Saturday, April 12, 2014

The complexities of the "A" Word

Sometimes when I use the word, I look around to see who will scoff, wag their finger, or roll their eyes. Sometimes...just sometimes I imagine getting tarred and feathered for using it. It's a dangerous and coveted word that can conjure up many emotions, opinions, and nasty comments.

Here are some simple definition of the "A" word I speak of:
1-A person who produces works in any of the arts that are primarily subject to aesthetic criteria.

2-A person who practices one of the fine arts, especially a painter or sculptor.
3-A person whose trade or profession requires a knowledge of design, drawing, painting, etc.
4-A person who works in one of the performing arts, as an actor, musician,  singer; or performer.
5-A person whose work exhibits exceptional skill.

So why do I have complicated relationship with this "A" word?  
Because of definition number 5:
 "A person whose work exhibits exceptional skill."

I feel pretty safe about definitions 1-4.  I produce a lot "aesthetics" in my job. I make a lot of media/branding to tell stories and illustrate truths. My job description includes spacial design, and I spend lots of time writing, acting and performing in numerous ways both for my full time job and for fun and my hobbies/passions (because I love to, and occasionally get paid to, as well). 

BUT the complications come from one question.

Who gets to declare that a person has exceptional skill? 

Simon Cowell can eat his heart out because I am my own worst critic. First of all I can feel a bit presumptuous even declaring myself an "artist," because I don't feel worthy of calling myself that at times.  But even more how weird is it to  self-identify as an "exceptional artist." That being said, I  lean on labels from others in this area, finding my identity in how others see me. But when you're telling stories, speaking, making art, and filmmaking you automatically become the object of people's opinions. And no one enjoys being judged critically and no one wants to be called a shoddy artist. If I'm labeled an artist who does crappy work, I'd rather not be called an artist at all. BUT so much of making art is being Ok with creating some "non-exceptional" stuff once in a while. It's imperative simply because 1-you must, 2-you want to, 3-you have ideas and 4- you need to practice! As creators/artists we simple must practice making our art! If for no other reason but to express ourselves, (and find ways to deal with the negative critique that might come after).
This is the complexity of being an ARTIST for me.
My first role in a community theater was Prince Hal in Shakespeare's Henry the IV part 1. I came alive. I gave two months of my life, five nights a week to perfecting my accent, sword fighting training, and rehearsing like crazy. Then came opening night! It was like being born again... only to die the next morning. That role got me a word whipping by the local newspaper critic. Over the next two years I starred in many principal and supporting roles at that theater, and never once did that critic give me a good review.  The first few times it really threw me off. I remember irrationally thinking I could devise a plan to buy up as many papers as I could to lessen the chance people could read them. All I could think about was my name being smeared in those negative words and the whole city reading them. He really had it out for me. (No joke,  in one Agatha Christie play, I literally had a small "walk-on" role with no more than a page of dialogue, and this critic gave me a paragraph lashing in his column). That was almost twenty years ago, and in some way those words still haunt me, but now I'm finding strength in them. 

I attribute this growth over the years to a great/supportive wife, loving friends, encouraging community of artists (so thankful for CREATIVE CREW RWC), and ultimately a bit of just having to "grow-up." I thank God that I've been able develop a thicker skin to recognize my life and work don't need to rely the approval of others. I've been challenged to create despite and because of criticism. Don't get me wrong, I want to better my art, and I seek and welcome feedback. But I've learned, and am still trying to apply, that I don't have to allow the power of negative words to attach to my identity.

This week I was reading this great book by Austin Kleon, "Show Your Work" who confirmed some practical tools in being an "A" word. (The whole book is fun, quick, and filled with great nuggets of wisdom).

