You Just Lost the Game

If you’re a millennial, like my brother, you’re cursing my name right now. For the rest of us who need the game explained, I’d be delighted to help you lose it.

The rules of the game are:

  1. If you are aware of the game, you are playing the game.
  2. Don’t think about the game.
  3. If you do think about the game, you have just lost the game.
  4. If you lose the game, you are required to announce it.

 

That’s it. My brother explained it to me and it sounds like a millennial version of “cooties”. In crowds of his friends, someone would say “I just lost the game” and every one would groan and the cascade of “I just lost the game” would roll around, with the phrase popping up to everyone’s annoyance for the rest of the day. It seemed ridiculously silly to me at first. However, since I’ve been digging into all this mindfulness stuff, I’ve been losing the game like crazy. It’s become really interesting to me, because it’s sort of a mindfulness game.

To play the game, one must be aware of their thoughts and let this one go- the goal is to dismiss it quickly as soon as it surfaces. Are you winning or losing? It does not matter- evaluating how you’re doing in the game will not help you. As soon as you congratulate yourself on your long stretch of game-winning, you’ve lost it and the clock resets.

Why dismiss a thought? Because, in this case, you lose a dumb game. But, applying that to other areas of your life this exercise could be useful.

For me personally, I’m in the middle of a big life-transition (moving, developing this project, looking at my art practice as a whole, not sure what the future will bring) and I’m very aware of my fears moving forward. The thing about thoughts is, they feel so very real. Our minds are very motivated to be right and very good at offering evidence to support these notions.

I’ll give you an example of one I grapple with. I think that real artists have a consistent style and medium in which they work. Real artists can summarize their practice with clarity. Because I fit neither of these, I’m amateur. A half-baked poser, and I can provide plenty of evidence to support this claim.

For some people, maybe this sort of thinking would motivate them to get their act together, but for me it doesn’t work that way. Although I understand the value of clarity and consistency, my efforts to establish legitimacy as an artist against such a measure gives all my work a stiff quality. I can tell which pieces of art I’ve made while this reality looms in my mind. They’re usually one-off’s and they’re usually not very good. When I believe this thought, I feel like either I have to fit the shape-shifting peg of my work into a square as consistent as an instagram pic, or lament it as underdone and unworthy.

Anyways- enough about me and my crippling insecurities when it comes to my creative practice- lets get back to the game. I’ve been trying to “game” this thought- the idea that real artists are consistent. I try to dismiss it as soon as it surfaces.

In the game, you “catch and release” thinking about the game. This is somewhat simple because there’s not much to think about with the game. There is a big difference between the game and other habitual thoughts, but I think it’s good practice. I get a deluge of supporting evidence to raise that tide of insecurity and discouragement with my nagging thoughts about what real artists do or don’t do. If I can “gamify” this thought, I can recognize the thought when it arrives, and the supporting arguments flowing in with it. Sometimes, I can metaphorically cross my fingers (the tried and true guard against cooties) and let it pass over me. Sometimes I just brace for the hit, accept that I’m going to get mentally and emotionally rocked, and try my best to keep my footing.

The thing is, the game and my real artists idea are thoughts and will pass with or without my help. What I have control over is what I decide to do with them. Sometimes I decide to embrace my slug-nature, hide under some rotting bark, apply some empathy and take some rest. Other times I’m better at cheering myself on and digging back into my work.  The clever part is, if I’m making work and moving forward, no one ever need know I’m playing this game. Either way, I can tally it up as a loss, maybe congratulate myself on a long stretch of oblivion, announce the real artists thought for what it is and reset the clock.

 

Art is Hard, Part 2: Why You Need to Learn to Draw

Art is hard. Learning to make art is hard. It’s very vulnerable and labor intensive. The hard part is there because, aside from the ocean of media options and the technical skills involved, art is not as subjective as many people seem to think.¹ I feel pretty strongly that learning to draw is a crucial foundation in making art. Learning to draw isn’t about making pretty pictures, it’s about learning to Listen accurately.

Sincerity of self expression is powerful, but I think it gets more than its fair share of the glory. The silence framed between notes, the volume of empty air the cathedral stones define, the blank space around poem on the page- that which draws the audience into Listening is what draws the audience into Relationship with art.

Sincerity of Listening is powerful. And I feel that the practice of learning to objectively draw is powerful in learning the skill of deeply Listening.

Let me first explain my capitalization of the word Listen. I’m folding some language together here, so bear with me. One common problem in relationships comes from our inability to listen, really Listen, to people. We can hear them, but Listening is a mind and heart opening act. We do our best to loosen our grip on what we know (or assume) and approach the other with a vulnerability to accept, process, and hopefully understand their reality. This kind of Listening emcompasses a host of complexities beyond the spoken words. And when we understand, we say “I see what you mean”. Ha!

Here’s another way to say it. A friend of mine- Chris Dorman- writes kids songs and has one that goes “When you listen with your ears, you hear. When you listen with your eyes, you see. When you listen with your body, you dance. And when you listen with your heart, you love.” (I cannot find a link to just this song, so if you want to hear it you’ll have to learn about how apple blossoms turn into apples on his new show Mr Chris and Friends) I like this song because it applies the word Listen to that deeper, more holistic, meaningful sensing and knowing the world. Thus, I capitalize Listen because I think its uses extend beyond the sense of hearing.

