Over the years I’ve heard & read copious tips on what qualifies as essential characteristics to the artful life: you must commit yourself to being a lifelong student; you must be willing to embrace truth at all times; your first obligation needs always be to satisfy yourself; you must be willing to disregard recompense. Yes, these shards of advice range from the poetic to pure poppycock.
I agree that a life well learned is a life well lived, and while I approve of honesty, too much of it can certainly suck dry the marrow of creativity. Self-satisfaction is wonderful, but don’t we all owe something to those we reach out to? If not, then we risk shoving empathy out the door and inviting cruelty to stay for dinner. And to reject recompense denies you the possibility of earning a living at what you most love to do.
Recently I was musing on what I would put at the top of my list; I’ve written to you about love, about patience, about originality and courage…all absolutely necessary. But the top of the list? That’s going to have to go to humor. And I’ll add to that a good dose of humility (I tried to find an etymological connection between humble & humor but without any viable success.) I know “humble” isn’t the first word that comes to mind when thinking of artists, but bear with me.
The sort of humor I’m thinking of is having what it takes to laugh at yourself. When you choose to step out of the norm, to live an original life, to define yourself (instead of pawning the job onto others) you become instantly aware that there is no rule-book that you’ll be making stuff up as you go along. Less than satisfying results are a guaranteed part of the learning process. So is criticism, and much of that will be from people who don’t know what they’re talking about (since they don’t know what you’re trying to achieve.) If you can laugh off both of these goblins you are way ahead of the game.
The sort of humility I’m thinking of is having what it takes to not be frozen to inaction by the possibility of imperfection…or should I say the probability. One of my least favorite pieces of advice is you only get one chance to make a first impression. So many people interpret that as having only one shot to make a good impression that they make no attempt to impress at all.
From time to time my mind revisits my very first outdoor art show twenty-odd years ago when, armed with no useful knowledge, I had a green & white striped plastic canopy. At first I didn’t know how silly I looked I was so busy presenting my work to those who dared to enter what I came to see as my “circus booth.” I also remember presenting works to galleries wrapped in dry-cleaner bags. I was a typical broke artist trying desperately to cut corners. Goodness gracious, how foolish I was, but also how determined.
So what if my initial presentations were foolish? My art wasn’t. When my mind takes these field trips I just laugh and laugh. For one thing, I sold my very first painting to a total stranger from that circus booth (and then went out and bought a more suitable display.) For another, I was dismissed inelegantly from many a gallery until one owner kindly suggested I remove the dry cleaner bags and use something that “would better show off the beauty of the work.” She thought the work was beautiful. So I discovered archival clear bags and she represented me. Still does. She has a great sense of humor.
So, if you have a song to sing, a dance to dance, or a book to write, throw it out there. If it comes back to slap you in the face, fix it and throw it right back. Make that presentation, step into that spotlight, paint your house purple. Because next time will be better.
We’re all familiar with the expression someday you’ll look back on this and laugh, I say if that’s true, then why wait?