A Longer Version of My Story
This one has more twists and turns, plus a few smack-downs.
I’m tempted to make this page light and inspiring, about how I followed my heart and my passion and worked tirelessly to become the satisfied, fulfilled working artist that I am today.
While that’s not entirely untrue, it omits a few important details.
So here’s a more honest version:
I've wanted to be an artist since about age five. What I pursued instead, like so many of us do, was the more culturally acceptable and "useful" path of wife-teacher-mother. I don’t remember being told outright in my childhood that art is not a practical career goal, or that I was not good enough to succeed as an artist. I think I just absorbed that information from out of the air, and suspected I wasn’t.
Back then I also shied away from attention of any kind, so no part of me was willing to face the risk of chasing a wild fantasy like doing art, and having friends and family watch me crash and burn, which would surely happen. I didn’t even consider it. In fact, I often forget that my mother suggested in a letter that I drop out of Stanford to attend art school instead. (Thanks for believing in my art, Mom!) So it wasn’t family pressure that kept me on the well-worn path. It was all me, trying my best to stay safe and in line. Just like I’d done in all those childhood coloring books.
Maybe it’s a German-Norwegian-Protestant thing, but I had also adopted an unspoken motto about work that went something like “the harder, the better” or more specifically, “if it’s not excruciatingly difficult, it's not worthy enough.” Out of college I entered the Peace Corps and taught high school in Kenya for two years. When I returned to northern California, I sought out more challenging teaching gigs—which conveniently are the ones usually open to brand new teachers.
Fast-forward a few years: my career is well underway (yes, it’s stressful and overwhelming, so I must be doing something right), and I’m married with two kids. The teaching-all-day, parenting-all-night cycle is exhausting, but it's also an upward spiral of personal development. My experience as a mom gives me insight into my students, and my classroom experience wisens up my parenting skills. I'm learning how to break down concepts and tasks into tiny components, how to notice and celebrate minuscule accomplishments, how to manage groups of people, listen and support them in their progress, speak in front of audiences, plan and facilitate every kind of event from treasure hunt birthday parties to big community Earth Day celebrations, and fly by the seat of my pants (which is mostly what teaching and parenting consist of).
I'm also burning out at work. I want more left for my own kids at the end of the day.
My marriage, all the while, is wreaking emotional havoc. I’m investing all kinds of energy into de-escalating petty fights that I don’t want to be having in the mornings while heading off to face my 25 cute-but-100%-attention-demanding kindergarteners. I’m slogging through weeks-long walls of silence that make being at home more anxiety-riddled than being at work. I’m using whatever is left in my tank to normalize things for my two daughters, all the while telling myself, “Don’t make such a big deal out of it, he’s just stressed,” and “Everyone says marriage is hard, right?” I’d taken vows, and taken them very seriously for 15 years. (Perhaps I wedged marriage into my excruciating-or-not-worth-it work ethic?)
Obviously, the lifestyle I just described is not sustainable. Here’s the order in which the shoes dropped:
I got a divorce.
I got some melanomas.
I changed careers.
Putting those events in a bullet list makes them look clean and orderly, but of course I was a flaming hot mess inside and barely keeping things together. However, I was also slowly and gradually learning to pay attention to the signals my body was sending me—or rather, had been screaming at me for years. I’d become a pro at ignoring or explaining away the tears, the twisted gut, the shaking quiet rages, the false happy faces saying everything is fine. Like most women, I’d had tons of practice with this kind of denial, probably ever since I started having opinions. (That’s fodder for a whole other discussion.)
Anyway, where were we?
Ok, let me be clear: I didn’t get the divorce in order to focus on art. No, that’s why I got the melanomas. 😉
One can argue that teaching is inherently creative, as is parenting, and that there are many opportunities to make art with kids, which I did, frequently. That's something, but it's not the thing. It might fool you into thinking you're scratching the itch, because you've gotten really good at living vicariously through your children, scratching all of their itches. Probably, you've learned to notice their itches more than your own.
Here's how I started to notice my own itch, if you'll allow me to keep irritating your skin with that metaphor.
In 2000, after eleven years of teaching, ten years of marriage, and seven years of motherhood, I took a mosaic class from a friend in the neighborhood. (Thanks, Claudia!) Honestly, I signed up more because she was my friend than because I was interested in mosaic. But that afternoon shifted my entire adult life’s course, unbeknownst to me at the time. Sounds dramatic, but "aha moments" are a real thing, and sometimes you can follow a trail of breadcrumbs back to it's start.
What exactly began that afternoon in Claudia’s backyard, you ask? Well, for the first time in many, many years, while arranging bits of broken plates and tiles on an old copper kettle, I entered the state of creative flow.
Turns out that providing art experiences for all the kids in your life—even if you pick up a paintbrush and make a few strokes alongside them—is not like allowing your adult self time and mental space and room on the table to dig into your past and pull up memories and ideas. It's not like spending uninterrupted hours manipulating images and getting lost in colors. Not the same thing at all.
