“A dancer dies twice—once when they stop dancing, and this first death is more painful.”
What Martha Graham said with this quote resonates with me every day, with every waking moment. A dancer dies two times in her life—the day she actually dies and the day her passion for dance dies. And when she said the latter death is the more painful one, it sent shivers down my spine. I am no dancer, but what I do chips away at me every day. And so, I understand.
Art is all I have known as a child. I have been surrounded by ever since my consciousness kicked in. I had a set of those horrible quality paint sets my parents got me. The crayons tore through paper, the sketch pens leaked, and the watercolours were such glorified chalk pigments, but the sheer joy of creating…I loved it. I never wanted to stop drawing shapeless animals and flowers in lurid colours.
I was, of course, promoted to better art supplies the older I got. My crayons were smoother, the sketch pens didn’t bleed outside the lines, and the watercolours actually had proper pigments. Also, my animals were starting to take more solid shapes and I stopped colouring daisies green. My art crawled off my drawing book onto walls and in the back of school textbooks. Soon, people started to tell me, “You’re so talented!”
Sometimes I let the praise get to my head, and some days, I was annoyed because I could see the flaws in my work much better than anyone else could. The sky didn’t look blue enough, the blending would be awful, the shadows and highlights would never seem right, regardless of how hard I tried. I was highly critical about my work. But there would be times where I would also step away, and think, hey, this wasn’t too bad.
My whole youth was spent hunched over sketching books and crouched against a canvas. I knew this was what I wanted to do. So, when high school was about to finish, I told everyone that I was heading to art college. Now, admissions to the best art schools I was willing to apply for? Not as easy as one might think. There are fifty seats and five hundred applicants. I told myself that if I didn’t get in the first time, I will not stop trying.
I, however, got through on my second try.
The first try? I failed and absurdly so. I went to the entrance examinations, I saw all the hopefuls around me, and I saw their art and felt like an impostor. The girl beside me made the most realistic sketch of a dove, and when I looked down at my animal study, I wanted to cry. I wasn’t good enough. Then, a year later, with more practice under my belt, I tried again. When I saw my name on the list, I started to weep. I was here.
The next four years rushed by like a fever dream dotted with the occasional meltdowns.
Have you ever looked at something you created and immediately wanted to burn it? Have you ever looked at your friend and seen how they blend a pink and orange sky and wanted to just perish because you would never ever be that perfect?
Have you ever made something in the blue hours of the morning, and then, have someone tear it apart because it wasn’t good enough?
“Nina, this isn’t good enough. You messed up the perspective. And the shadow behind the tree?” my professor scrunches his bushy brows, displeasure clear on his face.
“You tried to crosshatch, which is frankly, a very poor attempt.” He looks at me and I am so close to crying right then and there. His face softens for a moment, and he says, “I don’t want to mark you on this, and since there are still three days till final submission for your urban study, I want you to try again. I simply cannot accept this.”
But I made through those four years and emerged victorious with a degree, no matter how many times I had cried myself to sleep and how many nights I didn’t sleep. I did it.
Now, years later, I sit in my study, staring at the blank sheets under my still fingers. I have a commission from a credible company to finish, but I can’t even begin. I finally have, what they call, a block.
What is an art block? It is a stretch of time when an artist cannot reach their creativity and/or they cannot make themselves create anything new. I suddenly feel like I have run out of things to draw.
I have my Pinterest board, I have the colour story all up in my head, and yet, nothing. As I stare and stare, I remember the Martha Graham quote. And I realise what she meant.
Dance was all she had known, art is all I have known. She danced and danced till she could physically no longer (the legend died at 96, still choreographing). What if, what if I can never draw after this? What if all the art inside me is all finished? I have lived, breathed art all my life. My first conscious thought is of me, colouring an apple blue, because I liked the colour blue more than red for the fruit.
I look up and find my cat perched on the windowsill, lazing under the sunshine. Where did this block come from? How did I get here? Is this what happens to everyone? Am I so physically and mentally exhausted that I can’t draw anymore? Is the current situation of the world to blame? Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.
I stand up and go join my cat on the windowsill. I pick my furry nuisance up, and she happily purrs into my neck, as if she can tell I need some affection right now. I ask her, “What do I do? Do I take a break and watch Good Omens again? The show always makes me feel better.” Another purr and I take this as an affirmation.
I do have a long deadline for this. I have worked on six projects back to back this month. Perhaps I do deserve the break. I need to step away from the thing I love the most in the world, so, I don’t begin hating it and lose it.
We all deserve a break from the things we love doing because, at some point, it becomes too much, takes away too much, leaves us barren and sad. I don’t want to detest the one thing I hold dear: my passion for art, for creating shapes and lines, and letting my imagination run free.
If I lost my passion, that, indeed…well.
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