My boyfriend practices guitar the way I imagine monks pray– devotedly, routinely, sometimes with vigor and sometimes with less mindful purpose, letting the years of training move his fingers to their predestined places. He rarely goes a day without touching the strings, believing their magic escapes not in one moment of fervent pleading but in often mundane and tireless cultivation– the more they are summoned, the more they eventually respond.
When he hasn’t yet held the guitar on any given day, he carries with him a subtle restlessness. After he has practiced, his spirit settles a little, and the world seems to open up before him. It is not unlike brushing one’s teeth. Without completing it first, you must carry a nagging feeling with you to other tasks and activities.
I started painting in 2002. Bright eyed and naive, I did not then know what I know now-that the mysteries of aesthetic beauty can delight a novice into fervent art, but it’s the steady and consistent artist who is allowed access into their deeper chambers.
In 2002, my world was small, and I was rich with confidence– there was no painting I was not capable of. Without pinterest, instagram, and podcasts, my references to other people’s art came to me in the form of text books with the same master paintings whose beauty was a little lost in ubiquity. I had seen “Starry Night” in a two inch by three inch reproduction so many times, I lost my ability to really take it in.
In 2018, I have access to more art (both new and old) than I could have ever dreamed. As the world expands before me, exponentially, and without breaks, my confidence once raging and powerful, has settled, calmed, into the gentle ebb and flow only humility brings. Confidence is most authentic when takes its cues from humility rather than fighting to be its binary.
Several years ago, while riding bikes in my neighborhood, I met an established author whose memoir I immediately read. John Ed Bradley’s It Never Rains in Tiger Stadium masquerades as a football story, but, like all good books, is much more. There’s a scene in it that I think of often. Bradley describes one of his roommates, a fellow writer:
“When he discovered new material that struck him as particularly moving or profound, he was quick to let me know about it. ‘Goddamn,’ he’d shout, then remove his glasses and wipe fake tears from his eyes. One night he opened a window, stuck his head out, and started howling like a wolf– all because he’d read something he liked. Another time, I watched him throw a copy of Flannery O’Connor’s Wise Blood at the living room couch…”
Bradley concludes, “We wanted to write books so good that readers threw them against the furniture”.
Bradley may have been primarily describing the joy and excitement of discovering beautiful art, but I’ll always think of “book throwing” as half joy, half frustration at not being able to come close to the greats.
When I see a beautiful painting, I am both inspired to paint right away and wonder why I would even bother. Confidence, I have learned is leaning on the first instinct rather than the second. Humility is doing the work day in and day out regardless of the outcome.
I have a restlessness when I don’t paint and when I don’t look at the world of art around me. Learn from it. Accept that I just might have a quiet place inside it. I often take cues from people around me– the unassuming musician I share a life with, the beautiful books I read, the paintings so good I want to throw them across the room.