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The Joy of Being Bad


As an art teacher, I've spent a lot of time over the years trying to convince people they weren't "bad" at XY&Z. From children ("I'm so bad at painting!") to parents ("I don't know where Sally gets her talent from. I can't draw a stick figure to save my life.") Responding to the self-doubt of others has been a "career quirk" I didn't see coming and certainly something never addressed in undergrad.

It's human instinct (I think?) to try to transform yourself into a human pillow of comfort and assure those voices of self doubt. Over the years, I've used the phrases "so good!" and "no way, that's not bad!" way too many times. I even had a giant sign on my wall that said "Negative comments are not welcome here!" However, over the past 5 years, I've struggled with the way I'd been providing reassurance. My own words circled back to me and felt dismissive, almost as if i was (unintentionally, of course) gaslighting those around me. It made me wonder: What's so BAD about being BAD? Why had I transformed the word "bad" into this taboo word? It's so fascinating how reflective our teaching methods are of ourselves.

Paints are like my comfort food. For the most part, I've painted almost every single day for 1/3 of my life. As far as I'm concerned, whether or not I'm "good" at painting is none of my business (I just show up.) But I AM comfortable with painting. The familiar act of perching the brush in my hand and smooshing colors together feels as routine as the act of folding laundry or brushing my teeth. Even though I'm constantly switching things up (to save me from my own boredom) painting is still pretty predictable for me.

So, I started an experiment and decided to try something totally new. I packed up my paints, splurged on a TON of yarn from the craft store, and set off to become a world famous a Fiber Artist (kidding.) I spent an entire month and a half filling the empty moments of my day with weaving and embroidering and punch needling and other techniques I didn't even know existed. I ran into every roadblock imaginable, watching countless YouTube tutorials, and almost gave up everyday. I'll say this: it's INCREDIBLE how much you can learn in one month. It's also incredible how "BAD" at something you can feel after pouring hours of yourself into something.

But then you hit a point where you KIND OF get the hang of it. And it feels less and less like an uphill battle. You've "shown up" enough times that the landscape of this new medium or activity is less foreign than when it once was. Your craft or skill may not show signs of physical advancement, progress, or evolution, but the sense of familiarity has planted the seed of ease. And before you know it, ease grows into comfort which grows into confidence. And does that make you "good?" Who knows, that's totally subjective! But it makes me FEEL good, and I suppose that's why I keep showing up.

So if someone is telling me that are "BAD" at art, they're really just telling me feel bad about their art because they haven't found their footing to achieve ease or comfort in the craft. There's a chance they don't want to find their footing or explore their own artistic abilities, of course. That's okay! But showing up everyday to unfamiliar territory feeds my soul in the way that going on a grand adventure like climbing a waterfall or getting lost in the streets of Paris feeds my soul. Being "bad" at something is living at the cusp of a breakthrough where literally anything can happen. I developed a small sense of ease after pushing myself to show up everyday to untangle string and got to a place where I felt good making it.

And maybe that's the definition of good art. Showing up everyday and building up muscle memory until you feel good and comfortable making it. And if you can free yourself from your superficial inner critic, there's sooo much joy and excitement to be found in the "being bad," too. I've made a habit of jumping back and forth between both worlds and I don't think I'll ever stop pushing myself to feel uncomfortable. Next time someone confides in me and tells me about their bad art, I will give them space to speak and really listen. And instead of telling them they're "wrong" to feel that way about their art, I'll say: "Ahh. I wonder what might happen if you keep going? I can't wait to see."

And truly, I can't.

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