Walking around in your underwear (sorta)

It’s why my son says he’s the best runner and world champion marathoner Paula Radcliffe says she has areas where she could really improve. Why kids at lemonade stands brag about their business skills and CEOs of successful companies revamp their entire strategies. 

If we didn’t, in the beginning, believe in our own genius, our own capacity for greatness, I doubt we would ever pursue anything at all. Thank God for blind, ignorant, audacious confidence. Thank God we can so often at least begin with voices more encouraging than we deserve instead of those that tell us “what’s the use” or “this will never work.”

I didn’t take a formal art class until college. I knew so little that I strutted into an art major, confident as my dog in pursuit of a squirrel (don’t tell her she’s 0 for 1,758). In my second year, one of my classmates was preparing for her senior exhibition, which she entitled “Walking Around In Your Underwear,” a phrase our professor would use a lot to describe what it feels like to share your art with others. The thing was, it didn’t feel like that to me at all back then. It felt neither vulnerable nor very personal. It felt more like walking around in my GAP jeans, sweater, and LL bean backpack– nothing too remarkable nor scary about that. 

It’s twenty years later, and I’ve painted more and in more cities in the last few months than I did in all four years of college. And every day when I show up to my newly opened gallery, stride past the hardware store on my way to grab a cappuccino from the coffee shop down the road, I give myself a little pep talk to ward off the insecurities. It’s not that I feel like I’m walking around in my underwear. It’s more like I’m walking around with some enormous and ridiculous hat– one that has the ability to talk and every so often just blurts out some random or incongruent idea at passerbys. My art now feels deeply and unavoidably personal. 

I know so much more now. Namely, that what I don’t know is infinitely bigger than all the things I will ever know or could ever know. That painting each day is acknowledging limitations but also not letting them get the best of me, using them even. It’s acceptance. It’s giving the bird to the idea that what I offer is not good enough to exist, that perfection should precede expression. 

I think that’s the spirit by which this new series was born. The women in these pieces mostly have their eyes covered. Half the time I don’t know where I’m going and despite all the long-term goals I try to make, I often can’t see beyond my next step. I think these pieces are equally about being hidden and standing out, equally about humility and confidence. They are the reflection of a racing mind and an overwhelming peace that presides over the noise. And of course, that peace, for me, quite often looks like a bird. 

This post feels just about as vulnerable as the paintings behind it. But I’ve got this tiny little metaphoric bird ever at my shoulder. She’s part the poems that guide me, my late Aunt Catherine who taught me art and therefore bravery, and part that heavenly peace that surpasses all understanding, the one urging us forward and on and around and about no matter how silly it all feels. 

I am so grateful at this moment for the confidence born of ignorance that propelled me into this new shape-shifting world where I feel less certain of each step and yet more eager to keep taking them. 

I’m getting this small series ready for the gallery (and the site). They will be available Friday, November 26th at 10 am.

A few days ago I shared the piece that starts this post as well as another painting from the series on social media and asked for feedback on what ideas, feelings, or thoughts it conjured for my followers. Having not yet shared this post, which I was working on, I was a little astounded at the answers I got and how deeply they resonated with what I felt about this body of work. You can read some of the responses below and if you aren’t on facebook or instagram, well, first, congratulations! and second, I’d still love your feedback, right here on this old school blog. 

Five Years of Failure and More to Come!

This post is the result of a heart over pouring with gratitude. Where to start. Five years. I’ve been at this five years. An eternity and a microsecond.

When I launched Denise Hopkins Fine Art officially on April 1 of 2014, I was in my early thirties, jobless, broke, and living with my parents for the first time since high school. I wrote the following about the pelican painting I’d just posted:

“I’m beginning my [first] thirty paintings in thirty days with this little guy who is flying on top several failed paintings. I can’t even remember what the surface originally looked like, but I love the way you can see some of the darker layers underneath the yellow/orange/pink in the bottom left corner. I’ve started listening to several artist podcasts lately, and one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned thus far is that EVERYONE, and I mean EVERYONE, makes bad paintings every now and then. If you use oils, you can wipe the surface clean and start again. But the virtue of acrylic is that it dries so quickly you are left with two options– throw it away or paint over what’s already there. There’s no wiping, scraping. And what’s underneath, the failure, sometimes helps what’s on top, the re-done painting, to succeed. I’m in love with the process of painting because it reflects the process of life. I’m slowly learning the difference between setback and failure. Maybe even the importance of “setback” in the process of success. I’m becoming more and more convinced beauty is often planted in pain, stems from it. Still can’t get away from the image of the pelican– her head turned toward me as she flies against a fiery sky.”

I wish I could count the bad paintings of the last five years, but I swear I’d run out of time. Besides, I still, five years later, love what they do for me. Love that they still create a whole host of interesting surfaces on which I can create, repeatedly teaching me about process, effort, dedication, ego.

