - I think these are all worthwhile things to think about and discuss. And I'm grateful for the experience. But it changed my relationship with art. After graduating, I found myself looking at work and trying to find what was unsuccessful about it. The feeling of wonder was replaced by a desire to analyze and impose my own ideas about what the artist could have done differently. No longer did it feel like the artist had created this magical object that I had the opportunity to experience. Now the artist had made something and it was my job to rip it apart, decide how well they had constructed it, and theorize how it could be improved. That seemed less fun and magical. It felt like work.

I reconnected with my early sense of wonder when I started making paintings for myself again. In the midst of coming out of the closet, I started exploring that process on canvas with no intention of showing anyone. I could do anything I wanted because I wasn't trying to communicate anything to anyone else. And I didn't care if viewers were impressed because they weren't even going to see them anyway. I started painting all the time and stored the paintings in my closet. I felt excited and creative again. Just like the kid who woke up early and made two hundred drawings before my parents woke up. Those weren't masterpieces. I drew them because I had a picture in my head I felt needed to be on the paper. It was as simple and as wonderful as that. Things get complicated as we get older.

I was thinking about this today, the first day of 2019, because the start of a new year is a good time for self reflection. A few brushes with the impermanence of our time here on this planet, including the death of my father and one of our dogs, have caused a shift in me the last few years. My latest show, Promiseland, dealt with some of these feelings including disillusionment and uncertainty. I think aging brings a dose of humility as you realize the immortality you thought you possessed wasn't real. And some of the original motivators that drove you, like a need for recognition/validation, begin to seem hollow and meaningless.

Back to the post-art art school example - I remember teaching community art classes shortly after graduating. At first I tried to look at my students' work and offer them in-depth critiques like what we practiced in college. I evaluated their work and scanned it for what was "wrong." But as I started to rediscover joy in my own art-making practice, my perspective as a teacher changed. No longer did I look at a student's piece and see a hodge-podge of amateurish mistakes I needed to help iron out. I looked for what was wonderful about what the artist was making. That doesn't mean I stopped offering suggestions. But I pivoted from the negative attitude that I was looking for mistakes to a more positive outlook - I was looking for the potential in their work. And that allowed me to not only activate that feeling of awe and wonder in myself, but light the fire in them as well because I wasn't judging them or imposing my ideas. Instead I was looking for something awesome in them and trying to use the knowledge and skills I had to help bring it out. That simple switch in mindset made a world of difference for me. 

I may not be able to predict what will happen this year, how much time I have left with loved ones, or how much success I'll achieve with any given project. But just like in my art, I resolve to look for the potential in those moments that feel like mistakes and chase that feeling of awe and wonder in all things. Here's to 2019 and all the opportunities it will bring!


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