how i gave art away and how i got it back

My undergraduate degree is in studio art.

I loved writing and acting, but I chose art as my major because on my small conservative campus, it was the art department where I felt free and empowered.

I loved art making and always had, but I didn’t consider myself to be any good at it. I didn’t have a lot of technical skill and in my head, if a person was an artist it meant that he or she had a certain amount of natural ability. What I loved to do the most was paint, but I wasn’t a good painter. I lived then in an almost constant state of comparison, and when I looked at what I was doing next to what others in my classes were doing, I felt like a failure.

By the time I graduated, my work had evolved into self-portrait photography with text panels. In that medium, I felt comfortable and found a voice I could work with.

I continued to create images, showed my work a bit locally and even after I moved to New York, but then I stopped.

I was involved with someone who was an artist, a painter. He was singularly obsessed with art making and the advancement of his career and through him, I logged hours and hours of art viewing in museums and gallery openings. I hung out with artists, floated around their studios, listened to them talk about their work.

I saw some amazing, moving, incredible things.

And also became somewhat disenchanted.

I wasn’t a big fan of the business of art, of self-referential art, of art that was steeped with sarcasm and fatalistic cleverness.

And surrounded by people who were good artists, real artists, I felt small.

The part of me that craved to make art, I shoved way down into a little cave underneath my heart.

When that part of me broke free, she broke free as a writer. My writer’s group in Brooklyn was my salvation and it led me to pursue my master’s degree in fiction writing (and, ultimately, got me out of that damaging relationship).

I felt at home as a writer, but my hands remembered what it felt like to make stuff and they found a way. When it came time to choose an elective (graduate writing students could choose an elective from anywhere on campus), my itchy hands signed me up for printmaking.

It was incredible amounts of fun.

I worked in the studio alongside passionate young undergrad women and nothing I did really mattered because I was a writer, and old, and only there to satisfy an elective requirement.

I never did learn to pull a series of perfect prints but my goodness, I enjoyed myself.

And then I graduated and moved back to Kentucky and the part of me that craved to make art got pushed down again. She made herself known in little ways – baking, collaging, scrapbooking, incessant changing of my blog design – but she wasn’t really allowed out to play. Because along time ago I’d decided I wasn’t an artist. Not really. Not good enough.

For years, I walked past painting supply aisles with a stirring of sadness and lust. I even signed up for one or two art classes online only to become frustrated and stop before getting started because I couldn’t make the images in my mind appear on the canvas.

But this year, my year of Serenity no less, the year I set the goal for myself of writing a book, something miraculously strange and wonderful happened.

It began with a series of shows that Tracy and I watched called Art 21. Through that show, I became reacquainted with some old love interests of mine from the New York days. I felt this familiar almost-forgotten taste on the back of my tongue. I remembered why I loved art, I remembered those early college days when I discovered there was this smart, ferocious, impossible to describe language – art. I remember that wildness. The refusal to conform. I remembered the passion of uncensored self-expression.

And then I watched a documentary called Our City Dreams. One of the women featured was Marina Abramovic, a performance artist. I was captivated by her work.

It made me uneasy.

It threw me off kilter.

I was back in. Wholly. Entranced, lit on fire by the transformative power of art.

And though I can’t draw for you the connections, can’t explain exactly why or how it happened, I saw that I’d been muting myself, that I’d been living a scaled back version of myself, that I’d been choking back the wild vine of my heart.

I’d stopped taking risks.

I remembered that once upon a time, a long, long time ago, for a brief moment- I was a little bit of a badass.

I was free.

Not because I’d been freed, but because I’d freed myself.

Art made me strong.

So this winter I was sitting on the sofa with my laptop watching Kevin Spacey, and the dogs were curled up next to me. It was bitterly cold in Kentucky and on the East coast, there was a blizzard going on. I scrolled through my Facebook feed and saw that a workshop that was already underway, was being offered at a discount for the day. And it just happened to be my birthday season.

“I want to sign up for a painting class,” I told Tracy.

“You should,” he said.

“I’m going to,” I said, my pulse quickening. I thought of how really I shouldn’t. How painting would just be a distraction from the work I needed to do and the book I wanted to write. I thought about how spending money wasn’t such a good idea for me at the moment. I let the why not reasons move around in me for a few hours, then I pushed the purchase button.

And I launched myself out into this endeavor.

I began painting as a ritual – with music and incense – and I felt my body start to rearrange itself.

This wasn’t a color wheel, shade a sphere, do it right sort of art class. This was a spiritually deep sort of art class. It was the art class I’d been waiting for.

I felt myself as an artist again except this time, it wasn’t about being a good painter. It was about being myself.

This time, I painted because it felt good.

My painting took me on an incredible journey. It showed me pieces of myself. It pushed me and spoke to me in my heart’s language.

With this painting, I reclaimed art for myself and brought back some lonesome little pieces of my soul that had been wandering out in the wilderness looking for home.

If there’s something you’ve given away in your life because you think you’re not good enough or not talented or not worthy…because of someone else’s opinion or expectation, or some shitty thing they said…if there’s something you’ve denied yourself because of fear…take a step right now toward bringing it back.

No one else gets to tell you who you are or how you should spend your time or what you should love. (Not even the grumbly voices in your own head.)

Reach out your hand for this piece of you that you’ve cast aside and invite it back in.

Let yourself love what you love.

Let  yourself be who you are.

And let everything else fall away.