12 years ago, when I was a stay-at-home mom of 2 boys and in desperate need of a creative outlet, I gravitated to painting, despite it being a decade since I had last taken an art class. Armed with new materials, I found myself looking forward to these creative escapes during naptime, not just for the “me” time, or even the outcome, but for the actual enjoyment I felt in the process of creating. This rekindling of art-making eventually grew into a new career, and as much as I knew I loved what I was doing, I was surprised by the life lessons my time in the studio taught me.
1. I can rely on myself to figure it out.
How do I collect and pay sales taxes? How do I edit code on my website? How does resin work? How do you get acrylic to stick to plexiglass? Over and over again, my self-reliance became a bigger player as I proved that I could figure things out. Tutorials, google searches, asking other artists questions, conducting experiments, attending seminars - if you’re interested in something enough, you’ll dig deep for the solution. But this also means you have to be ok not knowing the answer, a trait I had previously seen as a weakness. What will people think of me if I don’t know something? Spoiler alert: no different. No one has all the answers so unless you want to stay stuck, get over it. When you can come from a place of curiosity over fear of getting it wrong, the satisfaction of finding the result makes it that much sweeter and ultimately, takes you to where you want to be.
2. Intuition is an attribute that can be sharpened.
For most of my life, I’ve felt disconnected to myself. I’ve built an internal wall to protect myself from getting hurt. Emotions were not a regular part of conversations growing up, and so I didn’t have the practice of expressing - or even identifying - them in a way that helped me be in touch with myself. I became someone who deferred to others, who people-pleased. Consequently, I had minimal recognition of my own intuition. Gut feelings were usually explained away with logical explanations. But alone in my studio, I wasn’t distracted by outside influences. It was just me and my art supplies, and I called the shots. What colors to use, what direction to go in, what technique to apply - while these decisions may sound small, they allowed me to access my intuition. I would think of possible options until I reached one that felt instantly calming, in a way I could feel in my stomach and heart. When artworks didn’t feel “done”, I’d keep going until I found that internal sensation. Attuning to my intuition again and again fortified a trust in myself, an attribute I’m happy to say translates outside the studio as well.
3. When you express yourself, you get closer to knowing yourself.
I mostly paint from my heart, communicating a message or expressing a feeling. It’s something so personal, akin to writing in a diary or pouring my soul into a heart-breaking song. I have painted through tears during times of deep distraught, and I have painted while dancing with music blaring, in a state of pure bliss. This form of expression is my release, and no matter the emotion, I find relief and acceptance within myself afterwards. When you keep your feelings bottled up, you hide behind a mask, reducing your authenticity and minimizing opportunities for a deeper connection with others. (Thanks to my husband for helping me with this one). It might take time to find the form of self-expression that works for you: writing in a diary, poetry, confiding in a friend… whatever allows you to get it out. The more regularly you can release your inner feelings, the more you will shed guilt, resentment, fear - anything - and in turn, get to know yourself.
4. If my heart’s not in it, the result will show.
As I mentioned above, I paint from my heart. This is when my best art comes out of me. But it’s also important to note that not every artwork is a masterpiece. There are failures, rejects, disappointments, real pieces of crap that I hate to admit are mine. That’s just part of the process and it’s ok. But when I reflect on these, I notice that my worst paintings were ones when I was trying to either paint when I wasn’t in the mood, or trying to fit within the specifics of a “Call for Art”. Just like you can tell when someone’s smile isn’t genuine, you can tell these pieces are missing a spark. Sometimes no matter how hard you try, your creative intelligence knows you’re coming at it with disingenuous intentions. And I think this goes for beyond painting paintings. When you show up to an event you don’t really want to attend, volunteer for a commitment you don’t want to do, or saying what you think someone wants to hear, you are choosing societal pressure, guilt or fear over aligning with your heart.
