Me as an Artist

So probably everyone already saw my Facebook posts and the pictures  in May where I was in the GAM (Global Artist Movement) art show at the Toyota city art museum.  But for those who haven't, to make a long story short, I spent two weeks of musing and three days of painting this:

Which won a prize, the first time I've ever been awarded for something that wasn't like the 5th grade spelling bee or something.
And in the midst of a pandemic, I went double-masked and avoiding people wherever possible into the heart of Covid-land and managed to get to and from the museum for the award ceremony without catching any contagious diseases.

I feel really awkward talking about doing art and getting an award, so if you're curious just send me some questions.  I will answer one question now, though.  Someone at the event asked me, "How long have you been doing art?"

My answer to that is always, "Ever since I could hold a crayon."
I distinctly remember being at Grandma's house in California with its stucco walls where praying mantises would lay their eggs.  I remember when it was, "Time to take out the crayolas" and grandma would pull out a big box of crayons that had way more colors than the crayons I ever got in my own home, or in pre-school.

Do I remember my grandma's face?  No. . .  Do I remember what we ate?  What we did together?  No. . .  But I remember the "crayolas."  That wonderful waxy smell coming from that magic box.

The best part about joining GAM and going to the museum is getting to meet so many people who have passion about something.  There's a birder who wakes up before the crack of dawn to photograph birds feeding in the light of the dawn.  There's a man who seeks out abandoned traditional homes and sketches them.  There's a man who takes all the heavy emotion born by his home country and turns that into works of art that make the soul shudder.  There's a woman with a broken back who sits on her porch every morning and paints the flowers in the neighboring garden, writes poems about them, and makes petitions to the owner about not needing to trim this or that tree because it just looks nicer the natural way it is.  There's a man who built his own home on top of a mountain and makes his own printed cloth and colored paper.  I like meeting artists, but not because they make art, but because they have some inner fire which has drove them to the art process.

When an artist asked me, "How long have you been doing this?" I felt that my answer was really inadequate.  And it occurred to me that the question is not as straightforward as it seems.  After all, anyone can hold a crayon.  But at some point, people put it back down.  They don't bother with putting their ideas on paper anymore.  I kept bothering.  Maybe what people are really asking is, "When did you decide to pick the crayon back up again?"

Some of the Japanese people at GAM began calling themselves artists after they retired.  They needed a new hobby and painting seemed to fit.  I don't fall into that category at all.  I've always been doing art.  When I think about it, maybe it's because I always have ideas that I can't share with people any other way.  In elementary school, my best friend could draw leaps and bounds better than I, and despite tackling my very first frustrations over skill and self-esteem, I doodled hamsters on all of my notebooks in funny positions.  What if there was a hamster that was completely round?  What if there was a hamster wearing clothes?  The ideas never stopped coming.

Whenever I go to GAM, someone always insists on driving me to the train station, and I always try my best to refuse because I love taking the walk from the museum to the station.  The museum is on the old site of a castle.  A garden, a tea house, and a turret are all located there.  A tiny stream, which may once have been a large moat, trickles down through a park where people walk their dogs or admire whatever flowers are in season.  I always end up taking pictures of things, and they always end up being mostly the same pictures every year of the same things from different angles.  But sometimes, someone gives me a ride-to-the-station offer that I can't refuse.  Once, it was a sculptor who took me to his workshop on the way home. Another time it was a painter who drove me through the Toyota factory area and gave me a tour.  This time, a woman who'd found me online before the show started offered to drive me.

Her name is Mami and she works at an elementary school where kids are encouraged to study what they like and not study what they don't think they need.  She's not a teacher, but she's a facilitator and her love of art rubs off on the children.  One of her kids thinks faeries are real so they're making a fairy park.  She told me she feels comfortable around kids, but not around adults.  She sounded interesting, so I decided to hop in her car.  We drove between rice fields under a lazy afternoon sun and I commented on the differences between the scenery here versus in the US.  She kept asking me the most intriguing questions.  When I said I liked animals, she asked me if I talk to them when no one's listening.  She asked me what I think about when I see the scenery around us.  She asked me about the differences between Western faeries and Eastern faeries.

