For my son’s preschool auction last year, I painted a painting. It felt like the first piece of “art” that I had done in a really long time. I wasn’t even thinking of making something until, one day, talking to the director of the school I mentioned that I had “a background in art.” That was the expression I had settled on to describe my complicated relationship with making art. It was behind me. Past tense. Over and done. A part of me, but history.
“Oh,” she said, “You’re an artist!” The words made me flinch a little, like allowing myself to be called an artist was fraudulent in some way. “You’ll have to donate something for the school auction!” The words sent panic throughout my body but I managed to utter a tentative, “Maybe.”
I hadn’t painted anything except portraits of my kids in years. Questions of worthiness, talent, and the value of my art all came charging at me. In spite of my fears I decided to do it.
When I started the painting, I didn’t know what I was going to paint. I wondered if I was even going to be able to do it. But a tree began to take shape and it seemed fitting. I thought it would go well in a kid’s room and it was an auction for a preschool after all.
I liked the painting but I felt anxious about it. I liked it, but would anyone else? Would someone want this crazy tree I made? When we arrived at the auction, it was already hanging on the wall. It greeted me as I came in. I felt a sense of pride and panic at the same moment. It was scary seeing it there. It was in an odd spot because it blended right into the décor of the venue. I wasn’t sure if people would notice it.
The auction was really fun. My son’s school does it right, it’s like a cocktail party that happens to be at a silent auction. My husband and I had a good time. But as the night went on, no one bid on my painting. At first I was kind of relaxed about that and I would check it for bids casual drive-bys on the way to the bar. But as the hours wore on, I started to check it compulsively. The bid sheet remained bare. Was it that no one wanted it? Or no one knew it was part of the auction? I tried moving the signs for it to make it more obvious that it was an auction piece. I tried striking the pose of very interested bidder, right in front of it, to draw attention to it. I basically stalked it. I had almost given up when late in the evening there was suddenly a bid on it!
I was relieved. Someone had noticed it! Someone wanted it! It made me emotional. It was clear I had a lot riding on it personally, beyond whatever price it fetched for the school. I was busy making meaning out of it. A bid on it = Vanessa is a good artist. No bid = you suck Vanessa.
There was a lesson to learn about not wrapping my self-worth up in other people’s opinions but I wasn’t there yet. I was looking for the validation. I was looking for encouragement. It was basic stuff, I was looking for the bid to tell me “You are good, you are worthy.”
A few days after the auction I went to put my supplies away. But I stopped. It occurred to me, there was no reason to. Why not paint something else? I had so many ideas of what I should have done differently with the auction painting that I felt I had unfinished business with trees and the sky. I began to paint more of them. With each tree I painted, I was sharpening my rusty skills, I was figuring out what it was that I wanted to say with them. What did the sky say, the air, and the clouds? How could I bring them to life and put them in my voice?
In my daily life, painting was having a side benefit of changing my focus to the beauty in everyday life. To stop and really look at the sky, for example. Ever look at the sky? It has so many things going on at once, at all times. Layers, movement, sudden changes. It’s amazing and I almost never looked at it. Now I do. Because I’m always thinking, “How would I paint this sky?” And most of the time I’d think, “If I painted this sky, no one would believe me.” because it is so complex.
There were (and still are) moments where I’d get to the top of a hill and get a broad look at the sky and think, “What a world we live in.” With so much chaos going on in the world, if I am feeling helpless about it, I think, “At least there is the sky.” What a gift that has been, to see beauty and feel awe in things I used to just plow through my day under.
Painting the trees was a pivotal moment in my life as an artist. The simple act of saying “yes” and making a physical space to paint in opened a door that had long been closed. And it planted the seeds (sorry, plant metaphor) for this project because as I painted those first paintings I thought, “Why haven’t I been doing this all along?” And when I really explored why, I realized the answers were so muddied in self-criticism, and were developed so long ago, that they all needed to be wrestled with and rethought. (Which is what I’ve been doing with this blog. Starting here.)
It’s been a year since that first auction and back in April I started to think about what I would donate. This time, without hesitation, I was going to donate art.
I began to make big plans about the painting. I thought of doing another tree. But I was already working on a tree as a commission for a friend. I wanted to do something different (would you believe I almost wrote I wanted to “branch out”?) I wanted to challenge myself to show who I thought I was as an artist, without apology.
I asked myself, “What would be the scariest thing that I could do, the bravest thing I could do?” And it was obvious, it would be to paint an abstract painting. Just whatever I wanted it to be. Represent that side of my art that is hard to explain. So that’s what I did.
I thought that I’d have a story to tell about the struggle or self-consciousness about going abstract for this piece. But I don’t. My biggest concern was hoping the paintings would dry in time for the auction. I think that means I’m making progress in some way.
In the end, I also donated the Dragon Fly Meets Snail painting from the Ugly Painting Stage post and to my joy, it was purchased by the parents of the little girl that inspired me to finish it. I couldn’t think of a better home.
In addition to my own paintings, I also asked artist friends of mine to donate and received 3 pieces from very talented people. As the night began everything quickly picked up bids. I didn’t check my own work after I saw that it had been bid on. I checked my friends’ pieces. I was excited for them as I saw several people bid on each piece. After the event was over someone asked me how much my paintings sold for. I didn’t even know. While I still felt happy that they had been purchased, it wasn’t a validating experience. I wasn’t looking for my goodness to be defined by the sale. I was just happy that I had made something that others wanted and it made money for the school.
What a difference a year can make.