Making Meaning: a cure for the pain of rejection
by Joanne D Thomson
A few years ago a good friend gave me a book called “The Van Gogh Blues: the creative persons path through depression”. It was a joke given my reputation for being perpetually positive, but also an astute observation from a real friend. Life as an artist is difficult.
It was as a teacher of art that I first took this gift from the shelf and examined it. As I moved beyond the title I found information that could help my students see their way past perceived ‘failures’. The author of the book Eric Maisel is psychotherapist who works with creative people. I am not a therapist and resist taking on that role. However, Maisel wrote about the need for artists to find meaning in their work and I have found this very useful. Meaning can be an inoculation against a sense of failure and offers some padding when the opinions of others can be hurtful.
The creative process is quite wonderful; it is a wheel that can fuel itself and become a source of perpetual inspiration. However, it can also get flat tires, run off the road or get stuck in the mud. The gap between what we hope to accomplish and what our efforts actually create can be lesson in humility. However, the final step in the creative process is the most hazardous. It involves showing the work to others. This is where a meaning crisis is most likely to occur. When we show our work to another and they do not understand what we are trying to do (which is entirely likely since we often don’t know ourselves) a casual, that’s nice may cut us to the quick when we were expecting, OMG! You have captured your inner most feelings and have communicated them to me beautifully! The phrase that so often cut me was that’s interesting followed by an embarrassed silence and a change of subject.
Perhaps this is why I have become a process painter. The act of painting in itself is why I create. The end product is a result of my process. Time spent in reflection, time spent in my quiet studio while I challenge myself to do the best that I can do is the reward of creating. Though it is wonderful and also very rewarding when someone ‘gets’ my work and exclaims that you have captured ____ it is not necessary to my sense of self-worth and accomplishment. The meaning has been made in the making of the work and in my learning about life in the process.
Recently I have had two rather loud rejections. This spring I spent many hours preparing two proposals for Artist in Residence positions and they were both rejected. Yet, I found that neither rejection depressed me. This surprised me. It was not because I don’t need the money or because I didn’t sincerely want the opportunities. But rather because, as Maisel advises, I have learned how to effectively deal with meaning crisis and more importantly, I have decided what is a meaning crisis and what is not.
“You are free to choose your meanings since meaning is entirely up for grabs. But you are also obliged to choose your meanings, as meaning means nothing until you tell the universe where you stand.” Eris Maisel
We are entering the season of juried exhibitions on Vancouver Island. This can be a very dangerous time for new artists who make the mistake of attaching meaning to the opinions of jurors and seek to have their work validated by being included in a juried exhibition. If you are considering entering a juried exhibition I ask you to consider this. Jurors are human and juried exhibitions usually have three jurors (all of them human and therefore influenced by their own lives, ways of looking at the world and what they had for breakfast). These jurors may have wildly different opinions about the work they view. This is why there is a category called juror’s choice. It saves a work each juror was determined to have included in the exhibition but that the others may not have voted for. Only the artist’s opinion that the work was worthy of being seen is a certainty.
As solace to those who have been rejected and may be rejected this season. Know that I am frequently rejected from juried shows as well. I used to spend time trying to figure out why. Now I don’t. I understand that it is a type of gambling compulsion that causes me to enter the shows (with the reward of acceptance being my work can reach a new audience). However, I have long since given up waiting for someone else to approve of my art. Not because I think my work is the best, rather because I evaluate my work on a scale of making meaning. Did I manage to create something related to what I set out to do? Did I learn during the process of making the work? Do I think the work is capable to communicating some of my experience? And most important, can my work help interested viewers to make meaning that they perhaps didn’t think to make before? If I can say yes to some of these then I have been successful.
(images in this article are from Thomson’s Bottled Series: Nothings going to stop me now, Bottled Women #2 and The Juror’s Assistant – watercolour and ink on paper).
Joanne D Thomson is a professional artist living in Victoria BC. www.joannethomson.com
If you know an artist, or are an artist, interested in being interviewed for this series please contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Joanne Thomson is a watercolorist who works on paper and canvas. She is best known for her images of the BC forest and coast. These strong images are created with a gentle spiritual approach to art making. Thomson writes about the connections between Art and Spirituality as a regular contributor to the Times Colonist’s Spiritually Speaking Blog. Joanne has earned a Masters of Adult Education and as an instructor she brings enthusiasm and wisdom to her workshops encouraging students to explore the creative process through research and experimentation. www.joannethomson.com.