Paving with Good Intentions

I won my first art competition in grade three. Our class was reading a book about a cow, and our companion art project was to draw a cow. My cow was the best cow of all 23 students, and the picture with its gold star hung on the wall in our basement for years. It was my definitive first step down the artists’ path, but believing and being are two cliffs above a wide canyon that can only be bridged with perseverance and passion.

It takes a long, long time and many discouraging moments to get to the point where you feel comfortable calling yourself an artist out loud and in public. When creative types get together and talk about our craft, we tend to be quite self-deprecating. We see everyone else’s art as professional, but all we can see in our own work is the flaws. To comfort each other we tell ourselves to ‘fake it until you make it’—really just a way of deflecting insecurities. It’s not some sort of false modesty because convincing ourselves of our own talents is truly a Herculean task. Faking it until we make it is precisely what we have to do.

I’ve written before about defining success; in my opinion, the only thing that can objectively define success is the penchant for continuing on your path despite any rational explanation or positive reinforcement. Here’s the artists’ secret: you finish one project, you start another—full stop. We are literally making it all up until we convince others, and eventually ourselves, that our art is real art. The overgrown path between the ‘faking it’ and the ‘making it’ is where we spend the lion’s share of our lives.

Carlos Castanada wrote, “our lot in life is to learn and to be hurled into inconceivable new worlds.” Explorers in our own universes, there is no map to guide us so we must make steps onto cloud bridges and swing from imaginary vines. We invent these places, get stuck in them, then emerge with enough knowledge to explain to others what we’ve seen. If you wake up day after day excited about stepping into that mystery, you definitely have everything you need to become an artist: to be intent on the path is the first step across the chasm. Is that intention enough?

The old aphorism intones that the road to hell is paved with good intentions—wanting to move forward is valueless without the companion of action. The unfortunate subtext gives intent itself a negative rap because some of those who have good intentions never reach their goals. The truth is that the road to everywhere is paved with good intentions—you frankly cannot get anywhere in your life without first intending to go.

So how do we galvanize our intent into positive action? The secret ingredient is passion. If we maintain our love of craft, our desire to learn, and the wonder of discovery, converting that intention into forward motion is effortless. I find my life cycles through intent, driven forward by passion into execution, and back to intent. Each time I come to the end of a project, it’s that love for creating that drives me back into my artistic world. Punching out at the end with a complete piece often creates the opportunity for another idea; another open door into that place.

Does that mean every project is sellable? God no! I have shelves and drawers full of experiments and personal pieces that will never hang on a wall, but each one is an attempt to circle closer to the centre of my artistic universe. Each orbit around that sun feels less like I’m ‘faking it’ and more like I’m ‘making it.’ In the meantime, I practice calling myself an artist to everyone who asks because it’s a good way to practice intentionality. I certainly don’t I feel as though I’ve arrived, though I’m definitely farther along than when I painted that cow in grade three, and even since a year ago when I first moved my studio home. It does mean I keep pushing myself forward to build that bridge to the ‘make it’ side of the canyon.

My friend Chris Coole wrote a song about the creative process in which he wisely suggests, “if you never get it wrong, you won’t ever get it right.” We just need to keep mixing the mortar of passion with the gravel of intention and the bridge will practically build itself. You don’t have to be good at something right away, or ever, you just have to start.