The Pioneering Spirit of Art

Having grown up in Southern Alberta the rugged and terrible beauty of the rocky mountains and their slow march across the horizon have always been a fixture in my psyche. Now a resident of the Elk Valley, I make a regular pilgrimage to the prairies to visit those wide open places. Returning West towards the mountains always transports me back a few generations to the wagon trains of settlers that rolled across the plains. What would they have thought about this wall of rock rising from the sea of buffalo grass? I imagine that some stopped short, not wanting to tackle the mountains, not knowing what’s on the other side of that range.

Art is not a linear path. It can start out in one direction, and end up somewhere completely unexpected. We yoke ourselves daily with the mantle of pioneers and forge out across the plains to some distant haven.

Humans seem to have this vague but ideal picture of what could be, and we set out to find that place. Every day my job is to prop up a blank canvas and set to work turning it into a piece of art. My sketchbooks are full of little thumbnails and ideas—each has so much potential. As I flip the pages trying to choose a direction, the terror of committing to an idea stretches out before me like a rickety footbridge over a raging river canyon: will I make it across or will I fall? What is it that propels us across the bridge?

Conversely, what stops us from moving forward? For me it’s fear. Fear of rejection, fear of being vulnerable, fear of failing, fear of succeeding... so much fear. I think that the only quantifiable way to measure artistic success is not your bank balance or multi-page resumé, it’s that you get up in the morning and make another piece of art. You walk through your fear—or over it or around it—and you make the thing anyways.

The artists’ path is akin to holding a ball of exposed nerves in your hand, wandering through a crowd, inviting strangers to poke and prod your nerve ball. It’s a very vulnerable feeling to expose your heart’s work to the public day after day. It can be very rewarding and gratifying, but in my experience there is this parallel feeling of fear or dread that not very pleasant. Putting ourselves out there is a thing that we have to do in order to make our art a sustainable practice. Gratefully, it’s also a way of teaching ourselves to see beyond the visible and to reach deep into our potential and take hold of some amazing things. To make our best art we also have to face our greatest fears.

American novelist Jack London wrote: “You can’t wait for inspiration. You have to go after it with a club”. If there’s art in you trying to force its way out it rarely comes easy; you still have to find a crow-bar and jump up and down on it to free the goods.

That pioneering spirit is admirable, regardless of where the settlers finally laid down their burdens and built a home. Before they set out across Western Canada they had to believe that a better life was just over the horizon, and they reached out to grab it despite having to face incredible struggles and hardships. I work hard to preserve that spirit in my own life by forcing myself out the door every day, down the steps, across the yard, and into the studio. I throw a canvas on the easel and push myself to reach through the gauntlet of uncertainty to pry fresh art out of the ether.

I do all this knowing I may never reach my potential or get used to the ongoing feelings of vulnerability, but still I put one foot in front of the other—and in the process I trample my worst fear of all: the fear of not trying.