I have about three thousand twenty two ideas about the last five years– what I’ve learned and how far I’ve come. I’ve taken to facebook and instagram to thank some of my very first collectors, but for this post, I want to focus on my friend and teacher, failure.

Thank you for all you’ve taught me. The “no’s” that led to “yes’s,” the rejections that turned into awards. Thank you for the roads on which you’ve guided me. Thank you for repeatedly taking my stubborn ego to task, rejecting my insistent “shoulds” and replacing them with “what now’s?” and “what ifs?” Thank you for landing me right here– a million miles travelled and infinity still to go.

What to Look at Instead of the Sun

Still — in a way — nobody sees a flower — really — it is so small — we haven’t time — and to see takes time, like to have a friend takes time.. So I said to myself — I’ll paint what I see — what the flower is to me but I’ll paint it big and they will be surprised into taking time to look at it — I will make even busy New-Yorkers take time to see what I see of flowers”   –Georgia O’Keeffe

On Saturday I had the distinct pleasure that is having both solitude and an hour or so unassigned to any one particular task. Instead of plugging into a podcast or immediately reaching for my phone, I took to one of my favorite childhood pastimes– lying down on the swing and looking up at the sky.

It was blue. Large, clean white clouds stood still. If I could hit a mute button on nature, I would have thought it was a bright sunny day. But, un-muted, thunder was sounding from all around, and as I stared, it flashed– crisp, bright lightning against the blue.

I instinctively started counting– how many seconds until the thunder roared again?– another relic from childhood.

That flash of out-of-place lightning was, for lack of a better word, stunning. I was glad I had been watching when it arrived.

I haven’t bought solar eclipse glasses or kept my son home from school for the excused absence the parish is allowing for such a phenomenon.

So on the swing Saturday, I wondered, should I have procured those precious glasses? Should I, an artist, have prepared for this rare visual feat of the cosmos? But when that lightning flashed against the sky, I felt confident that the solar eclipse is one of many glorious sites to behold– that even on my porch swing in Covington, Louisiana, the big world reveals its majesty to me when I stop surfing, scanning, and just look at it without a screen between us.

All of this is to say, if you aren’t prepared to witness the eclipse later today, find something you can stare directly into– a flower still connected to the ground, landscapes reflected in still waters, spiders moving deftly across nearly invisible webs, the lines of your very own hand.

Look without instagramming. Without comment. With curiosity. With awe. Take your time.

Yesterday, I joked with a friend about my fear that when the eclipse arrives, I, like a fly to the zapper, won’t be able to control myself and, as though possessed, will raise my eyes toward it and suffer all the eye damage Facebook friends have passionately warned against. What is an artist without her vision?

So I won’t look directly at it. I’ll just look at the way the light fades and changes the things around me. And then, maybe, once it’s all said and done, I’ll carve out more time for focused watching from the safety of a sturdy swing.

But You Love What You Do: The War of Art

I recently had the pleasure of attending a classical guitar concert after which a few musicians chatted about their art: did playing guitar ever feel like work? The consensus was a resounding yes. One guitarists suggested that he is happiest on a beach somewhere, miles and miles away from his instrument. I get that.

We tend to glamorize art careers. How amazing it is to be able to do the thing you love every day. True. But sometimes the thing you love wears you out, beats you up; it sometimes spits you out.

Once again, my repeated claim seems to ring true: painting is an awful lot like parenting. Immense, other-worldly joy paired with a big scoop of fear, heartache, and frustration.

I struggled in my studio yesterday. The colors weren’t working, the strokes of the palette knife looked muddled rather than intentional. The more I worked, the worse it seemed to get. But, just like parenting, I find the best way to win the war of art is to keep showing up to it– the way we have to when we parent. We don’t walk away from our children after a particularly unimpressive day of parenting. We stay in it. We keep going. We try again.

I needed a break from my painting yesterday. And even though I’d rather be on a beach somewhere miles and miles away from my palette knives, today I’m going to get back to it. It’s routine and ritual that save me from myself. It’s the frustration and the pained strokes that build toward those rare magical painting days where every stroke feels divinely inspired. Hoping that by showing up today, I’ll get one of those soon. And if I do, I’ll definitely be letting you know.

But for now, I’m off to the battlefield.

Life Is Like a Box of Pelican Paintings

Life Is Like a Box of Pelican Paintings

30x40in, oil on canvas. Buy Now

The pelican above has been my arch nemesis for months. We’ve been fighting. My weapon of choice– the palette knife. His– wings that reached on and on forever. They nearly knocked me out.

At first I thought the issue was the background. I couldn’t find suitable colors. They were either too bold for the pelican or too flat, forcing him to star in the painting in a way he wasn’t capable of. He needed to be part of his space. Not sitting on top of it or competing with it.

But the real issue ended up being those blasted wings. Perhaps it was a subconscious desire for him to extend his metaphoric reach, but sometimes you can only get so far before nature tells you, “That looks weird. Metaphors be damned.” (more…)