The proverbial bubble we in the South Bay live in got smaller during lockdown. For me, it was reduced to the size of my wannabe two bedroom apartment. I couldn’t go out for my walks on the beach. And a single friend remarked she was forgetting words as time went on without speaking out loud often enough.
And yet, the lockdown was freeing. With no responsibilities or possibilities for travel outside the home, I thought more about fulfilling some of my secret dreams while locked away within it. With a potentially fatal disease looming over each of us worldwide, it was easy to give myself permission to pursue the self-rewarding activity of making art with a new intensity.
I don’t know why in our society art is relegated to the periphery in our schooling. Art long ago became integral to my well-being. I learned this lesson years before when a solution to a critical problem in my graduate work popped into my head while knitting on a Sunday afternoon. The idea worked, and the division between art and work died for me that Sunday afternoon. I knitted, painted or threw clay into tornado shapes to relieve stress and meet people everywhere I have lived.
But it was underwater photography that led me into the world of art as a side hustle. I began to see photography as art rather than as a technique to document people, places and experimental results. My focus is on the humblest of underwater creatures, often the sessile ones that are the building blocks of the reef. It’s the detailed patterns on these smallest of critters that wow me more so than the pelagic life that ends up as the centerfold in National Geographic.
When I came back from living abroad for many years, I set up a vendor’s booth at a local farmers market to sell my underwater photos. The market was mostly a social event as sales were not great, but the market manager prodded me into expanding my repertoire. She said to me, “Beach photos, people want beach photos.” I balked. I lived in a beach town where everyone sold or took their own photos of the beach.
I had to walk on the beach every morning, but I found a distinctive way to capture the beach in pictures. It was through the marine layer. The days when no one else wanted to be out on the beach, I got up at the sound of the foghorn at the end of Hermosa Beach Pier. I ran through the fog to catch my images before the sun burned the marine layer off. I started to see myself an artist when my photos were accepted into art exhibitions and sold in a local shop. But surrounded by painters in my new habitat, the desire to transform a blank canvas into an idea from my head took over.
I started following a painter on Instagram, @amanda_evanston, and once in a while she would offer up a free lesson on how to paint something simple with a guaranteed satisfactory result. The first painting I did was a grid of nine colorful hearts around Valentine’s Day one year. I liked it so much, I printed cards and sent them to everyone. I went on to purchase some discounted online courses from her one weekend when she offered them at a discount. When the lockdowns were instituted, I was prepared for them, having already collected painting supplies over the previous year just playing around.
I had taken some painting classes in person before, once even to help me learn a language. I never got better at the language. And my paintings from those classes were absolute failures. But I learned a lesson one day when I heard myself sigh while attempting to paint a still life. I got through that painful moment reminding myself that even though my painting looked nothing like the objects in front of me, the process distracted me for two hours from all the other issues clouding up my brain. I learned in that moment to divorce myself from the outcome, and I began to enjoy making art.
When Amanda expanded her free lessons on Instagram into an online monthly subscription of new lessons in May of 2020, I signed up. Each week, she, or a guest artist, presents a new lesson. She breaks down the painting of still lifes, landscapes, creatures, faces and flowers into simple steps. The approach is so basic that it leaves a lot of room to explore. The word she uses is “forgiving”. I’ve told people that just watching the lessons has been good for my mental health.
Outing my lockdown activity on social media was another hurdle to overcome. You have to get over feeling exposed. I had experience already through displaying my photos in exhibitions and in the local shop. And you realize you are compelled to make the art you make regardless of what someone else might say. The thing is my art made me laugh. During a time when people weren’t laughing much, when people were fighting online and then in the streets, I felt one thing I could control was being positive online. However my art would be viewed, it might make others laugh too.
I got into the habit and my feed shifted into posting paintings from posting photos. And then one day, someone, not even a member of my family, asked to buy one of my paintings. Really? I thought to myself.
“Yes!” I said. I already knew how to take payments online.
The mystery still is why Amanda’s approach worked for me. And why there is such satisfaction in making art. I can run or take a shower to have my “aha” moments. I don’t need to paint a painting.
Out on a walk one evening, I think I finally realized what it is. Art is something that takes only me to do. It’s only me who is responsible for the work I create. My progress doesn’t interfere with anyone else’s progress.
Art is also a physical activity. At the end of the day, I have something to hold in my hands unlike my regular work which appears only on the computer. I never even meet my clients in real life.
The real doubt I had, as for any type of work or art, is that I would find my style.
“Keep working at it,” artists say.
“Don’t wait to show your work,” others say.
It would be easy to quit, intimidated by the spectacular art of so many talented and innovative artists out there. For months my style seemed buried, random. A copy of the lesson. But about six months in, I started to notice there were ways of painting that I liked while others just didn’t work for me.
Some of the mystery of painting has faded away. I’m not yet where I want to be, but the process of making art does not seem to be so different than any other work I’ve ever done. You have to do it to get somewhere. The lines between science and art have also become less well defined. Each small experiment at the lab bench marks progress towards answering a bigger question, much like each painting leads to fine-tuning my style.
So while other people were stocking up on toilet paper last year, I was stocking up on art supplies.
People say to me sometimes, “I could never paint a painting like that.”
I ask, “Have you tried?”