I remember being young and taping material to my fake Barbies, making dresses out of calico scraps, old lace, and Scotch tape. Sometimes my creations would ambitiously involve a needle and thread, but often I was content without sewing a stitch. I just knew what I was doing was beautiful. Mom would look at the taped-together dresses and proclaim I was really talented and creative. I would just beam and soak it in. My dolls would dance and I would rearrange their furniture and I would dream up new occasions where they would need a fancy ball gown. It’s only looking through older eyes, and seeing the reaction of others when I tell them about my taped-together clothes, that any of this seems at all unusual.
Looking back, I know that it’s important that Mom made the purple gingham dress I wore to my first day of kindergarten. Somehow, she also made us homemade matching coats, canned bushels of peaches, and painted people and landscapes that were both beautiful and mysterious. I was the tallest one in my class by far and one of the only girls in a dress, but I wouldn’t care until years later when I looked back at the old photographs, my heart awash in nostalgia. What I wouldn’t give to go back to those days, to reconstruct the magic of being young.
What I can picture, without even closing my eyes, is me running around barefoot chasing the chickens back to their coup, swimming with the water striders in the irrigation ditch behind the house, or making bouquets of the wild and unruly cosmos we scattered in the garden. I passed my time helping my dad dig up potatoes in the garden, running through sprinklers with my brothers, or playing school with my sister in the side gazebo. I cannot tell you what joy it was to have the Italian prune plums ripe in time for my September birthday. I could always find something to make me happy, something to keep me busy, or something that would be fun to make. The Western Slope of Colorado was all I knew, and in my childhood innocence I thought I could do anything. Like most children, I was an artist: curious, ambitious, fierce, fast and unstoppable. I had faith in my creations, and it didn’t matter that I wasn’t sure of what I was doing. But like most children, I grew up. We all start as artists. When does this change?
That magic changed when I was older, and a part of it was comparing myself to others. I remember taking 4H sewing lessons from a lady down the road where the bend started, near where we would buy milk and eggs. Sewing involves straight lines and precision--and not a single piece of Scotch tape. I struggled with slowing down and getting my seams straight, making what I was supposed to, and the never-ending comparison of trying to outdo my sister---and, of course, not ever being good enough. I was always going too fast. Or maybe I was just growing up. What I was always chasing was that feeling I got when I was little and my mom and I agreed that each creation was borderline amazing—despite being held together with tape. But since my efforts were no longer good enough, I started chasing perfection, and that's just as dangerous.
At some point that magical feeling stops because we start following rules and comparing ourselves and our art to others, and many of us give up. Yes, as I "grew up" I made a few things, learned a few tricks, and tried and tried, but somehow the magic was gone. The excitement of making dresses was over, and though I had once felt the thrill of being an artist, I instead tried to be an average kid. And so it goes for many of us. I have a dear friend who says this usually happens to most of us in about fourth grade. We all start as artists, but only a few survive.
Why do we stop feeling like artists as we approach the teenage years? Is it the vulnerability of art? Are we afraid of being judged? Are we afraid of what art reveals? Art shows how we see the world, and shows how we are each different.
Art, if we get it right, shows our soul.
Maybe the rules and skills of art become daunting, especially for those of us who have an inner perfectionist who takes over. We want to draw like Leonardo without first learning how to master shading a ball. We want the same joy we had with finger painting as kindergartners. I have seen it with students who want to master wheel throwing without first learning how to center. We want the world to once again be easy, to move the way we expect it to move.
Being an artist is about learning the rigors of the craft and it's not always fun---until we find our way back to our inner artists, until we can learn to use our intuition again, and until we find how to play like a kid again while we are still crafting something beautiful.
Fast forward, way forward, and I'm still that little girl trying to create something out of nothing. In my adult years I have become a potter, and I still feel such joy in trying to create something with my own hands, but it has taken me years to get to where I am today Every pot I make, every piece I sculpt, everything I do is ultimately about bearing my soul and showing what I find beautiful. Every piece, with all of its flaws and limitations, is ultimately a reflection of everything that makes me me. There’s calico, gingham, and the taste of fresh peaches inside. There’s the little rebel caught between playing by the rules and just playing with clay. There’s a little kid just trying to please her mom. And, of course, there’s precision, pain, and perfectionism. I hope you will see the beauty, fragility, and flaws, but ultimately, I hope I can help teach and inspire you to create something special of your own.