by Mara Snipes
I arrive at my studio like so many times before: arms full of fabric, paintings and brushes and leftovers for lunch. Cup of coffee, blue water bottle, and the sketchbook and calendar that follow me everywhere. I jiggle the key in the lock, lean in and push through the door.
The similarity of these days is only external. My emotional climate likes to flex and shift, a mystifying product of countless influences both past and present. But it’s the showing up at the studio that saves me; with grand plans, with no plans, with plans that were ambitious then shattered then rescued anew. I take an important pause to stop just inside the door, close my eyes, and take a deep breath.
That breath informs my senses: the smell of wood and paint and soap, a slight hint of my candle’s scent. Murmurs of music from nextdoor filter through the vent, air from my open window, bits of conversation from the street. I take a moment to look at the work I’ve done the day before, first impressions with a fresh eye, and make mental notes of what each piece needs. Even on the foggiest of days, it’s grounding just to be in this space. I remind myself that I chose this, that I want this, and living a working artist’s life means accepting the turbulence, heart wrenching clarity, frequent uncertainty and certain vulnerability that come with it.
It took me a long time to see my own nature as an artist. Like meditation, making your own art is an excellent mirror, a window into your true self. And also like meditation, in my case, you commit to this life only after every other attempt to find peace and meaning has failed you. For many years I lived externally: seeking truth and meaning outside of myself, through experiences and people and things. Good people. And good things. But I still felt an odd distance from my own life, a ‘something missing’ that no amount of action, achievement or distraction could touch.
Big steps toward a better focus came with each of my three children, and the inherent tectonic shifts of identity and priorities that they set into motion. Like any good parent, I wanted to realize and support each of their individual natures, and in doing so finally started to recognize my own. Even then, it took me years to decide to pursue art-making full time. I had dutifully made my way through challenging academics and into a fast career, and kept along this path through my twenties. My art was private, my desire to be a working artist even more so.
So I read books and wrote countless pages and took classes, still not quite seeing myself clearly, or as clearly as my loved ones did. I still laugh when I remember confessing to my husband a few years ago, through heavy sobs, “I’m an artist!”…he looked at me quizzically, and said, “I know”. There you go.
I apologize for making the life of a working artist seem so un-glamorous. Hopefully it’s more of a reflection on my own struggle for self-realization, then acceptance, then grace and self-care and the exuberant pursuit that keeps me working as an artist. But I admit it’s woven into most artists I know. The divine bolt of lightning striking the hand of the ready artist is a convenient image, but terrifying to the artist who spends hours in wait in her studio. My own studio practice changes daily, but the common theme is to show up with openness, and be ready to do the work. No waiting!
But what work? If original ideas are hard to come by and spontaneous creativity has left the premises, if I’m not bent on getting something down or taken over by an idea… I clean my brushes. I stretch a canvas. I sort and organize fabric: ready to dye, ready to print, to sew, for remnants, set aside for samples. My hands do the work, until the rest of me catches on. I’ve become increasingly generous with myself, allowing for work days of all sorts, and taking comfort in the creative ebb tide that has been with me always. A day of creative work is a good day, in whatever form.
Each day is different, but the commitment is the same: to have my day’s efforts be sincere. I had a very frustrating day of painting last week, where the marks didn’t feel like me and covering the canvas seemed a struggle. Hours spent ‘trying to get into it’ didn’t get me any closer. The next day I reluctantly showed the work-in-progress to a painter friend of mine, and was surprised by her comments. She said the marks were powerful and expressed a lot of frustration, a dead-on interpretation of my mood when I made them. Instead of aiming for a certain result in my work, an effect or a style, I was reminded that my true goal is to be sincere, to have my work be authentic and reflect my history, my training, my talents, my mood that day. With that gracious lens, I’m nailing it.
As a daily ritual, it’s through writing and art-making that I clean my mirror, making sure the unique prism of my life can let all the light through. Inspiration filters in through my children, my family, my solitary hours lost on the trails, books and trips and unexpected moments of awareness and clarity. How that light gets refracted is within me, and worth all of my sincere efforts. I am unimaginably grateful for the practice.
Which brings me back to grace. I care for myself through acceptance, through gratitude and humor and flexibility, each mixed in various quantities depending on the day’s demands and rewards. And by choosing an artist’s life, both the demands and rewards are mighty, and linked proportionately. I like to think that caring for myself allows me to care for others better, with heaping spoons of empathy and courage, inspiration and self-awareness. You’ll have to ask my jury, though; they’re out getting ice cream and making the world a better place.