When Panic Sets In: Pumpkin Streusel Cake and The Practice of Painting

I didn’t think I’d have time to bake a cake today. I woke up this morning intending to drive to Los Angeles and hand-deliver a CD of images for a juried show submission that apparently needed to be in their hands today, rather than postmarked, as I’d thought. I woke up this morning beating myself up for somehow misreading a form I had purposely read two weeks prior just to avoid this sort of last minute kerfuffle. I woke up this morning litanizing two paintings for their lack of promise and direction, and the fact that they would have just as little promise and direction this evening on account of my ineluctable journey and the lack of opportunity to work on them, and the fact that I need them to be stellar and presentable by Thursday for submission to a gallery in town I really respect, run by people I know who I don’t want to let down.

It felt like I either compromised the LA submission or ran the risk of compromising the one here.

I get no points for resolving this situation. My sister saved me. She lives in LA, and she agreed to take time out of her workday to make a CD of my images, fill out the entry form, forge my signature, and drive to West Hollywood in midday traffic. The only thing my sister hates more than being woken up and being hungry is driving, especially in traffic. So yeah…my sister is awesome AND I owe her bigtime.

Technicolor Pumpkin, Ink and Colored Pencil on Paper, 11″ x 8 1/2″

Sometimes, when panic sets in, the thing to do is ask for help. And sometimes, if you’re lucky, like me (and your sister is a saint who loves you more than you know how to say thanks for), you get the help that you are seeking.

But sometimes, you don’t.

When I sat down in front of the easel today, I knew the time I had been given to work was a gift, and a lucky one. But I was angry at those paintings for not coming together, for possibly throwing a wrench in the immediate plans of my career and the persona I want to present of myself as an artist. Prepared, prolific, professional. I also understood that being frustrated with the work closes me off from allowing it to grow, from anything other than being frustrated, honestly. Chögyam Trungpa puts it best: “When you get really angry, your eyes are bloodshot and you can’t see properly; you begin to stutter and, you can’t speak properly. You become a mean vegetable.” With a painting, I can be much calmer than foaming at the mouth and still reach the “mean vegetable” stage.

The practice of painting is like any other practice; you have to be gentle with it for it to grow. It’s hardest to do this when panic sets in, but that’s also when it’s most needed. All I can say for today is that I’m really grateful to my sister for giving me the time and space to work with my panic – and make cake too, once the paintings had started to come alive – and that I hope I remember this on the occasion that I don’t get the help I want and I do have to make a compromise, when I have to summon the patience to leave off berating myself and berating work that can only unfold if I am nice to us both.

Recipe after the jump…

Continue reading

The Meaning of Rejection

Veins: for Ellsworth, acrylic and ink on unprimed canvas, 14″ x 14″

On Monday night, I received an e-mail from Sylvia White with the subject line “This is why I hate my job.” That’s a pretty clever and even compassionate way to alert some one that they’ve been rejected from your show. I was disappointed, but not heartbroken, a reaction that caught me surprise.

It used to be that on the rare occasions when I mustered my courage and submitted art or writing to juried competitions, rejection left me crestfallen for months, practically for ever after if I chanced to recall the slight. I would question my competence. I would question my creative instincts. I would question my ability to ever improve, to ever create anything quality at all.

Veins: On the Warpath, acrylic and ink on unprimed canvas, 14″ x 14″

I suspect that what’s changed is this: I have faith in my own work. I used to  wish desperately that I could be an artist, while I secretly feared that I didn’t have sufficient talent or brilliance to claim that role. I looked for affirmation from others; every rejection felt like confirmation of my deepest fear. It was like I was afraid the world would judge me unworthy, take away my creativity rights, and make me go get a day job. Then some where along the way I learned that no one takes away your right to create. You only stop being an artist, or anything really, if you give up. Even if you’re broke, even if you’re working as a babysitter, or a bartender, or a pastry cook, you can make work; you can think from creation; you can claim your identity. Only I can say that I’m an artist, and only I can say that I’m not.

Veins: at Midnight, acrylic on unprimed canvas, 14″ x 14″

And guess what? I’m an artist. I paint because it brings me joy, because I have stories to tell, because I am interested in how the world looks on canvas. I’m proud of the work I’m creating. There will always be places that don’t want to show my work and people who aren’t interested in it, but there are also places and people that do and are. Because I’m committed to my art, to making it and sharing it, I’m also committed to tipping my hat to those that don’t want it and then continuing on to find those that do.

On a Mountain Top

This is where I am right now. Though it’s hard to tell through the haze, that lower swathe of dark blue is the ocean, and the little streak of grey at the upper left of it is one of the Channel Islands. I’m house-sitting for friends right now, and this is the view from the road by their home.

Their house is one of a couple dozen nestled together on a shared property up in the mountains. Coming up here feels a little like stumbling into a fairytale. The people who live here share an appreciation for the natural world and an affinity for creation. Everywhere I turn, I see something being brought into being. They are raising animals, raising vegetables, raising houses. And doing so with pleasure, with humor, with pragmatism, with beauty, with community.

I’m breathing in all the inspiration and letting exhalations flow into abstraction as best I can. I’ve spent most of the last week working on paintings to submit to a juried show put on by Sylvia White, a gallerist in Ventura well-known for her work helping artists develop their careers. I put together a temporary studio on my friend’s porch, and I’m making pictures up on a mountain top.

Hype and Hopefulness

We Were Wilder Once, acrylic on unprimed jute, 26″ x 16″

On Wednesday, I shipped this painting to Arizona, to Christina of the lovely EmelinaQueen. We met in college, where this painting was part of my senior showcase. A year-and-a-half has passed since that exhibition, and, lo, this painting suddenly found a home. Unexpected and awesome, especially since Christina and I reconnected through this blog.

A Usual Wind, acrylic, mold and water stains on unprimed canvas, 20″ x 16″

And, can you believe it, on Friday, I dropped this painting off at the Westmont Museum of Art for a juried show I had entered?

I feel a sense of wonder and even slight giddiness, which makes me instinctively suspicious. Can this streak of luck last? Is it luck, or is this what happens when you get out of your comfort zone and actually attempt to achieve the things you desire? Do I dare to hope for more success or would that just be hyping myself up in preparation for crashing disappointment?

Personally, I’ll opt for not hoping. Hope occurs to me as an expectation waiting to be dashed. Better, it seems, are gratitude and inspiration to work harder and be braver. And also to remember what fellow painter Daniel Galas said (in an interview with Studio Critical): “If you aren’t being denied fifteen times a year from submitting your work for shows, you aren’t applying enough.”

So forget these minor successes. There’s always major rejection to work up to.