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The Grace and Grit of Art Making

The Grit and Grace of Art Making

some thoughts on the creative process and messy middle phases


I cannot count how many times I have made art that utterly failed. I really could fill a gallery with a collection of The Messed Up Artworks of Pamela Sue Johnson. Maybe I need to write THAT book.

Tonight I am working on a new large painting. Right now it is in the awkward stage. Some artists call this middle-phase the ugly stage. I prefer awkward, for the art is awkward like a clumsy tween whose identity is still forming.

Starting any creative endeavor including painting is an act of faith. I tell my students knowing when to stop and call the artwork finished is another act of faith ( when is it ever truly done!)… but the awkward phase for me is the place that requires the most faith of my process.

All creativity is a series of decisions. Every brush stroke, every mark, every color and every pattern, it weaves together into a mish-mash of choices. There are steps forward and plenty of steps backwards and sideways.

There are moments of wrecking what you just painted because it didn’t quite turn out. This used to feel so cringy to me, so wasteful. I would feel embarrassed at my ineptness. It is in this stage of awkward creation that I am most doubtful if the art will becoming something worthy of signing and presenting to the world in search for a buyer.

Sometimes I push an artwork to the side for weeks upon weeks, even months. Like recently. A half finished painting of a bare tree hung on my art-making wall since before Christmas. It just sat there. Day after day I ignored it. I did not think about it. Occasionally I would glance at it and then sort of emit a sigh and look away.

It was not a state of being stuck. It was more a state of being disinterested. I felt no reason to give it my attention so I didn’t. I made dozens of other artworks while it sat there patiently waiting for me to decide what to do.

And then, one morning I woke up, and without much thought I started working on it again. Everyday I worked on it and then, she was done.

She sold two days later.

So here I am again, a week later, working on this new painting and navigating the middle-ness of it. I almost feel hopeful that it will turn out worthy for my art markets. But hope is not what keeps me going.

It is grit and grace.

Grit has been described by Angela Duckworth as passion with purpose. It is an unstoppable spirit that keeps moving forward, that turns failures into lessons to grow from and does not allow doubt to paralyze. Grit is the tenacity that has built my career far more than talent.

Grace is mercy undeserved. It is possessing grace for one’s self and having self-compassion for the missteps and fucked-upness’es that are inevitable. (Welcome to being human.) Grace to trust my process and honor my pacing, my need for reflection and yes, even my need to make new decisions that will wreck all previous decisions. Grace advises me to embrace my complexities and creative temperament. She advises me to Keep Creating.

Staying the course of each artwork is an act of faith every single time, especially in the awkward middle stage. It is messy as fuck. It is disorganized and chaotic. Expressive art making does not flow from precision and technique. My expressive painting is born with an edge of creative violence for I will create then wreck then re-create and sometimes abandon it only to come back and move in flow with renewed creative energy as the art comes to life.

This is not a linear process.

Art mimics life.

I did not know what these words meant until I did. It is not the painting that mimics life (artworks mirror life)… The thing I see is that art mimics the chaotic beautiful mess of being the complex humans we are with our flaws and gifts and strengths and failings.

We tear down, we rebuild, we hold close and then push away, all of the things I do to a canvas are the same things I do in my world.

The life I am living right now is the culmination of a series of decisions.

I create my reality just like I create art.

I am messy, non-linear, and I am glorious and vibrant and find meaning wherever I go. I am layered just like my artworks with underpaintings that go undetected yet serve the vitality of the completed art.

I will finish this new big one. It will turn out fine. There will come in right timing the buyer who is meant to have it. All this creative grit and grace is not really for me.

It is for the one who will receive the art into their world. It is for the one who will have her and her layered story of love and hope and messy leaps of faith, who will see her and admire the art that evolved from each tenuous decision.

All the art things I use to create are beautiful tools that help me decide how to make what is invisible to become visible. They are like the secret tricks of a magician.

All art making is a physical manifestation of the energy of the maker.

Art is messy, but there is so much magic in the mess if I possess the grit and grace to find it.

Just like our lives. Just like my life.


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