I choose to create art because art communicates beyond words and across borders. We don’t have to understand Dutch to feel the tender love of Van Gogh, even though he died more than a century ago. Likewise, we also don’t have to speak Chinese to feel the tranquility rendered by a Song-dynasty painter a millennia ago.
Art is as universal as human emotions: love, grief, peace, shame, holy, and mundane. Art came into our existence before our written history. In fact, Chinese written language can be directly traced to the cavemen drawing, thus unlocks the door to understand the early human consciousness. Art and languages root from one common desire of communication.
For me, art is to serve life, not other way around. Sometimes I choose to slow down or pause art making: when I get thrown off-course, when my full-time job demands more of my energy or when my creative intentions are stained by grasping. I give myself this grace of space because I don’t want to walk down on a dark path of self-destruction. Art, for me, is a path of joy, hope and sanity. Without the nagging mandates of “must”, my life is lighter, and my art is more meaningful.
This attitude doesn’t mean that I’m uncommitted to art. On the contrary, a rare day passes without practicing art. When I root my art in (almost) daily rituals—starting and ending my day in my studio—I don’t need to decide if or when to create art. I just do it. If I haven’t been in my studio for a few days, I feel that physical itch like a runner would when missing her regular runs. There are physical withdrawal symptoms: irritable, restless, or dull.
When I travel, I always carry some Crayola pens and a glue stick. In times of creative emergency, I can always tear up pictures from magazines and make a collage. The point is simple: art making depends on actions, not external conditions.
In my studio, I don’t create “Art.” I doodle, and I learn. Pablo Picasso famously said: “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” Good artists (and lasting ones) always keep a sense of wonder and playfulness like a child.
Creating “Art” is an unbearable burden that can suck the joy out of the process. Fear and self-doubt have crashed many artists because they feel compelled to create great art so they can’t bear to create anything less than perfect. When I tell myself I am just doodling, there are no fixed expectations, no deadlines and no right or wrong. There are also no one else to please except me, which is the whole point of holding a full-time job!
Art is an active discovery of our inner and material worlds. So-called mistakes often teach us more than “correct” execution in “expected” result. Once, I was experimenting with printing my very first stencil, which was cut out from a sheet protector. I smear some plaster on top of a wood panel, and then press the stencil sheet on plaster to make an imprint. Plaster stuck on the stencil sheet and didn’t give me result I was aiming for. Instead, the wood panel was left with the plaster looking like waves. Ah-ha, I learned to mode waves by this unexpected result.
My lack of formal art education turns out to be my best advantage in art making, allowing room for playfulness and unexpectedness. Zen master Shunryu Suzuki once said: “In the beginner’s mind, there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.” The beginner mind is to be maintained years after years, no matter how long you have been practicing your craft: meditation, chanting, writing, or art making.
Often relaxed in the beginner mind, I just cut, paint, and paste. My hands, arms and the whole body become one with the process. The recursive chatters in my mind stop; only physical action remains. I often realize it only when cleaning my brushes. Looking back – I was in a flow state, except “I” was not even present to approve or to criticize.
Hash critics still speak once a while, but at least I know they are nothing but internalized voices. When we hear these voices, we don’t suppress or argue with them because attentions only strengthen their energy. Instead, we make tea and offer cookie to them and ourselves. When tea time is over, we head back to our studio. Our critic guests, mostly likely, have left quietly during the tea time. Yes, this process requires trust, and it develops through our repeated actions like muscle memory.
Natalie Goldberg, an American writer, says writers live their lives twice. Artists also live their lives twice. We live our lives like everyone else the first time around, often harrying through the days semiconsciously. But when we create art, we awake to our own lives. We slow down and experience our lives with more curiosity and intensity. We digest our life experience using paint brushes and palate knives. We discover our hidden narratives and have power to edit them during art making. Shedding layers of self-protection, we discover our tender, warm hearts. Art creates a safe space to explore our feelings.
If you ask what motivates me create art, my short answer is that art awakens me. By having a love affair with art, I am able to love my life for all its texture, colors, and patterns. And so, I keep doodling.