Measure

The painting process is countercultural.

The carpenter’s dictum ‘Measure twice, cut once’ seems sound advice.

Drawing with paint, I put a line down, and then again, a hundred and fifty times. Measure and remeasure, and then toss that whole section of the composition. Then put it back in. I sign the painting, then get out my electric sander.

You can get embarrassed in front of yourself.


Reaching endlessly for an aesthetic just beyond arms reach, is a weird thing to devote your life to. Why don’t I choose to do something easy and lite? Like a daylong gynecological exam in a public park?


Still, those “wrong” lines have their merit.


We give that latitude to children. Easily, generously. Watching a toddler trying to walk; the falling, the laugh, is part of the game and our hearts overflow at the fullness of effort.


But to give ourselves space to learn awkwardly runs against the grain.

We want prodigies and titles, and we want them now.

***


Becoming an artist sounded as aspirational as begging. I was raised in a family (and a neighbourhood) with a vertical, corporate orientation and a distorted relationship to achievement.


Every art rule about giving up control was an anathema to me.

If I was going to give in to being an artist, I would work like a machine; keep bankers’ hours, implement marketing strategies, produce on a timetable.

Except this: this agenda of control doesn’t produce the kind of art that makes my heart pound.


My heroes combine loose brushwork with strong drawing, full spectrum colour with restraint. Unique voice. Humble motifs. They were all slow, committed beyond their own understanding.

Euan Uglow said that over the period that he would work on a single painting, his models would earn entire professional degrees and go through marriages. Their lives moved on and he was still working on the same piece.


He also thought perfectionism was terrific, if not fun.


This was certainly true for Kaethe Kollwitz and Anne Truitt, both artists and mothers who wrote prolifically, (what we might call complaining) about what they were unable to achieve. Their technical hurdles plagued them, but their vocation was bigger.


To do the work I wanted I was going to have to abandon groups of paintings (aka time investments). And then yet more.

It isn’t how many paintings you have finished that counts, but the number you have started, the saying goes.

So I to the drawing board, hoping I learned something from the last dozen.


No matter how many times our thirst is quenched with stillness, or how often we find meaning where we least expected it, the refrains of convention can plague us. Ghosts of productivity and external validation.

The insistence that your inner life is of no consequence is a currency we all deal in. And a tricky notion to disentangle from.

Particularly North Americans, who think culture resides concretely in Italy, but not within us. We have little appetite for the mystery or the process.

Our interior worlds seem to be vulgar--not just to one another but to ourselves.


Conventional wisdom has, for me, been like a string of bad boyfriends-- initially promising salvation and then finding they are wreaking havoc in my inner landscape.

Dropping beliefs, one by one, can be like a series of necessary but painful breakups.

Worse; I let go of bad ideas, only to find you bequeathed them to my heirs. Even applause makes no difference because you know what you are unable to do; it pesters you.


Carl Jung said “A creative person has little power over his own life. He is not free. He is captive and driven by his daimon.”


Measuring our worth with some unconventional lens sometimes takes an effort of letting go. Adhering to one’s inner authority is rarely easy. Cherishing the awkward voice in the choir, the tumbling, is a warmer, vantage point and maybe a truer way to live. We turn around and admire our footsteps in the sand, accepting how short, or how far we have come.


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