In his 8th chapter he says artists need to learn to "Take a punch."
 "Don't feed the trolls. The first step in evaluating feedback is sizing up who it came from. You want feedback from people who care about you and what you do. Be extra wary of feedback from anybody who falls outside of that circle. A troll is a person  isn't interested in improving your work, only provoking you with hateful, aggressive, or upsetting talk. You will gain nothing by engaging with these people. Don't feed them, and they'll usually go away."

What if we didn't focus so much on end product or the "grade" of our "art/work?" What if  we allowed and elevated the  process of creating art to the same level as our end result? What if we simply enjoyed what we did, and sought out healthy, constructive feedback from people who had our good in mind? (And yes, yes, I know some of us want people to like our work, so they'll support it, and invest in it, and keep being our audience.  I want that, too, and  agree. But we must keep the negative, judgmental, and value based critiques in their place.

These thoughts are present for me right now because I spent my week preparing, collaborating, and installing a project that I had been working on since January based on EASTER. These thoughts have flooded my mind because just five short months ago I was doing the same thing, only it was Christmas, and I had an interesting critique come my way.

 I wanted to tell a story. I wanted to take the age old, simple story that took place in Bethlehem, and plop it down in our current city. Two thousand years ago there was a sign in the sky, a star. And today we have very different signs. What if those signs we'd see in 7-11's or flashing in bars, pointed us to the true north of Christmas? I was so excited about the idea, and a bunch of others were, too, as they flocked out to work together as a team and see this concept come to life.

We worked on the idea for about three months, collaborated with over thirty stage designers/carpenters/creators and "A-words." The installation took three days to complete and we were all shining with pride over the whole process.

But then one handwritten, anonymous comment crept in,  attempting to blow out our little light. 
"Would Jesus approve of neon lights? It feels wrong. Remove the cultural obscenity."

I read those words over and over. I scratched my head. I shrugged my shoulders. I was confused. It's not like a bedazzled a manger, or made a neon crucifix (although, that's art, too).
Did I commit heresy? I mean, this person called our work, "obscene."


I was deflated...for a few hours... and then I got over it.

 It didn't knock me out, I didn't lose any sleep or appetite, or try to devise any plans to keep the comment from others.

See, I had this perspective:

It was Christmas. I wanted to tell and illustrate a story. I wanted to take the two thousand year old traditional story that took place in Bethlehem, and plop it down in our current city. I wanted people to see the relevance of Christmas in our city, today. And we did get LOTS of positive feedback, but the most important fact for me, was that our team created and collaborated on something beautiful. We worked hard, and we accomplished what we intended.

So now, I'm reminding myself of this, as we head into this next season of SHOWING WORK for the Easter season. I'm attempting to take Austin Kleon's advice. Here's some of the projects brewing:
  • I casted vision for both a print and video branding illustrating HEAVEN!
(with the awesome design from my friend Mr. Jeremy Milford).

  • I wrote and directed an interactive story-telling experience for Good Friday. Please come experience the amazing words, music, and interaction created by a talented and passionate group of people centered around Jesus' crucifixion. (Friday 4/18/14, 7pm, PCC).
  • I worked on the ethos of our community's worship space to enhance our imagination of the season. It starts THIS SUNDAY as we RE-FRAME our perspectives on eternity.
  • I collaborated on and helped produce a video story celebrating the changed lives of six people getting baptized debuting  Easter Sunday April 20th. (8am, 9:30am, and 11:15am).

So, don't worry if you're expert or not, it doesn't matter. Practice, try, create, fail, and start again. It's OK! Enjoy who you are, and enjoy the process of creating. That's how we learn, and... THAT IS HOW we become an exceptionally skilled artist! (Lots and lots of practice).

If you're like me and you're an A-soul, or you have an A-soul in your life-- an Artist's soul that is, then be encouraged with these reminders...And go out there and CREATE!

 “You have enemies? Good. That means you've stood up for something, sometime in your life.”
Winston Churchill

“To avoid criticism say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.”

“I pay no attention whatever to anybody's praise or blame. I simply follow my own feelings.”
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart