The Night I Discovered that I am an Artist

The Night I Discovered that I am an Artist 

About 15 years ago, I was running a community education program out of a local high school in Minneapolis. My job was to set up classes: foreign language, arts and crafts, yoga, woodworking--pretty much anything that people wanted to take for their own enjoyment and learning. As important as it was to have people fill up the classes, we also needed instructors to make the program work.

One day, a woman called me and said she wanted to teach a watercolor class. Amanda said she had no teaching experience and, further,  that she had learned to paint from her grandmother. With no formal training and no teaching experience, could she offer a class?

Yes, I told her, since allowing people the opportunity to teach and share their talents with others was part of the mission of the program. We set up the class and when it was ready to go, I decided to take it too. I had tried painting once in college. It was a very formal class and I did learn a few things: for example, if you look at the color of snow that is covered in shadow, it appears to be a shade of blue, not gray as I expected. But I didn’t enjoy the class, and my final assignment, a still life of an orange, looked cartoonish.

Amanda arrived to the first class and distributed our watercolor kits. I was surprised to see little tubes of paint--I was expecting those rectangular watercolor containers with the little squares or circles of hardened paint that I grew up with. For our first exercise, she asked us to try to make a really bad painting.  “Make it as bad as you can,” she advised. I had some idea of what she was going for: to loosen us up and make us less afraid of making “mistakes”. So I jumped right in.

I opened the paints and squeezed out a little and made a random stroke and spread the paint out, and then I choose another color and another. I noticed that I was using very little water.
At some point during the brief exercise, something miraculous happened. I fell in love with what I was doing. Instead of making a bad painting, I made something deeply satisfying.

In another class Amanda brought a box of what looked like junk. She asked us to consider the nature of the paint brush. Obviously it was an instrument to transfer paint to paper. “What else can serve as a paint brush?” she asked. She then asked us to select items from the box to use as brushes. I spotted: a piece of nylon, a toothbrush, and a comb, but my favorite was a brass door knob! I loved the feeling of pressing the knob into the thick, creamy paint and twisting it into the paper.  As I finished the painting, I took a shaker of salt from the box and sprinkled it on the wet paint. I really like this one! (Sadly it was lost in one of my subsequent moves.)

I learned two major lessons from the class, neither of which was intended I believe. One was that free-form intuitive painting was my natural style; the second: I should really be working with acrylics instead of watercolors since I loved the thickness and texture of pure paint. It was another 7 or 8 years (and a move across the country to Portland) before I took up painting on regular basis and began to identify primarily as an artist.

Recently I was going through some photos on an external hard drive and I came across a photo of one of my early paintings from that class.  It was exciting to see that, 15 years later, the style I discovered on that fateful night looks similar to what I am doing now, It was affirming and inspiring. There's a quality here that is still represented in my current work: the joy of discovering what happens when I follow the brush, in whatever form it may take, wherever it wants to go.