When I was a child, I loved arts and crafts. There were no My Little Ponies or Pound Puppies on my Christmas list, only dreams of new markers, oil pastels, and embroidery floss. In the summertime, you could find me and a buddy set up at a curbside card table attempting to sell our creations. We would hawk our wares proudly, yelling at every car that passed, “Magnets, cards, friendship bracelets… 25 cents!”
But by the time I got to high school, this passion for the arts was lost. I distinctly remember registering for sophomore year courses. While I hadn’t put a paintbrush to paper in years, I felt a small ember of creativity hoping to spark. I wanted to take a “Basic Art” class to earn my fine arts credit, but my well-groomed perfectionism quickly squelched this desire. Art was so subjective, so open-ended, so unstructured. Art excited and intrigued me, but I did not feel that I had any innate talent. “What if I got a B?” While I didn’t think that I would fail the course, I was concerned that I could not be perfect in such a nebulous craft. An opportunity for play and whimsy and self-expression certainly wasn’t worth busting my G.P.A. Unfortunately I had become a grade-obsessed achiever, afraid to experiment or seek genuine learning.
Twenty years later, I am taking art lessons from my 7-year old son. This past winter, we took a parent-child pottery class together at a studio near our house. At our first class, the instructor set us each in front of a wheel and handed us a giant blob of sticky clay. At 38 years old, this was the very first time I had ever tried my hand at throwing a pot. The teacher offered a few pointers on technique and pointed to the on switch. As the wheel began to rotate, my brain immediately began to spin into perfectionism mode. My shoulders tensed as I muscled the gray glob spinning out of control. How was I supposed to curve my palm again? Where was my thumb supposed to be? I looked to the instructor with wide eyes and panic. “Am I doing this right?” I desperately tried to get ahead of the chaotically spinning mound, hoping that a semblance of a cylindrical pot might emerge.
And then I glanced over at my son, who was also taking his first ball of clay for a spin. While I felt stressed about my fated failure, he smiled and focused intently on the whirling ooze in front of him. His little hands were not nearly strong enough to guide the thick clay into a symmetrical shape, but his earnest eye and enthusiastic sculpting never faltered. There was no frustration, no frantic searches for assistance, and no concern for following the rules. I switched off my runaway art and just stared in wonder at the pure delight on my son’s face. His clay mound had transformed into a lovely lumpy volcano. With the confidence of a master sculptor, he dipped his hands in the bucket of water and smoothed and swiped and slid his fingers in circles. “This is true art,” I thought. This is what it means to have a creative soul. It’s taking risks, silencing self-criticism, and savoring the process.
A few weeks ago, my son came into my bedroom holding a stack of blank paper and the plastic dollar store pen holder that he bought me for Christmas. He carefully fanned out the paper on my nightstand and filled the carousel holder with brightly colored pens. “What are you doing, buddy?” I asked. “I’m setting this up for you, Mom, so you can do your writing.” I have struggled the past several years to find the time and energy for creative expression. My perfectionist self had decided that there was no way I could craft anything worthy in the small, fragmented time frames that I had to write. And yet here stood my wise little artist encouraging me to let go of inhibitions and seek creativity. “Thank you, sweet boy. I think I’ve found my muse.”