A City, and an Artist, Finding Their Authentic Creative Voice
It was during my third year as an undergraduate art student (Go Slugs!) that I met Frank, my abstract painting professor.
I’d never been more frustrated with a syllabus or a teacher in my whole life as I’d been with Frank. He gave us rules by having none. “Paint like you mean it,” he would say. “But don’t think about it. And don’t really mean it.”
The careful, thoughtful, planner inside me cringed every day in that studio. I didn’t understand what I was supposed to do, so I constantly monitored what everyone else was doing and followed instructed suit.
The bi-product: A six-foot tall canvas spread wildly with a cake frosting texture of Alizarin Crimson and Flake White oils. It took me over a month to create and countless two a.m. sessions to perfect.
I hated it. Truly—I gutturally despised it. It didn’t get better when I squinted my eyes. Or when I turned it upside-down. Frank loved it the moment he laid his eyes on it. “This is the best thing I’ve seen this year,” he gushed, hands literally clasped to his cheeks.
“Don’t touch it anymore—it’s finished.” He picked it up by its wobbly wood frame and asked if I wanted to hang it in the campus gallery for the remainder of the year.
And so, I let it be praised. The six-foot abomination. It mocked me every time I worked on a new assignment; according to Frank, it was prodigal, but to me, it was an embarrassment.
It took me months of scowling at its presence before I realized that I hated that painting (which forever remained titled “Untitled”) so much because it didn’t resonate with me. I existed nowhere within it, and it remained that way through the rest of the semester: The empty painting that made me an artist.
That hollowed sense of accomplishment is an emotion that can strike creative people of all genres. Sometimes, as artists, when creative inspiration is lacking (watch this amazing inspirational TED Talk from Elizabeth Gilbert), we do what we think we should: create what other people enjoy, admire, or dare I say—purchase—so that we may be sustained to make another creation and buy groceries on the side.
Working now out of my hometown as an arts administrator, I recognize this fight in my own creative community.
While I live in a small, mono-agricultural town in Northern California, the 10 million tourists that visit it annually know it by a different name: Napa Valley. And when a large temporary audience enters into our creative workspace, I realize it is only natural to want their love and admiration; but not everyone was born (and made proud by) painting a vineyard landscape. Or grapes. Or wine glasses.
There are plenty of remarkable artists that do this beautifully, and I would never discount them, but I often sense that same hollowness in others that I felt when Frank was telling me I’d reached my creative peak: Work that isn’t authentic to personal experience can quickly feel lost (Read: "Authenticity in Art" by Denis Dutton).
What I personally, and professionally, insist upon is this: What art you create might not be for everyone—it might not be for anyone—but when it’s made with purpose and confidence, it buzzes.
The indescribable hum of regionally unique expression is what makes cities like Austin, Portland, Berlin, and Philadelphia so great; their art is collectively another pathway into understanding those cities subcultures and secrets that you can only topically discover in a four day, five-night trip.
It’s a way to meet and understand a city’s history, people, and voice without ever flipping a single page of a Frommer’s Guide. So let it be what it is: Uniquely yours.
What a successful arts destination always—and not just often does—is present active, engaged arts districts that reverberate the energy of a city. Those districts are usually in the urban, bustling city centers, but they always feel like their own world, because they first and foremost celebrate the authentic creative experience.
They could care less if they represent the city they live in; but because they are made with a prideful sense of individualism, no matter their subject or style, they evoke the attitude of their city without even trying.
I see Napa’s arts district as a burgeoning embryo. Before it’s completely formed, we as artists must collectively decide that we are collectively completely different. And for each new creative artist that emerges, unafraid of his or her unique voice, another “Untitled” mistake will never see the daylight.
After my last semester of Frank’s course, I scrubbed all of the red paint off of that 6-foot canvas. I painted over it something that had interested me for years—the bubbles that rise up in the ocean’s sea foam—that Frank had told me would be a mistake to explore. After I returned back to town after a stint living abroad I decided to shop my work to local galleries. The sea foam painting became the title image for my first solo-show at a Bloom, a local Napa gallery. The first thing the owner said to me? “You must be from here—your paintings just feel like Napa.”