Monday, May 11, 2009

flow and the wall that broke me

The Art Place, Marietta, GA, February 2005

Despite the many gifts of my everyday life, there are things I miss. Sleeping in until 8am, for example. Eating a cupcake in solitude. Quiet, rainy days by an open window with a good book. Enjoying a margarita under the stars. Being in the perfect seat at opening night of a summer action movie.


But possibly what I miss most is the feeling of flow. Painting murals has been my biggest gateway into the infinite, such that I begin painting and then wake up dazed, hours later, to find myself surrounded by giant creations of wet paint, gnawing on a carrot and holding a check. Murals are mostly extinct these days, thanks to those newfangled vinyl decals, and I miss the excessive 90's of power-hungry moms competing in the Fancy Nursery Olympics before the internet made mass-consumerism into a sport.

In any case, I am compiling a list of things i'd like to do one day, activities that might provide some doorway back into flow.

1. Rock climbing. Indoors, with harnesses, without wasps or scorpions.
2. Ice skating lessons. But i'm not wearing a costume.
3. Encaustic painting. Highly toxic, but pretty. Like a venomous butterfly.
4. SCUBA diving. Because I love snorkeling and am too buoyant without weights.
5. Get a better camera, take a photography class, take better pictures. Bokeh ahoy!
6. A more serious return to bellydance.
7. Learning to do henna. I think I could really get lost in the designs. Plus, my left hand would always look utterly fabulous.

The only one I could conceivably try right now would be henna, and I know plenty of pregnant women with acres of belly available for practice. So that's next on the list.


I will admit it's hard on an artist as mother to not only lose time in the studio, but to lose a chosen metier as well. The beauty of murals, outside of the flow, is that they are in someone else's home, so you don't have to constantly see your tiny mistakes. The bad thing about murals is that you can't run out to the art store and buy a wall-- you're dependent on someone needing one painted. And painting on a wall is very different from painting on canvas. The feel of the substrate, the way the paint mixes and flows, the fast and furious beauty of painting something larger than oneself.

And 99% of the time, the clients were utterly lovely. Complimentary, thankful, dedicated to keeping the poor, starving artist stuffed full of food. So why did I quit?

Because of this.

Looks pretty nice, doesn't it? At the moment I finished it and fell out of flow, I was convinced it was the most beautiful mural i'd ever painted. I wanted to spend hours in that room. I took pictures from every angle, talked to it in baby talk, and called my mother to brag, liked i'd just birthed a wall.

And then the client saw it, and she burst out crying.

"But I wanted a willow tree!"
, she wailed, her 9-months pregnant stomach trembling with sorrow and anger.

I pulled out my notes. There, on the sketch, was an oak. With the word "oak" written next to it. And there, at the bottom of the sketch, was her signature. She had requested an oak, I had sketched an oak, I had painted a very lovely oak, and she had most definitely signed off on an oak. So I showed her.

And she showed me a magazine with a dainty little mural of a dainty little willow tree. "THAT is what I wanted!", she said.

"I'm so sorry, but that's not what you requested. I've never seen this picture before," was all I could manage, stunned that my client, a lovely woman and an interior decorator, had somehow failed to mention her dream of a willow tree while she stood in the doorway and watched me paint a very lovely oak tree, and while I repainted her stupid cat 3 frickin' times.

And then she steeled herself, snapped her trembly little jaw up, and said, "Well, that's not my problem. I wanted a willow tree. You're just going to have to fix it."

As you can probably guess, while I can turn a willow into an oak, I can't turn an oak into a willow without completely repainting everything. All that shading and those watercolor effects can't just be spackled over. I'd never had an unhappy client before, and I was truly stumped with how to handle this one. She was in the business and could throw a lot of clients my way, and the customer is always right, but dammit, she was WRONG, and it was BEAUTIFUL.

The businesswoman in me was flummoxed, but the artist in me was livid. And hurt. It was outrageously unfair of this bloated weasel-woman to go against her contract and pit her raging hormones against my art! I simply could not paint over it.

So I told her that I was sorry she was unhappy, but I had completed the design on which she had signed off, and I was leaving. She wasn't satisfied, therefore she owed me nothing. She could paint over it, tapdance on it, throw chicken gizzards at it, pay a lesser artist to repaint her beloved, mysterious, unmentioned willow tree and her stupid cat. But I was OUT. And I cleaned up my mess, removed my tape, and disappeared.

A check arrived in the mail a few weeks later with a small note of embarrassed apology. After having the baby and living with the mural for a few days, she decided that it was perfect. Utterly perfect.

But the damage was done. I didn't want to work under the dark, roiling cloud of "what if?" again. What if I do everything right, and the client STILL doesn't like it? I know now that i'm not ever going to paint over something beautiful, especially if I think the customer is lying, wrong, forgetful, or mistaken, and that's simply not a good business model. I'm no longer a shy, insecure 18-year-old college kid painting purple giraffes for $200 on the weekend, and i'm simply not going to subvert art for foolishness. I'm too proud.

Just last week, someone called me about a mural. We discussed ideas, she gave me the address, we set a time for a consult. And two days later, she left a message that she had decided "to go in a different direction", which probably means that someone showed her vinyl decals for $25. No great loss. I'd have to buy the right paints, and drive across town, and find some way to paint with a baby strapped to my back and nurse in between colors. But most of all, I would have to care about someone else's opinion and possibly defer to it, and that's no longer easy.

I live my life and my art on my own terms now.

But I miss the flow, nevertheless.


Virginia Valerie said...

someday when i have my own wall, I want you to paint it. Even if your inspiration is the texas chainsaw massacre. I'm sure you'd do it fabulously. I'll even watch your baby while you paint. First I need to buy a house... and get you here...Perhaps i can lure you with cupcakes.

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ChicagoSane said...

Flow. Yes, that's good.

That's pretty much where I am all the time. Why do I listen so well? Flow. Why do I accomplish at work in 2 hours what takes most a full week? Flow.

Flow lets me focus so my time isn't wasted.

Love the artwork. I have a job for you.

Tammy Howard said...

Beautifully said.

Caroline D. said...

I think you handled the silly client beautifully. I bet it's hard to come back out of the flow and get that crapioca pudding.

great list of things for me to aim to get back:
"Quiet, rainy days by an open window with a good book. Enjoying a margarita under the stars. Being in the perfect seat at opening night of a summer action movie."

I'm on a mission to reclaim my life, can you tell?

mamamilkers said...

Oh wow. I wish I could fly you to Seattle and have you paint a mural for us!!! Beautiful, lovely work, D. Just gorgeous.

Lynn said...

Good for you for defending your oak!

By the by, I don't think I will ever look at a cupcake and not think of you, even though I've never met you. Is that weird? I walked by a cupcake store when the kids weren't with me and was going to walk by but then I remembered your post about the cupcake incident. So then I went in and got myself a cupcake and ate the whole thing myself and it was BEAUTIFUL!

Cranky Mama said...

Flow is a very difficult thing to find when there are so many needs to be met around you - your children, your husband, your clients. Then there are your own unmet needs to boot. Sometimes I wonder if I will ever find flow again.

Although I saw a sweet little pram (the sailing kind, not the baby stroller kind) on the lake the other day and wondered if I might find some bit of it again with the right boat. Hell, with ANY boat.

The Artistic Blogger said...

haha--love your quote. I used to paint murals t00--nice job!

The Artistic Blogger said...

haha--love your quote. I used to paint murals t00--nice job!