Thinking a lot lately about mentors. People I admire. People who exemplify something that I value and have done what I think are great things.
When I’m doing the art thing, which is in some way whenever I have free time, I think a lot about the people, women especially, who’ve trail-blazed before me. I wonder about their strength, their never-give-up attitude and how the heck they got all that inspiration. They had serious vision. And managed to combine it with a lot of energy. And me, I’ve managed to resist the urge for the last while to roll over and go back to sleep.
Georgia O’Keeffe got up with the sunrise from her home and studio in New Mexico. Frieda Kahlo painted from her gut always, if not to process a crazy marriage, at least to find herself and the things that had become a part of her identity, in particular the lifelong injury she suffered in a bus accident. Judy Chicago gave big expression and celebration to women. And as I write this it occurs to me; these women didn’t just paint pretty pictures. They put themselves out there for all the world to see. They painted, sculpted, and talked about what was on their minds, in their hearts. The things that would not leave them alone. And not because they were exhibitionists, but because they were true to self.
Being true to self and who we really are is a calling on all of us. And yet it’s so rare that when someone actually does it everyone notices. The whole world notices. The ones who are really good at it continue to be exactly who they are even after the attention comes. And just a caveat here, I’m not talking about celebrity Hollywood types, or politicians, whose images are carefully handled by packs of agents and coaches. The veneer on them is pretty obviously thin.
I am talking about the type of people who really know they have something important to say, something that the rest of humanity, or their niche of humanity, really needs to hear or see or feel. And yet they approach their work with humility. They know they are serving the work. The work does not serve them. The confidence may not always be there, but the drive is. Getting to this is a difficult process for most of us, considering the culture of image-making we’ve all grown up in.
I encountered this process in a small way this week teaching a painting session to a group of university students. I was asked to lead this by a colleague at my day job, the theme was trees and that was all I got. When I spoke to these young people, I was surprised to learn that many of them had not had any art exposure since middle school and some as long ago as elementary school. I knew I had to in some way reignite their right hemisphere. I told them the story of Piet Mondrian, who painted trees for decades and through that process arrived at his famous black outlined squares and rectangles with primary colours. I told them that their creativity is their own, their imagination unique to them and theirs for the taking. It was theirs to express and it didn’t need to be like anyone else’s. At all. They dived in.
And they loved it. They said things like, “this is so relaxing”, “this is better than therapy”, “I love doing this!” “I wish the evening wouldn’t end.” And their first go at canvas painting was truly wonderous.
Does this mean that all we need is permission? Do we only need to give ourselves permission? I think so…. I am giving myself permission to be unique, to say what I really want to say, to reach out and dare to share it with others. No one else paints like me, no one thinks just like me, and no one has had exactly my experiences. If I don’t share these things, not only have I robbed myself, but also robbed is everyone I was supposed to touch.
So, I am planning on turning part of my home into a classroom. A place where people can come, paint a little, maybe have a glass of wine, and discover parts of themselves they might not have seen since they were children. I’ve also lately been experimenting with different colour schemes in painting. Just small pieces to see what I can come up with that is different from what I’ve already done. (They look awful but I’m working on it - part of the process of coming to something new. Mistakes can help direct our course too, if we let them.)
And that’s the bottom line. We are all works in progress. My mentors, my heroes, knew this very well. And despite what anyone else may have thought, they arrived and continue(d) to arrive at their true selves. That evolving, ever-changing, always learning, always growing, amazing thing that each of us are.
And as Iris Apfel teaches me, they manage, at any age, to do all of this with flair, fun, passion and not giving a shit about the opinions of others. I think I am just getting started….
(Banner Photo: Georgia O’Keeffe | Judy Chicago | Frieda Kahlo | Iris Apfel