Is there such a thing?
Yep. Most of us think so.
We’re all critics – we look at a painting or a sculpture or a poem, and we think, is that any good? Or, we say, that’s something even I could do.
When we first looked at this apartment, I walked in and saw this oil painting. Instant revulsion. Audrey Hepburn, with her skin sliced back, and snakes and blood and god knows what else, crawling out, spewing out, of her cracked skull.
What the hell. She’d be the first thing to get put away in the storage area when we moved in, I thought.
Well, I’ve been living with Miss Hepburn for a month now. In fact, I spy her in the huge mirror in the foyer every time I climb the stairs. I have breakfast with her every single morning, hah.
I’ve never really cared for the iconic Hepburn, to start with. I hated Breakfast at Tiffany’s. I just never understood the appeal of the character. She was so clearly mentally ill, a bigamist, with narcissistic tendencies, manipulating everyone with her feminine wiles as she wreaked havoc and dysfunction all over the city.
I just didn’t get why she was the epitome of chic and sophisticated. “Gamine” is always the word used to describe her. I looked it up – it means “female street urchin.” Nice.
So, I’ve got my issues with Audrey. But you know what? The painting is growing on me. I’m starting to appreciate it. Maybe because it’s in my face every day, and I’m forced to keep looking – and keep evaluating if there’s something more there. And there is, actually. Audrey is intriguing.
Maybe one measure of art is that the more you keep looking, the more you want to keep looking.
Jonathan, the personable young man who is sub-letting to us, told us that his mom painted it. When she was visiting New York City, she saw the image done in graffiti on a subway wall, and came back home to Luzern and re-created it.
And now I’m curious about his mother. Is she my age? When did she start painting? Did she also paint the abstract one hanging over the couch? What about the one stashed behind the washing machine?
I think it’s kind of bold. And I think it’s dear that her son hangs it in his living room. And I think I should be a little less judgmental, and a little more open-minded about it. About a lot of things, obviously.
We’re all such critics – and we’re hardest on ourselves. It’s sad to me. We mistakenly think that we have to be tough and unforgiving, look at our work with a heartless eye. But the artists that I know take risks, jump in, don’t look at what’s pretty or not.
And they don’t usually cut down their art. They just keep the pen (brush, clay, keyboard) in their grip and keep with the process. They find the moment that inspires, and keep on going.
And some of it is shit, and some of it is copying someone, or something else. But some of it feels exactly right. And all of it is you.
Once in a while, back home, I go out to the shed and pull down the big box that holds all of my old journals and memorabilia. I can only do it if I’m in a certain mood, because it’s not easy. Looking at the past, trying to frame it in a way that feels less embarrassing, less heartbreaking, less real.
It’s strange reading through my stuff, my histrionics, the self-important phrases, the sheer drama of being, say, an eighth grader. Worst of all, it ‘s trite.Things I thought were so original, weren’t. And there were many times I wanted to pitch it all in the trash, clear out the space.
But I’m glad I didn’t. Because, sometimes, when I read myself as a ten-year-old, I recognize her voice. And she’s kind of funny and earnest, and I want to cheer her on. Or I read how the thirty-year-old me struggled as a new mom, wondering why it was so hard to be “grown-up.” And it helps me understand that woman, and appreciate how she came to be me.
She was a work in progress. She still is.
We all are. And I think there’s this illusion that we have one great piece of art in us (at least), and it will be the culmination of our entire life’s work. Our oeuvre – perfect, complete, beloved by all.
But what if we just kept creating – kept drawing, and singing, and writing, every single day?
We get too hung up on a product, a legacy. And we get discouraged, we give up. Even now, when I look back at the box of old writing, I wonder why I quit. Why did I let the years go by without saying anything on paper? Sure, it wasn’t great art, but it was original. It was unique, even in its banality. It was signature me, simply because it was mine.
It was, and is, a piece of who I am now.
Lately, I’ve been resisting the urge to edit my writing so much, and to publish it without worrying about how it will be received. To let go of it, without it being so perfect, so pretty. So artistic.
Perfectionism kills art. The critical eye, the editorial comments, make me want to put my crayons away. Art is about the process, not the product. And honestly, there is no such thing as a truly finished product, ask any artist.
I remember when I was growing up, how we chose what we were going to pursue – one sister chose horses, another chose ballet. I guess I chose music, but I never really felt passionate about it. But I wanted to draw. I liked to sketch even though what I created wasn’t really satisfying to me. So I gave it up. There was an unspoken agreement that each of us girls had to choose separate hobbies, so we wouldn’t overlap, for fear of competition. One of my sisters started painting watercolors, and she really took off with it.
For a lot of years, I’ve wanted to try it again, just to feel something different in my hand, like a creamy crayon. Not to draw objects or landscapes, just to scribble around. I want the sensation of putting smooth, vibrant color across soft, thick paper, that’s all.
There’s a great art store in Zürich, where I walked up and down the aisles looking for the right medium. Pencils, no – too hard, too precise. Charcoals, no – too dirty on my fingers. Then I saw these thick crayons made of oil, something I’d never seen before. I tried out a deep purple on the test paper. It felt pretty good.
It’s about the feel of the thick, oily stub in my hand. It’s about trying. It’s about using another part of my brain. I’m told we need to do that as we get older.
Maybe I want to be like Jonathan’s mom. Putting it out there, seeing something and re-creating it from memory. Making a personal statement about whatever. Letting the snakes slither out, so to speak.
Audrey Hepburn is cool because she’s caused me to re-evaluate my initial response. To think about who she is, who she might be in my own life. And how she changes every single day, when I climb the stairs. Isn’t that what art should do?
She’s a little bit campy and garish, she’s more than a little bit weird. She’s sort of bad art, and sort of not. But Jonathan’s mom painted her.
And I just think that’s cool.