One of the most annoying thing an artist of any stripe can hear is the exclamation “Oh it’s so easy for you!” It is meant as a compliment but it’s not too hard to feel the whack of its backhand. You don’t work at anything, it implies, you don’t even have to try.
The genius of this phrase is that it also lets the speaker off the hook. Talent just ‘happens’ and you got lucky while they didn’t so they are relieved of the responsibility of making an effort. After all, as Homer said, “If at first you don’t succeed, give up. ” Homer Simpson that is.
Drawing and painting did not come naturally to me. I may have had a modicum of talent but so did many of the people in my class at school. They just had other, better talents they followed up instead. Looking back on my Pupils Journal my drawings are a horrible mess of doodles of eyes and lips, generic figures and copies of cartoons. Nothing special. I had more of a talent for lettering, gift of my great uncles who were gravestone carvers.
These days I can draw but it didn’t just happen. It is the result of thousands of hours at the page. It is the only habit I have managed to create in my unruly stuttering life but it did not come from any sort of belief in myself or visions of a glittering future(though of course, like all young people, I hoped that there was one in store). I did it because I could think of nothing else to. I did it because in the dark world of the depression it was my only anchor to the present.
I had managed to get to art college but there my rebellion fizzled and I wavered and opted for design and fell flat on my face. I failed proving everyone right:I was no good. There followed a decade of depression and sporadic employment that traced a path from the lucrative design end of the arts(computer graphics) to theatre design and the extremely not lucrative occupation of painting which inspires people to declare, “But it’s so easy for you!”. The vehicle that brought me to these dizzying heights?Drawing. And it was not easy.
Hand in hand with the depression were the jangled nerves, the constant stress and anxiety. I didn’t understand this at the time everything was just a fuzz but I instinctively knew that to sit and draw was calming. To sit and draw in a public place allowed me to be around people at a time when people and relationships scared and confused me while being shielded by my sketch pad, a defensive weapon of no mean power. To this day all my lasting meaningful relationships have come about through the medium of the pencil or the brush.
I started in Cork where I moved after college. I signed on the dole, got a flatshare with a girl called Rose and started looking for work. In between that and watching TV I walked the streets of Cork sketching the pubs and churches in an attempt I suppose to keep my nerves under control. After six months I managed to get a job in computer graphics in Dublin. It was a job far beyond my capabilities and for the two years I was there my stress levels were ratcheted up to eleven. I hated Fridays because they were closer to Mondays.
I was on a low wage and I had few friends. I thought my only release from the stress was drink but when the money ran out my weekends and evenings consisted of walking Dublin streets photographing and sketching because otherwise I would go mad from the vast dark confusion of shadows that was life in my head.
After I was made redundant a job in Waterford followed and more sketching. Another redundancy and I took up residence in the local bar Geoffs and drank tea(and beer when I could afford it ) and sketched for my life. It was compulsive and though I now get great pleasure looking at my work at the time the negative voice in my head whipped me on.
“Pencil drawing!So dull!”
I switched to coloured pencils. Then..
“Your lines so tight, so anal, real artists don’t draw like that!”
I started drawing with long twigs and ink to loosen my lines.
I came to the attention of other artists in the town and was recruited for sign-writing and then pantomime back drops and theatre sets. Its sounds so easy written down but how to capture the terror I felt at being confronted by a 25 foot by 16 foot canvas or the prospect of designing a set that looked like a ship?I can’t. Enough to say it shook me to my core and drove me to helpless tears, all in private naturally because the only thing that drove me on was my pride and innate stubbornness and my fear of being revealed as weak and a dud.
Trips abroad occurred, Belgium to see my sister for a week, London to see a friend, a frenzied four-month sojourn n France on a one way ticket and a shoestring because the horror of life in my head had driven me to overcome my fear of the unknown and flee in the hope of forcing some way through the grey curtain that separated me from the world.
I moved to Amsterdam following a breakdown and then Scotland when my nerves came knocking and then exhausted by running from my shadow I came home to Ireland again. Through it all my constant companion was a sketch pad, a notebook. At once a shield and a bridge my sketch pads saved me. But it was not easy.
I not only made friends and lovers and found work through the ‘pad’ there were one-off encounters that have stayed with me. Once in Cork a young traveller boy approached me and began harassing me, grabbing my crotch and though threats of beatings couldn’t fend him off a mention of the Gardai had him flee as if the devil was on his tail, knowledge that stood me in good stead in Waterford a few years later and another identical meeting with another traveller boy. You have to admire their precociousness and directness I suppose. They don’t beat around the bush. So to speak.
In the pub one night an unfortunate man looking over my shoulder for a conversation starter observed of my meaningless doodle”That looks like a pair of breasts!”Less tolerant then than I am now(really!) I gave him one of my special looks and he slunk off in confusion.
Another time in Waterford as I sat sketching boats with my legs dangling over the quayside a man ran up to me and asked to use my pencil. He wrote down a number plate on a scrap of card torn from a Major cigarette packet breathlessly explaining to me that he was a detective on a stake-out but he had forgotten his pen before running off again.
Once in France on a little cobbled street an elderly man, now long dead I suppose, approached . My French is appalling but I knew when he asked me where I was from.
“Je suis Irlandaise.” I told him.
I could see him trying hard to find words I could understand and he eventually succeeded.
“Ah.” he said, “La guerre. Quelle dommage.”(Ah, the war. What a pity!)
He smiled a lovely smile and nodded and rejoined his friends leaving me ever after with an impression of kindness and the beginnings of an understanding of connection for its own sake.
Looking back I see there has been richness among the scarcity and though my wild breaks for freedom seemed like failures and my miles and miles of trudging across cities, parks, beaches, mountains and countryside seemed utterly pointless, were often dreary and cold, sometimes scary and always done to the tune of that nagging voice criticizing my every mark, cumulatively they have given me something.
I have no fear of the blank page having faced thousands, even millions of them. I am unfamiliar with artists block. Even after giving up painting(more of that in a New Years post) it continues to flow through me now.
I have not managed to make my ‘talent’ pay but I am still here and more connected to life than ever. Am I lucky?I suppose in that I was born with qualities that didn’t allow me to give up. They are not traditional ‘good’ qualities. There is fearfulness that made me repeat what I knew over and over again. Pride that drove me to try something different. Anxiety that demanded I sooth myself. Inability to communicate combined with a need to connect that forced me to find a shield and a bridge out into the world. Even self-hatred whipped me on at the same time as nearly destroying me.
On top of all that, I, like many, many artists have to have a ‘grown-up’ job too. So, was it easy?No my dears. It was never easy.