5. Don’t take it so personal.
This one took years to learn, (and still learning in cases). Just like an actor doesn’t get the part for every audition they have, artists get rejected from shows, exhibitions, opportunities, galleries, you name it. After a series of those, it’s questionable if you should even bother to keep trying, considering the application fees and hours of time to prepare. And to add salt to the wound, sometimes you see the selected works and question how they fit the bill more than yours. It’s a natural response, yet a negative and resentful place to stay. And you don’t want that energy following you into the studio. What I’ve come to understand is that there are soooooo many factors and parts of the story we don’t, and will never, know. You have to let it go and when putting yourself out there, you have to be ok with the result no matter what. It’s really not about you. Just keep showing up from a place of belief and your audience will find you. The other week, in the same day I was rejected from an exhibition I had really hoped to get into, and an hour later made my biggest original art sale on my website to date. The universe works in weird ways and I can’t pretend to think it’s all about me. While the external validation is nice, it doesn’t determine our worth - be it a show acceptance or a thumbs up on a post.
6. Make time for what makes you happy.
We’ve all heard the advice that you have to fill your own cup before you are able to fill that of others. Well, I can attest that this one is true. When I haven’t spent time in the studio for a while, I get agitated, grumpy, impatient. I just feel imbalanced, like something is off. For me, I’ve found that creating is my form of filling my cup. For others it might be a massage, reading a book, girls night out, a walk in nature… Whatever it is, carve out the time. Schedule it if you have to. And when you find yourself irritated, ask yourself when the last time you did that thing that leaves you feeling energized and lit up.
7. Downtime is a necessary part of the process.
Similar to making time for what makes you happy, it’s important to make time for doing nothing. As in completely unproductive. This one was hard for me. My high-achieving inner go-getter did not like to do anything unless it came with a measure of productivity. Video games or binging TV shows would not move me forward and so therefore, were distractions that if indulged, I would feel guilty afterwards. But the thing is, when you are running on empty or stressing about deadlines, you can’t be your most creative self. When I used to work as an Advertising Art Director (my first career), they said you come up with your best ideas during one of the 3 S’s: In your sleep, in the shower, or on the shitter. (And in case your curious, for me, it's usually my sleep). Downtime, when we’re not actively thinking about the task at hand, gives us the space to find clarity.
8. Letting go brings you closer to a state of flow.
Control. Control. Control. Man, do we try to control so much in our lives: influencing others around us, curating an experience, parenting our kids, only sharing a certain side of ourselves on social media… control is exhausting and impossible to ascertain. Control is just a way of seeking comfort - when we can predict outcomes, it calms our nervous system and allows us to feel safe in this chaotic world. In the studio, sure, I have a general idea of what I want things to look like, but the gift of working in the abstract has taught me to let go and be in the moment - respond to how things are unfolding from a place of openness and receptivity. When I let go and surrender to the process, it drops me into a flow state, where I become completely absorbed and lose track of time. Outside the studio, letting go looks like being present, staying flexible, and recognizing and relenting when I find myself putting forth way too much effort to guarantee a certain outcome.
9. You can’t be your best self with your inner critic in your ear.
You act different when you are by yourself vs. when you in front of a crowd of people with the spotlight on you. Why? Because you are conscious of the judgement of others. Similarly, when I found my inner critic judging my work, adopting imposter syndrome, or zeroing in on every mistake, I blocked myself from accessing the part of me that had permission to create freely. So I’m not perfect. I experience failures or my new art collection launch doesn’t sell out in the first week. I have to be cognizant of when the inner critic is trying to hijack the show and instead meet myself with kindness and compassion.
10. Find a tribe.
Being an artist can be isolating. It’s important to have a sounding board, a tribe of people going through the same thing you are, preferably at different stages, that have an understanding of what you’re facing and what else is possible. Apply this to your career, motherhood meet-up groups, or your obscure interest in pickling. Whatever your niche, there’s like-minded people out there you can feel at home with.
I think the perfect way to end this post is by sharing how it manifested. I had no plans to write, to create content or reflect over things I’ve learned. I was just washing dishes in the kitchen when overcome by a wave of inspiration that compelled me to put my ideas down. And so I listened to that all-familiar intuition and sat in front of the computer, effortlessly typing raw feelings and insights I’ve felt before but never put into words. And it felt freeing to speak my truth. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like I’ve learned all these lessons for good. Like my artwork, I am a constant work in progress and sometimes learning the same lessons over and over. But the surprise in all of this is how what started as a hobby ended up being the very conduit to empower me to discover my creative voice, and ultimately, myself.