Something that I am often struck by lately is the way that so many artists look exactly like the art they make. Abigail Larson is a beautiful willow of a woman who has sleek, gorgeous hair and works magic I cannot comprehend with her eye makeup. The Frouds look like they live in the oldest and wisest tree in the forest, and they create their works while staring out the window at their neighbors. In more personal experience, it is the people with amusing piercings and unnaturally colored hair who produce the most striking linework, and the people who work witchcraft with color tend not to have much black in their wardrobes. Probably because personal style is just as much a form of expression as anything else, it never, ever surprises me to see the face behind the work anymore.
This has left me wondering with some bemusement just what that means for me, given that I am years out of practice and my work is either mired in the aesthetics and problems I had when I was a teenager, or chock full of cartoon dragons.
Earlier this morning, considering this and that and other things, I stumbled upon my answer, one that is stupidly obvious and only illuminates my problems all the more: It isn’t through appearance alone that our work shows off who and what we are. Years ago I knew a young woman who was berated in our class for giving herself rules and sticking to them in her paintings. She confided to me later that this comment had been a huge blow to her, because it was by giving herself rules and sticking to them in life that she’d pulled herself out of a difficult time in her adolescence and given herself the power to succeed, and she’d just been told that that same tactic was holding her back artistically. I knew another who was so impatient that she would knowingly rush her paintings, leaving them looking half undone, and refuse to hear critique on them because it was only a hobby. Her later marriage failed — in part — because she treated it much the same way. Those I have met who seem to struggle the most with their work are always struggling with some other huge part of their identity at the same time — gender seems to be a common factor — and in school, those who were careless about their presentation were also careless of their materials and their space. Sometimes, these people were not even mindful of the presence or needs of the other students who used the studios.
And now, here I am. During my schooling, it was commented on that I had an unconscious tendency to zoom in on things when drawing or painting from a still life, picking one little tidbit of the setting and magnifying it to fill the whole page. To my immense frustration, I was fussed at for being “too precious”, for getting absorbed in tiny details and working them to death, for latching onto an idea and running with it up until the moment it seemed it would not work, and then dropping that idea entirely. I was all over the place back then, trying everything and casting it off in an attempt to get my professors to accept something I wanted to make and lay off otherwise, feeling helpless and dissatisfied because I felt like I had to please them — because pleasing those above me was essential to my success. I had a habit of picking everything apart and viewing things in terms of patterns, not understanding things unless I could see how the pieces fit together, and always building things through plans instead of letting my work take shape organically. I was berated for this, too.
This year I am working actively through a lot of residual anger I’ve been carrying with me over the past decade, figuring out what the real problems are and solving them in an attempt to stop displacing my feelings. As I figure things out, it becomes easier for me to see the parts of myself that aren’t so angry with more clarity. And now I realize:
I fixate on tiny details everywhere. I cannot see the forest for the trees; I lose sight of the big picture in favor of whatever small part of it has caught my attention. I am terrible at focusing on one thing at a time and pick up and drop things as the whims strike me; that’s why I am always surrounded by works in progress, and sometimes there are so many that I sit paralyzed, unable to decide which one to put my energy in at any given hour. I am struggling with my voice as an artist because I have spent the past few years pouring my energy into my Etsy shop, in the hopes that I would please enough customers to gain recognition. Having grown up with an autistic brother, I am still entrenched in routine, and the instant something deviates from my plans I have to drop everything and redo those plans. Without them I feel like I have no control.
It was all there all along. I just hadn’t made the connection between art saying more about my friends than appearances alone, and my own art saying more about me than appearances alone — because I cannot see the forest for the trees. This year, then, needs to be the year that I take several steps back and really look at things, and give myself the opportunity to understand who I am and what I want, and what I need to do to get there.
I am not a content, satisfied person. I am happy. I have a lot to be happy about and I am glad. But I am not satisfied, and that needs to change. Maybe I don’t need to seek contentment with my work and contentment with my life separately. Maybe these two things are intertwined, and that’s the big picture I have been missing.