Let me tell you a story about a very naive, young artist…
Once upon a time, my art felt incredibly meaningful. I felt like I was going to change the world, to connect with people, to help people. I was watching how my art healed me and I knew, with a fierce pride, that my art could heal others. I believed in it.
The first few months of my officially launched art career went better than I’d expected. I sold 2 pieces at my first solo show in October 2007, and then had 5 commissions for Christmas. I was busy, and making more money than I’d ever believed possible. I loved every single second.
But then the Christmas rush ended. And I didn’t quite know what to do next. I’d had a solo show – now what? So I applied for the Pelham Art Festival, a well-known juried art fair in Southwestern Ontario. I got in. Then I painted a piece for another local juried show, this time with a Valentine’s Day theme. I didn’t get in, but only because the Canada Post took it’s sweet time delivering my entry. I was still on a roll. My art still meant something. I was full of a beginner’s pride and confidence. I hadn’t hit any real walls yet, and felt like I could conquer the world.
In May, I showed my work at the Pelham Art Festival. You could call this the beginning of the end. It was 2008 and not a soul was buying art in the depths of the recession. Attendance was down. Suddenly my art was in competition with over 65 other artists. And at the tender age of 20, I was the youngest there by far.
I was a very little fish, in a much larger pond. I was way outta my league.
I suddenly felt very, very small. And not quite so confident in myself and my art as before. People would just wander past my booth. Don’t even ask me what the booth looked like – let’s just say it involved a wobbly plastic table, and a tackily coloured lawn chair. The art looked great – everything else? Not so much.
I did get a full page article in the local papers, which was nice. And people recognized me, but I didn’t know how to capitalize on that name recognition. This was the Real World, and I had no idea what to do.
Not to mention, suddenly I was sitting there while listening to others criticize my art under their breaths. I tried not to listen. Other artists would stop by and tell me how to improve my art – more contrast, they said. There’s not enough contrast. (They were right.)
In my already weakened state, one offhand comment from a family friend cut me to the core:
“I just don’t really feel anything when I look at your work.”
It was like everyone was suddenly really far away, and I was free falling into a void. He doesn’t…feel anything?
I fought it. I argued it out in my head a million times over. I defended my art. I defended myself. I told myself he was cold-hearted & hated nature, couldn’t possibly understand the delicate feelings in my landscapes.
It was too late. The damage had been done. My inner doubts had heard those words and ran with them. It had never occurred to me before that people could look at my work and not feel anything. (Oh, how young and naive. It was before I’d learned that tastes vary.)
The stage was set. I suddenly doubted the emotions in my work. I started to doubt if it meant anything, or had any value at all.
Enter The Marketing Coaches
I was feeling intensely overwhelmed at this point. It was June of 2008 – I knew I needed business help and I hadn’t sold a painting in months. So I decided to use the $2000 I’d inherited from my grandfather and hire some marketing coaches and buy their system.
Don’t get me wrong – they were lovely. They heard my story, they gave me a discount, they taught me a lot about the inner workings of marketing.
But we didn’t quite see eye-to-eye when it came to my art. Or really, the kind of business that I wanted to run. For them, a blog was a chore that helped you get better SEO rankings. For me, it was this wonderful new tool for connection.
For them, you never mentioned a single negative emotion attached to your art. Never. Ever. That was a Very Bad Idea. No one would ever buy your art if they ever found out that it was pain that had inspired that piece.
The pain of your heart breaking, the pain of losing a loved one, the pain of abuse, the pain of grief, the pain of illness.
No one wants your pain. People only want to know about happy things. (Nowadays I say…explain the blues! Explain Death Metal! Explain the 8 billion songs written about heartbreak!)
My paintings were me trying to transform the pain. But that had to be kept a secret.
That was in August of 2008. I could list on one hand the number of paintings I’ve officially finished and posted on my site since then. There are almost none that I am truly happy with.
Quite frankly, I don’t know how to paint without pain.
I don’t know how to produce a painting without that bittersweet edge. And heaven knows, I haven’t yet. But when I’m finished, or trying to finish, I am ashamed of that. I am ashamed of the darkness in my work. I am ashamed of the occasional sombreness, the muted colours, the tinge of sadness.
And so I never really finish. I walk away. I feel like I’ve failed, that no one could ever connect with the darkness in my work.
I feel like the work I do is meaningless. If it’s only for my selfish gratification, why bother?
I hate those words. I hate the apathy behind those words. And as I struggle to complete the paintings for my application to the studio in France, I come up against this voice every single day.
It says, “No one wants your art. No one wants your pain. No one wants you. What’s the point of you going to France? To improve, you say? To produce more art that no one will want? It’s stupid. You’re stupid. Stop.”
We all have an inner critic. Mine is just a particularly ornery asshole.
I’ve been acting like a performing bear the past 2 years. I keep trying to make art that others will like, that others will approve of. I keep trying to be less of me, and more of someone else.
I am actually physically incapable of maintaining this any longer.
I’m going to have to start acknowledging that my art comes from pain, from the bittersweet taste of life.
But I’m going to need your help to do it.
I want to create a reminder to myself that some people (my Right People) connect with my art. I have some emails and comments of my own that people have sent me. But I would love to hear from you. Have you connected to my art in some way? Have you been touched, moved, inspired? Did you feel hopeful, understood, heard? Did you look at a painting and say, yes, I’ve felt that way too?
Put it in the comments, send me an email, shout it out on Twitter, put it on Facebook – whatever your preferred method of communication is, I’ll take it.
p.s. If you don’t like my art, or don’t connect with it in any way, and you agree that, hell yes, never tell people that your art comes from pain – I would really appreciate it if you didn’t say any of these things out loud. Or at least, anywhere that I can hear/read them. Thanks.