When I was 6 or 7, I decided to hold an art sale. I loved coloring. I was good at it. Why not make some money at it? I sat down with crayons and paper and made a whole series of drawings. Enough for a gallery show. There were dogs, and horses, and ladybugs. Mountains, and houses, and flowers. Sailboats for my dad. And I distinctly remember one KITT from Knight Rider. The pictures themselves were not enough. For that special finishing touch, I went across the street and helped myself to a bunch of the small rocks covering the neighbor’s yard. They were smooth and white and perfect for coloring. I made matching paperweights for every masterpiece I had created. Genius. Finally, I made signs reading “ART SALE TODAY” and posted them all over the neighborhood.
I sat with my pictures spread over our front lawn, each held down by its special rock. And I waited for the sales to roll in. Who would not want such a beautiful thing? A picture AND matching paperweight? So thoughtful. There was much to choose from. Art for every taste. And each piece was only ten cents!
After a while a woman came by, parked her Seventies mega-sedan and got out. To my young eyes she seemed old and bloated, but she could have been a fit middle-aged woman for all I know. “This isn’t an art sale!” she growled at me. “I was looking for real art. You shouldn’t lie to people this way. What do you think you’re doing?” I sat in shock while she huffed back to her car, slammed the door and drove off.
I didn’t know mine was not real art. I didn’t know there were rules. I didn’t know sharing my pictures was in fact wrong—especially hoping to be paid for it. I quietly gathered up my papers and stones and scuttled back into the house. I didn’t tell my parents. What was there to say? I had clearly done a bad thing. It was better if they didn’t know.
Today it seems astonishing to me that someone would speak to a child that way. My adult self wants to rage up out of my tiny child body and punch that woman square in her hateful mouth. “How dare you speak to me that way?” Another adult in me realizes she must have been a truly miserable person, or had been having a desperately bad day to have taken her hurts out on a child. “Do you need help today?”
And yet another adult self in me remembers the other part the wounded child overlooks: before that cruel woman, there had been another woman who had come by and laughed in delight. She’d paid her ten cents and chosen a flower picture. I cannot remember what she looked like. But I remember the cruel woman clear as day.
I wish someone had told that little girl that it’s perfectly natural for what we create to appeal to some and not to others. What a valuable lesson to have learned so young. I wish I had held onto the delight of the first woman and dismissed the ugliness of the second.
We have all been shut down in our creativity at one time or another, in one way or another; an ill-timed criticism, a failed audition, being passed over for inclusion in a show or journal, disappointing sales. I’ve had every single one of those. And yet there is still a side of me—a version of that little girl—who sits down to create every day. Why?
Because I still need to create. I still need to say, “Hey world, here is how I see things,” and hope that my view resonates with some. I have called myself a writer for as long as I can remember, but it wasn’t until recently, when I flashed back to that art sale memory, that I realized for an equally long time I’ve said, “I can’t draw.” I call myself a creative person, but an artist? That’s always been too presumptuous. Can I draw? Am I an artist? Maybe, maybe not. I don’t know. But I do know I should see for myself, instead of letting an angry woman from decades ago decide.
For some of us, creating is an instinctive need, and if we don’t, we feel bottled up and unfulfilled. My guess is that you, too, yearn for your voice to be heard, or you wouldn’t be reading this. I just started drawing lessons. I walked into the art supply store and said, “Sell me the stuff you’d sell a kid just beginning.” I felt the same giddy zing I’d felt that day I gathered my neighbor’s stones for coloring. (Sorry, Mrs. Owens!)