Last Thursday night was the last meeting of my painting class. That evening we were three students, and the instructor, all women. As we each worked on our own paintings, we began a leisurely discussion on how important it is for us as humans to make art, and how we share with the world when we do so. Our time was limited, so we didn’t delve deeply into these important matters. But when I left the class I continued to think about the meaning of art to me and to others.
My fellow painting students were aware that I was an inexperienced painter, first because I told them and second, because they could see my work. But only I was aware of how meaningful it was to me to finally let myself take a painting class. From my earliest memories I have loved to draw and paint, but as many in my generation can attest, schools in those days did not reward creativity. Rather, they stifled it with such techniques as holding up people’s work in front of the class for a blistering critique, or withholding an art activity to punish the class. Had I had many art supplies they would not have been respected at home where I had younger siblings and not much privacy. I was afraid to study art in high school because I thought only “weirdos” took that. I see now I would have loved to be one of those weirdos. Life kept happening, but art did not.
Fast forward to about the last ten years, when I first began to have some time for myself. I started to paint pictures. My method was to add paint, add paint, and add paint until I couldn’t think of anything else to do. Since I didn’t really know how to draw, that is all I could do. At first it was tremendously rewarding. I enjoyed the process, and though the content was primitive and poor, I had had no instruction and was therefore blissfully unaware of any deficiencies. But after a time I had drawn all the random shapes and stylized flowers I could stand. If I wanted to go further I would have to seek instruction.
For a time I just lived with a big red ball of anxiety whenever I thought about taking a class. To a part of my mind this sounded like jumping off a ten story building barefoot, while another part yearned for the knowledge. I did not know when I would ever put my own instruction to the top of my to-do list. However, last year I got a jump start when my sweet niece asked me to paint her portrait for her birthday. An acceptable likeness here was mandatory, for an eight year old art critic does not mince her words.
And so for love of Mary Hannah I took a figure drawing class. After each three hour drawing class I was so exhausted I immediately went home and and took a a nap. At the end of the class I felt I had learned a lot, but still needed lots of guidance. When I drew I could sometimes see that something was wrong but didn’t know what it was, or how to fix it. I knew I would have to continue to draw in order to learn. When Mary Hannah came to town this summer, she saw the sketches I had made of her from photographs. She immediately began to change them to her own satisfaction. I would count her now as a satisfied customer.
But what about getting back to painting? What about making a nice messy palette filled with exciting color combinations? What about dipping a brush into one of the dabs of color and watching it come alive on the canvas? What about stepping away from the canvas and waiting for your heart to tell you what needs to come next? And what about the chance to learn to do all these things while knowing what I was doing?
One morning after a jangling dream in which I was a kindergarten teacher with 50 students, I pored over the latest circular from Flicker Street Art Studio where I had taken my drawing class. I knew what the dream meant; I was taking care of everyone else except myself. It was time to take the plunge and paint.
Taking the class meant six weeks of rushing out of work at the exact time the class began in order to race across town and be only twenty minutes late. It meant cramming some sort of tortilla wrap in my mouth and washing it down with a bottle of water during said racing. But I got there, and the kind Melissa Dunn, our instructor, was ready to catch me up to the rest of the class.
Melissa, a working artist whose studio blog is linked above, made a welcoming environment for the hesitant soul such as myself. My anxieties vanished after the first class when I saw that Melissa while providing correct instruction also urged us to listen to our own instincts. ( Note: unlike Sister Claire Marie.) I am just sure I appeared poised and composed on the outside – ahem – but inside I was grinning like the silliest clown in the world! I was doing it! I was painting! You complete me!
Friday, the day after our last class, still thinking of the emotional fullness that comes with creativity, I ran quite accidentally across the following words by John O’Donahue:
“Each of us is an artist of our days; the greater our integrity and awareness, the more original and creative our time will become.”
I don’t have to be a professional artist, but I do have to listen to the part of me that needs to imagine and create. I may not know much about painting yet, but I know I can let myself take a class when I want to. I am the only one who can be an artist of my own days. I know I won’t regret it.