It was art day in my sixth grade class. We were to take half a raw potato and cut a design in it, then dip it in paint and stamp our design all over a large piece of paper. I struggled cutting my design and ending up massacring several potatoes in the process.
I looked up from my table space to survey how other students were doing. Ugh. They were nailing it. I was the class lagger, the only one who did not yet have a potato stamp to work with.
“Ten minutes, everyone,” called out the teacher. “Ten minutes and then we need to clean up and move on. Please finish up quickly.”
The pressure mounted. I was trying as carefully as I could to carve a diamond shape in my potato, but once again I cut too deep and once again I had a broken potato, only now I was out of time. So I made the best of it. I took the biggest broken chunk and pressed it down in blue paint. I stamped once, twice, three times … the more I stamped, the globbier it got.
I wanted so badly to make a cool potato stamp design like the other students. One girl at my table had carved a heart in her potato. Her art paper came out looking like a cheery valentine. Mine was an indecipherable collection of blue blobs.
Forced to finish and call it good, I hung up my mess of a blue failure on the drying line hoping no one would notice.
The next day the teacher handed back our potato stamped art papers graded with a bright red letter in the upper corner. I felt the anxiety of yesterday’s failure come slithering out of it’s dark cave. I braced myself for what surely was going to be a low grade.
She laid the paper in front of me. Time to face the music of my art catastrophe, but instead of facing down a humiliating D or F, I saw A Big Red A.
I stared at it. Was it mocking me? Was this some kind of mistake? I looked around at the other kid’s papers. Did she give everyone an A? Nope, she had not. I saw a few red B’s and even a C. How could she give me an A ?
It must be a mistake.
“Excuse me, Teacher?” I stammered as I approached her desk in the back of the room.
“Why did you give me an A? I did a terrible job. I shouldn’t get an A. I don’t deserve it.”
What earnestness I possessed standing there, such seriousness to right the wrong of a misplaced passing grade for potato art.
“I gave you an A, Pam, because you worked so hard on it. You kept having trouble, but you did not give up. You deserve the A. And besides, your project is not as bad as you think. Look at the wonderful pattern of blue you managed to create. I like it.”
I locked into her brown eyes as she spoke. That A she gave me was a gift of artistic grace. I looked at my blue blobby painting with a different perspective. No, it didn’t look like diamond shapes, but it was a lovely color of blue and I had managed to create an interesting design. The Red A and her kind words were a demonstration of artistic grace, a gift that has been growing steadily inside of me ever since.
Here I am still making messy, grace-driven art projects some four decades later. I make a lot of art, I mean A LOT… and I love posting on social media pictures of mixed-media collages that I am especially pleased with. Like this one:
I used some new art supplies (new fab finds from artist Dina Wakley !) to make this latest collage a few days ago. Looks pretty cool, right? What you don’t see is that underneath this art is an entirely different piece. I didn’t like how it turned out so I gesso’ed it and started over. (Gesso : a painting primer) Last week, though, there was another canvas I had been working on. I made three different art collages on it and still, I was unhappy with it. Finally, I decided I needed to move on to the next canvas and forget about it. Artistic grace sometimes means knowing when to just Let It Go instead of fighting with it.
The process of making bad art is sooooo important to making art that I like. Take this one, for instance :
I made this in an online class from Kelly Rae Roberts. We have a class Facebook page where students may post questions and comments, and especially photos of their art assignments from the class. I am so impressed with how well so many people are doing while I once again find myself a lagger. In this class we are learning how to create faces using Kelly’s techniques. While so many of the students are producing beautiful, angelic faces, mine keep coming out with weird, blotchy skin tone and distorted shapes.
I love Kelly’s style. I have learned many collage techniques from her, but my facemaking is not quite what I had hoped it would be. The more I have tried, the worse they seem to get. I decided to focus my art-making on what makes my heart sing, and making faces does not make my heart sing. This required me to apply some artistic grace as well as wisdom to know whether or not I was being a quitter or wisely surrendering.
Even though I don’t like painting faces and I don’t think my Face Lady is very good, I decided to keep her anyway. I even hung her up on my wall in my creative space. She serves as a fun reminder that Number One : I am fucking beauty-full; and Number Two: it is a souvenir of artistic grace, of Me being kind to myself even when I floundered in my online face-making class. Even though I failed at making lovely faces, I did pick up other useful techniques for art making. I did not allow this failure to squash my creative spirit.
Artistic grace starts with an A, a big Red A that allows me to fail and try again and surrender and push on. Artistic grace is healing oil that helps the soul to keep creating. It is the balm that soothes my frustrations and renews my spirit. The most wonderful thing about artistic grace is that it is passed on from artist to artist. My art teacher passed it on to me. I like to think that I have passed it on to others whenever I have encountered someone struggling with their creativity. We all need to give one another Red A’s whenever we can, especially to our own selves.
*** So what about you? Have you ever been given a Red A you didn’t think you deserved? I love the definition of Mercy : grace undeserved. I’d love to hear your stories of where you gave or received artistic grace and experienced mercy in the midst of a creative crisis.