The Blind Artist

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Olivia Laing has opened up a whole new world for me. I thought I knew something about the art world. Not a lot I’ll admit. But a little something. Enough for me to know I didn’t know enough, and that I wanted to know more. The first book of Laing’s I read was The Lonely City. I can’t describe fully how I felt once I finished the book. It was like being in the living room of all the artists she spoke about, watching them create. She doesn’t just talk about the art they make – she somehow knows how to talk about what they must have been thinking when they make art. Side note, if you have some time, check out this video of her home. It is truly one of the best things I have seen in a while.

I find that so fascinating. I paint sometimes. I’m not any sort of a great artist, but I can talk about the things I think about when I make a painting. It isn’t much to be honest. Most of the times I repeat dialogues from movies I’ve seen recently. Or I talk to myself in third person. Sometimes I describe the scene as a narrator would. This last thing is a little bit like an out of body experience. I talk about how I think I would look like if I was in a movie. The introductory scene of a movie. I probably don’t have enough meat in my painting sittings for it to be an integral part of the movie. It would definitely only be a light hearted opening sequence. Nothing more than that. Sometimes I will describe the painting to myself as I am making it. It is like an ongoing commentary on the painting, most of it criticism. In all these actions, I put myself at the centre of it all. I’ve always felt a little silly doing it, but I didn’t know how to express what I was feeling till I heard Laing talking about it. She says art is selfish. It is a wholly singular experience and you have to be sure of yourself, to be able to defend your art against against not only other people, but also against yourself. Things like self-doubt. Or in my case, complacency. I think it is selfish too.

I just finished another one of her books. It is called ‘Funny Weather‘. It talks about why we need art in these times of emergency. Unlike the only other book of hers I have read, this one isn’t just about visual artists. It has many forms of prose (essays, interviews and diary entries) about many different kinds of artists – authors, poets, filmmakers and every one in between.

One of the artists she talks about is Sargy Mann. And the most fascinating thing about this artist is that his best works (arguably) came after he lost his vision. Before he went blind, he was constrained by what he knew to be the true representation of things. After he could no longer see, this ceased to be a consideration. That is when he really started painting.

I think it is a great metaphor for life too. One encounters it a lot if you think about it. Being limited by what we know to be true or think we know to be true. Like when you try and manifest things, you’re always told to get rid of your “limiting beliefs”. The reason many of us can’t get to what we want in life or out of life is because we simply don’t think it is possible. If you have already experienced something, you know it is possible and so you have no limiting beliefs about it. For many young lawyers out there, for example, working in a big law firm might not seem possible because they have never worked in one, so they don’t know what it is like, so it never settles into their psyche. For someone who has worked in one, they know it can be done, so they don’t have limiting beliefs about it. They may have it for something else though. They may never be able to fathom how a happy relationship is possible because they may never have seen one. And as long as you operate within the bounds of these limiting beliefs, you will never really know what you are capable of.

Sargy Mann didn’t know it either. Till he went blind. And then, all his limitations were forcefully taken away from him.

Why I started painting again

I used to love to paint. I think I was even called talented by a bunch of people a few times as a kid – and you know how that can get to someone’s head. I used to paint all the time, but for some reason I stopped as soon as I got into college. Come to think of it again, I think college might have been the reason I stopped painting.

College was a lot of things, but most of all, it was overwhelming. Met a lot of new people, learnt a lot, and tried a host of things (some of which I hope I won’t try again) but I also gave up on a lot of things I used to enjoy. The worst bit is that I didn’t even realise everything I was missing out on.

So fast forward a couple of years. I started working my corporate job. But now that I was out of college and the many distractions it had to offer, I realised that adulthood was, well, a little lonely. I didn’t really have much to do besides work and sleep. Oh yeah, I would go drinking with my friends every other week. But there wasn’t anything like the constant engagement one gets in college, or even high school. I was doing ok, but I really didn’t have anything to fill my time apart from working, talking about work and drinking myself silly. Very uninspired living, I know. And yet, so like the lives I see all around me.

