Once upon a time, I went to graduate school. An art school. A school revered around the world. And I worked very, very hard, and took all the advice and wisdom given to me by my favorite and most admired professors very, very seriously. Sometimes to a fault, but there is more on that later. I went to an art school that was, for lack of a more eloquent term, very “arty.” Commercial ventures were not outright sneered upon, but everything I studied was postmodern poststructuralist digital interactive using this new medium to create art that lives only in galleries or the occasional public space, drinking in theory, discussing the ideas and conflicts in the art world with regards to digital, as it related to the questioning of the validity of photography and film when those emerged, as they could be mechanically reproduced, and how did that affect the intrinsic value of the artwork and… well… you get the idea. It was graduate school. A wonderful bubble where these things were all you considered.
But here’s the thing. I never felt like I was ‘arty’ enough. I like creating characters. Concrete ones. Silly ones. Serious ones, but still… I am not exactly the Ellsworth Kelly of digital art. And so somehow I always, despite the encouragement of my professors, felt like I really did not belong. I was never the one who was about to create a large interactive digital space. But I kept thinking I had to be that person to justify my spot in that program. I had to be that Artist with the capital A. I had to be someone that I am not, at least in the way I thought they thought of me. One of my most influential professors told me I would become a famous artist in my own right, and that I should never work for a major studio because I would then be owned by them. I took that advice very much to heart, even though I still tried applying to Pixar and whatnot. Then I moved to Chicago.
In Chicago I had to find work. And so I did. At a marketing firm, then I moved into non-fiction television, and BAM I was in this world of motion graphics that I never knew existed. And while yes, it involves animation and design and whatnot, it also involves a seemingly specific aesthetic that is not in my base creative nature. And so I spent years battling to get farther in this world where I wasn’t being true to what I really was as an artist. And feeling guilty about calling myself an artist, because I wasn’t that ‘arty.’ After all, I was working commercially, doing work for other people, nothing like what I had been studying. And so once again, I found myself feeling like I didn’t belong.
To all outwards appearances, it would seem I am successful. And from many standpoints, I am. I am the sole breadwinner for myself, and I live a comfortable life in a nice apartment in a nice neighborhood. I have a nice reasonable car. I have really fast cable internet. I have a fancy website. And I have managed to pull off a career in the creative realm. So then why have I been so very unhappy?
Remember that professor who told me I would be a famous artist in my own right? One of the professors whose opinion I took so deeply to heart? She helped get me a job teaching adjunct at the School of the Art Institute in Chicago. I was over the moon, teaching for such a prestigious institution. As I had been working in motion graphics, I ended up in the Visual Communications department, and when I ran into her she almost sneered, saying “well I guess you have found your niche, being commercial and all.” It felt like a slap in the face. I had been told by her previously I also couldn’t teach more of the arty stuff because I didn’t have a true art foundation, but somehow I was also “too commercial.” And that started off a maelstrom in my head. I apparently didn’t belong in the art world, but I also didn’t really belong in the motion graphics world. So where did I actually belong?
Years passed, and I am sad to say I let myself slide away from everything that made my creative me, well, me. I stopped drawing. I stopped animating pure story. I stopped making silly characters. All of my energy went into finding work, learning more about motion graphics, expanding my skills in that realm. And I spent a lot of time getting caught in jobs that got me nowhere creatively and left me with nothing to show in a professional portfolio, since I was just doing things fast and dirty, or working on projects where the client insisted upon what they wanted, despite hiring me for my “design eye.” Anyone who works in a creative profession knows what that is like, and that had taken over and been my entire body of work. I started to watch former students and people I had managed far surpass me and move on to better things. Jealousy wound its way into the folds of my brain, taking up residence, much to my detriment. It drowned out the people who said I was good at what I was doing. All I saw was the bad. The part where I kept doing what other people thought I should be doing, losing more and more of what I was.
Enter my pile of sketchbooks. I have an addiction. I buy them compulsively, in bursts of believing that I will lift the pencil again and reclaim that which made me my version of an artist to begin with. And then work takes over. The sketchbooks languish. I have thousands of blank pages that stare at me accusingly. Every so often I will pull one out and remember what I am capable of, and then despair once again because I have let years go by without honing my craft beyond those days gone by because I have been working on things that are for other people. And I know this is entirely on me. I know there are successful motion graphics artists out there who also do their own creative work, and I kept trying to compare myself to them, then I would start beating myself over how I was not them, and the pencil would fall out of my hand and the sketchbook would become covered in dust. And I have lived in this trap for years. It has been so long I feared the hinges had rusted shut.
