Form & Formlessness

“Sometimes if you have a strong form, you can be more fluid inside of that form.”
― Willem DaFoe

There was a point in my life when I realized that something had to shift. I was stuck in a routine of doing what was available, what paid me enough money, and what was essentially easy, but I wasn’t growing as a person. That realization inevitably led me to return to graduate school at the age of 44 to get an MFA in painting. I had ideas about where that might lead me but in essence all I really wanted was a different kind of structure to my life. That structure of graduate school gave me incredible space within which I found a whole new creative energy and new grounding. It also added a whole new set of rules that reshaped my identity and presented enormous new challenges. It even caused me to question some very fundamental things about myself that ultimately made me a better person because of it.

We all live with structure whether we want to or not. On the most fundamental level there is simply the structure that the natural world imposes on us, but once our basic needs of shelter and food are met, we encounter other structures—marriage, work, and friendships—and they all come with a unique set of rules. These frameworks can serve as playgrounds to expand our experience in life or become prisons. It’s how we find liberation within structure that gives us grounding, not the search for, or acceptance of structure itself. That liberation isn’t just some spontaneous occurrence anymore than an artist enters a studio and spontaneously produces a fully realized work of art. There is still a lot of work that takes place within those boundaries, that requires nurturing.

Using the process of painting as a metaphor we can understand how our own limitations can fuel us, rather than inhibit us. The framework of being a painter really comes down to work primarily in two dimensions with some kind of pigment (there are all kinds of ways this can be stretched into other mediums and ideas, but lets agree to this for the sake of simplicity). A painter prepares her canvas. She has chosen her structure, the limitation within the boundaries of a surface that will inevitably hang on someone’s wall. She picks the materials and colors she’ll use and have an idea of what the subject matter of the final painting will be. Then her process begins. That process leads her down a seemingly infinite set of forking paths and the end result, the finished work is never the same as the one she imagined when she started. The only consistency was in the canvas itself, the boundaries she gave to the artwork to begin with. Within that structure she discovered all kinds of things along the way, and more than likely had many, many little failures (or even big ones) which informed the final work.

Learning how to choose our canvas is the easy part. It’s the exploration within your canvas that should be your focus. Anxiousness, self-doubt, fear, and shame are the baggage we bring with us to our own canvas, along with a life of experiences. That’s a given. The key, just like in making an artwork, is in trusting in your own abilities enough to express yourself within your own frame. I’ve seen so many people crippled by self-doubt or fear. They think they are a charlatan, a pretender in life who isn’t up to the task of manifesting something rich and satisfying given their limitations. We all need a sense of purpose in life and it is all too easy to unravel that purpose by questioning our own abilities, our own voice. If every time I went into the studio to paint I started to think about who might want what I’m going to make, or consider if the work had any value outside of that studio, or even if I am accomplished enough to even be a painter at all, I would never make a single painting. I’ve had to learn to let go of that and not care. I shed my baggage when I enter my studio, as I try to do when entering the other structures of my life.

I taught during my tenure as a graduate student to offset the cost and because I come from a family of educators, so teaching was in my blood. One day I had a group of twenty students who were completely disengaged from what I was sharing. They texted friends or stared into space, but they really could have cared less about what I was sharing with them, with the exception of two students. Frustrated and feeling like a failure, I went to a professor friend of mine who had been teaching for years for advice. His advice surprised me, he said; “It doesn’t matter if you get through to the whole class or if everyone is engaged and excited. If just one person leaves your class enthused, engaged, and excited, you’ve done your job.” Obviously we can’t satisfy everyone and sometimes we can’t even satisfy ourselves, but the point I took away was that our lives have meaning when there is at least one other person, even it’s just one, that is enriched by us being alive. That’s the well you can go to when you’re feeling anxious, lost, melancholy, or disillusioned in your own self worth. Think about that one person who believes in you, who cherishes your contribution, your being, and feed off of that. Let that be your raison d’être, your reason for being and your verification you’re good enough.

As we think about structure in our life, use the idea of faking it until you make it. Nobody is an expert in life, even the experts. Every single last one of us is looking for the same basic emotional satisfaction and rich experiential fulfillment of being alive while we are on this planet. Let go of the fear of failure, of your lack of self worth, and paint the canvas of your life. Find the liberation in accepting the boundaries you currently have and see how creatively you can experience your life within that structure. Our lives are our canvas and what we put on them is up to us, but I think even more importantly as adults we need to remember to play and fake it till we make it while we’re painting that life canvas. “Nobody feels like an adult, it’s the world’s dirty secret.”*

*from the movie Liberal Arts, 2012

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