If you wait to be unafraid, you will die waiting.
The terrors of this world do not sleep.
Liberation is for those who tremble.
I am sitting at my 18-year-old Ikea desk, cloaked in the dim gray light of the descending Buffalo winter. We are deep into the COVID-19 pandemic, licking our chomps at the whispers of a vaccine to save us all. Four agonizing days after we had cast our votes, Joe Biden was just announced president-elect. I am newly deemployed, leaving behind a decade and a half career bookended by The Family Business.
I heard somewhere cultivating creativity was a burnout salve. Prepared to rock the hell out of this healing, I had ordered a watercolor brush-pen tutorial kit off Amazon two days before my last day of work. I have it all set up in front me now… YouTube queued on the laptop, pristine brushes, a mason jar of clean water and preprinted tutorial pad. I sit still as I acclimate to the flash bang of fear ignited by a glancing blow of shame.
When did I become this person?
Isolated at a cheap desk petrified of a blank piece of paper.
With a shaky breath, I hit play and dirty the water.
Hey, look at that… not too bad!
It’s nothing original.
It looks kinda legit though.
I just copied what they told me to do.
It’s not even real painting anyway.
I’m not creating anything… just copying, mimicking.
Who do you think you are, an artist?
You know that won’t pay the bills.
I don’t know who I am.
Watching a stroke of water slowly creep across the page, the fibers of cold pressed paper suck the stream forth, toward a line of ink. As soon as they meet, a ribbon of color unfurls back into the near invisible trail. Entranced, I kiss the stream with the smallest tip of the pen, bursting the color into a bloom.
Look at that…
Shoot… What did they say to do next?
Fueled with Pinterest inspiration, I am compelled to create opportunities to expand my kids’ capacity for renewable creativity. Spending hours curating the just-right developmental queues, supplies and excitement.
Rip, pour, squeeze, spray, attach.
A brush, our feet, a leaf.
Make a mess.
Too BIG of a mess...
Sweating and laughing while coaxing our creations. Exhausted and proud to Scotch Tape to the gallery wall, side by side.
Look at what a good mom I am!
Every day I return to my desk and tutorials. The sharp edges of fear beginning to dull. I am giddy today to tackle that Hot-Pink Feather!
What a disappointment.
Isn’t it mortifying to discover that you are not even a mimic?
The art desk pulling double duty as a homeschool headquarters, my daughter unearths my practice pad, proudly showing the images off to Nonna over video chat. Ease dropping, I pray the feather stays hidden. Mom, of course, fawns over the images, again defining my scale of Good Art.
Of a Good
Methodically working through an intricate geometric design, I begin to wonder how my growing pile of completed works would find their productivity.
Our walls are quite bare.
Do you think this will be good enough to display?
Eventually I work my way through the practice pad and all the YouTube tutorials. My paint collection expanding with cake pans and little bottles of liquid. I feel an urge I can no longer resist to paint a Mother Tree of Life, breast bursting across seasons of color. Brown explodes into a bloom right where the breast was meant to be. Heat rises into my cheeks.
This is so juvenile.
Primary colors and all.
What made you think this was a good idea?
Jesus this is painful.
I can’t even look at it.
Geometric design proudly hung and now faded, I am leafing through the stack of forgotten experiments, failed attempts, not so bad and kind cool. Chuckling to myself as I remember the tantrum that roiled through me as I almost had a displayable piece of art that was ultimately relegated to this bin.
The Mother Tree of Life, still echoing the vibrations of vulnerability. Studying the strokes 3 years later, that bloom-boob now feels radical.
You’ve been dreaming about this for a while, huh?
Celtic Tree College Tat.
The Oak Tree metaphor.
The sleeve you’ve been contemplating.
Thinking about death and struggle and resilience and quitting, I am eager to create a moody piece, expel my angst with my hands. Channeling Andrea Meyers energy, I Elmer’s glue pile of discarded art, layering in dark unrecognizable smudges to anchor my mood. It dries in a hard stack, wavy from the wet school glue in spite of my make-shift paper vise.
I have a clear idea of the intricate design I want to carve into the layers of paper.
Save that burst of color!
Don’t lose that funky curve!
I am three layers deep and am just realizing that I started too small and too intricate. I will never be able to access the last layer at this rate. All of those bits and bobs I painstakingly saved, won’t be able to stay. In real space, the intricate design in my mind became a nest telescoping inwards, exponentially constraining my flexibility as I dig deeper.
Time to QUIT!
Easy does it… nuance will magnify…
Methodically working deeper and deeper, fingertips growing sore, I repeatedly need to go back to the beginning, ripping more paper away. Simplifying the starting point over and over.
Seasons of struggle begin to emerge. The dank weight of illness, cold loss of friendships that ever-elusive sense of purpose. I feel fear radiate across my breast as I wonder…
Am I dying?
Did I just spend the last 38 years walking dead through a life that was not mine?
How do you live everyday likes it’s your last without being crushed by the weight?
Without growing numb to the weight?
How do you weave the minutia of day to day life into something that matters?
Will I leave behind more than absence in my wake?
Layer by layer, tear by tear, I kill another piece of paper, stroke, work, revealing a new memory and consideration underneath. A treasure trove of birth and death and rebirth of color, memories, emotion, sensation.
Where to Next?
Where to Next?
Reaching the final layer, I lean back to take it all in. I had not accounted for the amount of light torn white paper would introduce into dark pages. While I imagined a dark piece of three-dimensional art, now I have in front of me a trippy bright geode looking thing.
Leafing through old photos, I find one from the summer after high school. It is an image of me climbing up a boulder on a Watkins Glen trail. I doctor it up with a little computer magic, print it off the inkjet, brushing water over the image before weaving it within the geode.
My fantastical image climbing through the progression of my “failures.”