But now I think I have a can of spiritual WD-40. A theory born of a couple of cosmically timed conversations. The first was with the chair of the department I am now teaching in, and I broke, ignoring that ages old notion of the academia tap dance where you are not supposed to admit weakness or vulnerability. Because I am tired. Tired of all this trying to be someone else. And I asked him, point blank, if he had ever hit a point in his career where he looked around and said “what the HELL am I doing?” He laughed. Of course he had. And the words he said next started an avalanche in my head. He said he had a thought while at one of his previous jobs where he thought to himself
“I don’t mind what I’m doing, but I do mind what I’m not doing.”
It was a perfect encapsulation. I don’t mind what I am doing, I am lucky to be making a living doing it, but I do mind what I haven’t been doing while in service to my “career.” Those empty sketchbooks, those notions of pure silliness that are not a monetized-pay-the-rent sort of deal, all of these things that have been drowned by my own self-doubt, jealousy, and constant worrying about actual work and the next job.
Then I asked a woman I know who quit her full time job as a graphic designer to run a blog. In my head I thought she had jumped ship and was just running this blog that was her passion, and all was happy. As it turns out, she only quit a literal full time job. She still worked freelance as a graphic designer, many times for clients that paid the bills but were not exactly fulfilling, and since she had not been freelance before, she was learning about the fun bits like jobs falling through, paychecks being completely irregular, the part where you are really running your own business, etc. And my jaw dropped. Because that is where I already am. I thought she had found this magical formula allowing her to do this one passion, and while I hope she does eventually get there, it turns out she was pretty much where I am right now.
These two conversations rattled around in my head. Balance. I needed to find balance. The chair and I had talked about finding balance between life and work AND being an artist, since as an artist of course you want to make your own work, but you usually have to make a living in the commercial world. And I had been buried in the making a living part. I hadn’t even been balancing life in there. Then it occurred to me… we keep thinking about balance as a quantitative thing. Spending equal amounts of quantitative time on work and life. Well that’s crap. It’s physically impossible, unless you count sleeping as time on life, which I do not. That magical balance needs to be in psychic time (or qualitative time, if you want to sound more science-y about it.)
What on earth am I talking about? Well since quantitative time really is impossible, we have to consider our inner lives. Our ‘psychic’ lives, if you will. How many people out there have gotten so bunged up about something at work that it keeps them up at night? That they go home, angry, and that energy comes with them, drowning out the potential good time that could be spent with family, friends, or another passion? And while sometimes these thoughts are valid and there is something to be worried about, how often are they really not? Really think about it. Is it worth it to be so angry in the middle of the night? In my case, why on earth should I get so stressed out about a silly little graphic for a sports show that a producer messed with when my passion really is neither sports nor the motion graphics associated with it? Of course I want to do my best, this is not a call to half-ass anything, but if they want to change it, why am I getting annoyed by it? It really doesn’t matter. Why am I letting that negative energy come with me and drown out the other stuff in my head? So, not to quote that infernal song that has been so ubiquitous of late, but… let it go. Don’t let the stuff that doesn’t really matter take up any more time in your brain than it needs to. Find balance in your psychic time.
I have been trying to implement this idea in my own life. This means taking on jobs that are maybe not my life’s passion (and I also realize that in the never-ending tango of the freelance world where I am supposed to be shiny and excited about everything, I should probably never let this idea out into the public, but again, I am tired of pretending to be someone I am not.) Because most jobs will not be my life’s passion, but they are the means to live, and I am looking at all the positive sides. I am still getting paid to animate and create. Even if it isn’t the most thrilling job in the world, I do learn something every time, and I love learning. And in this world where people are checking and sending business emails at all hours, I am choosing to put my phone in another room (because otherwise I will compulsively check it,) pull out those empty sketchbooks and start to fill them with passion, drive hours to a remote location with my camera and just start shooting the magnificence of nature, animate real characters again that aren’t trying to sell a car, and there are lessons learned in there as well. Mostly, the lesson of how to be what I want to be again, and having faith that if I am true to myself as an artist, my definition of me as an artist, the rest will come to be.
This is not a perfect solution. There are slips and falls, allowing stupid things to nag at me, jealousy to nip. There are definitely evenings where I stare at the sketchbook, stare at the remote, pour a glass of wine, pick up the remote, and stream another episode of “Psych.” Moments where the self-doubt over giving myself the chance to rip my path out of the rut is has been in and move it in a direction I am happier with causes me enough panic to want to cry and take a good nap. But I have to believe. Now if you will excuse me, I have a date with my sketchbooks.