Monday, May 17, 2010

The Illusion of Permission

I never earned a degree in photography, but I call myself a photographer.

No one ever taught me how to write creatively, but I call myself a writer in creative non-fiction.

There's an illusion of permission, particularly in the arts, that you really should have the right kind of credential or background before you call yourself anything, before you utter the word "artist" or "poet" as a descriptor.

Of course credentials are helpful. There's no dispute that a formal program or academic certificate offers professional development and advancement. But what I'm referring to is the community level, grassroots, center-of-the body need to create and express ourselves. And the unfortunate tendency is to self-dismiss our drive because we are not really "authorized" to do so. In other words, we - those without permission - dare not dip our toes into the creative process or artistic world. We let it slip away.

Who has the license to create? Who gives YOU permission to move, bend, and contort paper, pen, ideas, words, clay, textile, paint, beads, voice into something that expresses a peace/piece inside you?

Today I was talking to someone about photography and she asked me how I got into photography, if I had ever taken a class. I'd never taken a photography or lighting course. I never joined a club. Hell, I didn't even own a camera until I took my first job after graduate school.

But, photography always moved me. The color. The symphony. The patience of waiting for the right moment. I always felt that photography was about observation and timing. And as the youngest of four children, my whole life was spent observing the world around me. There were three eyes on by body, I often thought. The two on my face and the one in my brain, clicking a camera to capture a moment. The way Andrew smiled at me right before I received my first kiss. The shadowed foot steps of my family when we walked the beach in 1992. The electric blue bubble letters on a sign that read "Vote for Lisa" when I ran for class president in 4th grade. My father's hands as he drummed the steering wheel to old classic music in our Ram van.

The lesson plans of the camera are formidable and can be frustrating. There's a slight math and science to the camera; a sophisticated vocabulary that must be decoded before one can smoothly operate the camera as a tool. But I stuck with it. It started as fascination, then grew to a hobby, then flourished into a passion. And then I committed to it. I dedicated myself to learning it, with my love for photography tucked under my elbow. That's when I knew I was a photographer. I not only loved doing it. I committed myself to it.

It's very similar to romantic relationships. The real-ness of the relationship, what legitimizes it, what affirms the relationship to be authentic and solid and heavy does not come from those outside looking in. It comes from the commitment of the people to one another, to the relationship.

You must commit to the process, to the art as action. You must commit yourself.

Photography, as an art, takes practice. It takes vision.

I told my friend to stop waiting for someone to give her permission. "If you keep waiting for someone to tell you that it's ok to try something, you'll never start. And the only person waiting and sitting in disappointment is yourself. There's no permission needed. Just start creating."

I thought about that for a few hours afterward.

I thought about how long I waited to try. I waited for someone to tell me that I had an eye for photography. That day never came. It's no wonder either. The "you have a good eye" compliment never came because I wasn't DOING anything and therefore had nothing to show; nothing for anyone to reflect upon, critique, or admire. When you wait for permission, you wait in stillness.

Why did I wait for permission? Why do we figure we need to earn something EXTRA before we allow ourselves to draw or sketch or, dammit, even just TRY something creative. To raise our fingers to an unfamiliar block of clay, an untouched canvas, or a blank page takes a steel rod of bravery.

We are moving into an age where the single nomad, crushing himself into a starving corner is no longer the picture of an artist or master creator. Today, artists are single mothers with two jobs
and a bus pass. Photographers can be world travelers or lifetime small town dwellers. The elitism is bleeding out. Art is everyday. Artists should be as common as a worn kitchen table.

We may grow old. We may lose that fresh inspiration that wakes us up in the middle of the night. But the goal of creative work is not to be legendary or even remembered. The goal is to be free.

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