Sticks and stones…

One of the less enjoyable things about being an artist and teacher is just how often I get to watch decent, clever people beating themselves up for failing before they’ve even reached a level where real failure is an option. At this point I offer an apology for the half dozen students who’ve been in my latest class: this isn’t about you. Honest.

I’ve been thinking about this more in the light of many classes this year where students have offered me the opinion that they were rubbish, hopeless, useless or, and this seemed a bit extreme, ‘totally without any talent’. What I think they were actually saying was ‘this printmaking thing is new, a bit confusing and I’m scared because I can’t see how I’ll make a print by the end of class’. I just wish that this absolutely reasonable concern over the unknown didn’t get turned inward and become so abusive. I wonder sometimes if students even know they are doing it. I have listened in the past to the occasional unconsciously murmured soliloquy of such self loathing that Hamlet sounds positively jaunty in comparison and this from the very student who, in the next breath, is kind, positive and enthusiastically supporting the work of her equally inexperienced neighbour. Trust me, the only person actually deserving of abuse would be me as the teacher if I failed to lead students through the process clearly and well.

I feel strongly about this because I used to do it myself big time. I never really thought about it until my first residency in Japan. There I was, before we all settled down, pretty much alone and stuck with my inner voice for company. It’s not much fun being half way up a mountain in a very strange place, so many things a total mystery, feeling awkwardly huge, too hot and profoundly worried by the outsize insect life. Add to that the constant nagging voice telling me I was the wrong person in the wrong place and would never, ever, ever get to grips with the process and it made for some very weepy emails home. After a week I couldn’t bear it any longer and made the conscious decision to stop. It wasn’t easy and having an inner Pollyanna along with the inner critic was a bore, but it broke the habit and I am much more conscious about self criticism these days. Nothing wrong with striving for better, but if I feel myself sinking I just imagine how it would feel to be caught muttering the same words to a fellow student. Unthinkable to be so unkind and thoughtless…

5 thoughts on “Sticks and stones…”

  1. I agree with what you write, Laura, But why? Aside from the inner bitch and negative nightmare voice do you think this scathing inner critic has something to do with societies attitude toward (perceived) notions of excellence? That unless something is perfect, original and technically beyond reach somehow the individual who created it, and the creation itself, is worthless? Have we learned to be concerned with what others might think and what a creation might become on the art market instead? In short have we lost the joy in creation for its own sake? And in its place given a home to this hypercritical, self-destructive voice you describe?

  2. Yup, I say things to myself about my artwork that I would never in a million years say to another person…I, too, am trying to be kinder to myself these days. Glad to hear I’m not alone.

  3. I could not agree more with you Laura, it is experience that makes us accept that our work is our own and not beat ourselves up about it, we cant be creative if we do, but that does not mean that there is the seed of doubt with the joy of creation.

  4. Firstly,I think you are a brilliant teacher and companion in this journey of discovery. I also think most of these negative self condemning thoughts and atittudes come from either an unrealistic worldly impression that after seeing some stunnning art or,performance we adopt the “I will never be able to do that “.The fact is no,you might not ever become that good but remember,that performance was the end result of a very long learning and determined desire to be the best. It should be an encouragement to increase our pursuit of excellence and not be the stopping block. I also believe childhood discouragement has a major part in all this arena.I personally grew up with “well you did your best” in other words never,mind you are not that good.
    That spurred me on to prove the statement wrong.I no longer have anything to prove to anyone.

  5. Nice article Laura. I actually wrote ‘The work displays many imperfections, which seem to lend it a certain character and appear not to distract from the overall effect’, in my spiel for an exhibition I was involved in because I wasn’t entirely happy with my work. It was a kind of apology but I felt embarrassed when I saw it in print!

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