When I first started trying to be an artist there were two paths in front of me. I embarked on one at the sake of the other. Born of a fiercely competitive streak and awareness of being ranked while in school, I chose a path that I hoped would arrive at being the best. Of course there is no such thing as being the best, so this path is a catch-22 of infinitum. The other path, the path less traveled because it is more difficult to find, a path I wish I spent more time on, accesses the extraordinary thing that only the one unique individual self has to give. This path leads to the very core of all great art, and is the whole point of creating to begin with.
For countless reasons, I was too distracted to access the path of deeper self knowledge while in school. I was also probably fearful of looking that far inward. Having graduated with an MFA in painting in 2012 – the year the world was supposed to end anyway – I had even less of an idea about what making art meant to me than when I started. Sure, I could knock out a mean painting when I really applied myself, but I lacked a real understanding of what I was doing because I was using success and praise to gauge my progress, which is the most classic case of missing the point.
Fast forward to a day in June, 2019. Objective: paint from my heart, do it with feeling. Break the glass ceiling, punch through the fourth wall – give it a real go! In my haste to create, with pure wild abandon, I make a bunch of technically poor choices which are instantly humbling. I did a terrible job stretching my canvas, so I decided to rework a painting that I had been putzing with for months, and fulfilled every painter’s nightmare by applying acrylic over oil paint, completely ruining the entire painting.
Of course I felt really dumb when these things happened, and kind of like I was totally sucking as an artist. But I realized that in my excited, albeit foolhardy state, I was in fact chasing down something more important than the rigid formula of steps and chess moves involved in making a ‘good’ painting. This was the opposite of sucking as an artist. The preoccupation with technicalities, and adhering so strictly to doing things correctly are the very hurdles for the mind to get where it needs to go. In my zeal to create I wasn’t following the rules so I wasn’t curbing my imagination, and it was awesome.
However I did ruin a painting. And this felt pretty bad because I felt really stupid for making the mistake, and I squandered something that had a lot of potential. But as in art, so is in life: never underestimate the power of letting go. Especially when you are holding on to something just because you are overly sentimental about it. Sentimentality is an anchor that tethers you to the stagnant soggy bottom of non-creation. And that statement pretty much sums up the painting I accidentally destroyed.
The Ruined Piece was an attempt at abstraction, comprised of a series of noncommittal cute little whimsical marks that didn’t really relate to one another. When I looked closely at it I loved all the parts. But when I stepped back and beheld it as a painting it had no sense of unity, no substance, no meat on its bones – just fluffy movements recorded by absent-minded brushstrokes. It also revealed the bane of my artistic existence: the inability to paint over passages within a painting just because I liked them. Why would I pledge such allegiance to these insignificant passages, which existed like little dams for the creative flow? Because I was being sentimental, inflating the value of something meaningless, and holding my painting back from its own greatness.
The Ruined Piece has showed me that on occasion, the mere fact that something existed once, only to be seen by me, is worth while enough if it helps me progress towards something more meaningful and closer to what I envision creatively. It is inevitable that it will inform a permanent painting someday. Trusting this idea is empowering, letting go is necessary, and losing this hang up is pivotal. Getting rid of something that holds you back is worth every ounce of the precious space created by its absence. Sometimes the experience and the memory of the painting will be more worthwhile than the actual painting – you just have to trust that outcome.