Painting With Gratitude

Elmwood DowntownFor me, meaningless platitudes occupy a weird space in which I have both used them to look cool and disregarded them, also to look cool. I have “C’est la Vie” tattooed on my ribs, and if you don’t think that looks cool, I’ll invite you to step outside and throw down some fisticuffs. But I also roll my eyes every time I hear someone mindlessly say, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” as if that is somehow devoid of meaning and is therefore less valid. That’s the thing about platitudes—they are simultaneously rooted in truth and are trite clichés that could drive a person mad (I mean, did you see me almost lose my cool back there!?)

Why am I even talking about platitudes? Well, there’s one in particular that I’ve been trying to keep infused in my life: “Have an attitude of gratitude.” The following is going to be a bit of navel-gazing with some thoughts that have been relevant to me lately, so bear with me. I hope you can at least relate in some respect.

I recently started watching a young, British chap named Alec Steele on his YouTube channel. He’s a blacksmith, and his videos cover the projects he’s working on or general points of interest around his shop. Now, I know very little about forging. I’ve never been all that interested in it, but his enthusiasm and curiosity for his craft are completely captivating. Forging is incredibly physical, hard work, but in Alec’s hands, it looks like play in the purest sense of the word. After watching half a dozen of his videos, I actually said to myself, “Man, I wish I could just play around like that,” as if my chosen career couldn’t afford such an opportunity. In a split second, I had a very pointed feeling of embarrassment. I had somehow forgotten the credo—you know, the one about attitude and gratitude… something like that.

So what does it mean to have an attitude of gratitude? Well, exactly that; to count your blessings, to be grateful for what you have—not just what you have, but what you have the opportunity to have. While I take pride in calling myself a painter, I acknowledge how incredibly fortunate I am to do so. None of us is born in a vacuum, and we, therefore, owe a great deal to anyone who has had a hand in our ascension to functioning, human people. Why stop there? We ought not to forget the litany of people who have influenced us artistically, cognitively, spiritually, and so on. You get the idea.

Okay. That’s all great, but what function does that serve? Is it a quid pro quo—I offer up my gratitude to the universe, and in return, I receive existential bliss? Not exactly. For me, it’s more about a state of being. It’s a way of looking at the world—brace yourself for another annoying idiom—through rose-colored glasses. That isn’t to say that you shouldn’t acknowledge that life can be pretty terrible. It obviously can. But we’re left with a choice of how we deal with that information. So far, my life has taken a circuitous route with some high highs and some low lows, and there are definitely times when I question how I even got here. Speaking in terms of my profession, I know that it was always a sense of curiosity and gratitude, i.e. “how cool is it that I get to do this?” It’s a notion that I forget from time to time, and I need an excitable, British fellow on YouTube to remind me.

Having this demeanor sets the stage. It’s fertile ground for learning and creative exploration. Mark Twain famously said, “To succeed in life, you need two things: ignorance and confidence,” and I agree. I’ve seen that play out in my own life. But I would say that isn’t the whole story. Having passionate gratitude and curiosity is what keeps you going artistically when you don’t really have any other reason to. The Japanese call this concept Ikigai, meaning “a reason for being.” I like to think of it as “the reason to get out of bed in the morning.” It’s so easy to get bogged down by the tedium of the day to day. I sometimes feel the pressure to paint because of an upcoming show. At times, my inventory is running low, and I feel like I need to be in the studio rather than wanting to be there. What an opportunity to practice gratitude! We should all be so lucky to have such a problem. “Oh, woe is me! People like my work,” is not a good look on anyone, and it is almost certainly indicative of a person on the path to burnout. Instead, I hope to ask, “What do I get to create today?” or “What cool things can I learn?” When I step up to my easel, I want to feel what it was like to be 12 years old and on fire for the world! Of course it isn’t realistic to expect this nerdy passion at all times, but if we aren’t at least trying, what’s the point? If I find myself struggling to get motivated, I start a gratitude list. Being cognizant of or meditating on the things in my life that I am thankful for takes my ego out of the equation and will keep me humble. Humility leads to curiosity and growth, which lead to better work. Better work keeps me interested and motivated and so on. That’s some fortune cookie wisdom, for sure! That doesn’t make it any less consequential.

When combining a passion like painting with a livelihood made by selling those paintings, the distinctions become blurred. I find it important to constantly reestablish the boundaries between the two but also incorporate this sense of ikigai into both. The experience will be much richer for having done so. While—fingers crossed—my career is far from over, I hope a sense of gratitude will keep me at my easel chomping at the bit to keep learning and to do the best work I can.

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