On one of my many uninspired Monday evenings though, I remembered I used to paint. It may sound silly, but it felt like some long lost memory had resurfaced. Little bit of a Jason Bourne moment honestly. I remembered how much I liked painting, and then I tried to think about why I had stopped. I couldn’t come up with any good reason. So, I decided to give it another shot on the coming weekend – or any other day I managed to catch a break from work (at some point, I am going to write about the kind of work I did and why I never had time for anything else in my job). And I did. Here is what I learnt from picking up a childhood pleasure again.

I’m not very good at it, and that’s ok

All that hype I received as a kid for my ‘artistic skills’ was, in my opinion, exaggerated. They probably only said it to be nice, or because I was marginally better than my peers. I wasn’t anything great, and I’m still not now.

But here is the thing – I would spend all my free time painting. It made me really, REALLY happy. I used to run through sketchbooks at an alarming rate. All the walls in my childhood home were painted over. My parents were generous enough to supply me with a steady stream of art material (and buying it myself as an adult I realise that some of it is quite pricy – so I’m eternally grateful to them for that).

So now, getting back into this hobby again as an adult, I promised myself I would paint at least once a week without bothering about how good I, or anyone else, thought the work looked. And honestly, having something outside of work – a personal commitment to do something every week – has made my life at least 10 shades more enjoyable. Really, if you think you have a creative bent of mind, just get out there and make something. It doesn’t have to be good, it doesn’t have to make money or make you famous – it just has to make you happy. Like my favourite author Neil Gaiman says, “the world always seems brighter when you’ve just made something that wasn’t there before.”

I have become more confident about it

Back in the day, whenever I made something, I would look for praise. I couldn’t just make something because I wanted to make it or because it gave me joy. I was very performative in my art. I craved appreciation. I would paint in front of my parents or any other adults around – relatives, friends, art teachers. And I would wait for them to look at the work and tell me how amazing it was (for someone my age). Every time I finished a painting or a sketch, I would immediately run around showing it to everyone. Definitely an attention seeker. The downside of course, was that I never made anything for myself. If people didn’t react with the awe I had become used to, it made me incredibly sad. I left a lot of art pieces unfinished because people didn’t appreciate it in the ways I wanted them to.

Now as an adult, it was only natural that these childhood tendencies would start to creep back in. I was determined not to let that happen though. I wouldn’t make art or stop making it because of what other people said. It isn’t (yet) my main source of income and I only make it to make myself happy. So why care about what others have to say? I started making art, and posting it too. I still remember the first time I posted my art online. I was so nervous. I had this (very unreasonable idea) that people would think I’m (a) showing off or (b) desperate for attention. And then there was the fear that they might call out my art itself – for not being good enough to be posted. But then I realised a few things. Firstly, no one cares. Really, think about it. Do you care if someone you know starts making sketches and putting them up on their website or say Instagram? No. You’d probably just scroll past (and if you’re a nice person, you might even like it). Once you realise that people aren’t bothered with what you’re doing, and that everyone only ever thinks and worries about their own lives, you’re already on your way. If you’re the only one who really cares (and your mum maybe) about what you’re doing – then you might as well do what you like. Second, given the free flowing nature of the internet, for the first time ever, artists and creatives can communicate and display work in a way never done before. And well, if someone doesn’t like what you make, they can always stop looking right? You aren’t forcing anyone to look at your work (you couldn’t even if you wanted to).

Nowadays, whenever I feel self-conscious about posting online I try to remember a couple of things. Life really is a single player game. So, I push past the embarrassment and the fear of judgment and make whatever I want, and post whatever I want simply because I can. There is a really good book by the name of ‘Show your Work’ by Austin Kleon, which talks about the many benefits of showcasing your art to the world. I’ve read it, I love it, and I highly recommend it to anyone else who struggles with putting themselves out there. Once you get over that initial fear, you’ll realise how much fun it is, much like I did.