Sticky & Slippery

“like every conversation, if it’s a good one, it ends in a natural way – I have this intuitive sense that I’ve finished something.”
Emilio Perez

Something every artist contends with is knowing when a work of art is finished. Some artists believe a work is never truly finished just abandoned as Leonard DaVinci is attributed with saying, and others talk about using their intuition to know when to walk away. There have been artists who have taken works back to rework aspects of them even after they were sold. I know from my own experience, on occasion when seeing one of my paintings on the wall of a collector or friend that it was unfinished. I think of this idea as stickiness and slipperiness. When something requires more of your attention, focus, or interaction, whether inanimate or in human relations, it feels sticky. Like honey, it’s tough to get off of you. On the other hand, when there is a sense of accomplishment, completeness, or even just a relaxed sense of letting go, that’s slipperiness.

Stickiness and slipperiness are apt metaphors for how we deal with our interpersonal relationships whether intimate or professional. We don’t live in isolation. Nearly every day of our lives we interact with the personality dynamics of others. You might be in a wonderful mood one day when you awaken and then someone at the coffee shop, or on the bus, or at work is in a terrible mood and you suddenly get pulled into that vortex of their negativity. This can be as subtle as simply hearing other people complain about their circumstances that may have nothing to do with you at all. On those days you grow resentful that your good mood and high spirits have been polluted. You feel that the negative emotions of others are too sticky to get off of you like you fell into a pot of emotional syrup.

leonardo-da-vinci-adoration-of-the-magi
The great unfinished work of Leonard DaVinci “The Adoration of the Magi” (1481)

The trick here is to transform stickiness into slipperiness, or better still build up a practice of being slippery yourself, so less sticks to you. Like the saying goes, let things roll off your back like water on a duck. In theory, this sounds easy. With practice, you can blissfully navigate life without a care in the world, with negativity sliding off of you and little or nothing sticking. In practice this is much harder, especially when you have skin in the game, so to speak. The more you care about something, the more something or someone is connected to your own sense of purpose and self-worth in the world, the more it sticks to you and the harder it is to let the ugliness of life roll off of you.

A helpful strategy with your navigation of the sea of emotions is to think of your life as a series of artworks, a body of artist expression. Each new phase of your life, each new relationship, job, and location is its own work of art. Sometimes these are very brief and episodic and some works last for decades. No matter the length of time, the idea is to approach life from the standpoint of finding a balance between stickiness to slipperiness, between holding on and letting go. In approaching your life this way you can make choices that are based on artful thinking not stressful or confining circumstances. Each interaction, each conversation can be evaluated for the color and richness it may add to your work of art at that time. If a coworker is unhappy and frustrated at their job you can interact with it in a more detached manner if you see it as having little or no contribution to your own work, just as an artist might choose not to use a particular color on their palette. This doesn’t mean you have to become a detached, unfeeling person, quite the contrary. Empathy is a gateway to making meaningful decisions about your life. Empathizing with another person’s concerns and struggle without it sticking to you, without you using it as a medium for your own expression will actually strengthen your own artful living.

When I was teaching college the most terrifying thing I could ask of my art students was to create whatever they wanted.There was horror when they contemplated inventing something completely out of their own heads. Like my students, our lives are blank canvases much more so than we think. We convince ourselves that all of these things we stick to, relationships, things, and our jobs, is desperately essential to our own happiness. What we should be focusing on is the experience of living itself not the attributes of that experience. Artists begin to overcome the struggle with finishing works by seeing each work as practice for the next one to come. They develop a balance between what sticks aesthetically and what slides away into the world and they do that by finding a balance between caring deeply for the work and realizing that any further input will actually ruin the work. This is a healthy way for us to contend with the struggle of our daily lives as well. Use your intuition, your experience, and combine that with a desire to enrich the work of art that is your life to find your own balance between stickiness and slipperiness. As the poet David Whyte says; “anything or anyone / that does not bring you alive / is too small for you.”

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