(This childhood photoshoot my mom did, it's giving drama.)
I like to think of myself as someone who is well-versed in the art of failure. I’m not easily discouraged and, while I hold very high personal standards in a lot of areas, I’m not very hard on myself. Lots of people seem to think I am, but trust that any self-criticism you overhear from me when it comes to my art comes from a place of feeling grounded in my potential and knowing when I can do better. There are plenty of paintings that I feel happy and satisfied with, and plenty that are not my best work and so I have no problem letting them go to make room for more progress. I am a big ideas person and I can get tunnel vision when I’m excited about a new idea, but when it takes longer to get there or if I can’t get there at all for the moment, I won’t feel like I’ve let myself down if I know I’ve tried my best. I think it really comes down to my combination of nature and nurture. From a very young age I had the temperament to handle a good bit of failure and to want to try new things (positive emotionality + task persistence) and I had parents who pushed me to test those limits and reach my potential for failure. No parent wants to see their child struggle, but I feel really grateful for the creative and contained ways mine introduced me to rejection and disappointment. For example:
Growing up I was not an athlete. I always loved to play though. I liked physical activity and playing catch or keep away or pick up hockey, but that doesn’t mean I was necessarily great at those things. I could throw and catch a football (I’m actually pretty proud of my spiral) but like don’t ask me to do that in the middle of a game with moving parts and running and other things to think about. What I lack in coordination I make up for in team spirit and good vibes. I know that now and I knew that at the time, but come try out season, for EVERY season of elementary school, I was there. I was there to not make basketball, soccer, volleyball…. My parents successfully hid their annoyance for balancing my extracurricular commitments and strongly encouraged participation , so I tried out for everything. To be fair, failure when you have realistically low expectations and in an area that doesn’t hold much personal value to you is a bit of a loophole, but it was good practice. Come badminton season, the one sport I properly enjoyed, and I felt pretty good at, and that didn’t require too much strength and was kind of like ping pong and I KNEW I was pretty good at ping pong… I was ready to make a team or to fail brilliantly. I practiced almost every day for hours leading up to the tryouts with any of my siblings that would humour my efforts (having 4 options to go through was a bonus, though, at 5 years old, Nora’s badminton skill level was not where it needed to be if I was going to make the team), and after making it through a few rounds of cuts, I got the honorable mention of spare. So, if anyone got seriously injured, I could play for them at our tournaments. It was a little embarrassing honestly, but I was on the team (technically). I went home and told my family and we celebrated, and I got to go to every practice and match and have the sports team experience (in a co-ed sport which was objectively cooler) and I had a lot of fun. I wasn’t going to win anything, but after all my efforts I was good enough to participate. Had I not put in the hours that I did, had I tried less so that it would hurt less if I failed, I wouldn’t have gotten that experience at all.
Let me set the stage for this next example. You’re me. Which means you’re a fifth grade girl on a Friday night sitting in the car with a duffel bag full of makeup you do not know how to apply to your face on the way to your cooler cousins pre before anyone really knew what a pre was, to get ready for the chaperoned St. Antoine $5 dances. You pull into the driveway and give your mother the look that says “I’m gonna need $5” because I, or you in this scenario, are not an allowance or birthday money kind of child. Julie decides this is the moment she is going to teach her child about putting yourself out there and facing rejection and holds your five dollar bill hostage to let you know that you are only allowed to go tonight if you ask two boys to dance at least and you need to report back how that went at the end of the night. Okay I’m me now. I remember thinking like is this some kind of trap? You want me to dance with boys? Are you okay? And at this time in my life I somehow did not see lying as an option, or maybe part of me kind of wanted to anyway and this was a solid reason to, but I agreed to the deal. Took my $5 and my blue eyeliner and my crop top that I was going to secretly change into, and I actually did it. Was the awkward swaying and clammy hands always worth it? Not really. But it did get easier and it did make me feel more assertive and confident until eventually I was preaching to my friends in the bathroom that you just gotta ask him. Duh. I kind of miss this era of Katie a bit.
