July 12, 2012

When Talent Needs "A Little More Time To Bake"

I met Ana, a mixed-media artist, while I was managing a grants program for a municipal arts agency in Miami. The amount of money available from the agency for community arts projects was always—surprise!—much smaller than the total amount requested, so the application process was highly competitive.

Part of my job was to help artists make a persuasive case for their ideas in writing. My special talent was finding the angle that would seamlessly link an artist’s vision to whichever political scheme the city’s Commissioners were most enthused about at the time. With luck, this could up the the artist's chances for funding.

I’d helped Ana get a grant for a group show in an empty neighborhood storefront. Her intuitive arrangements of found objects on bright canvases were graceful, joyous and very beautiful. Ana experimented with everything: concepts, techniques, materials, and collaborations. “If you play it safe,” she’d say, “you’ll never know what you’re capable of.”

I learned that she had started painting only as an adult. Growing up as the child of a civil servant and a teacher in Chile, art was not in her sensible parents' vocabulary of career options. Ana was encouraged to study law or finance, professions that they believed offered a stable future. She graduated from a university in the United States with a degree in international finance. "I studied business to satisfy my parents," she said, "but I had zero interest in making a life of it."

She took the first job she was offered after graduation, as an assistant in an art gallery on Miami Beach, and soon found herself spending much of her free time painting. She started exploring mixed-media compositions soon after.

Over a cup of tea in Ana's studio one afternoon, we talked about her recent work. She'd spent the morning painstakingly weaving filaments of copper-colored silk thread into a small painted canvas. The delicate fibers and the size of the piece were a departure from her usual imposing work. "I don't know how I feel about it yet," she said. "It needs a little more time to bake. I'll keep working on it and see what happens."

The conversation turned to me and my writing. "I can't imagine not writing," I said. "There's something about it that's addictive--in a really good way. Still," I added tentatively, "I've also thought a lot about working with images."

"And...," Ana encouraged. "And nothing." I said, "I just don't have the talent for visual art. I tried, and I'm not good at it."

Ana set down her cup. "Talent, schmalent!," she said in an exasperated tone, adopting the vernacular of her elderly Jewish next-door neighbors. "How does anyone know whether they have talent--whatever that is--until they do something, and then do it again, and then do it again some more? You don't really think having talent means things are easy and perfect the first time out, do you?”

Her hands unconsciously mimed motions of gathering and placing as she described her frustrating early attempts to integrate three-dimensional objects into her paintings. 

I listened, but I didn't have the nerve to tell her that, yes, I did think that talent was innate and not learned. I didn't have to do and do again to know that it was something I lacked.

When she brought the subject up a few weeks later, I deflected it, telling her I was too busy to start anything new. "I really am busy," I repeated to myself. And I was, wasn't I?

How busy are you?



  1. Clara:

    You might like this post on writing talent. Long but well worth it:



    1. Thanks for the link, Joe. I'll take a look.

  2. Wonderful post. I was just telling someone I was too busy to do something I wanted to do. But for goodness sakes I'm retired! I'm only as busy as I choose to be. Hmmm....

    Now following your excellent blog. Hope you will follow back.

    1. Thanks, Galen, and welcome. I've heard it said that if we want to know what we value, we should look at our calendar. I've made peace with the fact that I'll always find things to fill my day. The work now is to be more discerning about what I'm choosing to fill it with.

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