I told her about the fairy book I have by Brian Freud and Alan Lee.  It mostly covers the scary kind of goblin faeries, but there are a few pictures of girls with butterfly wings.  That piqued my interest as a kid.  I wanted more of those pictures and less of the scary pictures.  I wanted to draw my own butterfly girls and put them in the book.  I wanted to write about their habitat and behaviors.  Kids have a broad imagination, and sometimes the only way to put that imagination to life is through art.  You don't pick up a pencil thinking you're an artist, you just do it to get that idea out.  If someone understands what you drew and likes your idea, that gives you the confidence to do more.  If no one gets it, maybe you put the pencil back down and give up.

Soon the train station loomed ahead of us.  But the next train wasn't for a half hour, so I asked if she'd mind sitting down to some tea with me.  She gripped the steering wheel and exclaimed, "I've just spent the last 10 minutes debating in my head if I should ask you that or not!  Oh great, let's do it!"

We ended up in a café for an hour and a half instead.  One of the first things she asked me was, "How do you get the confidence to show people your art?"

Maybe this is the real question!  Maybe the difference between any kid who holds a crayon and an "artist" lies in this question.  If no one sees your work, there's no one to call you an artist.

I don't have much of an answer to Mami's question, though.  When I finish a picture, all I can see are its technical flaws.  If all my art burned today, I would not be sad.  The process of making it was enough.  I enjoy the doing of it, even if I don't care about the result.  And the ideas behind it, the ones in my head, are important to me.  I can draw those again and again.  The more I do something, the more I approach the same idea, the more it refines into something better and better in a technical sense as well.  Knowing that my idea is solid is all the confidence I need.

Mami said that she doesn't feel that way at all.  She is far too shy to put her art out.  So I asked her if anyone ever encouraged her art in her life?  She said no, she was even too shy to show any art to her own family and friends.  She never was encouraged by anyone.  It makes it hard to start off now.

I think the only encouragement I've had about art came from my friend's parents.  I took an art class at the local community college and the teacher just didn't seem to find any joy in what she was doing.  Sometimes I wanted to use a different medium or change something about the picture that we all had to draw the same way, and she just told me I was rebellious, obstinate, and not good at listening.  I didn't care either way for the work I made for her class, but I'd always drop by my friend's house afterward and her parents would look at my work and tell me to keep at it.  I think in my own house it was already decided that, "Jennifer is the artist" and such a matter-of-fact designation didn't warrant any further praise or encouragement.  Where I finally found real encouragement was in an online group I joined halfway through college.  We would share art, comment, and critique each other.  I would stay up late drawing a diagram of how flow works on a page just to help someone in the group.  People would link me to professional tutorials.  I'd see someone experimenting with a challenging medium and think - Hey, maybe I should challenge myself, too.

"Did you go to school for art?"

I answer no to this question, but I hate that answer because I don't want to give anyone the wrong idea that you can just magically gain technical skills without having someone better than you pointing out your flaws and showing you how to fix them.  I wish I'd gone to school for art.  I didn't have the money for it, and I did appreciate all the life skills I learned with my international studies degree.  So I don't regret not going to art school, but I wish I'd had the opportunity of having a mentor to kick my ass.

After talking to Mami, I realized suddenly that I'd never, ever thought of any of this stuff before.  People ask me why I became an English teacher, or why I moved to Japan.  How I learned another language, or why I like bugs.  But no one asks how and why I became an artist.  I'm not even really sure all the things I mentioned above have any relevance to reality.  Usually people just ask, "How long have you been doing art?"

Thank you, Mami, my new friend, for all your amazing questions.

Finally Mami asked me, "Have you ever seen a fairy?"
I love this question because we are both rational adults who have established to each other that we don't believe in faries.  Yet she asked me anyway.  How else could I answer?  "Yes."




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