Do you remember art in elementary school? I remember finger painting where, if I tried to combine colours everything ended up a muddy brown. And the paper always curled up and the paint flaked off once it was dry. Very boring. Most of the things we did were very boring. Then in grades 7 and 8, my art teacher made art fun. I enjoyed the class and, by the end of grade 8, believed that I was creative and artistic. I was disabused of this idea in grade 9 when I had to take art as part of the vocal music timetabling package. I came to dread the class. By the end of that year, I believed that I did not have one artistic bone in my body.
I didn’t attempt anything in the visual arts again until I was at the Faculty of Education. One of the requirements of the elementary education teaching option was that we had to take elementary art. It was not all that interesting except for the art portfolio which we had to create for part of our final grade. I loved doing that. I discovered that I have a very good sense of colour and line. I explored print making and patterns and creating textural collages. Even now, years later, I remember that portfolio. In hindsight, I wish that I had learned from that whole experience that I was and am artistic and creative.
Fast forward many years and, after two years of being urged to take part, I finally agreed to go with a friend to a water colour weekend workshop. I felt sick beforehand. I was afraid of the critiques that were part of it. I expected to be judged and found wanting and to have my belief that I was not artistic reinforced. And that’s not what I got. The instructor’s feedback celebrated my creations without judging my work against an expected norm. I remember my tears as I completed the first one – ‘My very first watercolour painting.’ I still have those paintings.
A few years later, I chose to go to the Haliburton School for the Arts during the summer. I took a beginner pottery class and found that I was able let go of my inner critic and of evaluating my creations in relation to anyone else’s. I took a weaving course and, after coming to grips with my demon of expecting perfection on the first go round, found the experience very zen-like.
And then there’s music. Like so many children, I endured taking Royal Conservatory of Music exams in piano, theory and singing. Eventually, the focus became not the music and joy of playing and expressing what I felt but the exam and the result. The ultimate example of this was my experience when I chose to complete a grade 8 voice exam for the second time. It was awful. I had some hearing issues which affected part of the exam process. And the more difficulties I had, the more difficulties I ended up having. I tied myself up in judgemental knots. At the end of that exam, I promised myself that I would never put myself through any music exam ever again.
Two years later, I was in a very different place and so I chose to redo a grade 9 voice exam. The result was totally different. I set my own goals, set my own programme with several alternate songs which I absolutely knew would be approved for my exam programme, and I sang for my own enjoyment. And after the exam was finished, I knew that I was done. I didn’t need to know the result because the number and the comments didn’t matter. I did not need the result or the paper to validate me and what I know.
For all that I love expressing my feelings through music, I’d believed that I couldn’t write music. After all, my Mus. Bac. is in Music Education and not Composition. And I love words. I know that that is one of things which draws me to singing. So I tried setting some favourite poems to music. I enjoyed the process of creating a melody to serve the words and it helped that the end product was beautiful to me.
I knew that I could adjust someone else’s arrangement to meet the vocal needs and abilities of the choirs which I’ve directed. Yet I didn’t believe that I could arrange anything for a choir and then I arranged something for a local choir. I remember how happy I felt to hear my creation being sung for the first time. So now I know that I can write melodies and that I can create a satisfying whole – satisfying first for mySelf.
What did I learn from all of these experiences? Take a chance. Explore possibility. Try and then experience without worrying about the result. Focus on the process and not the product. Celebrate the experience. Celebrate what you learn in the process. Believe that you are creative and artistic. Know that you ARE that unless you believe that you’re not. Know that the only thing that holds you back is holding the judgement and reaction of others as the only truth of whether you are creative or not.
I believe that there exists in us an irritation or itch if you will – the itch to create. We might try to ignore it and the itch doesn’t go away. We need to choose to respond to our inner urge to create. Think of it this way – when our skin is itchy, we scratch to relieve that itch. The urge to be creative is something like that. We can try to ignore it and the irritation doesn’t ever totally go away. OR we can choose to respond to that creative ‘itch’.
What I’ve learned in scratching my own creative itch is that there is a mystery here. What I create might not be what I set out to create. That’s the wonderful serendipity of it all. I’m still learning to be open to possibility and to having connections of what I know and feel come together in possibly unexpected ways. There’s joy and wonder in that. I continue to trust the process and where it will lead and am learning to let go of the product.
If artists, musicians, and creators wait for permission to create and only create if their work meets external approval then nothing could ever change. We would never have moved beyond the static of Egyptian art or the ultimate barrenness of Gregorian Chant. We would never have discovered harmony and dissonance and new ways to use media.
Pay attention to any creative urges which you feel. Scratch your creative ‘itch’. You might be amazed not only by what you create but also by what you’ll learn about who you are in the process.
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