[Editor’s note: “Notes from a Crone” is a new, occasional Creative Construction series written by artist and artisan Juliet Bell. Juliet reflects on living a creative life after one’s children are long grown — with inspiration and wisdom for women at every waypoint along the spectrum of motherhood and creativity.]
I cleaned up my worktable today. It was the last step in a workroom cleanup that I’ve been tackling for several weeks. I haven’t been able to sit at the worktable for months.
Earlier in the week I’d been hit with a passion for starting a new oil painting. I’d abandoned a large stretched canvas a year ago, and suddenly I had an idea for what to do with it. I covered over what I’d begun before by laying in an undercoating of misty colors for an abstract garden painting. With that done, my passion for painting had barely been tapped, so I put up my portable easel, jury-rigged a large canvas on it, and began a morning glory painting. Still unfulfilled, I set up the table easel and under-painted yet another. Two days later, none of my canvases were dry enough to continue painting, so I forced myself to make a shift in focus. I’d begun a small still life several months earlier. It was a painting I was attempting to create according to the rules — not a method that comes easily to me. I was itching to paint freestyle. But still, I thought, working on the little painting would satisfy my desire to be painting. However, I needed a place to work on it. The time had come to tackle the final clean-up job.
At one end of my long worktable was a tall jumble of accumulated stuff. The pile had started long ago with a manila folder labeled “things to file” — a folder long since buried by other things to file, things that didn’t have a home yet, or things I wanted to keep handy. One bonus for not filing things away for a long time is that when you finally get to it, many of those items can be thrown away. Another reward is that the job one imagines will be tedious and boring (which is why my pile accumulated for so long) turns out instead, to be an adventure, a search through buried treasure. Like a shopping list clipped to the fridge and penciled in over the week, my pile of visual and physical things had allowed me to drop the items from my short-term memory. This sorting through photographs, inkjet prints of subjects I wanted to paint, sketches, puzzle designs, photographs, newspaper clippings, auction and gallery opportunities, and notes from buyers, became a journey through my creative activities over the last four years. (Yes indeed — in that manila folder, when I finally unburied it, were sales invoices from 2004.) Scattered throughout were dozens of “notes to myself,” little to-do lists, ideas for things to make, design sketches, notes on how to create art effects like the fuzz on a peach.
The notes, like most of the things in the pile, had long been forgotten. Now I read them with fresh eyes. Some ideas no longer interested me like the note to myself to make X-rated jigsaw puzzles (an idea spawned no doubt by a desire to make a fast buck), and could be tossed. Some still seemed like pretty good ideas and reading them got my mind whirring again. But the most surprising thing was discovering just how many of my ideas had been acted upon, despite my short term memory loss. “Well damn,” I said, puffing myself up, “I’ve done a quite a lot these past few years.”
Taking inventory of one’s creative accomplishments can be very comforting, especially when one feels time is racing by and there are so many things that take us away from what we think we want to be doing. Even when your children have grown and gone and one is retired, time still races by. Myriad things pull you away from the canvas, the pen, or the camera. One child you raised has multiplied into five grandchildren you want to embrace, one apartment with a landlord who fixes things has become a small house that has no one but you to install new windows, paint the trim, and tackle the yard overgrowing with weeds. Stolen time after a nine-to-five job, cooking dinner, and household chores, has been replaced with hours of free time. If working under pressure has been your modus operandi, suddenly you are adrift in a sea of seemingly endless time and possibilities. All that you thought you were or wanted to be creatively is staring you in the face — challenging you, taunting you. So you tackle the weeds, and the house, and even take on a volunteer job, until the void is filled and once again, one is devoured by other things. The question and challenge is still the same — why do I let everything but my creativity consume me?
Then one day you clean off your worktable, and are faced with the undeniable fact that one has been creative — that it is the day-to-day perceptions that are off kilter. One’s focus has been on the creative imaginings of what-ifs and if-onlys. Being in the “now” — the real challenge — has been ignored. While one steals a half hour to write, one’s mind is watching the clock, already resenting the fact that one has only a brief moment. While one cuts a jigsaw puzzle, one’s mind is already wishing the next day didn’t have to be spent baby-sitting. While one under-paints three canvases, one’s mind is thinking about the workroom that hasn’t yet been cleaned up — the pile of things to file away, and how much nicer one would feel if the space were already tidy.
I unburied my treasures and took note of all I’d done over the years, so many puzzles designed and made, dozens of paintings completed, shadow boxes constructed, a children’s novel written, countless inventive little gifts made, and on and on. How is it possible with all that I have created, I can still feel I have not yet found my creative self? And why do I need the list for reassurance — for confirmation? What is it that I am really seeking — to be creative, or to think myself creative?
I am currently reading Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. My issue is perception. I am not my mind. My mind is doing its own thing, pulling me away from the quietness of just being, confusing my sense of who I am. Tolle says, “All true artists, whether they know it or not, create from a place of no-mind, from inner stillness.” The tragedy is that so many of us spend our entire lives sabotaging ourselves. We look to the past for a sense of self, we look to the future for the possibilities of who we can be. The truth is, we are. We are this moment. Tolle says, “The present moment holds the key to liberation. But you cannot find the present moment as long as you are your mind.”
So I continue the journey. I am the age now that held all the possibilities of finally becoming who I wanted to be. And here I am, still struggling with the same old mind tricks, still searching for the truth, still my own worst enemy. But…the “now” is here as it has always been. And so, there is still hope for me.