The art I’m creating is total crap. It’s devoid of meaning, relevance, uniqueness, and depth.
“There’s a reason the Impressionists have been dead for more than a hundred years,” a professor on my review board said.
I was halfway through graduate school and an hour into my first group critique, and things were…suboptimal. Whilst the quantity of work I’d produced was praised, the quality was debated at length. Two hours later, I left overwhelmed by constructive criticism. I went home, drank an entire bottle of prosecco, and cried. A lot.
The first eight years of my artistic exploration were driven and defined by my love of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism – the result of my undergraduate painting professor encouraging me to apply for a summer semester course in Aix-en-Provence, France.
I felt like I had found “my people” – the Impressionists’ use of color, light, and movement offered me transcendence. Painting en plein air fueled me, inspired me, and resonated in everything I studied, saw, and put to canvas. My landscapes were a true catalyst of my artistic development. They brought me joy, a great sense of personal triumph, and allowed me to finally express myself in a way that made sense.
Why, then, did I receive such criticism when I presented a mature body of Impressionist-inspired work? What had been the point of my education, all that I had researched and studied, and felt I had mastered? Why was my art regarded as antiquated and irrelevant? And the biggest question of all: why, days later, did I suddenly completely agree with everything my professors said?
Acceptance and growth are funny things. They can happen organically but sometimes they creep up on us when someone else proclaims their necessity. Suddenly, we are faced with a course-altering decision: accept and grow, or reject and compress.
In the days following my review board, I decided to swallow my pride and read through my professors’ written feedback (sober, and with an open mind). That’s when acceptance hit me: I was stuck in a rut (albeit a beautiful, colorful one), and didn’t even know it.
While my landscapes gave me the push I once needed and the confidence to more seriously pursue painting, they weren’t me. I mean, they were mine in the literal sense, but conceptually, spiritually, authentically – not. I was rendering my own visual interpretation of a century-old dream, pigeonholing my practice and significantly limiting my growth as an artist.
I returned to my studio, determined to try something different. Anything different—something the “landscape Kaitlin” would have never, ever done. I approached one of my new, large, expensive canvases and, ever so gracefully, anihilated it. I attacked it with paint, turpentine and a pallet knife, literally cursing myself aloud for having failed.
And then cursing myself for being so pathetic and self-loathing.
And then feeling like a crazy person for ruining an expensive canvas.
And then for feeling so pathetic about self-loathing, which naturally, made me self-loathe even more.
It was in that moment when I was covered in paint and looking at my weepy mess of a canvas and frightful sight of my studio that I suddenly felt a surge of energy. Wooziness, even (perhaps a result of all the paint thinner in the air but I honestly think it was at that moment that I had a second transcendence). I had NO clue what I was doing, why I was doing it, but I knew that everything I had painted up until that instant had fulfilled its duty and was now ready to retire.
And so, I let go.
I dove headfirst into researching new artists, more modern creative movements, explored not just painters but architects, sculptors, musicians. I took classes I never thought would be relevant and I learned to appreciate art not just for what it wanted me to see, but for what I didn’t see. And I painted. A lot.
My work got bigger, bolder. I cared less, and I thought more. I was faced with many more questions than there were answers to – but maybe that’s okay. Maybe it’s just part of getting older, a key to successful adulting: trying, (often) failing, accepting, growing, and doing your absolute best to embrace – the hang-on-for-dear-life-type-of-embrace – all of it.
Fast forward: the art I’m creating is the most fulfilling and meaningful thing I have ever done. What I used to paint, what I’m painting now, all of it exists to remind me why I (all of us) must accept our shortcomings just as much as our successes, be more open to critical feedback, and feel beholden for our crazy emotions and new directions.
It’s about why some unsuccessful efforts cause such self-loathing; when and how we decided to change creative course. Most importantly: embracing the “total crap” that wasn’t actually ever crap, but a necessary part of the journey. So, embrace it. Challenge it. Resent it. But, respect it – and love the crap out of it.
This article was published in CWL in April 2019.