The behind the scenes details of how an artist works fascinate me. What they have for breakfast, where they sit when they work, what the light is like. Do they wear slippers? These are all details that act as a portal into their world to help me paint their picture.
My process as an artist began when I was about four and a half. I was in Sunday school in Jackson, Ms, and for some reason, my mother was helping out with the class that day (she will openly admit that she started going to church to take a break from her children while they were in Sunday school). So there we were in the classroom, it was raining and the lesson was over. Kids were running wild, but I wanted to draw. So I found a stash of crayons and a black pen, the latter probably to mimic my mother’s pen and ink drawing style. She had studied drawing for several years at that point and we had a massive nude on the wall at home to prove it.
Thankfully I drew a tree – stalky limbs jutting out from a thick conical trunk, green squiggles all around the top for leaves. The whole masterpiece took about 45 seconds to create. I brought the finished product over to my mother for praise. She regarded the paper, thoughtfully, then told me I could do better. Why not sit in the window and look at a real tree, she said, perhaps that big beautiful Sycamore on the lawn? Notice the trunk, how the roots stretch across the lawn, how the arms crisscross in many directions. The leaves, they are hard, don’t worry too much about those.
I walked over to the window, slumped on the sill and stared at the sycamore through the rain-streaked glass. I wasn’t dejected, I was mad. My mom knew I was confident (and feisty). I didn’t need false praise. What I needed was a project that would keep me occupied for at least 5 minutes, one that I would be proud of. So I looked, I drew, and I looked again. The finished product was a little wild and wobbly, but it was what I saw. I loved it.
That Sunday, I suppose, was the beginning of my creative process. I create, I ask for feedback, then I make it better. I figure that if something doesn’t sit right with my loved ones, chances are, others probably agree. Feedback doesn’t imply a lack of faith in instinct; feedback is a form of collaboration. Together we’ll make it better.
Instinct came that day, at four and a half, when I knew my wobbly sycamore was exactly how it should be. It wasn’t the result that mattered, it was the process. Learning that, at a basic young level, was a gift that I still draw on.
I’ve had my lapses over the years. I’ve rushed my work, regardless of what it is. I don’t always take the time to really see. But I still run to my mother looking for praise, and she still thoughtfully regards my work, then suggests how I can make it better.
My latest episode of The Food Podcast touches on the fine art of seeing. I talked with Jessie Kanelos Weiner, an American artist living in Paris who captures the day in watercolour.
Jessie walks through Paris to a studio she shares with other artists. She communicates with her European clients in the morning, and in the afternoon, when North America wakes up, she shifts to clients on the other side of the Atlantic. In between the two, the artists in the studio pull up lawn chairs and have a pot luck lunch together – salads and cheese, perhaps a baguette. Simple things.
At the end of her work day she walks home, regarding her adopted city – how it has changed, even just a little, from the day before. This is when her ideas for new projects are born.
I didn’t ask Jessie if she asks for feedback from others, or if she wears slippers in the studio. But she did tell me she often picks up a small wheel of camembert on her way into the studio in the morning and leaves it wrapped in her purse for the rest of the day. That way it will be perfectly room temperature when she gets home that night.