How can we trace, really, the beginnings of our creative life? We write our biographies, our artists’ statements, we tell the stories, but how do we know for certain that this moment or that was the beginning?
Biographies of musicians sometimes include “She picked up the guitar at age 3 and…” But really? Is that the beginning a creative life? Or, “He began writing short poems when he was six…” Maybe, “She danced from the time she could walk…” Don’t most babies dance?
And doesn’t a creative life mean something more than this?
I’ve included here one of my first adult efforts at painting. Twenty-seven years ago. I’d spent time at art school, taken several other life drawing classes and had newsprint pads filled with nudes – male and female. The body was a fascinating study. One night, when I’d begun studying again, I took up some water colors to create the nude here. My experience with color so far – and beyond my Crayola 48-color box – had been a few pastel drawings, but this one was different where I’d worked hard to get the colors “right.”
This time, I wasn’t trying to capture the “real” colors of a body as I had tried to capture the “real” colors of flowers, a teapot, a vase, an apple – other subjects for my pastels.
I don’t remember now why I didn’t add hands or feet, but then hands and feet are notoriously challenging. Maybe I was insecure about them, or maybe just lazy. But I do remember the colors. And looking back, it seems that, no matter what other stories I’ve told about wanting to paint since I was a child, this little colored sketch is likely the real beginning of my creative life as an artist.
It was my break from realistic art and my entry into the abstract world that had drawn me for so long in my trips to museums and galleries, and especially in my art history classes where I’d learned the progression from reality to abstract.
The creative life as I see it is not only about “making;” it’s also, in a very large way, about “thinking.” Perhaps it’s my own defense of abstract art, particularly abstract expressionism. Abstract expressionism gets a bad rap as “just feeling,” “my four-year-old could do it,” “what the hell does it mean anyway,” all or any of the above and more.
But looking back to my own breakthrough with the nude, simple and small as it was, I know this little painting was more than simply paint on watercolor paper. It didn’t happen as just feeling. Neither my four-year-old nor my thirty-year-old could have done it. No meaning was intended beyond the colors themselves.
And yet, this painting signaled a beginning that took me years to get back to and continue. When I did, it took me still more years to work up the courage to think fully about the colors and to set out on my own road, one I had to lay out for myself – thinking and working every step of the way.