The Healing Power of Words
I wanted to share this letter that I wrote several years ago to a former student of mine. I was reminded of it when I was giving a talk, last week, to the School of Visual Arts' MFA Illustration students. A portion of my presentation speaks about uncertainty, fear, and vulnerability. As someone who loves and is sensitive to words, the aforementioned terms summon up feelings of discomfort, and is oftentimes coupled with other words such as weakness, failure, and inadequacy. However, these words can also be empowering and so I use them as opportunities to help guide me through my own studio practice. These words help to move me beyond creatively, emotionally, and psychologically insofar as they remind me that when I feel stuck within my artistic process that staying in this room of doubt; spending time ruminating, investigating and working through creative problems can lead to unexpectedly illuminating results.
Dear -- ,
I'm in the midst of reading Keith Haring's Journals, and as you might guess, much of the topics he wrote about within the pages were more questions than answers, as journals might be. And in a profound way, I feel even more connected because the part that I'm reading now, are entries that he made during 1978-79, the time while he was, much like yourself, a student at SVA. I picked this book up because I oftentimes look to the past for answers. This is something that I've done since I was in my mid twenties. Part of me of wonders if it's my nostalgia that encourages me to access those past experiences for knowledge, or whether my doing so that has made me so nostalgic. In any event, this is how I've gone about shaping my process through not only my artistic practice, but also through life. I gain much strength through the words of others, and to use a phrase shared by my friend, the healing powers of words.
So to you, this is really a letter of encouragement because I wonder if where you sit now, in your career as a young artist, just about to graduate from art school, that the pressures of it, the expectations, the fear, the uncertainty are coming at you all at once; and so, it can be difficult to sift through what needs to be done at this moment versus what can be done during this time. What needs to be done is that you have to hold onto the strengths that you have as an artist, as an illustrator, and use that knowledge, and those tools to guide you forward; not as armour for the doubts and demons that will bombard you, but as tools to help you work through the challenges that artists have faced throughout history. The words of two or three of your mentors, although they are so valid, keep them on your brain, but don't feel as though you must assign so much power to their words that it leaves you blind and dizzy to your own work. Comments like these do come from a good place, and are made because they want for you to succeed, but sometimes shifting your work too quickly, and making rash alterations to address these creative or technical concerns about your work can be too large of a burden; these moves take time, and so, you must trust yourself, respect the process, and know that your attempts, although they might feel futile at the moment, will over time, and with much effort and pain, resolve itself into something that is beautiful, if you allow for it to happen.
I use the term art, illustration, and drawing interchangeably, and although it might offend some of the purist gods, it's what I've chosen to do because it gives me freedom and power to create, and to fail. For a long time, I was unhappy with the illustrations that I was making because the final products were not being recognized or validated in the way I that wanted for them to be. I remember negative comments about my work from others, that it was too derivative of someone else's work, and that technically it wasn't at a level that many in the industry would view as high enough, either conceptually, or aesthetically. Of course, I devoured these insecurities and consequently they became threats to my illustration work because the doubt that grew out of those words began to affect my own creative judgement. I could no longer tell - I could no longer see whether or not the illustrations I made were successful.
And so, for a couple years, I hid.
I hid from the Illustration industry.
And I did this because I was probably angry, and hurt, but most of all I needed to take some time to be alone to work through the creative challenges that I faced during those moments in my career.
But where I hid, where I found solace, was in a place where I would learn how to recognize the importance of process within my artistic practice. I enrolled in a summer fine art residency at SVA, and it changed my life because I was constantly placed within a space that challenged my creativity, my technique and my understanding about the intentions of my work. I had no clue back then how powerful this experience would be, and how it would profoundly affect the way that I would move through my career as an Illustrator. The ideas of success that were intact in my mind soon after I graduated, were attached to more tangible things, things that I could see - awards, certificates, being published, and money. And although all of this is very important to me, what I did not acknowledge back then was the importance of process; being engaged in the learning process that happens while I work, discovering new ways of working, and allowing the time for my efforts to flourish.
I've stopped at a page in Keith Haring's Journals where he wrote that, "An artist has an impossible ambition. It is a presupposition that he will fail." I think about this word a lot, fail, but I've learned to assign a more positive meaning to it. Failure to me is a necessary place that I will find myself in throughout the rest of my career. I don't view it as a prison or any kind of ultimate place, but view it more as transitional space; I use my time there to work through critical issues in the studio, and trust in the fact that I will eventually move out of it.
Wishing you good things,