This Is Excruciating. You've Gotta Try It!

 This sign in the window of our local art supply store pretty much sums it up.

This sign in the window of our local art supply store pretty much sums it up.

And here I thought I'd come so far.

I had some good hard lessons this past weekend about practicing what I preach, and about the snail's pace of my own progress. Yes, there was cringing and squirming involved. Turns out I haven't evolved as much as I thought I had.

What I describe below might surprise you. Or, you might think I've infiltrated your mind, reading your very thoughts, especially if you're an up-and-coming artist or musician or writer or entrepreneur or human-wanting-to-express-yourself-in-the-world. If you're already an active, practicing artist, I wonder if you can relate?

I'd love to hear your reaction in any case, even if you can't fathom what I'm talking about.

The Setting

Here's the context: Recently I hung some of my artwork in a bar down the street. The Alberta Street Pub is one of many establishments around here (you have them in your city, too) that exhibits work by local artists. It's a win-win, right? We get a chance to showcase our paintings, and the bar or cafe gets a free rotation of wall decor. There's an economic upside too: New customers discover the place (assuming we invite friends to come see our artwork), and more of the public's eyes on the artwork can potentially lead to sales, more exhibits, commissions, and the like. Good all around.

Here's what hanging an art show looks like:

On a Wednesday before business hours, I loaded my car with an assortment of small collages, a few whimsical little found object sculptures, and paintings of all sizes that I pulled off the walls of our home. I drove half a mile, then dodged raindrops (because: Portland) as I carried it all, armful by armful, into the pub. I spent the next four hours listening to the quiet hum of kitchen prep as I decided where each of the 28 pieces would go.

I love this part of the process. I like to take my time, move things around, hold this painting up here, then move it there, and see how it looks next to this other one. I'm pondering questions like: Do the colors feel balanced when these three canvases are hanging together? Am I highlighting the pieces I want to highlight? What will a person's eye be drawn to when they first walk in the door? And is that what I want them to notice?

There's also something powerful and decisive about climbing a ladder and hammering nails into the wall. (And in case you're wondering, I eyeball everything—there's no tape measure or level involved. I just pull out nails and move them over a few inches until it looks right.)

It's kind of like painting a picture.

Displaying objects in a way that pleases me feels every bit as creative as painting a picture. It was probably my earliest art form, if you don't count coloring books. As a little kid, I remember arranging and rearranging stuffed animals and knick-knacks on my shelves. That large cork board in my teenage bedroom? I'd stay up late at night tacking up displays of family photos, pictures of my friends, spreads from Gymnast magazine, and other memorabilia. I did the same thing with my college dorm room walls, and the walls of the elementary school classrooms I taught in for almost 20 years.

Arranging things is like a game for me—an experiment, a puzzle. I've done it everywhere I can lay claim to a physical space, ever since I was pretty tiny.

So anyway, creating the display was the low-stress part. I enjoyed a peaceful afternoon playing my visual game in the pub, and felt satisfied with the results.

If that was the low-stress part, what was the high-stress part?

Last Friday evening was the date we had scheduled for a happy hour reception. Just a "meet-and-greet the artist" event, nothing fancy or formal, maybe featuring a special cocktail of my choice. Sounds fun and relaxing, right? Well, we'll get to that in a minute.

Not long ago I wrote here about my very first art show, which took place in February 2003 in a cafe near Oakland, California. Getting ready for that exhibit was an excruciating coming-out-of-the-closet experience. I felt like a complete poser, doubting why anyone would want to come see what I'd made—those lame attempts that I couldn't even call "art." Why had my friend Gary, the cafe's owner, asked me to do this? I felt ridiculously unprepared, mortified at the idea of baring my introverted soul in such a public way. It was horrible.

And it was thrilling.

It was so scary that I had to do it.

The opportunity so tantalized me that I knew I couldn't pass it up. I'd wanted to be an artist since I was five years old, and this was my first real chance to try that dream on for size. In front of other people. Like actual artists do. At age 38, I was finally going for it! (Read this if you want to know how that one turned out.)

In the years since, I've had several more art exhibits—maybe five? seven?—at cafes, bookstores, local galleries. I began selling small artworks and crafts online. I peddled stuff I'd made at various gift shops in my area, at craft fairs, and at least once a year at a big sale in my home.

