Kyle Staver was a visiting artist during my residency at Vermont Studio Center. We had a long talk in my studio there, about art-making. She told me that an artist should engage with her painting in the same way she makes love - fully present and open. Kyle is a charming woman with an irreverent sense of humor and I can still see her standing there telling me to make love with my work. The conversation devolved into a discussion about less than stunning sex partners and we laughed a lot.
At the time, I didn’t fully grasp what Kyle was telling me - I wasn’t sure exactly what she meant regarding my work. But since then I have caught myself in the act of painting with my head somewhere else. I have also found myself calling a painting done, when I didn’t love it. There have been times when I have settled because I didn’t want to risk destroying parts of a painting I liked. Other times when I just wanted a finished product and had lowered my standards. And still other times when I didn’t have the answers to what was needed, so I just accepted it as it was.
The only way I will ever embrace my fullest potential as an artist, is to stop settling and accept nothing less than excellence. More passion, less comfort. More risk, less knowing. More engagement, less quitting. Not everything needs to have this kind of attention in my life…I am not a perfectionist when it comes to housecleaning, or even personal hygiene! (Have you seen my fingernails?) But I won’t settle for mediocre in my art. It is my gift to the world, and it’s really all I have of any value, so I’m sure as hell not going to settle for anything less than my best and fullest attention.
Recently, I finished a painting. It was okay. I didn’t love it. But I accepted it. For some reason, I let it go, even though there was something nagging me about it. I varnished it, waxed it, had it shot by a professional photographer, and included it in a book of my best work. My mentor, Nick Wilton, suggested that I use it on the cover of the book because of it's eyecatching darks and lights. That’s when it hit me…this is not my best.
So the wax varnish had to be removed, the surface sanded, and back in I went. I let myself get lost in the work. I became so fully present that I was absent - like a clear channel with no interference. I love it now. I’ll varnish it again, wax it again, shoot it again, and re-publish my book. And it will bring me joy. I think that’s what Kyle meant - care for your painting like you care for a lover. Be completely focused, engaged and mindful. When you are, your performance becomes brilliant, and you won't have that nagging feeling that you could have done better.