When I opened Facebook this morning, there was a picture of a studio I shot on one of my photo excursions nine years ago. Wrought-iron steps leading up to a door. A pane of circles of glass. A border of turquoise surrounding another pane and wrought iron designs. All set in a weathered old red brick building, an old factory repurposed as artists’ studios. Big white letters proclaimed: STUDIO. It drew me in then, nine years ago, and it drew me in again this morning.
Do the thing that calls you.
It took me a long, long time to give myself permission to have a studio. Even when I bought a whole wall of shelving from IKEA to hold art supplies, I didn’t play in that room. I organized it. It was ready. But work before play went deep in my psyche. A voice in my head demanded answers to questions like: What’s it good for? Don’t you have better things to do? Isn’t there a world out there that needs so much and here you are playing? Do you really think you’re an artist? Who are you trying to kid?
That voice went deep and was persistent. It took a lifetime to sneak around it. Bit by bit, small step by small step. The voice still pops up occasionally to taunt or contain me, ridicule or shame me. It would take another decade before I tried again to have a studio, before other voices got stronger and persistent.
I envied artists and crafts-persons. They seemed to have a joyful purpose about them. Pay attention to what you envy. It’s a clue to what your deepest longings are. I envied artists long before I dared dip my toe in that water. There is that old story, that widely believed myth: You are either born an artist or you are not. Comparisons start early. Ratings and rankings start the minute we are born. Labels and boxes and categories. And unless we are “good” at something, we would be better off looking for something else.
It would be so easy for me to go off on a detour here about why we even rank areas of interest, making one higher than another: mathematics, language arts required. Art, music – electives. Maybe it’s not a detour. It’s another message about art coming only after work.
My problem was that work was never done. Even as my heart and soul longed for art, I could take a photo of a studio, set up a room organized for art, I couldn’t take the next step and give it my full attention. My heart and soul longed for art, but I had work to do. Important work because it used my analytical brain. It paid a salary. And the other thing is, I didn’t know where to start.
I had also bought the storyline that something had to be big. Important. Impressive. Way back in my 20’s, before I had kids, I took an upholstery class taught by a master craftsman through the local YMCA or some such organization. While others chose a foot stool or a small chair, I scoured the thrift shops and found an old couch with good bones. I reupholstered that 7-foot-long couch with a lot of help from the instructor (who put limits on the following classes.) I learned a lot. Particularly that I didn’t want to go into upholstery.
I can name several other projects like that. Go big or not at all. That thinking held me back from art. It had to be a masterpiece from the get-go.
When I finally took a drawing class about seven or eight years ago, I came out of class crying. Not because I felt like a failure. Not at all. I cried because my instructors had broken the process down so well, to its smallest steps, that I felt like I could do it. I knew I could do it. I had drawn a pear and a glass. A pear. A glass. Small things. Small vases and household objects followed. I was as proud of those drawings as a kindergartener. Wanted to post them on the refrigerator. As I write these words, my eyes get wet and my heart swells. It was a long time coming.
There were earlier toe-dippings. When my daughter was in her last semester at college, she had to take an art course. She chose ceramics. Parents weekend came and I drove to San Antonio. Stacy and I spent the entire day in the ceramics classroom with her teaching me some of the experiences she had had. I didn’t want to do anything else. That is all I remember from that weekend. Spending hours playing with clay. I was enthralled. At the end of the semester, Stacy came home with left-over clay donated by many of her classmates. For me! To play with!
The door was cracked.
I took a pottery class. An entire week at a retreat center in New Mexico with a Native American from the Jicarillo Apache tribe. We hand-formed bowls and fired them in an open fire outdoors. I went back another time and another. And my friends and I brought him to Fort Worth for another experience.
I’m bouncing all over the place, I know, but these memories bombarded me when I saw the photo of that intriguing studio.
When you get in touch with your deepest longing, doors open. Or maybe it’s you, reaching out and opening a door that was always there. How hard is it to reach out a hand and turn a knob? Sometimes it’s almost impossible because you have to run a gauntlet through so many negative voices.
OK, you voice in my head. Listen up.
Waste time. Waste time. Waste time.
What’s it good for? What’s it good for? What’s it good for?
There are more important things to be doing.
The world is a hurting place, and you need to do what you can.
Be serious. You’ll never be good enough.
Why are you wasting time? AGAIN?
Hello. I hear you. I’ve listened to you all my life and you never change your tune. Try a new song. This one is old and boring. And it’s my time to “waste.” Mine. Not yours whoever you are who got into my head and thinks you own me. Mine. Not anyone else’s. You’ve had your time. You’ve taken too much of mine.
You know what I get out of art?
You know what the world needs more of?
A feeling of connection with something much bigger than we are. I do not have to justify my time to you but maybe if you’ll sit there and listen, you might begin to change the old monotonous record you keep playing in my head.
I love “doing art.” Experimenting. And when I feel that deep, deep joy in my heart and in my whole being, I am better for it. I am calmer, more peaceful, more loving, more accepting, more open. It doesn’t matter if my art is good in your eyes. I’m not making it for your eyes. Sure, of course, I’m happy if something from my heart touches you, touches your heart. But it’s not yours to rate or rank or even critique.
And here it is, dear friend. The art from a child is from his heart, from her soul and so the words people speak go straight to that heart and to that soul. Those are the words, when they sting, that are hardest to undo. Be careful, please, what you say to children. Be careful, please, what you say to a “beginner” artist. It is the child playing, expressing. The heart talking.
But back to my point, my own song – the art I do comes from my heart and makes my heart expand. And in expanding, I have more room for you. I have more room for the world. That is the passion I saw in the artists and crafts-people I have had the good fortune to meet. I saw what made their hearts sing. That is what I envied and wanted and have found in my life right here, right now. That studio sign called my name years ago. I don’t know what was going on behind that door. It could have been glass blowing, pottery, sculpture, painting. It didn’t matter. I just wanted in.
It took a while for me to learn that perhaps the most important lesson in life is to do that thing that calls you. Even if you have to crack a door slowly and sneak around the noise in your head until you realize it’s just one of many voices. You can pick and choose which one to listen to.