Above my desk, hangs a memory board holding a collection of train tickets for the London underground, a ticket to Westminster Abbey, a white ribbon memento from my brother’s funeral with gold letters declaring: Who I Am Makes a Difference, the blue tail feathers of a parrot once owned by an artist friend, a faded photo of myself at three years old standing over my birthday cake frosted white.
The centerpiece of the nostalgic collection is a crude water color of a solitary tree standing in water painted by my son several years ago; a study in brown. I’m drawn to its simplicity, the imperfections of splattered paint dots in white space, like rain spitting on my camera lens during a shoot.
It reminds me of a season dabbling in watercolors some years ago. When my children were in grade school and a new artist friend invited me to her tree house for weekly painting sessions in exchange for the price of conversation and mason jars full of water.
Drawn toward bleeding color and imprecise images is what moved me to the medium. The freedom of imperfection is the same thing I love about my son’s art.
It’s also what closed the lid on my paint palette several years ago.
I began to look at nature with an invisible frame around it, taking memory photos of the way clouds melt into the sky, the verdant hues of a copse under a canopy of cloud shade at high noon. Comparing the brush of God to pigment in a tube left my attempts at manipulation hollow.
But I don’t give up easily.
I enrolled in a workshop with a visiting artist offered through a local art store and took a few drawing lessons with a church friend in preparation. My drawing skills were lacking. I didn’t want to look foolish to the other artists.
At the end of the first day, I collected my paintbrushes; palette smeared with an array of vibrant colors, the beginning of my violet pansies and crawled into my mini-van. Instead of going home, I pulled into an empty parking lot at the edge of the Atlantic and wept.
I was humiliated by my own perfectionism.
Moments before, I sat in the back of the room, slumped over my art on the edge of tears. The artist leading the workshop bent over the table, looked in my eyes and told me that she could identify with my struggle. Colors bleeding into a mud puddle on the page, it was a metaphor for my emotional state. In the end, my painting resting on the display easel for the class critique turned out to be mostly her work.
I felt like a fraud.
But I couldn’t put my finger on what it was that day that made me feel hollow and vulnerable. Until I read this recently:
Perfectionism is self-destructive simply because perfection doesn’t exist. It’s an unattainable goal. Perfectionism is more about perception than internal motivation, and there is no way to control perception, no matter how much time and energy we spend trying. ~Brene Brown, Daring Greatly
That fist in the gut? I realized I’m doing this now, when I write. My admission of a self-editing frenzy on Facebook the other day would have been more honestly stated, “I’m shackled by perfectionism, and it’s killing my creativity and sending me into the downward spiral of shame.”
Even the admission here feels a bit like a virgin standing up in front of the classroom naked. I want you to think I’ve got this figured out, that I’m confident and resilient. Instead of being stuck in regret and self-criticism, I’m cutting the string to the balloon of my perfectionism, letting the wind carry it where it will. My hands are sore and calloused from holding it up in the changeable, uncertain winds of your perceptions.
The most beautiful art, your art and mine, comes from the unplanned splatters of imperfection that Jesus died for. He looks you in the eyes and says, “I identify with you.”
How do we let go of perfectionism?
Stop being so hard on yourself.
Remind yourself you are not alone in feeling inadequate.
Take your thoughts captive and submit them to Christ.
And then tell a friend to keep you accountable, like I just did right here with you.
Art, among all the tidy categories, most closely resembles what it is like to be human. To be alive. It is our nature to be imperfect. To have uncategorized feelings and emotions. To make or do things that don’t sometimes necessarily make sense. Art is all just perfectly imperfect. ~Nicholas Wilton, Founder of Artplane Method as quoted in Daring Greatly.