Doing something you used to be very good at, again, after a long time, is very, very difficult.
There’s the difficulty of actually doing the thing, the getting up and starting. Then there’s the difficulty of the thing itself. On top of that, there’s the frustration that you can’t do it the way you used to. You’re out of practice. The muscle memory is gone. You try, and what you do is infuriatingly far off from what you remember having done.
What I’m talking about here is me, and drawing. I used to be very good at it a very long time ago. And then I sort of just stopped. Drawing is hard, after all, and kind of useless — and I’m usually pretty scared of hard things. So I picked up other interests, other pursuits. But once in every great while I would doodle, and I would remember what it is like to draw, how the act of drawing is a sort of meditation, and also a sort of test — a way to teach your mind and your hands, to replicate something in a way that makes sense to you.
I drew from life a lot as a young adult. I spent hours and hours drawing and painting (and, irritatingly, sculpting) in a drafty old boathouse that was the art school I adored in Huntington, New York. I drew and painted my own face probably hundreds of times, too — in the linseed oil-scented art classroom in my high school, on the floor in my absurdly small bedroom with Bikini Kill on the stereo. I must have been terrible at all of this at first, but I had a different kind of confidence then. I had spent most of my growing up being told I was “good at art” and eventually began to inhabit this narrative. It became a part of my personality, a little trope that stayed in the present tense even long after I’d abandoned any kind of art practice, formal or not.
(This sort of thing, in combination with my particular personality, also led to some laziness. Being good at something makes it very easy to do. I realize now that being an artist is hard work; it requires diligence and practice. One’s work does not just happen the way it seemed to when I was younger. And, you know — it shouldn’t be easy. Living the lie of native talent — or “giftedness” — as a kid did me no great favors. I don’t believe in these ideas anymore. It is through perseverance and a kind of optimism, two qualities that are themselves something one must cultivate — they certainly don’t come naturally to me — that artists succeed in practicing their art.)
This dissonance has caused me a lot of frustration. To realize that you aren’t who you think you are is tough work, even when the evidence is overwhelming, the conclusion obvious. Do I close the gap between the story I’ve been telling myself and the reality of my life? Do I remake who I am? Why must I be so angsty? Can’t I just get over it?
I’d have this conversation with myself a few times a year. Or I’d spend a stupid amount of money on some canvas, some paint, a sketchbook — whatever — that I’d stash somewhere out of sight for months, years, and consider sheepishly from time to time as evidence of some failure of self-control, like I’d gone on a bender and was presented with the photos on Facebook the next day. This line of thought is not that great for the ego. There have been times when I felt, let’s just say… a little bummed out about myself.
Who is this ridiculous person? What is the end result of all this, anyway?
This January is my thirty-fifth birthday. The number has struck me as particularly turning point-y. (Thirty was a breeze, as I was all too willing to leave my horrible twenties behind.) Thirty-five! I have been hemming and hawing on this topic for more than half of my adult life. Jesus Christ!
As December rolled around, I decided to do a little project, a sort of experiment in dedication, in “doing the work,” and a little bit in using art as a gateway to eyes-wide-open self-examination and maybe a little self-love. (Permission granted for liberal eye-rolling.) For the thirty-five days before my thirty-fifth birthday, I’d draw thirty-five self-portraits. Thirty-five before thirty-five. 35×35.
There are no rules. (Having to create a self-portrait thirty-five times seems torture enough.) I could use whatever medium, in whatever style, take however long, do it during any part of the day, draw from life or from photos, or, perhaps, from my own imagination. And so I began, warily, on December 9th, to draw myself. Originally I’d imagined I’d draw every day, but there have been a couple of instances where, by frustration or sheer laziness, I did not draw. And so there are makeups. That’s okay. This is not an all-or-nothing project. I do not fail if I miss a day.
I’ve started with the reliable, approachable pencil and sketchbook, traveling through the house to gaze at myself in various mirrors, at various parts of the day. (Often wearing the same giant red sweater — our house is cold — the collar of which you can see from time to time in the drawings.) The act of drawing has been excruciating, sometimes more, sometimes less. It is so, so hard to do, and so, so difficult to keep from harshly criticizing the many things that seem worth criticizing in the sketches I’ve produced so far. (Why do I look Hispanic in this one? Do I have a mustache? Good god, my eyes are small! Why do I wait until 10 PM to do this? You get the picture…) But part of the idea of this project is to make peace with any output at all. The object of the project is not to produce a stunning body of work, with a remarkable likeness, and incredible linework, or whatever it is that I might want, but to examine, to produce, and to accept.
So, here it is. Self-portraits as a practice in determination and acceptance. 35×35. Every day until January 12, 2013.
Scroll down to see earlier sketches, or click on the 35×35 tag, and thanks for tuning in.