You could say I got used to "putting myself out there" as a maker of stuff. I've done a lot of it, although it's always remained a side gig.

You'll never believe what my main gig turned out to be.

My main gig of the past few years has been (get this) working as a public artist. Crazy, right? I can't believe it, either. I've morphed into what some might call a "real" artist, a professional. Very much out in public. Literally standing on sidewalks, painting walls as cars and people pass by.

There's a reason I'm pointing this out, and it's not to brag (although I do feel proud). Bear with me.

So, since 2007 I've led groups of students and community volunteers in creating more than 50 large painted murals, mosaic murals, and hand-painted tile installations. We've embellished schools, commercial properties, and city parks. Turns out that the "we" adds up to more than 4,000 people, when I stopped to enumerate the projects and count the participants.

I've worked with everyone from preschoolers, to teens at juvenile hall, to members of the U.S. Congress on beautification projects. A vast array of humanity.

Humans are funny this way, at least in these United States.

And here's what I've noticed while making art with so, so many humans from all walks of life:

Almost everyone over age 10 is full of anxiety about their creative abilities. The under-10 crowd hasn't learned to doubt themselves yet—they're just happy to be offered a paintbrush. But you older ones? You want to pitch in on a project, but first you need to tell me how bad you are at art.

Leading community mural projects has meant calming the artistic fears of literally thousands of newbies, encouraging you to give it a try, you're not going to ruin or break anything, I promise. It's an integral part of my role as facilitator. I take your jangled nerves seriously, because... remember what I said about myself a few paragraphs ago? Sounds kinda familiar, right?

One of the absolute best parts of my work is witnessing the transformation—and sometimes it only takes 20 minutes—from, "I have zero creative skills! I'm going to mess this whole thing up!" to "This is fun. I can't remember the last time I felt so relaxed," to "Hey, look what I made! Not bad, huh?" It's pure bliss, knowing that I had a hand in that shift.

I love spotting the sulky 8th grader who's dragging his friend to the mural wall after school, to show off the part he worked on during art class. Or even better, hearing a self-doubting accountant-mom crow about the mosaic flower she's just made. It's priceless. Medicine for my soul.

There's a paradox at work. Let's zoom out for a moment.

This public art work, on the surface, might seem much bolder and scarier than painting alone in one's studio. Well, maybe.

But notice: Each mural project comes with collaborative partners. Yes, I'm the lead artist and facilitator, but I'm constantly sharing the decision-making, the glory (because usually, the murals are freaking awesome!) and the responsibility for how it comes out. In other words, there are places to hide.

That section over there is kind of wonky? Yeah, I know, a group of third graders did it; they wanted it that way.

You don't like the concept, you outspoken passerby? Well, I based the design on the committee's ideas, so it's not really mine. It was a group decision.

It's a subtle dance of ownership. I'm going to make sure the final product is beautiful—good enough that the students/ principal/ neighbors/ teachers love it, and I'm proud to put my name on the plaque. Then again, since three dozen 6th graders worked on it, it should look somewhat like a mural made by 12 year-olds.

That's a positive way to frame the issue. The more negative (honest?) way is, "If it doesn't come out well, it's not all my fault."

Those darned little voices!

I'm embarrassed to admit this out loud, but that second way of thinking saves me every time. Reassuring myself that I'm not alone in the task—at least during the phase of each project when I'm sure I won't be able to pull it off, i.e. that I'll be the one to ruin it—keeps me safe from the crippling fear embedded in all creative acts. You know, that little voice in your head that says, "It might not be good enough, so maybe I shouldn't do it at all."

Yes, I still carry around the exact same voice that my mural volunteers express. I've just learned ways to trick myself into getting past it.

Community art projects, I remind myself, are fantastic because they are shared, imperfect works. What first graders make is cute and sweet and unfiltered, and we all love seeing their little brush strokes out in the neighborhood. We're inspired walking past a high school that bears outward signs of the creative, blossoming minds within its walls.

A Mission That's Stronger Than Those Darned Voices

I want to continue cheering and shepherding your artistic self-discovery because I firmly believe this:

  1. As humans, we are inherently creative beings.
  2. We can only become our fullest, whole-est selves when we devote time and energy to creating.
  3. We serve each other by sharing our art, in whatever form it might take.