I hadn't had that kind of experience since the painting classes I took in college. I remembered—like a hazy, distant, far-away scene—setting up my materials and examining whatever still life the instructor had arranged, and - poof! - the three hour session would be over.
So, about this flow state, this energy that is both effortless and exhilarating, an epic battle that is simultaneously full of ease, suspended in time and space? I wanted more, and more, and more of it. I was aching for it. It was like I’d found a limb that I hadn’t even noticed was missing from my body. I’d been too busy taking care of everyone else’s needs to see the gaping hole in my own person.
I don't know how to say it without sounding super corny, but it was a connection to myself that I'd been missing. All those years, I thought I was doing the "right" thing by giving everything I had to everyone around me, like a good martyr. Just like I'd learned in Sunday School. But I was starving my soul in the process. And not without cost.
I committed to taking more art classes—one or two per year. And in between, I squeezed in 10 minutes of drawing here, and a trip to an art museum there. I even gave my art a discounted drafting table with a handful of supplies. Yep, in a spider web-filled corner of our dark garage, where no one ever went. That’s what I felt like I could get away with at the time.
In one of the art classes, my pastel paintings caught the attention of a classmate who happened to own a cafe. He asked me to hang my work there—as in, have a solo art exhibit. My first one. You can read about that harrowing-but-magical experience here. That was the first dance between me and my art and the public.
Around that time I'd also begun teaching collage and mosaic classes with Claudia in her studio, for our friends and neighbors. Then I started an after school art club at work. I needed to see myself as an artist, and teaching was an entry point I could wrap my head around. Claudia was already known as a real artist, so I snuck in on her coattails and our neighborhood accepted it. And how would those grade school kids at work know that I wasn't really qualified to teach them art? This strategy worked well for shifting my mindset.
Meanwhile back at the ranch, the whiplash turns and loop-de-loops that comprised the rollercoaster of my marriage had worn me out. I found a serendipitous housing situation around the corner (thanks, Jeannie!) and moved into a comfortable home that I designated a drama-free zone. Huge sigh of relief! Such a blessing, in fact, that I named my first blog after that house. She became an important (if quirky) character in my story for the next 12 years. So much gratitude for Dorothy's House, right until we left her one year ago this week.
However, life and cell division were still going on.
The cancerous mole showed up around the same time as the final divorce papers. It took a few more months and some nudging, though, (thanks, Ann and David!) before I had a dermatologist check it out . By then I was in the middle of my worst-ever year of teaching. When you’ve been doing the work you do for 18 years, you believe it should be getting easier, not harder. A badass group of five year-olds was bringing me to my knees.
Well, I was a tough nut to crack, says the Universe. Not real quick at taking hints. I finally got the message, after having three melanomas removed, one after another, in 2007. I took a few weeks off from work and spent the downtime brainstorming a new career path. And doing the entire puzzle page of the Oakland Tribune each day, in my sweat pants.
From here, it would be great to say that a choir of angels appeared, “Aaaaaaaahhh!” and all was healed and life got easy and I re-entered that flow state, never to look back.
Well, some good things did happen, in fact. I had a very compassionate principal (thanks, Shannon!) who reduced my teaching load for the rest of that year. We also arranged for me to coordinate with a neighborhood group (thanks, Dawn!) on a school-wide painted tile project to be installed in the adjacent city park. That was my first public art endeavor, and my first big community partnership. It would be followed by nearly a dozen more tile and mural and mosaic collaborations on that particular city block of Oakland, California over the next decade.
That’s how I became, accidentally but happily, a muralist. I stopped working as a school teacher after that year, but have never exactly stopped teaching. (My "classroom" simply moves around a lot now, and my "students" continually change—and most are much older than five.)
On the home front, the kids and I had a whole darn house to do with as we pleased! Pretty soon the walls were turquoise, gold, lavender, magenta, blue, and yellow. Swirls of mosaic embellished the kitchen and entryway, and the bathroom was collaged with maps. It took a while, but I converted my Very. Own. Entire. Garage. into an art studio. (I left most of the walls and ceiling how I found them: leafy-minty green.) I filled the shelves with a wild assortment of scrounged and salvaged and left-over-from-someone-else’s-project art materials. And I started teaching classes there with Claudia, then on my own. And offering summer art camps (thanks, Amy!) for neighborhood kids and local soccer teams.
I started a business called HandyGal which was a bit of a catch-all, as the name implies. I didn't have the confidence to put all my eggs in the art basket yet (remember, I'm now a single mom living in the Bay Area), so I did whatever odd jobs people were willing to pay me to do, within reason (thanks, all of you neighborhood friends who hired me!). It was six years of juggling mural projects and visiting-artist-in-the-classroom stints and art workshops in my garage-studio, with a whole lotta gigs as a professional home organizer and house painter and copy editor (thanks, Carol! thanks John!) and more.
Oh, and then I sank loads of borrowed money (thanks, Debi and Paul!) into a brick-and-mortar retail business partnership (called Rare Bird) that quickly went south.
