Imperfection + Persistence

Imperfection + Persistence


“Persistence” 15×30, oil on canvas

This is a backwards “s” painting. I’ll explain.

I’ve been having this memory playing on repeat in my mind recently. I was around six years old and reading a book with my dad. I don’t remember the book, only that it had one of those “This book belongs to” pages in the beginning. My dad asked me to write my name, which I did. Both the “s’s” were backwards. So he told me to do the one at the end of Hopkins again. So I did. Backwards. Try again he urged. Backwards again. I just can’t do it, I told him. He didn’t let up. Perhaps uncharacteristically calm, he just assured me that I could and remained unconcerned that it was taking so many missteps to get there. I remember that I was writing in pen and absolutely horrified that my mistakes were being so permanently recorded in an actual book. 

I have a very clear picture of two rows of backwards “s’s” ending in one that faced the right way. Something like this:

This isn’t the part where I tell you that practice makes perfect. 

Because it doesn’t, and it can’t.

What transpired in that children’s book was what has transpired ever since. The result was far from perfect. My name had at least ten too many letters at the end, the majority of which were backwards. But my dad looked at it with a pride that engendered some in me too. I had finally figured it out! 

I’ve been working on the painting that begins this post for years, and it was always just a little “off.” There was never a human figure in it until recently, and when she came into the painting, she did so slowly. I was cautiously thrilled to discover her, and I kept thinking, “Finally.”

The iteration just before this final version included a vase, the textures of which you can still see in the woman’s face— those textures are my backwards “s’s,” and, unlike when I was six years old, now, I adore them.

I am more proud of this painting than I am of the ones that came swiftly, without trial, error, sweat, or tears. 

I think this might be true: There are never too many tries. No wasted efforts. No such thing as perfect, and beauty to be found in every crevice. 

“Persistence” hits the website along with 14 other new paintings Tuesday, April 26th at 9 am. It will also be available as a print. Subscribers will get special pricing. 

As always, I’d love to hear from you in the comments. Let me know what you think and if your imperfect persistence has ever paid off.

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Painting what I once most feared.

Painting what I once most feared.

 “Flew The Nest” 18×24, oil on canvas

What do you call a cross between a daydream and a nightmare? Whatever the word is, I had a recurring one when I was a kid. I would often imagine that I had a very rare disease that unbeknownst to me made all my thoughts audible to other people. My parents, having been told about the disease from doctors and knowing it would prevent me from functioning in the world if I knew about it, conspired with the whole community to keep it a secret from me. Laws were passed that stated no one could so much as lift an eyebrow to react to whatever they heard in my thoughts no matter how crazy, funny, outrageous, or ridiculous. There was no hiding anything from anyone. I was thoroughly and perpetually exposed, and, in the world of the dream, just beginning to realize it. 

I’m not sure exactly why I let this dream play out so many times other than I felt sure that the most terrifying thing in the world would be to have my innermost thoughts exposed with no ability to filter, control, edit, or even misrepresent them. 

Lately I’ve been painting women with, for lack of a more eloquent way to say it, “stuff” on their heads. When people ask, I tell them all that “stuff” is their thoughts. It’s always just a touch chaotic even when it’s blooming or beautiful. 

It occurred to me recently that, in a way, I’ve been illustrating one of my greatest childhood fears– the thoughts are not invisible and stored internally but take on actual shapes and contours that manifest themselves outside the bodies from which they come. They have weight. In “Flew the Nest” in particular, the swirling thoughts started to form what looked like a nest to me. So I, at the very end and without having planned to, painted a hummingbird near where the heart would be. The bird has left the comfortable nest of thoughts. The invisible and abstract have taken shape, have been made visible and concrete. They were let out. Shared.

It turns out, I don’t have the audible-thoughts disease. My thoughts and ideas, like yours, are invisible until I let them out– in a conversation, a look, a gesture, and more often than not, a painting. I get to control when and how and in what context they are revealed. I get to share them when and how I choose to. I’m not a bug, pinned and wriggling on the wall (hat tip, Prufrock) and how good that is. 

I’m learning to have a healthier relationship with my thoughts. In a perfect world, I’d never bury them or let them take over entire canvases. I’d look at them and let them go. I’d share when they beckon and keep them inside when they are content to be there and I am content to host them. The ones that fly the nest would do so without fear or judgment. They would do so with sincerity and kindness.

I didn’t start “Flew the Nest” with any of these ideas about it. They grew as it grew. I very much relate to Joan Didion’s famous line, “I don’t know what I think until I write it down.” So often I can only understand what I’m thinking after I’ve written about it. But before even that, to understand my own interior world, I’ve got one more step before writing. I’ve got to paint about it. 

Not all my paintings make me feel particularly proud, but “Flew the Nest” does. It reminds me of how far I’ve come– from a soft-spoken and reserved child to someone who discovered her strength was located in the very thing she used to most fear– vulnerability. This painting has a gentleness to it I’ve tried to replicate and can’t quite. It went through countless changes, additions, and rounds of scraping off; there was doing and redoing. There are layers. It makes me think. 

If anything in “Flew the Nest” speaks to you, I’d love to know about it in the comments.

Walking around in your underwear (sorta)

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.