When they asked me what I wanted to be I said I didn’t know. – Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
I’m either going to be a writer or a bum. – Carl Sandburg
Be careful what you get good at doin’, cuz you’ll be doin’ it for the rest of your life.
– Gabrielle Hamilton, Blood, Bones, and Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef
… What were the tipping points which paved your path to the present?
As the topic of a recent Arts & Letters Club meeting, the above question did not imply an easy path but in talking careers, we were asked to explore the pivotal events which led us in the direction of where we are now. As artists and writers – including painters, musicians, actors, producers and more – the tales told that evening conjured images of a pinball machine: a little ball ricochets through a maze, is flipped and spun this way and that until, finally, having cleared obstructions, it rolls down the groove to some kind of victory.
It’s a story that applies to all lives and although some careers may travel a more direct zip from A to Z, many if not most, take a circuitous route. Perhaps, like Sylvia Plath, you had no idea what you wanted to be. Others, stepping into the roundabout decided on one direction and then, years later, found the courage to jump the median and shift course. Still others, following a dream, never quite get there but pursue their passions when time allows and strictly for pleasure, while there are those who, knocked swiftly onto a track unforeseen are completely surprised to see where they’ve landed. Paths to the present are rarely paved but when you do find yourself rolling smoothly down a road with the wind in your hair, it’s hard not to believe that it wasn’t meant to be.
Following the crumbs back along the trail of my own career – a rambling walk with its dead ends, roundabouts, good times and experiences I wouldn’t change for any express train – I found myself reaching for those crumbs further and further into the past. Just where did this road begin, anyway?
Within the back cover of an old, musty book there lay an answer. Over the years, since embarking on my adult life, this old book has sat on my shelf as a reminder of a time I remember clearly : … the curly hair phase. For whatever reason, and despite my protestations, my mother liked curls. Taking a lock of my hair, she’d wrap it around her finger, stick it with a bobby pin and so the process continued until the curls dangled and itched until they dried. As you can see, in what may have been my first self portrait, I was not too happy. Beneath those curls, eyebrows knotted and discontent brewed – and even the “pretty girl” to her left was not having a good time. … Until this day I cannot bear anything touching my neck. But what I know beyond the source of this discomfort is that visual expression began early in life. As with most children at that age, drawing was inherent – it functioned to describe thoughts and feelings when the childhood limitations of the written word resembled a fried egg, and drawing was just the best way to get things out.
Pivotal moments may summon visions of light bulbs flashing above our heads or skies rumbling with the parting of clouds to reveal some grand truth, but they aren’t always. Sometimes they are small, nearly insignificant moments and, yet, they burrow into the backs of our brains, arising at some later time with the deep voice of premonition. My such moment, at the age of seven, was just a blip one sunny, summer’s day when neighbourhood children had gathered to play. An older girl of eleven or twelve was the organizer that summer, a natural leader who set about defining the afternoon’s game. We were going to play “community.” I don’t know if that’s what she called it but that’s what it was. And so, like the mayor of a town, she pointed her finger and assigned our roles: you run the grocery store, you are the postman, you are the policeman, you are the baker, you are this and you are that, etc. – And what am I going to be? I asked.
Well, you are the artist.
But, what do I do?
You’ll do what you always do. You’ll make pictures for people to hang in their houses.
That struck me as odd. Making pictures was nothing special in my home. Several of my older siblings drew and painted – it was the norm. It was a pastime. That making pictures could be something one could do as part of a community was absolutely baffling. Indeed, it would be a long time before “being an artist” made any sense at all.
Despite deciding to study art, meanwhile a love of words burgeoned as a second but prominent passion that filled pages of journals with tortured teen moments and very bad poetry. I still painted and drew and the subjects, often morbid, explored themes of loss, death, blood – basically, (with a few exceptions) all things horrific. Looking back, I can’t believe my parents allowed me to paint the ceiling of my bedroom with a sprawling mural of a stabbed Christ-like figure, its black blood (it was monochromatic) dripping down one wall. In their place, I’d have been seriously, very seriously concerned, yet, to their credit, they barely blinked. Perhaps they knew by then that teenagers were peculiar and it was best to leave them to it.
Thus, in art school I joined the ranks of the black-clothed, an anti-uniform way of dressing that was in itself, as distinctive as any uniform might be, and in those wonderful days when your head was bursting with all things renegade, when you owned the world because all your ideas were surely new and utterly, without doubt, extraordinary … well, wasn’t that what being an artist was about?
At that time, I’d thought being an artist was easy. But the more I learned the more I realized how little I knew. It never occurred to me that art-making was serious business, that being an artist meant that one could actually do something worthwhile. Overall, it was a game – a game which, without any practical end in sight, served to satisfy only the expansion of one’s thought processes and wherever those thoughts led … well, that was reason enough. What came out of all this was confidence born of making mistakes, the development of critical thinking, and the ability to criticize not only what one read, saw, heard and lived, but the ability to critique oneself, one’s work, one’s ideas. And there is nothing quite as lovely or as worthwhile as that.
Indeed, there were a lot of bends in the road and, as the little silver ball in the pinball machine, I ricocheted about as much as anyone and if I’ve found my groove, well, it is not a constant and that’s what makes being an “artist” interesting – because one is always a little confused. Because you never grow too comfortable. Because, unless your groove becomes a rut, you’re always challenged. And, as an artist, for that, I’m grateful.