How does this apply to drawing? Well, one of the hardest aspects of learning how to draw is learning how to draw what you see, not what you think you see. We humans are extremely good at processing visual information, but part of our speed and skill in this is because we’re also very good at developing symbols for things. When we draw, often enough we are drawing symbols. Eyes are football shaped with a dark circle in the middle and curvy lines swooping off the top, hands are circles or squares with lines pointing out from the center, trees are thick rectangles with bumpy round shapes perched on top, you get the picture (ha!).² Learning how to Listen until you see what is actually present and draw it is a skill that must be practiced.

Back to the subjectivity or objectivity of this. I think the lines between subjective and objective are somewhat of a false dichotomy while at the same time being useful concepts. Representing something with as much accuracy as possible so that another viewer understands what’s being represented can be measured against the informal democratic agreement of what reality looks like, and for our purposes, this is a good objective measure. Can I tell in your drawing if fur is soft, glass is transparent or the sun is shining through a window and not the floor? Yes? Then good job, objectively speaking. You have done a good job sincerely Listening.

But, of course, it is your unique lens through which you translated it and that is subjective. We can’t escape our subjectivity, but we can try to Listen with sincerity- practice and hone that skill of Listening. After all, what good is your unique lens on the world if you don’t bother to clean it? To grind it and polish it? To focus it and make sure the image is true to your eye? What do you offer your audience if not a relationship founded on sincere Listening? Do you see what I mean?


¹Caveat, people can do whatever the hell they want. I’m not going to bother splitting the “what is art?” hair or the “art versus craft” hair.¹* This is about my experience.¹**

¹*Anyone who knows me knows I cannot actually help myself and I am always splitting the “craft versus art” hair and the “what is art?”¹*** hair. The thing is, I honestly get annoyed at myself from this constant looping and this annoyance leads to the assertion that “people can do whatever the hell they want.”

¹**“Art is not as subjective as you think, as I’ll clearly explain via my subjective experience,” said Ruby, the Lewis Carol character.

¹***I’m much better at explaining why things are art then why they are not art.

²Apply this metaphorically to language- especially language used in your key relationships- and you’ll see symbols emerge here too. Have fun with that (she says with both sarcasm and sincerity).

Art is Hard, Part 1: Art Lesson from a Fictional Bear

When I was going through my foundational program at GVSU, I tried to get home to my family on the weekends. It was a long drive, but it was comforting to retreat back to my folks house. I have siblings from my father’s re-marriage- a brother and a sister- who are much younger than me.

Having significantly younger siblings, I had a pretty developed nurturing sense and the self-secondizing that goes along with it. Sure, I was struggling with those questions of self-identity and learning to make my way in the world, as well as trying to figure out cooking for myself* that comes along with being in one’s early twenties and living outside the house for the first time, but they were struggling with being daily affronted with new foods, learning to read or trying to remember the litany of rules for putting one’s clothes on correctly: rightside out, not backwards, why isn’t it okay to live both one’s public and private life in their underwear?… Those sorts of things. Whether it was altruistic of me to patiently let these concerns be the center of my parents attentional gravity, or it was just easier to stuff my own struggles and existential questions- rightside out, not backwards, why isn’t it okay to lives one’s public and private life in their underwear?- underneath them in the stack of things to do, I don’t know.

Robin (who still struggles with clothing conventions, but more philosophically these days) could always tell if I was having a hard time. Even more surprising, this child seemed to know how to soothe me. He was making a lot of “comic books” at the time and he made one for me on one of these visits home.

It featured a little bear who was trying to paint a picture. She worked very hard but it wasn’t turning out. At one point the bear cries tears of frustration over the struggle, but she bravely persists in her efforts. Eventually the bear triumphs and happily proclaims it to be beautiful. In the tale of this little bear, I saw reflected my long hours bent over a project, fighting through the tears of doubt, blindly groping towards the sublime.

It’s a common enough story- a hero’s journey in miniature- but in that way stories are more precious when they’re personal, my brother had listened to the spaces between my words and actions and drawn this story out. This small allegory had been distilled for me. My brother could see my struggles perched on my shoulders every time I tried to shake them and come home. I also knew he could also see my belief in the light at the end of the tunnel, the faith that satisfaction would be found upon accomplishing the beautiful. That feeling of being seen is a powerful feeling, even (or perhaps especially) coming from an eight year old, and it propped me up. My brother had learned from watching me that art is hard and art is worth it. I had learned this same lesson back from him in the tale of this bear who persists through her tears in search of the sublime.

*Insight for those of you hard on young people who don’t know how to cook- if their family taught them how to cook, they probably taught them how to cook *for that whole family* which is different from cooking for *just one’s self*. For years I could not manage to cook for less than six people at a time, which meant food was constantly going bad in my fridge, which led to eating the chips and dip for dinner people laugh at college students for.