"Faith is the bird that feels the light and sings when the dawn is still dark. 
In effect, the people who change our lives the most begin to 
sing to us while we are still in darkness. If we listen to 
their song, we will see the dawning of a new part of ourselves."

Rabindranth Tagore

Existential Intelligence is the sensitivity and capacity to engage questions about human existence – how we got here, whether we have a purpose, and whether there is meaning in Life. Existential intelligence embraces the exploration of aesthetics, philosophy, religion and values like beauty, truth, and goodness. A strong existential intelligence allows human beings to see their place in the big picture, be it in the classroom, community, world, or universe.

First proposed by Howard Gardner, existential intelligence is one of nine theorized intelligences and is considered to be amoral – that is, it and the other eight categories of human intelligence can be used either constructively or destructively.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Loving the Artist You Are

Two of my recent essays discuss individual artistic style. Where it comes from. Developing a style. Refining the style you’ve already got. From the standpoint of entering juried shows and presenting work to the world, cultivating a cohesive style is a valid concept.

But as I sat with a participant in my workshop last week, I saw that we needed to further peel back the layers of what personal style is, in order to go deeper. I realized that before personal style can be cultivated, expectations about personal style have to be dropped.

Ruth pinned up eleven samples she’d produced in our workshop. We were in Day Five and winding down. What did I think she should do next? she wondered. I studied the vibrant, lively patterns she’d created on the cloth.

“What do you see?” I asked.

She launched into an evaluation of the work, saying that it wasn’t quite right color-wise, that it wasn’t sophisticated enough, that it fell short when she looked at the class samples others had taped to the wall. She liked one of her pieces ok, but really, couldn’t a child have done equally good work?

I pondered this and didn’t answer immediately, so to fill the silence, she continued, dismissing the simple shapes (which I found charming) and the colors, which disappointed her. (Even though these were samples and she’d never done anything like this until four days earlier.)

I interrupted to ask what she meant by sophisticated. Ruth struggled to put words to the term. “You know,” she said. “Smaller, neater, not so loose…” She pointed at the work of a participant a few tables away. “More like that…”

Here’s a trap we get ourselves into: We judge our own work by comparing it to other artists’ work. Or worse, we judge it using a whole pile of terminology we’ve never actually analyzed, so we don’t even know what we mean and we don’t realize we are being critical of what is essentially our innate artist self.

Now I am NOT saying that I should just accept what I make as-is, and drop being driven to improve my stitching, my brushstroke, my ability to match color – or any of the other techniques in the toolbox that allow me to experience mastery of process.

But I am suggesting that before we get to mastery of technique, maybe it’s worth investigating our beliefs where innate personal style is concerned. Because it is what it is. And what it IS is basically good.

It’s our belief about what it is that gets us into trouble.

In my mastery program I have numerous goals for my participants. I want them to get better at using color, so we do hundreds of color exercises. I want them to get better at technique so we do dye studies, discharge and resist studies, and lots of other technique-based studies. I want them to realize the art world is huge and endlessly fascinating, so we study other artists and genres and we allow these to influence what we make ourselves. But my number one goal for my students is that at the end of the program, each of them loves her own work best.

Working as an artist and succeeding is a thinly veiled exercise in building self esteem. It takes ego to stick with it; to enter shows, be rejected, enter again and persevere. It takes ego and stamina to put up with all the dumb remarks people make about work they don’t understand or honor. So ego is required. Ego is public.

Self esteem is more important than ego. Self esteem is private. Self esteem means you feel good about what you do even when you are alone in the studio. You have made friends with your innate style and you are willing to love it as you would love a small child – unconditionally. Acknowledging that maybe there are some refinements to be made, and therefore, educating yourself as you would educate a child. Encouraging the innate YOU the Artist to grow and expand into your full potential.

Think about the words you use when you describe your work. Pick those words apart until you have discarded the dismissive or demeaning words. Because self-talk counts. Respect yourself as the maturing artist you are. Use only kind, encouraging words to describe where you are in your development and what you hope to achieve.

There’s a reason we are blessed with individual style. Humans are complex beings. Balancing all of our complex parts is important. If Ruth is a woman with a detail-oriented job - one that requires exact and specific abilities - is it any surprise that her artist self is loose and big and bursting with energy? Her artist self is balancing the part that has to focus on nickels and dimes to get the day job done. It’s a release and a relief. Her after-hours assignment is to embrace the reality of her Artist Self and work with it instead of against it.

That’s the bottom line. As Katherine Hepburn said, “If you please yourself at least one person is happy.” So do some investigating. If you discover you’ve been critical of your Artist Self, resolve to change.

Balance self-esteem and ego with a healthy effort to refine style and visual voice, and your artist feet will be on solid ground. You’ll love your own work best. And no one can take that away from you.


  1. Something I will ponder all day, at least when I'm not counting the nickels and dimes. :-)

  2. Thank you for such a thoughtful and insightful post. I need to think about what this means for me. And then I need to be kinder to myself. Thank you for that.

  3. This piece really hit home. Thank you for articulating the emerging artist struggle so well.

  4. Thank you for clarifying for me that critical thoughts about my art is not going to make it better art. I simply need to say this is good how can I make it more to my liking. Something to ponder all week I think.

  5. All of what you've said here really hit home in this past session with you. I am slowly but surely feeling comfortable with what I do - not to say that I am coasting and won't continue to work very hard - but you have taught me so much about self-esteem. If I take nothing else from this time that I spend with you, I know that self-esteem will be a huge portion of it, and I thank you for that!

  6. I found that I had to stop going to workshops even though I dearly love being social. I developed a bad habit of interrupting my own work with other peoples' work. I'm currently in a cocoon phase. not entering shows. letting the dust settle to the bottom of the pond so that I can see clearly. after about 3 years i'm finally feeling back on track.

  7. Thank you. Once again you've hit the mark.

  8. Thank you for this, Jane. I am currently doing the C&G Creative Quilting course online and am very critical of my efforts. A little kindness towards my artistic self is required...

  9. There is some balance required in growth, isn't there? Sometimes we need to study, concentrate on learning different techniques, artists and genres, not to copy but to learn. Personal style doesn't spring fully formed from a fevered brow. Taking more time at the beginning of a project allows me to examine what I'm doing and how it feels. The main idea usually survives the process but is modulated and strengthened through examination. I'm learning to take my time, just like my mom told me! and I do love what I do! thank you.