Our teacher’s directive was to draw a tree. I was doing that when I looked over at my friend, Nancy. Her tree was better than mine. In that moment, which more than sixty years later is clear as a bell, I decided that I was not an artist. A singer, “yes.” I sang in the children’s choir in church; my sister, Margaret, and I had been singing duets for years. A poet, again “yes.” I loved to read poetry and memorize poems for “Show and Tell” at school (I know, I know, how obnoxious this sounds?!?) and I wrote simple poems.
So from then on I was a singer and a poet but not an artist. I loved color and design and adored going to art museums but I wasn’t an artist. Many years later something wonderful happened, though. My friend, Penny, started doing art journaling and taking online courses. She would visit me and do art camp, showing me how to do it. I started to take it back, letting myself play with paint and paper and glue and on and on. Right away I noticed that when I was playing with paint and paper and glue I felt younger, a little girl who was nine years old and got to be an artist again.
Today I have turned my dining room into my art studio — it has the best light in the house. When I have a break between client hours, I am in that space looking at the canvas on the easel and deciding what to do next. I’m gonna brag here and say that I am really fearless as an artist, not because I am so brave but because I don’t expect myself to be great at this. When I mess up I can always put gesso on top of the whole muddy mess and start over.
My current painting in progress, an acrylic on canvas (pictured here) started out to be a portrait of my mother, an abstract, and yet still her, recognizable in some manner. In a pile of photographs of family members, I pulled out one of my mother when she was maybe nineteen, ahead of going to college. She had a job as a waitress at a church camp in Green Lake, Wisconsin.
I put her form in the middle of the canvas, focusing first on the cobblestone-covered ground beneath her feet. Next the white dress, slender legs, and stylish late ’40s shoes. The beginning lines of the arms that might show her hesitancy, looking awkward even as she smiled happily into the camera. I wasn’t planning to do an exact reckoning of her face, but already this painting wasn’t interesting: white dress, shoes, slender frame, dark brown and green lake water, I couldn’t keep going in this direction. So . . . . .I turned the canvas on it’s side and started over. Weeks later the painting is finished. The working title: My mom, before she was a mom, wearing a white dress, standing by a lake, looking unsure of herself. Okay, the title is a work in progress as well. My nine-year-old self is having fun with this, and it doesn’t have to be perfect. Perfectionism is the enemy of the good enough. Steinbeck said it better and it means the same.
Using the term perfectionism doesn’t always mean that you are someone with an extreme need to get things exactly right all the time. Maybe it makes you happy or calms you a bit to keep your white shirts next to your white shirts in the closet. Or if you are writing longhand in your journal and you mess up a word, you have to rip out the page and start over. Sometimes perfectionism is more of an unrelenting standard. You set the bar high and when you meet that level, you raise it higher.
The brain sometimes works this way to protect yourself from criticism and to exert some control as the world around you seems wildly out of control. In the present moment, in your grown-up life, perfectionism makes it difficult to try something new because you won’t be good at it, perfect at it, right from the get-go. Is there something that you do that makes you happy and has the power to remind you of your childhood self? Can you risk doing something at the “B-“ level giving you the space to practice long enough to get better?