Buriest Thy Content

Around the time I wanted to start this painting, we had a cockroach infestation at our house. (This means I saw more than 4 in one day. The exterminator said this was by no means anything like a true infestation.) Nevertheless, I saw the cockroaches as disgusting, invasive, and impossible to get rid of. The roach became an easy first choice when I tried to come up with a creature to represent the critical, overly analytical thoughts I sometimes get while painting. They come straight from my art training in academia and have little to do with art or education.

In these messy encounters, a long list of considerations run through my mind that dissect my creative process, the end result of my work, the way I might sell it in the future, its relevance to art history, how it might be perceived by a wide-array of viewers, and whether it is important, poignant, smart, catchy, unique, or relevant. In other words, I pick my art to pieces. The cockroach represents those times when I allow those old “professors in my head” to make art a whole lot less fun than it should be.

Now, professors from the old days certainly can have an impact. A few cynical teachers can turn art—the miracle of creativity!—into a competitive and pessimistic venture. After being denounced enough times it can seem like the criticism is true, and that art isn’t a miracle, it’s miserable. But the real problem is carrying the disapproval with me and continuing to entertain it.

My cockroach is dressed in stereotypical artist garb, and she stands in front of a wall of paintings, each giving a nod to some style or subject that I’ve seen over the years. Her haughty posture is all I needed to get the point across. I had enormous fun painting little works of art, especially the large toothy smile in the portrait on the top right. I was taught never to do that.

It was a decade after I graduated from college before I recognized the cockroach attitude eating away at me while I painted. At that point I considered making art to be sometimes enjoyable, but often conflicted. When I first woke up to the fact that I was harshly judging myself, I was disheartened at how pervasive it was, but hopeful that I might start thinking differently. I was pretty excited that I could reason, “Hey, wait a minute. Do I really have to think that way?”

I desired a change of attitude, and that is not nearly as easy as it sounds. I am dumbfounded by the well-meant advice from others to quit thinking a certain way. The idea of “cheering up” because another person suggests it implies I can erase a lifetime of programmed thought mechanisms at the simplest provocation. Or that my negative thinking is brought on by my innate lack of good character, and I should stop it this minute. In my experience I don’t “rise above” a bad attitude, and definitely not immediately. It takes time to grow through and out of destructive thinking.

After realizing my inner art critic had to go, I first listened intently to it. It didn’t take long to realize that the reproachful thoughts were never exactly attached to reality. They came and went. They applied to a painting one day and not the next. They always followed the same thought-line or theme. They were vague. And their origin always arose from events, people, and times outside of myself in the moment.

My recourse was to make a big assumption. No matter how persuasive they seemed, I entertained the idea that all the condemning thoughts could all be false. I decided to classify them all as bunk.

I left myself one idea to hang on to. That no matter what I painted, I could do no wrong. I would paint as usual, and when mean or analytical thoughts crept in I’d say to myself, “Back to painting.” It didn’t mean the thoughts went away. It meant I was teaching myself to acknowledge them and then refocus. Attached to the thoughts were strong emotions and a litany of justification and I still had to say, “Back to painting.” It made no difference if I got lightly distracted for 3 seconds or taken far away to the land of Dori Sucks for a half hour, I still came “Back to painting.”

Much like a common meditation technique of refocusing, I was ever mindful of the way I brought my awareness back to my task. If I could do no wrong, than even getting distracted was OK. When I caught myself diverted by the nasty art censor, I’d very calmly and tenderly transfer my attention. Any act of punishment toward myself would have been more of the same.

In time, after stepping back from the reactionary habit of considering these thoughts true, I started having epiphanies about how ludicrous they were. And then a more realistic and uplifting outlook began taking its place.

When the cockroach isn’t bothering me, when uppity criticism beads off me like water off a duck, it’s because I’m sensibly giving myself an A for whatever I’m doing. Not for effort, not for results. Not for following the rules and precepts set by others. I give myself an A for taking one breath at a time. I’m here. I’m not the devil. I’m not going to ruin the world with my crappy art. When I give myself a good grade for nothing but showing up and living my day, I take a heap of pressure off myself, and then the pressure of others becomes insignificant. I can create or act or do nothing more successfully and joyfully without the expectation of trying to “do it right.” I’m much more likely to give As to others as well, even to mean people. They get an A for good intentions, which what critics usually start with.