On a recent Thursday evening, I attended my very first Wine and Canvas event. This outing was organized by my mom and her two good friends Pat and Rita, whose daughters were also my childhood friends. The six of us went out on the town to celebrate the fortieth birthdays of the younger set, a milestone we will all achieve in 2015.
We assembled our party shortly before six o’clock. Our hors d’oeuvres and drinks filled in the spaces between blank canvases resting on tabletop easels. We joked about how easy it would be to mistake the creamy yellow-orange cheese sauce for paint. Between bites, we caught up on one another’s lives. Our years of shared history make such gatherings feel like family reunions.
My mom’s friend Pat interrupted our giddy chatter to present us with nondescript black gift bags. Inside, the three of us forty-year-olds discovered aprons that made the ordinary black ones provided at the studio pale in comparison. Tying them around our necks,we each displayed Wonder Woman’s body in all her strong and feminine glory.
After a few laughs and photographs, we felt empowered to begin our creations. Settling onto our stools, we turned our attention to the instructor at the front of the room.
I sat next to Kathy, a college art major who now makes her living in interior design. Within a few moments, she decided to go rogue and create her own original scene. Carrie, two stools down, was open to the adventure as well and had a few high school art classes on her resume. She confidently swirled the paint on her palette, mixing bold new colors, and got to work on our assignment. I tentatively looked down the row at my friends to my right, glanced over at the strangers to my left, and took a deep breath. I had to gather my courage in order to simply make the first mark on the clean slate in front of me.
Always the attentive student, I tried to focus and follow the steps we were given. My hopes were two-fold: to end up with a painting that resembled the example and to make it my own. Both goals were lofty for a rookie like me. I wondered if they might also be mutually exclusive.
In this environment, I discovered that many decisions would be required in quick succession. This presented a problem for an inexperienced perfectionist like me. At one point, I tried to follow Kathy’s example and go off-script, selecting a color for the sky that would reflect the orange/yellow/pink real-life sunsets I’m always chasing with my camera. I spent a few panicky moments trying to mix the color I saw in my mind. Finally, I caved and went with the purple the instructor recommended. I couldn’t afford to get too far behind in the instructions.
As the night progressed, I did what I was told for the most part, slowly forming the wildflowers and leafy vines on a scenic backdrop. But the concentration required for me to make myself put brush to canvas slowly drained me of energy. I continually looked around, comparing my sloppy brushstrokes to the accurate replica being created by the stranger to my left. I sighed in jealous frustration as I watched my talented friend capture the scene from her own imagination to my right.
Hours of poor posture from leaning over the canvas strained my back. My eyes ached as did my weary brain. My anxiety mimicked the ticking clock, building steadily as we inched toward the end of our allotted time. But in the end, the time limit proved to be a lifesaver. I eventually had to abandon my unattainable vision of glory and settle for progress. It turned out that the more I wanted to be done, the more decisive I could be.
The instructor finally finished guiding us through the finishing touches, and the projects were deemed complete. Our group assembled with our paintings for a photo shoot. Laughs were shared and compliments were given. Completing the craft felt like an accomplishment and it had been fun to share the experience together.
As I drove home, I decided to pass my project on to my eight-year-old daughter, hoping she’d see the beauty in my efforts. I wouldn’t dare placing it in a spot I would frequently see in my house. I knew its imperfections would constantly pick at me, reminding me of my inadequacy.
When I arrived home that evening, my kids were already asleep. I laid the canvas on the dining room table and headed up to bed. In the hustle and bustle of getting them ready for school the next morning, I almost forgot to show it to them. When I did, I wasn’t disappointed by my daughter’s reaction. She proclaimed it to be a great work of art and wanted to know how I’d done it. Looking at it again with fresh eyes, I was surprised at what I’d created. I still wasn’t ready to put it on the living room wall, but I didn’t hate it.
Stepping out of the context of mass production and removing the element of comparison made the colors come alive. High art it wasn’t, but it was my little masterpiece. In the forgiving light of a new day, I felt satisfaction when I considered how I had transformed a blank space into an actual picture of recognizable objects. It deserved a place on the wall if only to remind me that I need to constantly be challenged to express myself in new ways.
Creativity grows from awkward beginnings. A certain amount of mess and risk and discomfort is required in order to give birth to something new and beautiful. Trial and error is how we move steadily closer to the goal of having our creation adequately reflect our vision. There are no shortcuts.
I had spent the evening envious of my friend Kathy’s freedom when she sits down to create. She considers – but feels equally confident disregarding – instructions from others because she’s spent so many hours with those elements. She has honed her craft; her eyes and hands have learned to work together. She hasn’t let the “perfect” become the enemy of the good.
A quote from an excellent book I read this summer came to mind as I reflected on our evening: “Fear is the shadow of creativity. When we choose to create, we bring light to our fears. The darkness does not prevail over us. The creative act is inherently an act of courage. We are born to far too many fears and far too great a darkness. It is only when we find the courage to create that we are freed from those fears and that darkness.” (The Artisan Soul, Erwin McManus)
It took an invitation and a little positive peer pressure to get me to try something new. It took a good night’s sleep and a break from comparing myself to others in order to appreciate the beauty in my creation. Though I don’t aspire to be a visual artist, the act of stepping out of my comfort zone wearing the costume of a superhero made me just a little braver. This birthday outing proved to be a field trip for my soul, providing some hands-on experience for the growth I desire in this next season of my life. Here’s to stepping out of the shadows and living my next forty years with the courage to keep creating!