When I was in college, during my junior year, my advisor and teacher announced to the class that we each needed to find our "thing." Our trademark style, our claim to the art world; we each needed to develop a manner in which we painted, drew, sculpted or designed that was uniquely our own. I think we all knew that was necessary; I am certain though that it had not truly sunk into my own brain until that moment - and after it had taken root, it birthed a new kind of anxiety within me that was a mixture of terror and determination.
After years of studying eras of art and centuries of artists, I am able to walk into a art museum and identify artists within a couple of seconds because of their own trademarks. Josef Albers had his precise layerings of squares while Rothko's were amorphous, Titian had his token, rich red and Caravaggio had concentrated darks and lights, Thiebaud has desserts, Lichtenstein has comic strips, Chuck Close has photorealistic portraits, Alex Katz has cinematic flat portraits, O'Keefe - flowers, Indiana - type, Johns - type & Americana, Monet - garden scenes, Seurat - dots, Degas - ballerinas, the list goes on, and on, and on and that's why art history degrees exist.
And after all the careful studying and reviews and hours spent gazing at hundreds of pieces of art... I am supposed to come up with something new? Something that hasn't been done before? We have specific idioms for this kind of discussion! "It's all be done before." "There is nothing new under the sun." If Relient K and Barenaked Ladies have sung about it, perhaps it is popular knowledge that "creating something new is just recycling."
I remember going home after class that day, wringing my hands and fretting over just what exactly my style was. I really enjoyed drawing and I was so-so at painting. So what was my drawing style? I could pinpoint it exactly. It's a Keane-Van Baarle-Tan-Mucha-Watterson hybrid that reeks of my inspirations so desperately that anyone looking at my work could tell me exactly who I sought to emulate. So much for originality, so much for my "thing."
Honestly, I spent months worrying about it every single day and occasionally I still fall into the old habit. I have been given a desire to wake up every morning and create something with my hands. Others wake up desiring to help others achieve optimal health or trade stocks or make communities safe, and those people probably sleep better than I do with their steady paychecks. After I discovered I still had not found my "thing," I sent several prayers upward that my desires in life would start to morph toward a career that was more reliable, steady, predictable. Nothing has changed, so I did get my answer.
And honestly, I cannot say for sure if I have even now found my "thing," two years after having graduated, two years after being told I could not continue unless I stated what my "thing" was. I have found a style that I am comfortable in and willing to expand upon. I believe that "thing" is evolutionary - for every kind of artist.
In high school, I would pore over the Musicals shelf of CDs at the library. I would bring ten home at a time, finding new favorites and listening to the soundtracks until I could not stand them anymore. "Sunday In The Park With George" found me during high school and it has never grown stale. It follows the painter George Seurat as he creates "A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte" (the one Cameron Frye gazes intensely into during Ferris Bueller's Day Off). He is always avidly painting and unflinchingly focused on "creating something new." So much so that he alienates himself from everyone and drives away the one person who really loves and understands him. At the very end of the musical (I'm ignoring, like, all the other plot points, sorry 'bout that), we hear the song "Move On," an excerpt from which is pictured at the beginning of this post. Listen if you'd like:
Is it as simple as that? "Stop worrying if your vision is new, let others make that decision (they usually do), just keep moving on." Ignoring harmful criticism and ignoring my own harmful voice that tells me "This is nothing important" is easier said than done - but it is so worth the effort. When I sit down to make something, I am aware and conscious that no one can make what I make, the way I make it. I do not state this out of conceit, because the statement applies to everyone. Your role, what you do and what you create, is unlike anyone who has ever come before. That is why when people show me their drawings, share their photographs, play me their songs, and read me their poems and stories, I rejoice with you and encourage you to keep going because I am now a witness to the existence of something wholly yours. And I have felt the sting of my own thoughts as they come from the mouths of others:
"It's nothing special." "It's not finished." "It's not very good." "I'm no good at this."
And I just want to take you by the shoulders, you beautiful land-mermaid, and tell you that the Creator has equipped you with the gift of creation and you are WONDERFUL AT IT, even if it's a paint-by-numbers kit you picked up at Michael's. Because something you do to kill time may evolve into something you seek to spend your time on and eventually the things you create will morph into an artistic representation of your own existence. And that never would have happened had you not tried your hand at watercolor, knitted that scarf, painted that flower, drawn that landscape. Hold me accountable for encouraging my own style, creativity, and "thing" and I will encourage you as you find your own.
"Anything you do, let it come from you - then it will be new. Give us more to see."