As a strong-minded, independent young woman I couldn’t let my parents do all the challenging. They planted a seed that taught me pushing yourself can be rewarding and you won’t know your potential until you try, so I eventually decided that my willpower needed to be stronger than any fear I could have. When I realized I was deathly afraid of rollercoasters and we were going to Disney World with all my adrenaline junkie siblings, I decided that would just not do and committed to going on every rollercoaster there. (Now I know the rollercoasters at Disney World are pretty pathetic relative to what’s out there, but it was a deathly fear, so this was a big goal for me). The first one I tried was Expedition Everest. You only had to be 42” tall to ride, so even Nora got to go on the ride. For context I’m pretty sure I was 13 at the time. It was a 20-minute wait to get to go on the ride and for the entire 20 minutes until the moment that we were strapped into the seats, I cried. Not a performative sobbing cry, but a stressed and embarrassed and afraid and ambivalent quiet cry as little kids asked their moms if I was okay. (I was not okay). We then had to get out of line to go to the bathroom and I had to decide to do it all over again – a choice I made with little to no confidence after time was running out and I was keeping people waiting. I realized maybe halfway into the ride that I maybe wasn’t so afraid, but I did have really bad motion sickness which made it super unpleasant. But I tried, and now I know that about myself.
The result of these character building experiences was a girl who seemed to always be planning some kind of protest or student walk out. A girl who signed up for an advanced English spoken word poetry class because she was bad at public speaking. A girl who convinced a really nice but naïve music/religion teacher that no one really knew the lyrics to Lily Allen’s “Fuck you” and then performed what essentially became a sing along at her senior year talent show. Essentially, I became brave, which sounds kind of silly to say as an adult but it’s something I feel proud of. I have high standards for myself, but I’m not afraid to try new things because trying is always worth failing. And when I don’t fail, I can make some really cool things happen.
Quick side note that fragile self-esteem is when our failures, mistakes, and imperfections decrease our self-worth and it can exist in specific areas. Just because trying new activities and not being instantly great doesn’t immediately discourage me doesn’t mean that I don’t have other areas of fragility to work on. For example, knowing that I’m not a bad person when I make morally questionable decisions or unintentionally hurt people I care about, is something I need to work on considerably.
Childhood is the perfect environment to fail. You’re given ample opportunities and chances to try new things and the stakes are incredibly low. But as you grow up, the capitalistic society we live in will naturally narrow your focus. It’s simply more efficient and productive. It makes sense to get really good at a few things rather than have a new hobby each season. To specialize and perfect a skillset or craft or knowledge base can be super fulfilling when you love what you do or study, but it is, by its very nature, limiting.
I remember the day that Alex Bastable, a very smart guy I went to high school with, finished building his jeep from scratch in his family’s garage out in the county. He drove it to school with pride and had all of our friends sign their names under the floor mat of the driver’s seat and then took us all out on a very bumpy ride down the county roads (the suspension still needed some work). Where I grew up (Windsor, Ontario), a huge number of careers come from the automotive industry. Everyone has at least a few relatives who either work at the Ford or Chrysler assembly line. The factory workers screwing the same two screws all day and night ultimately make more cars faster as part of the assembly line process, but they don’t feel inspired like that. They likely do their job with more precision and speed as they get tons of practice on their specific task, but they lose any joy that comes with the challenge of learning something new. Of trying and failing again and again in multiple areas until they finally get a functional vehicle.
So, I love to learn new things and I am not afraid of letting myself down, but I am SO out of practice. Working as a commissioned artist you don’t really get to fail because it’s about the product not the process. With limited time sometimes efficiency is the move, so you minimize risks for failure, stick to what you know and maintain a certain standard. …But you don’t get a spark in your eye as you explain to your friends how an engine is actually just thousands of controlled explosions (or something like that), and you don’t get spend extra one on one time with your dad practicing serves in the driveway until its dark out on a school night. But even more than that, you don’t get to sit on the garage floor teary-eyed (this is me speculating, Alex Bastable potentially never got this frustrated but just bear with me for the analogy) when you turn the key and nothing happens and you don’t get to find out that after hours of practice each night you’re still just coordinated enough to be the team’s spare. You miss out on all those moments of vulnerability that suck just enough but not too much, that motivate you to try again, and feel proud of yourself because you tried.
So my goal for this year with my art is to make more things for me, to make stuff that sucks, to make art that gets painted over so I can reuse the canvas, to try new mediums all the time and to let each new piece be a challenge and an opportunity for failure or maybe even success. I want to set expectations that put me at risk of disappointment, to ask more of myself than I have and rise to the occasion.