I believe this so whole-heartedly that I preach it, often. Not to be too dramatic, but it's my recipe for healing the world. Imagine if each person on the planet devoted even 2% more of their time to making and sharing creative soul projects, and 2% less time complaining and criticizing. The ground beneath our feet would shift!

Now let's zoom back in.

Ok, so I had this art show. Remember?

I try to lead by example: If I put my art out into the world, I hope you will be encouraged to put yours out, too.

So why was I in tears again an hour before the meet-and-greet? Why was I wracked with fears that what I'd hung on the pub's walls was simplistic and shallow and scattered, not at all a cohesive body of work? Not what a "real artist's" work would look like—not like those gorgeous paintings I'd seen the night before at that real art gallery down the street.

Now keep in mind that these are the thoughts of a professional artist, one who's been wearing some version of that title for about 10 years. Also remember that this was a casual event at our cozy neighborhood pub—it's not like I was running for mayor, or designing the Eiffel Tower. So why was I still freaking out that no one would show up and it would be super awkward? Or afraid that people would come, see what I'd made, and discover that I'm still a poser?

There are lots of reasons. Off the top of my head:

  1. In a solo art show, unlike in public mural projects, there's no one else to hide behind. (That paradox I mentioned.)
  2. I'm a sensitive human who grew up in a culture that promotes sameness. And is full of trolls and haters.
  3. I'm an introverted woman with conflicting desires to: a) express myself with paint and images, and b) hide in my room and stay safe.

We can all come up with excuses to take the easy route and keep ourselves small and protected. But that's not the point.

So, how did the event turn out?

How'd it go, you ask? It felt awkward at first. But then all sorts of lovely people showed up. I told some of them about my anxiety (because that's what I do when I'm nervous—I tell people), and they applauded my courage. They asked questions about specific paintings. I enjoyed answering them, because I like to pull back the curtain and remove some of the mystery around art-making. They were supportive, without exception. Not a persnickety grouch in the house. No finger-wagging took place at all.

A Delicious Taste of My Own Medicine

Basically, the beautiful people who showed up gave me a dose of my own medicine. It was just what I needed. They encouraged me to keep making art. They made me glad I'd stuck my neck out, instead of staying safe and hidden.

They also reminded me, through their questions and comments and responses to my work, how important the audience is! I'd forgotten that the viewer is my partner in the creative dance, not my opponent, or my judge.

And sometimes viewers are nervous too. Maybe they've never gone to an art show, and they don't know how they're supposed to act. (That's all fodder for another essay—I have loads of thoughts on this topic.)

The Moral of the Story

Here's my message for you: If I can do this, so can you. That thing you're feeling pulled to do that seems impossible and way too scary? It's the very thing you must do to feel wholly alive.

Make your drawings/sonatas/ballads/furniture/cupcakes, please! But don't stop there, in the safety of your kitchen/garage/office. For the sake of the rest of us, take the next step and share with us what you've made, however raw and imperfect. Chances are that you will NOT quake and shudder the way I do, but if you do, that's ok. Believe me when I say it's still worth it.

Every time you're brave enough to share pieces of your creative self, you inspire others to do the same. And the world is healed, bit by bit.

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Please share this post with someone who needs to hear it. We'll both be grateful!

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More notes:

1. The story of how I went from mortified to professional artist is a book I'm currently writing. You'll be hearing more about it in coming months, or perhaps reading pieces of it here on my blog. In the meantime, I can always use encouragement! And contacts in the publishing world, if you've got them! I'm not gonna lie. This book-writing thing is the latest way I'm "putting myself out there," and it's scary. Which is why I must do it. ;)

2. People often ask me how I got an art show in a pub. The answer? I asked. If you're an aspiring visual artist, just pay attention to what types of establishments—restaurants, cafes, bookstores, gift shops—have art on the walls with labels or price tags next to them. Ask the cashier whom to contact about hanging your work there. As in life, it's kind of hit-or-miss. Some folks will be super responsive, others might already have a lineup set for the next year, or never get back to you, or whatever. Just ask. It's a great first step. And if that doesn't work, have an art show in your home and invite your friends! You get to invent the rules for putting your soul's work into the world.