Today marks the first of a new monthly series here at Be Small Studios. Dear Young Artist is a series of letters written by artists, men and women who paint with pigment (or perhaps with words, song, pie-making, play dates…) to encourage young artists and speak honestly about the work of creating. The series was inspired by this letter written by Makoto Fujimura. Today we welcome Emily Freeman – a writer whose artistry has inspired and taught me much more than I can paint in words. Enjoy.
Dear Young Artist,
It feels strange and uncomfortable in a way for me to be writing to you because I feel like a young artist myself. Not in terms of age, but in respect to practice and calling and purpose.
I have so much to learn.
I suppose that is my first point. As you grow into your craft and practice it more, a feeling of competency and arrival will probably never accompany it.
It’s like when I first brought twins home from the hospital – I couldn’t believe the doctors and nurses allowed me to take them. Shouldn’t a responsible grown up be in charge? But I looked around and my husband did too and all we saw was each other.
We didn’t feel capable but we didn’t have time to wait for our feelings to catch up with our reality. There was too much work to do.
If you are waiting to feel qualified, certified or professional, stop. Give yourself permission to work from your smallness, from your humility and your humanity.
You will probably never feel like a “real artist.” It’s okay. In the meantime, there are a bunch of messy, failing, brave strugglers doing the work of art – you’re welcome to join us whenever you are ready.
Speaking of being human, remember you are one. You have limits and these limits can be a gift if you are willing to see them that way. Remember how God poured his divinity into humanity in the form of a tiny, helpless baby. Don’t consider yourself above him by thinking that the sky is the limit and if you just had more time/energy/talent, you can get there one day.
The sky is only the limit if you are an airplane. If you are human, your feet will nearly always be planted firmly on the ground. That is where they must be for you to do the kind of work that keeps you touchable, broken, but somehow at the same time, unbreakable.
Creativity doesn’t involve a magic potion. The great artists you admire don’t have a special visiting from a fairy muse. They don’t wake up feeling inspired or breathing out sparkly dust of wisdom and talent.
They wake up needing coffee and a shower just like you. And then they get to work. And often their work looks like a lot of hair twirling, window staring, and procrastinating. But they don’t give up. They persevere through the boredom and the discouragement and distractions and they are most of all willing to create awful art.
John Mayer says there is no such thing as a bad song, only an unfinished song. When you’re in your room with the door shut, create ugly work. Make it messy. Embarrass yourself. Finger paint. Write bad songs. Write horrible sentences.
Stop waiting for the Muse. She isn’t coming.
There is only you, but that is actually more than you might realize. You are made by design by the hand of God – made in his image and given a job to do. There are things you are good at and there are other things you aren’t so good at. Delight in his companionship in the midst of both.
I know when you begin to create you might be tempted to avoid seeking out the work of artists you admire. I made this mistake when I first started out, fearing their voices would be in my head and I would not know the difference between them and me.
Do the opposite of that. Learn the value of being taught how to do something. Let yourself be a learner.
The disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray. They didn’t hide out in a cave alone and work out how to pray by themselves. They went to their Maker and asked to be taught.
And the Teacher said to them, “When you pray, say this: Our Father who is in Heaven. Your name is holy.”
First, we learn by copying. Only after that can we make it our own.
Let the work of your mentors marinate in your head. Soak in the art of those you admire and let them inform your work like a great cloud of witnesses. Let them mingle in your head and have tea with one another. Listen in as they trade ideas and inspiration. Read several books at once and let them spar.
Read Madeleine L’Engle, N.D. Wilson, Shel Silverstein, Dr. Suess, and C.S. Lewis. Read Jane Austin and the Bible, poetry and history, your favorite childhood books.
The art you make as a result of sitting under their influence will be richer for it.
If your art is writing, read. If your art is music, listen. If you art is painting or dancing or sewing or cooking – watch, handle, touch, taste.
If your art is mothering, make friends with other mothers – younger, older, and the same as you. Rub shoulders with those who are doing what you are doing, or what you wish you were doing – learn from them what to do and , if you don’t particularly care for their ways, what not to do.
Stop trying so hard to be original. It will get you stuck inside your own head and your work will become self-indulgent and self-centered.
Work instead to be generous.
In a letter he wrote to Christian artists, Harold Best says this: Art and artists are just one strand in the vast creational weave. Learn the decency and worth of the work of a farmer or a longshoreman or a physicist and then let your art stand cheerfully and humbly alongside their work, but not above it.
I’ll take it further and tell you this – begin to see the artistic potential in, not only your own art, but in the farmer, the longshoreman (whatever that is) and the physicist. They may not identify themselves as artists, but the work they do is art just the same.
Respect them. Learn from them. Ask them questions.
Beware the elevation of your craft above all else. Remember your greatest identity is not artist, but child. Your desire to create is good and comes from heaven, but this desire is not all you are. Even good things cast shadows.
Finally, remember your art is not just a gift to you, as Janice Elsheimer says in her book The Creative Call, “Our gifts are not from God to us, but from God through us to the world.”
Feeling guilty or self-conscious about your art isn’t getting you anywhere. Those thoughts only have the power you give them. Start to see them for the shadows they are. And then, get to work and make art.
And keep a light heart along the way.
Emily Freeman is a writer living in North Carolina with her husband and their three kids. She is the author of three books including her latest, A Million Little Ways: Uncover the Art You Were Made to Live, releasing this fall. She also writes daily-ish on her blog, Chatting at the Sky.