I have always had a tendency to follow the rules. I don’t say that with any embarrassment or boastfulness, it just happens to be my tendency. I believe that in order to be a fruitful member of society we all need to follow some rules.
When I was little I knew that I was supposed to come in right after dusk or the last red light green light game was over. I knew that I was supposed to have a bath on certain days. I knew that I was supposed to eat my peas and not hide them behind the curtain in the kitchen. I knew that I couldn’t stay home from school and say I was sick but then turn around and feel OK later in the day and want to play outside. Rules were simple then, but straightforward. I learned right from wrong, good from bad, and the basic rules for good behavior.
From our childhood we move on through life, learning more and more of the subtle nuances of rules of engagement and acceptance. We learn the dance that is interaction with peers through school. We learn how to navigate the very delicate rules of the workplace that involve everything from personal interaction with colleagues to political steps for career mobility. We have to quickly adapt and learn the rules of each unique environment.
In my particular case, because of my heart’s inclination, I chose the visual arts. It, like most other career paths, have their own set of rules and when it comes to making the art itself, that has its own as well.
Early on it was pretty easy. No one expected me to follow predetermined steps since they knew I was exploring. Creativity allows for fewer rules but as soon as I started demonstrating that this was a lifelong path, the rules began to emerge in earnest, shifting elusively. The message appeared to shift from mentor to mentor, art history lesson to art history lesson, and region to region. I was confused.
As I reached middle age I found myself more and more anxious to seek out the advice from mature artists. Having spent almost 25 years in the graphic design industry as an illustrator, I felt like I didn’t know the rules for the fine arts. I was in my mid forties when I was able to return to college to finish my bachelor’s degree and I was hoping for clear direction. The advice I got from the professors, however, was actually all over the board and I learned my 1st solid lesson in subjectivity. The rules depend on everyone’s opinion.
With great fervor I was told that there are definite rules! Mandates always began with “You must…”! I was told to …focus on one medium, …focus on one topic or subject, …focus on one style, …focus on one era or artist to emulate, and so on. The rules became equally endless and diverse, and accumulated fast. In no time I was completely frozen.
It’s my tendency, as I said before, to follow rules but I felt that I couldn’t possibly comply. I was awakening and realizing a rapidly expanding diversity of what I wanted to do; to sculpt, to paint, to draw, and so much more. I wanted to explore realism, pointillism, expressionism, impressionism, and photorealism. I could no more settle on a favorite style then I could choose a favorite color or a favorite food. It’s based on my mood and the day and my chemistry. I was told that I was truly impossible.
My peers who seemed to get it were on their way; recommended for the teaching positions in grad school, recommended for financial support, and assisted in establishing teaching career paths. As for me, my naivete and non conformity shut the door to any funding for a potential teaching career in the arts.
Now more than 25 years have passed and I am nearing retirement from a different career and focusing on reemerging as an artist. In anticipation I began seeking the counsel of other artists several years ago and discovered again they have rules for me. I’ve had them tell me they can still see my tight style from my pen and ink days as an illustrator and I must stop that. I am told that I’m too slow because of my attention to detail. They remind me of the art rules I have heard my whole life and finally begin to understand.
I am, and have always been, an artist. It is less about profession and more about who I am. I am older now. I am less inclined to try to please others above myself. I’m realizing that the rules that the other artists tried to help me find were the rules that they had chosen to adopt because they made sense for them. None of those artists or professors or peers acted with malicious intent. They were trying to help me find my way. In fact, I was so anxious to please by following the rules that I made my own barriers. Life aggregates what has gone before and we must pick up a piece here and a piece there of what’s right for us and fold them in to be our best selves.
I’m finally becoming who I am supposed to be. Practice and time have done what advice could not. I am faster and looser now and it makes me a better painter. I think and evaluate more quickly now because I have been doing it longer and improved over time. I have resolved to paint what I like more often then I paint to please others and my emotion reflects that. Perhaps I have merely started to find my compromise with the rules. What I must say most definitely is that there may not be rules, actually. In art, rules are recommendations, observations, and guidance but not a script. We must be true to our art and to ourselves.
Today’s painting is a reflection of my current mood and aggregation. It’s a little bit loose and a little bit tight and a whole lotta Kelly. This 16″ x 20″, oil on canvas titled “Contemplations”.