I was on a solitary retreat of sorts, staying at my parents’ house while they embarked on a two-week vacation, playing caretaker for their beloved grown-up puppy, SamDog.
It was my good fortune that my mother’s upstairs studio space was available to me, and I was excited to start a new painting while they were away. The alluring prospect of uninterrupted time and solitude was intoxicating, and I couldn’t wait to begin.
I knew exactly what I wanted to paint. There was a sweet photo I had taken a while ago of my two little nephews during their recent visit to upstate New York. For their amusement we brought them to a nearby farm to see something they had never seen before. Cows! The photo captured the boys sitting by the pasture fence, clearly communing with the bovines grazing on the other side, enjoying a telepathic conversation.
This experience was so touching I wanted to express my heartfelt emotions and memorialize the poignant moment in paint. Concurrently, I was interested in an upcoming art show at a local university seeking submissions for the theme: Scenes in Agriculture.
A perfect fit!
Sammie kept me company as I selected a 9”x12” canvas and began to draw a simple rendering of the photo, omitting extraneous details and most of the meandering cows. I wanted to highlight the intimate interaction I witnessed as well as create a more cohesive composition. A full rendering of the photograph would diminish the narrative I wanted to portray. Less is more, as they say.
Given its diminutive size, you would expect this painting to be done in a matter of hours, but it took me a week to complete. It is an understatement to say that realistic painting is not my forte. I came across one stumbling block after another. It wasn’t easy for me to achieve the impression I wanted to create or get the details to look right. With patience and stick-to-it-iveness, though, eventually I was blessed with sleights of hand that depicted Daniel’s erect spine, Jeremy’s tossed-back head, the weather-worn wooden fence post, the sun’s shadows, the cows’ simple friendly curiosity.
I was not Winslow Homer, but the piece had a certain whimsical charm.
I had no assurance of its value. Was it good? Was it horrible? Should I frame it? Should I throw it out? The typical dilemma all artists confront. Non-artists, I think, cannot fully appreciate the anxiety, self-questioning, and lack of objectivity that creative people endure, no matter how often they succeed, or how many times their work is recognized and validated. It is an inevitable, painful aspect of the creative life.
There was no one to ask for an objective assessment of this piece, so I struggled mightily with the uncertainty of its quality. I rode a roller coaster of internal turbulence before I decided to go for it and submit the work, self-doubts be damned.
All along the half hour drive to the university, I battled the temptation to turn around and go home. I managed to resist it and ultimately arrived at the school. Still, I sat in the parking lot a long time debating whether to go inside. What finally pushed me out the car door was the knowledge that I could not accept coming this far without doing what I came to do.
So, I mustered my courage, quelled the inner terror, and just told myself to buck up. It’s not as if the earth was going to crumble beneath me. I was quite safe. Nothing but my pride could be hurt.
It’s not like this was my first rodeo. I pretended to be nonchalant as I brought my little painting up to the reception desk where two old-ish ladies were processing submissions. When I handed my piece, “New Friends,” to one of the gatekeepers, she spontaneously exclaimed, “Isn’t that cute!”
My heart simply burst open. That was all I needed. For one person to like my work, I was good to go. Now I didn’t care one iota if the painting was selected. I already had my reward. I walked back to the car elated and completely satisfied.
Later I was notified that my work had been chosen for the show. Before the grand opening, I was notified that my painting had received an “Honorable Mention” ribbon from the judges! I was flabbergasted.
From this experience I learned never to allow self-doubt to derail me. I also learned that it is imperative to take risks. There are so many blessings waiting for us, but they come only AFTER, and if, we take the risk!
[NOTE: This is a cell phone photo of an analog photo taken in the mid 1990’s. Much of the detail is lost in translation, but the image generally depicts the painting I reference in this essay]