One hundred and one days.
That’s how long I’ve been sheltering in place, safer in placing, and working from home. I haven’t been home for this long since I took three months off for maternity leave 21 years ago. Except now I don’t have a newborn to keep me occupied.
But I’m a creative person, and creative people are never bored. In fact, I really don’t have enough time to work on all the projects I want to tackle. Obviously I write for fun. I even published a book! And if you’ve been reading along for a while, you know I also crochet (obsessively) and I’ve dabbled in embroidery and other crafts.
But what you might not know is that my first creative love is art. I’ve been drawing and painting for as long as I can remember. In fact, I don’t really have any recollection of a time before I could hold a crayon or a pencil and make marks on paper.
I piddled around with drawing all through grade school and middle school, but it wasn’t until I transferred to St. Paul’s School in the 9th grade, that I ever took a serious art class. That’s when I meet Mrs. Beth Compton, the art teacher. She opened my eyes to a world of art and art history that I’d never known before. She coached us on technique and challenged us to experiment with new media and methods to create art. She quizzed us on terms like chiaroscuro and trompe l’oeil. She educated us on famous and not-so-famous artists.
And she was a cool person! She wore jeans to teach in. Jeans! At a private school where all the other teachers were wearing dresses and pantyhose. She played music from cassette tapes on a boombox in the classroom. (If we heard Don McLean sing Vincent once, we heard it a thousand times.) She talked to us like we were actual people not just students who need to tuck in their shirts or pull up their socks. I wanted to be just like her.
I took Mrs. Compton’s class every single year, Art 1, Art 2, Art 3 and all the way through AP Art. I was even president of the Art Club my senior year, which was the only extracurricular activity I ever participated in. Other people had sports and high school bowl and band, but art was my thing.
After high school, I went on off to The University of Montevallo where I planned to get A Bachelor of Fine Arts. I was going to be an artist and wear jeans to work like Mrs. Compton. I was going to be the next Mary Cassatt or Frida Kahlo.
But early on in my freshman year, the Chair of the Art Department, declared to an assembled group of freshman art majors that “just because you were the hot shot art student at your high school and president of the art club, doesn’t mean you’ll be a hot shot here” or words to that effect. Basically, he described me!
And in the classes I was taking, I started noticing all the super talented students who surrounded me. I mean these folks had some mad skills. They could draw things from their imaginations with no reference material, which was something I always struggled with. I saw the student work exhibited in the halls and gallery and wondered how they got to be so damn good. I talked to older art majors who seemed way more knowledgeable about technique and materials than I did and wondered how they knew so much.
That’s when I started to doubt myself and doubt my talent. And as a fairly naive 18-year-old, it never occurred to me that I would learn the techniques and the materials and the skills. (Don’t ask me what I thought I was in college for because I really don’t know. I was 18.) So I bailed.
I went to my advisor who happened to be the Chair of the department who happened to be the same person I talked about above who told us we were all talentless hacks (at least that’s what I heard even if he didn’t actually say it) and declared my intention to change my major. He didn’t ask me why. He didn’t try to dissuade me. He didn’t offer me any alternatives to getting a BFA like going into commercial art or interior design or art education.
He just said OK and scrawled his signature on my form.
I did keep an art minor, but graduated with a degree in English. Both my parents have their master’s degrees in English so it seemed like a natural choice. But it wasn’t anything I was passionate about like I had been art. It was just familiar and comfortable and came easy to me. And now when I look back at old notebooks from that time, they aren’t filled with notes from my English classes, but they are filled with doodles and drawings and sketches. You can take the girl out of the art department … right?
But life goes on.
I ignored my inner Georgia O’Keefe for years and years and years after I graduated from college because I thought she was a no-talent nag, and I only let her peek out to help Sonny Boy with a school project or costume. But about 10 years ago I saw an ad for a beginners oil painting class at Red Dot Gallery here in Birmingham. Georgia had been trying to claw her way back out for a while and was whispering in my ear that I should find some lessons. So I took the plunge, joined the class, and loved every little minute of it.
I learned the techniques and the materials and the skills that I would have learned in college had I only stuck with it (surprise surprise). More important than that, though, I learned that I do have talent and that I have a style and that not everything has to be Michelangelo to be considered good…or at least good enough. I learned to be confident in my own ability. And I learned not to compare myself to all the other people out there who ever dragged a brush through some paint and smeared it on a canvas.
After a couple of years, I quit taking the lessons because other things needed my attention — family, work, writing. I still dabbled in my free time but I wasn’t painting nearly as much as I had been. And then the self doubt started creeping in. Could I even paint a picture without the teacher there to guide me through it and hold my hand?
But thanks to a little thing known as a global pandemic, I’ve had more than a little time on my hands. And I’ve used that time to get reacquainted with painting. I finished this portrait of Tragedy* (I caught a rare smile in a photo!):
I tried a different, looser style of painting here:
I made a few cards to send to friends:
I made watercolor Mother’s Day and Father’s Day cards for my parents:
And now I’ve got an idea for a new project on a new surface — board:
It’s been a lot of fun to get back to my first creative love. There’s limitless possibility to a blank canvas…or board…or sheet of paper…absolutely limitless! And when things are stressful and awful like they have been for the last 101 days, painting is a relaxing escape from the world and all the terrible things that are happening around us. But that’s not the best part. The best part is finally learning not to worry about what’s “good” or if everything looks “just right” and making the conscious decision to focus on what brings me true joy — letting my inner Georgia come out.
*Tragedy is what I call my beloved husband because of his resting frowny face in comparison to my usual mule eating briars Comedy grin.
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