I have been posting my work online in some way or another since 2013. That’s five years of taking pictures, writing captions, and sitting around patiently for comments or likes to come in. Five years of my life I’ve been creating artwork with the sole purpose of fitting into a little window of attention that can be afforded to a stranger on the internet.
These people (you’re one of them) have their own complex lives going on. You’ve got work, family, passion, hobby, religion, pets, cleaning, taxes…the list goes on. It’s easy to forget that everyone you come across your entire life is the central protagonist of their own epic story.
Why should I expect that you have 60 seconds to sit back and watch me write something out in calligraphy? Why should I expect that just because I’m ready to talk about a problem I’m dealing with in a lengthy caption that you have the time to read it, let alone offer a comment or some advice?
I shouldn’t…but I do.
This addiction to sharing content under the expectation requirement that it will be engaged with is a poison that has seeped down into the water table of my creative spirit. I won’t pretend that I ever made art just to create, but I have had periods of my life where being creative was in and of itself incredibly rewarding. I still do. Those just don’t tend to be the projects that make it onto social media.
Feeling an obligation to other people because they have double-tapped my artwork in the past and the feeling of shame when I cannot continue to deliver at the same frequency or quality has been the antithesis of what I had hoped I would feel as I progressed in my ability as a penman and in my career. One should be able to grow slowly over time and walk the various roads that are required for the migration from novice to expert without feeling like taking steps backwards makes you a failure.
There are no straight lines.
My good friend James has taken up machine learning this year, and he introduced me to a mathematical concept known as a local minimum, which makes a great metaphor for the way I’ve taken to viewing progress.
Imagine a rain cloud dumping water on a mountainside. The water’s natural goal is to run as far down the mountain as possible until it finds a low spot to settle in the valley below. Gravity assures this is the case. But what happens if on its way down the mountain it gets stuck in a little hole? What if a stream diverts it into a pond? It might not make it all the way to the valley below. Although it has found a low spot to stagnate, it’s not the lowest spot on the whole mountain.
This pond we are imagining would be considered a local minimum. And if we equate ourselves to the water and the mountain to our progress, we can imagine times in our learning that we might feel like we have gone as far as we can, only because we are surrounded by high ground (regression) in every direction.
Without the willingness to take a few steps backward and get the lay of the land, we are doomed to remain stationary in our dead end. Sometimes going back even just a few weeks worth of practice can help you better understand the root of some of the problems you’re experiencing today. Once you’ve backtracked, you can pick a point in the past and diverge into another branch of your pursuit. Going back does not equal failure. Sometimes going backwards is literally progress in that it is getting you closer to your next big jump in skill. Wrapping my head around that one has been hard, but I fully believe it, now.
Admitting that you’re going backwards might not be pretty to other people. Hell, it might not be photographable or shareable at all. There are so many things that I have worked on (calligraphically) over the last five years that I’ve said: This is really cool, and super valuable to people who are wrestling with this, but I just don’t know how to share this as a photograph. and thus—I don’t. I’ll just deal with this little episode of struggle privately and then start sharing again when I’m back on track with what other people will be impressed by.
That’s the nature of our community being tied so intricately into the world of image-based social media, and it’s a huge reason that I’ve worked so hard to develop myself as a writer and compose compelling captions to accompany my content over the years. There’s an untapped reservoir of value in the triggering of emotions with our calligraphy artwork, and so much of that gets lost in a simple 4:5 picture on a tiny screen scrolling past at 3 pictures a second.
So what do we do?
I don’t have an answer for this. I think my solution is to spend less time creating artwork meant to be consumed in less than 60 seconds. I want to surround myself with students, friends, and teachers that can inspire me and feed the connection deficit that has been created over the last two years. I think writing journal entries like this is a good start, too. I hope it will resonate with at least a couple of you who are going through the same thing.
Most importantly, having a space where I can talk in-depth about my artwork or the processes within it will be the way to whatever maximum potential that I have within me. Making artwork without worrying about the photographs, the way the color’s play on the grid, or the time of day to share to get the most amount of little pink hearts.
I wrote a haiku for a student some time ago who has been dealing with a bit of dejection and self worth struggle on her progress towards competency in Engrosser’s Script. When everyone else seems to learn so fast or be so talented, we must to remember that calligraphy is a discipline as much as an art.
The process is clear, and the way forward, illuminated.