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Humility in Art-making: A lesson from Ryan

Several years ago just after Christmas, I was cruising Facebook on my phone and intermittently chatting with my mom and her partner, Steven, in the kitchen as they prepared dinner. I remember the smell of my mom’s cooking and the din of clattering pots and pans as the backdrop to the news my disbelieving eyes beheld in that moment. In reading a literary cacophony of mournful posts and comments from high school friends, I learned that my childhood friend Ryan had passed away unexpectedly, a little under a month after his own mother passed on following her battle with cancer. He was found in his apartment in an armchair; an autopsy revealed that he had an enlarged heart, which, if you had the fortune to know him, was tragically fitting.

In elementary school, I was hardly a cool kid. I was chubby, would only wear sweatpants because I was convinced that due to the completely uncompromising laws of physics, jeans couldn’t possibly stay up (duh…no elastic.), and much to the chagrin of my ever-persevering mother, I didn’t brush my perpetually unruly blonde hair until about 5th grade. Ryan and I got to be buddies through church activities and our parents were friends through their card group (grownup game night) that would meet on a regular basis as we were growing up. We also went to school together for 12 years, during which time, he was my intermittent and understated hero-ally. I remember that he was the only kid who stepped forward to comfort me in 6th grade, when a resident bully took the round glasses reminiscent of John Lennon’s iconic style that I was wearing and smashed them on the pavement. In 4th grade, he rescued me when his good friend shoved me so hard that I fell down and into a closet, and then proceeded to admonish his buddy sharply, an act of true courage at an age when girls most certainly had cooties, which temporarily prompted ostracization from his male counterparts. He was also the only kid who never laughed when my sixth-grade teacher regularly singled me out to publicly shame me for wrong answers and instead drew caricatures of the teacher’s sneering face that made me laugh through the tears I tried to hide. In short, he was a good, pure soul in a league of his own for his whole life, and while people like him probably fare better in heaven with other angelic folk, we sure could use more like him in the mortal realm and it is tragic that we lost him when we did.

Upon reading the news that Ryan had passed, I immediately teared up…it had been a number of years since he and I had spoken at all, but it still shook me to the core. Through newly-blurred vision, I read the hundreds of comments and posts from friends, shocked and grief-stricken by his sudden departure. One of the comments I read stuck with me and is the reason for this post.

At the time of his death, Ryan, a talented artist, had a successful screen-printing business, and through his hard work and skill, as well as his reputation for being a solid, good-hearted guy, he had quickly gained a number of clients and was really making a go of it. In the comment on FB, this friend related that despite his success, Ryan was determined to stay grounded, down to earth, and humble…so much so that he kept a little sign in his studio that simply said, “Stay humble”. While I didn’t have the privilege of talking with him about what exactly this little phrase meant to him, as an artist myself, I have never forgotten this anecdote shared by his grieving friend, and it has taken on importance and meaning for me as a concept tantamount to contentment and yes, even success, in the arts. Recently, I decided I’d adorn my own art studio with the concept in a medium I frequently use in my own work…needle, thread, and fabric. The work is simple and I left it unadorned and unfinished on purpose.

While one could derive various meanings from it, to me, “Stay Humble” means:

1. You care deeply about your process and that’s enough. Taking a cue from Bayles and Orland’s Art and Fear, it’s important not to get caught up in what other people think of my process or even the final work and how they classify me…they don’t understand, care, or appreciate the process and the result even remotely as much as I do, which is okay. I also don’t care if I’m seen as an artist in their eyes because I know who I am. For me, art is a personal expression rather than a livelihood, so whether others like my work is secondary to whether it allows me to further explore the understood borders of myself and is an authentic expression unfettered by thoughts of either praise or critique. Given the amount of internal resistance I have to overcome to even make art in the first place, sharing it is an act of absolute bravery.

2. Avoid comparison and you're not that special, which is good. Even after experiencing some measure of success or recognition as an artist, if I am pushing the envelope on the bounds of my own vulnerability and creativity, I will never “arrive” at the top of some lofty hierarchy…that is to say, even if my work or ingenuity is, in the estimation of some, somehow “better” than that of others, keeping the ego at bay is key. As a good friend once shared with me after witnessing me have a nervous breakdown post-art critique, her blue eyes bright with conviction, comparison is absolutely and positively the thief of joy. There is always someone who is either more skilled or less experienced and the work of others only matters insomuch as it can serve as fodder for further inspiration or experimentation. Don’t get it twisted. Period.

3. Commit. It’s exciting to talk about an idea or prototype until the cows come home, but when it comes to executing, I balk. I was once doing some shibori with a former mentor, and after watching me twist and untwist a poor, tortured piece of cotton for 15 minutes straight, she reached across the table, grabbed my fumbling hands, and exclaimed sharply (but not unkindly), “commit!” She knew that I suffer from perpetual self-induced paralysis by analysis and can be my own worst enemy. Then, when I dive in, unforeseen constraints give additional shape to my process and the piece almost always turns out differently than I had planned, which is (also) almost always a good thing. For me, the commitment comes not in creating a perfect work, but in attempting the execution and then trusting the process. As that same mentor once said, “finished is better than perfect.” Sometimes I forget this. It’s easy to get caught up in illusions of future grandeur or the comparison of my current abilities with those I possessed in the past and then I find myself frozen. The ego strikes again. I do believe if I can keep her quiet…stay humble…take small measured steps in my walk as an artist…I’ll actually get somewhere.

Meanwhile, I’ve got this little embroidered work to serve as a gentle reminder in the interim. Wherever you are, I am grateful to you, Ryan.

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