Becoming an Artist
People like to tell me I’m talented. And don’t get me wrong, it’s nice to hear.
But with the compliment comes this bristling discomfort.
It’s as if talent is a blanket term that encompasses everything I am, like talent is all it takes. Like I haven’t spent hours practicing, and that even now, better than I’ve ever been, my talent should make me feel at ease with myself.
People say, “Sabrina, you’re so talented!” and I squirm a little, because maybe that is true, but it feels like a word that associates itself with other words, like contentment or confidence.
And that feels like a big fat lie.
I shared a couple photos of my most recently finished painting on social media, and with it came a bouquet of compliments which always bolsters my confidence and provides validation and this warm feeling of being pleased with myself. But those photos only paint half the picture. It leaves out the picture of me, on the back of a motorbike that day, in tears because of this impending dread and sense of disappointment at myself because it took me four months to finish that painting. Because I am not anywhere close to where I want to be. Because I’m about to turn twenty-seven and hold in my hands a plethora of dreams and goals, and feel nowhere close to realizing them.
Because at the end of a lot of days, what I feel most towards myself is disappointed.
Yeah, maybe I’m talented. But I’m still an insecure, almost twenty-seven year old woman who isn’t sure of what I’m going to be when I grow up, who wishes I was already grown up, who often feels like she is drowning in fear of the future, who fears returning home to Canada because there, the disappointment of not realizing any of those things feels inevitable. And the word talented just doesn’t fit that image of me.
And then there’s the fact that my endeavors as an artist are all still really new. Three years ago, I did not have the skill I have now. And maybe talented isn’t the right word. Talent implies god-given, a gift.
Maybe, the right word is skilled. Skill that was honed from hours and hours of sitting at cafes with a pack of colored pencils and a sketchbook. From the hours I have spent reading books and writing. Or all the showers I’ve sang in.
Take this drawing for instance,
which was one of the first portraits I ever drew in 2014 and is an example of how what some people see as talent, is actually years and years of practice.
I think, maybe, that how I’ve gotten here is that I had a natural inclination towards art and creativity which was maybe genetic, and that maybe growing up in a town with virtually no one, with a wild landscape and an inspirationally wild family, was a perfect storm that resulted in me.
When I was in the tenth grade, I sat in the back row of biology class. We were discussing neural pathways, if I remember correctly, and how our brains form thoughts and operate. I must have been fifteen or sixteen, and my response was, “I think mine is different.”
In all fairness, it is probable that this is a completely arrogant thing to say, and it is highly likely that I was interrupting my teacher when I said it, and also likely that as a teenager, I was an annoying twat who acted like she knew everything. But I have never forgotten her answer afterwards, nor the derision that lived in her tone.
“What do you mean?” she asked.
“I don’t know. I just think mine is different.”
“Okay, Ms. Conceited,” she said.
I have never forgotten the look on her face, or the heat of embarrassment in my cheeks. It wasn’t that I thought my brain to be superior, but I think instead, what I was trying to articulate, was how different I felt from my peers. That at fifteen or sixteen, I spent more time writing poetry than studying. That I was completely unsatisfied with the world around me, and that I didn’t feel like there was any place for me in it.
I didn’t have the words, or the knowledge of experience, but what I was trying to communicate to my teacher on that afternoon she told me I was conceited, I think, was that I was an artist. I just had yet to realize it myself.
Another high school memory that has stayed with me is of my class sitting in the cafeteria one afternoon, while our teachers and principal helped us pick our courses for the following year. The principal leaned over the formica table, ticking off boxes on my sheet.
“I can’t take physics,” I said, “because I want to take art.”
“You can’t take art,” he said.
“Because look at your grades. You have to take physics, chemistry, biology, and advanced math.” His voice was calm as he spoke, almost laughing, which seemed to imply that to take art would be a waste of my intelligence.
You know what I did in Chemistry? I slept through nearly every one of my classes. I gave up on physics. And in advanced math, which we had to take online because of teacher cutbacks, I played games, or painted my nails, or took more naps, or pestered my three classmates, meanwhile cheating on all my assignments and tests. I put my hardest work into English class. In retrospect, it was the only thing I cared about in high school, and it was the only thing I believed I was good at.
And when it came time to go to University, the only natural thing for me to study was English, though even then I thought it was a useless degree and I didn’t want to be a teacher so what the hell would I do with it.
I agonized over it for months, moaning to my teachers and to anyone who would listen. I may have even told one of them school had let me down because I was never going to be a doctor or an engineer or a nurse and it hadn’t taught me how to do anything else. Meanwhile, my Dad suggested I go to trade school and Mom wanted me to study pharmacy.
It often felt like where I was raised and educated stifled creativity completely. Even when the academic advisor from our university came to school and helped us pick our courses for first year, after telling him I would likely major in English, he ticked off math on the course list.
“I don’t want to take math,” I said.
“But you have to.” And because everyone had been telling me that my whole life, I believed him.
Ironically, a year later, with my first year finished, I went to the academic advisor’s office on the university campus to get help with my following year’s course selection. The man, who looked a lot like the one from the year before, said to me after scanning my grades from the year, “Why did you take math? You’d have a 4.0 GPA if it wasn’t for that grade.”
“Because someone, maybe you, told me I had to.”
I know having to study math is not the end of the world, but it came to represent to me, another one of the boxes I was told to fit in that I was never able to. Something I beat myself up for and stressed over and knew wasn’t for me, but tried to make fit because everyone told me I had to.
I don’t know what I’d be now, if I had lived somewhere else or gone to a different school with more opportunities, but it’s useless to wonder about it and I wouldn’t change anything about it if I could anyway. I think half of the reason I am the way I am is because of my little town on the ocean, and I am happy with what my life has become—most days, anyway.
But still, talented does not account for all those years of feeling like I didn’t belong (which is how every teenager feels, I know), and the five years spent in University reading novels and spending sixteen hours at the library writing papers about them. It does not account for the hours I spent sitting in my bedroom drawing pictures that were absolute shit. Or all the mornings I spent in Korea, before I had to go to work, at a cafe around the corner drawing portraits, actually becoming the artist I am now.
Talented does not account for the work, or the turmoil that comes with it.
And it is a hard word to reconcile with yourself, when really the word you believe yourself to be, is inadequate.
And how does one just let go of all the things they’ve come to believe about themselves? How do you reverse years of conditioning?
Well, I’m trying.
I’m trying to undo my relationship with humility. Being humble has its place, but humility teaches you to stay quiet, to not ask for things, to not voice your worth. I recently told my friend, “Fuck humility. You know what humility gets you? Painting in your kitchen at the age of twenty-six.”
I’m learning to accept and use the word artist to describe myself. I’m learning to undo all the years of not knowing what I was.
I’m learning to undo the idea of perfectionism that has prevented me from creating and sharing.
And maybe, yes, I am learning how to accept compliments that come with words like talented.
I’m learning how to believe the things that people tell me. That sometimes, you need to look in the mirror and tell yourself—Yes, you are fucking fantastic. You are magic. Everything people tell you is true.
And though there are a lot of days when I still struggle to believe it, when I still feel very inadequate, when I cry on the back of a motorbike taxi because everything tastes like disappointment, especially myself, there are a lot more days when I feel that the things I want are somewhere on my horizon, and that I am capable of reaching them.
And when people tell me I’m talented, I’m getting a lot better at saying thank you.