When I don't want to be an artist anymore

Lately, washing dishes has felt more real to me than writing, drawing, or taking photos. Every time I pick up my pencil or my camera, a big "Why?" seems to materialize in the air, and I can't come up with a good, honest response to it. It's funny because I used to question housework in that very same way: why spend my life organizing and decorating a temporary home when there's so much more to life than that? Art, I've always assumed, is worthwhile because it's, well, art—it tugs heartstrings, it ruffles feathers, it captures beauty, it outlives you. When you delight yourself in creating, you discover a bit of God's nature. Isn't there something inherently valuable in that? But these days, when I force myself into the familiar motions—spinning metaphors, shading shapes, snapping shutters, lining up letters—that Why crashes into the scene and suddenly my work appears so stilted, so artificial and empty. What's the point, when there are far more important things in life?

And dishwashing, well... it's immediate and tangible and practical. There's no pretence in it; it doesn't claim to portray some abstract facet of the human condition or to express some aspect of my soul. It doesn't promise to live on long after I'm gone, impressing and inspiring people around the world. It's as mortal, ordinary, and unglamorous as I am.

I guess I've grown sick of my drive to capture, of how inadequate I feel when I experience something beautiful but don't have the agility to catch it on camera or the eloquence to do it justice with a poem. The weight of my camera in my hands—a weight that used to thrill me and urged me to explore, study, and contemplate—now feels like a burden. I stare through the viewfinder at lavish sunsets, peer between the focus marks at tousled fields of wildflowers, and shake my head: Too busy. Bad light. Wrong lens. And what's so special about taking the world's five-trillion-three-thousand-two-hundred-sixty-seventh nature snapshot (or portrait), anyway?

This dissatisfaction is inevitable—a photo of God's creation, after all, is only a shadow of what's already but a shadow. It has its place in the grand scheme of things, but so do I. And my place isn't to continually hide behind my camera, skirting around the edges of that grand Creation. My place is to stand smack-dab in the middle of it and breathe it in, minister to it, dwell among it, shout praises in chorus with it. For some people, their paintbrushes, cameras, and pencils are instruments for doing just that... for me, these things are obstacles.

"I want to capture God's beauty": I tagged that onto countless blogs, photo galleries, and Fictionpress profiles, but never lived it; instead, I used art to construct an artificial 'presence' that allowed me to avoid being really, truly present. There's a certain vulnerability in observing nature, hearing a good story, or loving someone—those things are so much greater than you that you become small and vulnerable in their presence. I escaped that vulnerability by convincing myself that I could—that I needed to—possess, distill, and capture the things that would otherwise capture me. Art became my default response, a handy excuse for escaping my own sense of awe: "I need to go get my camera. Or grab a notebook. I need to do something to preserve this moment." I was satisfied with mere output. If something bad happened in my life and I got a moving poem out of it, it no longer mattered whether or not I resolved the issue: having milked it for its artistic merit, I was off the hook. If I spent a summer being listless and withdrawn but managed to upload a few dozen photos onto Flickr between June and August, the summer was a success—I had something to show for it. Instead of trying to create a beautiful legacy with my day-to-day life, I focused on simply leaving a trail of artwork for others to remember me by.

I don't know what started to shatter the illusion—the news that a loved one had been diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease and would someday be incapable of seeing the pretty things to which I devoted my life? Was it the awareness that right now, as I'm pinning the hundredth addition to my Illustration board, there are little children being sold into prostitution? Or was it my Victorian Farm binge that opened my eyes to a how full, creative, and beautiful a life without Photoshop and Blogger could be?

But perhaps the two biggest wake-up calls were these: two weeks ago, I took my Bible (sans Moleskine) to the park, and there in the golden light of 5 p.m., I realized that I didn't know what to do with the text. I was so used to dissecting, bullet-pointing, and journalling it, that I'd forgotten how to just read it—mere reading felt passive; pointless, even. Then, the next week, I went to see Wicked, and the whole time my thoughts kept hopping from, "I wish I was up on that stage... or at least working behind the scenes," to, "I wish I could tape this and relive it again and again." Those thoughts betrayed a sad reality: as an artist, I'm supposed to be a storyteller, but I don't even know how to respect stories for what they are—when I can't contribute to them in some way, I lose interest in them. This urge to produce and respond squeezes out that vital, elusive be still and turns my creativity into a channel for narcissism.

So now, for the first time in... well, in as far back as I can remember... I don't want to be an artist. My passion for the creative has been one of the most constant things in my life, and now that it's quaking, I feel terrified and directionless, but also oddly liberated—I'm free to take a step back, scrutinize from a distance, and redefine what "artist" is without feeling like I'm massacring a huge chunk of my identity in the process. I still believe that art is beautiful and God-ordained and valuable, so it's not like this post is a resignation speech from the right side of my brain (honestly, I'll probably be back to doodling before you've finished reading this paragraph). But I don't want to keep creating out of habit or with the assumption that art is, without condition, the best thing I have to offer. I'll keep questioning my motives and reworking my attitudes (and washing dishes) until the process becomes as beautiful as the product... until I begin living a good answer to the Why.

{Incidentally, it looks like I'm not the only person in the blogosphere meditating over this idea. Read Adrian, Russ, and Sarah's takes.}


Lucy said...

I feel ya... I think the impulse to want to write about something or take a picture of something takes away from the experience itself. And I've definitely removed myself from others trying to document everything as an escape.

"Instead of trying to create a beautiful legacy with my day-to-day life, I focused on simply leaving a trail of artwork for others to remember me by."

Me too.

Adrian Waller said...

This is a beautiful post. There's certainly an artist within you.

And thanks for the mention! =)

Michael Bailey said...

Wow, wow, wow. So good and so true, sister. I pray to God, our big, loving and ineffably good God, that He blesses you in the plans He has for you whatever they may look like - He knows! It's good to hear someone so genuine who refuses to hide behind fa├žades.
"And moreover, because the Preacher was wise, he still taught the people knowledge; yes, he pondered and sought out and set in order many proverbs. The Preacher sought to find acceptable words; and what was written was upright—words of truth. The words of the wise are like goads, and the words of scholars are like well-driven nails, given by one Shepherd. And further, my son, be admonished by these. Of making many books there is no end, and much study is wearisome to the flesh.

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter:

Fear God and keep His commandments,
For this is man’s all.
For God will bring every work into judgment,
Including every secret thing,
Whether good or evil."

Ecclesiastes 12:9-14
Cheers for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Thank you. For putting into words the ramblings of concern, possibly the 'mindfull concern before God' of every creative person. This painful delema, this Writers Block, one thing to be sure of - God, He gets this, He really does .


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I'm Oksana—Communication major, shutterbug, occasional blogger, incessant doodler, graphic design geek, and writer of sentimental prose. I am quite content to spend an afternoon with a pencil, a few blank Moleskine pages, and a playlist of indie folk. I love musical theatre, black-&-white movies, and Eastern European illustration. Conversations with strangers make my day. When it rains, I make a beeline for my mug of green tea and stack of 19th-century fiction. I'm vegetarian about 98% of the time. I'm extremely awkward and rather nerdy. I love the sea. My name means 'hosanna' and I'm having the time of my life living to praise the One who set me free.

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