When I came up from under that particular foray in 2014, All Hands Art was born in earnest (thanks, Cindy!). I stopped doing all those other non-art jobs, for the most part. Except writing. I never seem to stop writing. Even when I think I'm not writing, I'm somehow filling up journals and doodle notebooks and every other kind of bound paper object, small and large, lined and blank, with hand-made marks.
And blogging. That's been my public version of writing, and I've been doing it sporadically since 2011. The modern version is here on this very website, of course, but I discovered recently that my very first one I mentioned earlier, called Dorothy's House, which was current about four websites ago, still lives on the interwebs! It kind of feels like a museum of my work, when I look at it now. (That's my beautiful Oakland drama-free zone you see on the header photo—the house that got heavily embellished inside.)
So, what does All Hands Art do, you ask, now that you're "all art, all the time"?
For the past several years we've been approximately 70% about mural-making, another 20%-ish about teaching art workshops, and 10%-ish about making/selling art and up-cycled crafts. I'm happy to report that my business has kept me afloat for 10+ years. Not dripping in wealth, but proud—in awe, in fact—that I've been able to make a living as an independent, free-range artist.
If I sound surprised, it's because I am. If you had told me 15 years ago that I'd create multiple murals for the City of Oakland, requiring me to present my designs to a stone-faced committee of public art gate-keepers at city hall; that I'd get a 10-year contract to make annual art pieces for a non-profit to award to community heroes; that I'd design a team-building project for 400 corporate employees that would result in a 60-foot-long mosaic mural at a school for homeless students in San Diego; that I'd be invited to the Dominican Republic (2016) and to Kenya (coming up, fall of 2019!) to collaborate on art projects; and that I'd be working on my 70th community mural today, I'd have said, "You're completely nuts. I don't know how to do any of that."
Because I didn't know how, until I started doing it.
Here are some more surprising things I recently I tabulated:
Since 2006, I've worked with about 4,350 participants to embellish approximately 10,500 square feet of wall-, floor-, and other space.
Not bad for an accidental muralist, right?
I’m most proud of the number of participants. It includes the 50+ preschoolers who painted their self-portraits on 6” tiles that now charm passers-by on the street outside their school. The grandmother who worked alongside her six grandchildren to create an oak tree mural in her attic playroom, personalized with their handprints and favorite creatures. The middle schoolers—some grumbling, some motivated—who helped design and piece together a cityscape of Oakland that highlights their pride of place.
It also includes nearly all my extended family members and any friends who happened to be in town while a project was in progress. And my fellow Peace Corps Kenya folks and their families during one of our reunions. And my hiphop classmates. And my neighbors, school district colleagues, business friends, and (no kidding) the occasional random person on the sidewalk who stopped to watch our progress and was invited to join in.
It includes at least two of Oakland's city council members, and one beloved member of the U.S. House of Representatives (go, Barbara Lee!). Quite a few school principals and several custodians in addition to hundreds and hundreds of students and their teachers, plus an assortment of accountants, carpenters, IT folks, nurses, administrators, therapists, teens serving time at juvenile hall, teens during art class and helping out after school, teens being hilarious and thoughtful and responsible and creative and dedicated, troops of Girl Scouts—I could go on and on, but you get the idea.
About a dozen out of those thousands of volunteers would label themselves "artists." The rest were just people who were interested and curious and wanted to give it a try. Wanted to improve their neighborhood park or school, or their backyard. Wanted to learn a new skill.
That's what I love about doing art with people instead of for people. It breaks down the barrier between "artists" and "mere mortals." We are all both.
What’s not included in those numbers are the 1000+ people I’ve shared art methods and non-mural activities with in classrooms, in my garage-studio, or in their 30th floor San Francisco venture capital office suite. I haven’t sat down to enumerate those experiences yet. 😉
This is the spirit of All Hands Art. We’re here to engage you in the goodness of making stuff with your hands. Because you were, in fact, born to do this. (I know you think you're the only person on earth who really wasn't—no, really, you're serious, you have zero creative ability. Yeah, yeah, I say. I've heard all that before from nearly every person over age 10 that I've ever worked with. Now that you've aired your disclaimer, can we please just start making stuff?)
And the thing is, once you start to see yourself as an artist—as a maker of things instead of just a consumer of other people's things—your life will shift. Toward better health. Toward deeper connections. Toward being your you-est you.
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Post Script: I've been cancer-free for 10+ years. The kids have left the nest, and are busy figuring out their place in the world. (They’re each experienced muralists, too.) I'm nine years into a relationship in which I can plunk my art materials down and paint right in the middle of the house, without argument or sighs of disapproval, which is just one sign that I've chosen well. Last year All Hands Art and I moved to Portland, Oregon, where Mark is from and where I grew up. I'm filling up on down time, solitude, my own art, and writing, with a few mural projects simmering in the background. Mostly, I'm working on writing a book about the journey you just read about.
I don't know how to write a book. But I know that you have to start writing it, in order to figure out how. (See, Universe? I'm learning!)