Monday, December 20, 2010

Turn To Your Art

When I was pregnant, I gave up my daily practice of formal meditation because I had morning sickness so bad and for so long, that I could barely make it off of the couch to use the bathroom, let alone sit before my altar. My husband reassured me that my spirituality would adapt and evolve along with me as I grew into my new role as a mother, and he suggested I try giving up my fantasy of flying off on the wings of a Goddess for a more Zen-like form of spirituality, finding moments of connection “on the fly” from then on. He was right. I haven’t managed to make it back to the meditation altar. My meditation at this point in my life is getting up at 5 a.m. to watch the news and drink two cups of coffee before everybody else wakes up and grabs on to me before I can.

My relationship to my art (which is also part of my spiritual practice, as it is with most artists), has had to adapt to my changing identity, too. I may not always paint, draw, or write on a daily basis, but I do create lots and lots of things (all the time), some of them obvious and tangible, some not. All mothers and teachers do this.

As a child, my art saved me. I escaped the pain and uncertainty of my home life by recreating my own happy world, one that I could escape to, to avoid the real life I had been born in to. When I drew, painted, crafted, or wrote, I was the master of my own universe, and I was in control. I credit my talent and the ways that I expressed myself for getting me through my very difficult childhood. I came out of it with only a few scars, not nearly as many, I believe, as I would have, had it not been for my art and a safe place to go. Creating a safe and healthy place to express one’s self is another important reason why I advocate for the arts in schools, but I don’t talk too much about that publicly because it isn’t appropriate. The adults in charge are preoccupied with money, time, and their own careers. To talk about a child’s soul is pointless because the Status Quo knows nothing about such things, for it has no soul. Even though I don’t talk about children’s souls when I argue for the arts publicly, they are in my heart and mind. Protecting them is what gives me the will to keep up the good fight, even now, in the face of soullessness in Los Angeles. I rely on my creativity to lead effectively, and I rely on my creativity to keep me happy and sane while leading, raising my kids, and trying to survive in L.A.

I have always made money on the side by doing all sorts of freelance work. When I was younger, I was a sign painter, illustrator, a draftsperson, a cartoonist, calligrapher, and painter. When desk top publishing came along, I created a small, monthly magazine which helped me develop new skills; publishing, marketing and selling advertising. At the age of 25, during a deep, meditative moment, I realized that it was time for me to leave my home in Colorado, to see if I could make it as an artist in Los Angeles. I knew that if I didn’t go then, I might never go, for the timing was right - I was young, single, and fearless. I packed my clothes, dog, and art supplies and headed off to California. I had about $400 in my pocket, and no job, but I didn’t care. I was determined to give it my best shot. If I failed, I could always go back to Colorado, satisfied in the knowing that I had tried, when some exceptionally talented, funny and smart people in my family never did. Close members in my family were just as talented as I was, but they withered up and collapsed in on themselves, which scared me to death. I didn’t want to end up like any of them.

Soon after I got to L.A., I got a job as marketing manager for Denecke, Inc. Mike Denecke, owner, had invented the TS-1 Time Code Slate (the electronic clapper board that is regularly used and shown in videos, commercials, etc.), amongst other post production products used in film, video and recording studios. I created a comic strip called, “Father Time” (a caricature of Mike and an entourage of behind-the-scene characters who don’t get enough credit for being part of the team that produces successful shows and helps make stars). The strip was used to market Denecke products. Mike had a huge impact on me. He was raised by professional, classical musicians (his mother was a flautist in a symphony in Minnesota, and his father, the conductor). He would speak highly of his parents, especially his mom, who encouraged him as a child to go for his dreams, and reminded him that everybody is born with a gift, he just needed to find out what that was. He did. He became a classically trained guitarist (having studied with Andres Segovia), a sound engineer and an inventor. Mike believed in me and encouraged my talent. As an artist himself, he knew how important it was to give me, and his other employees, space. He trusted us. He was a great “boss”. I strive to show the same sort of confidence and appreciation for the talented people I have chosen to hire over the years. I worked for Mike for seven years, developing a line of comic books, calendars, ads, t-shirts, mugs, etc. I only left so I could care for my newborn son. A few years later, Mike died of a heart attack. I like to think I’m having one of those Zen-like, “fly by” moments whenever “Dancing in the Moonlight” by King Harvest comes on the radio. Mike recorded that song in a hotel room in Paris in the early seventies. I get to say “Hi Mike!” whenever I hear that song.

As I look back at my creative career over the past 30 years, I see that the most prolific times in my life have always been when I was the most stressed, or was at some sort of impasse. Becoming a mother was a life changing experience for me, as it is for all women, and I was fearful that I would abandon my own dreams and goals for a life lived in service to others. I chose to be a wife and mother, and I wanted to stay home with my son, but I didn’t want to lose myself in that. So I threw myself into my cartooning. Painting would have to wait because having toxic, messy, permanent paints around with a baby in the house was not something I wanted to deal with. So I chose to put all of my energy into my cartooning because it was clean, easy, and I could be interrupted, a lot. Anyone who has stayed home with babies and toddlers knows what that means. You can’t complete a thought, let alone finish an involved creative project. While my baby slept, I cranked out a couple of new strips and went about the business of self syndication. I created a line of greeting cards and calendars. I was determined to keep my own art alive, and thus keep my own self alive, in my new role as wife and mother. As my son grew, I became more and more interested in teaching art to young children, so I started doing that. I really, really loved it, because I love preschool aged children. They’re a kick and I get to be a big goof when I’m with them. At the same time, my father in law had come to live with us because his health was failing. The added stress of caring for an aging, depressed family member put a lot of extra pressure on me. To get through it, and to mitigate the guilt I suffered due to the resentment I had towards an innocent loved one who needed my help, I turned to my art. I had the old shed in our backyard converted into a studio for myself and proceeded to throw myself into painting landscapes of the San Fernando Valley. By this time, my son didn’t need my constant supervision, which meant I could break out those messy, toxic paints. My studio, and my art, gave me a place of my own. I painted over 40 canvases. It made me feel better. I also opened my studio up to teach more art classes. Teaching art turned into full blown activism after my son entered public school at the age of five. I was outraged by the lack of arts education in schools, so I channeled all of my creative energies into starting and running a nonprofit organization that gets the arts back into schools. Another crisis! I took it on, head on, and have managed to lead it over the past eleven years in the most creative fashion I know how, even now, during one of the most devastating financial periods in our nation’s history.

The economic crisis has put us all into crisis, and I have once again turned to my art. I have had my heart broken by what has happened to my country, my state, my city, and the school system that I have worked so hard to improve. The greed, lack of heart and conscience, and hypocrisy that surrounds me just seems to be getting worse. The wide spread anger, disgust, and apathy is really getting to me. I am pissed. I feel so defeated by forces outside of my control.

So, just like when I was a kid, I am once again an innocent victim of circumstance, and have turned to my art to get through it. I distract myself by being constructive. I have thrown myself into my own work, painting, cartooning, and writing like never before. Through painting, I can really be alone with myself – getting away from “them”, so I can release my anger, frustration, and fear through the process of creating. Through my cartooning and writing, I can say things that I haven’t been able to say as a nonprofit leader, PTA president, or woman with kids in tow. My art is freeing me. I love it. I’m excited. I’m as happy as I would ever hope to be, all things considered, and I have a lot to show for myself.

Trying to save the arts for others has turned me to my own art, so I can save myself. Fellow artists: Turn to your art.