Monday, November 07, 2011

Mrs. Clara Confidence

I met her about a year ago, on a crisp fall morning in the mountains with my husband. We were walking around a little town near our camp site at our favorite state park, when the sign on her brick studio caught my attention. Funky and colorful, it combined the names of two of my favorite artists--Monet Meets Picasso—and produced sort of a magnetic effect.

Next thing my poor husband knew, we were standing in a sunlit foyer smelling heavily of oil paint, traces of which were immediately transferred to our hands as the paint splotched artist herself rose slowly from her perch in front of an easel to welcome us with warm handshakes. “I’m Clara, “she said. “I’m 80 and a half years old and this is my studio—welcome.”

To call Mrs. Clara’s studio eclectic would not fully capture the range of items and the scope of the work covering the brick walls and nooks and crannies on the rustic floorboards. She didn’t adhere to any identifiable genre or style. Six foot tall winter scenes on wooden slabs , juxtaposed with folksy pieces a la Grandma Moses, interspersed with realistic canvas portraits—Mrs. Clara’s definition of art was broad and comprehensive. I was, at the time, mere weeks removed from a run-in with a pretentious art gallery bent on a strict and narrow interpretation of what qualifies as art, and found myself intrigued by Mrs. Clara’s expansive view of expression.

In Mrs. Clara’s studio, there were no clear “rules,” no governing principles beyond expression and love of craft. Looking around her gallery, I knew the board of the aforementioned gallery would not put their stamp of approval on many—or possibly any—of Mrs. Clara’s works. She brewed coffee in a decrepit old pot, poured it into delicate teacups and regaled us with stories of her family, studio, and the old days at our favorite park. As she talked, I felt comfortable and at home, suddenly realizing that this was the whole point: At 80 and a half, Mrs. Clara came to the place in her life where she does what she loves and loves what she does, period. No agenda, no grand expectations—just doing what she has to do for the simple joy of doing it.

I’ve thought a lot about Mrs. Clara over the past year, as I’ve wrestled with my feelings over my own creative endeavors. The things I’m passionate about in life—writing and art—are so dependent on the opinions of others. Or are they, really? If I write something that no one reads, or display a mosaic seahorse that never sells, is it still art? Does response—or lack thereof-- legitimize or negate a creative work? Is it foolhardy, or possibly even wrong, to pour into a craft that gives so little back in the form of financial reward or public praise? Should I be spending more time on things that actually matter?

Deep, evaluative musings did not seem to have a place at Mrs. Clara’s. The critic may say that’s all well and good, but idealism does not keep the studio lights burning, and I suppose there is a point there worth considering. But let me also note that on our way out, I turned around and saw, above me on the foyer wall a scene I knew I wanted to see many, many times in my future. Colorful trees, a rustic building and some ducks circling a rippling body of water—Mrs. Clara’s interpretation of Monet’s Duck Pond. Although garishly framed (so much so that I have not yet been able to display the painting for want of a replacement frame), I (read my husband) opened my wallet anyway. My artist friend, Lisa, tells me that there are no sympathy sales—that, especially in this economy, the act of laying down cash is completely legitimizes an artistic endeavor. Which means that Mrs. Clara, in her lack of convention and single minded devotion to her own standards of artistic expression, made more money on that sale than an approved artist pocketing a small commission at a gallery.

About 12 years ago, I started writing a series of books. It’s been equal measures of fun and discouragement, and I have actively pursued and neglected it for a roughly comparative amount of time. But lately? I realized that outside my family, there is nothing I have cared about for a dozen years, and that my most recent attentions to my book series have been focused only on garnering attention to the two I actually wrote. I realized I was afraid to go ahead with new adventures until I knew there was an audience who would care. I’ve been afraid to throw myself into this creative world without knowing it would matter. I know now that I must go forward, without thought of who will read the stories or if it is a good investment, because I must. Because it is what I have to do, for the simple joy of doing it.

A couple weeks ago, my husband and I were in a coffee shop in the same little mountain town, pursuing the secondhand bookshelf next to the cozy chairs. He picked up a copy of Henry David Thoreau’s Walden and began reading the preface. According to which, the realities of Thoreau’s work in his lifetime were exceedingly grim. Miserable sales, poor feedback on the lecture circuit, and personal failures caused the editor of the Walden edition in question to claim that Thoreau, in his time, “created no ripple in any puddle big or small.” Henry David Thoreau!

Inspired by the ripples in Mrs. Clara’s Duck Pond, and buoyed by the waves eventually generated by Thoreau’s pen, I press forward with my little series with my own blend of Mrs. Clara confidence, believing--just a little bit--that being free enough to pour myself into my work without reservation is the biggest success of all.


blueviolet said...

I firmly believe that doing it for you is what matters. It's always nice to make money, but if it nurtures your soul in some way with the creative process, in the big picture, that's where the reward lies. :)

J. Kwiatkowski-Schuler said...

Well said! I would love to re-focus on the things that I love to do and stop tormenting myself on marketability. Galleries are a rip-off for sure. They suck up such a huge percentage of an artists' work. There are so many other ways to be visible.


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