In Defense of Making a Mess

I made a big mess of my desk this weekend playing with pastels.  Pastels are wonderful because they’re so damn forgiving while being incredibly imprecise.  If you make a mistake, just go over it with a different color, or smudge it into something else.  I think, against all reason, this is what a pathological perfectionist like me needs from a medium.  Bob Ross would say that art is about happy little accidents, and if you draw or paint or happen to be the kind of traumatized that makes you watch a lot of Bob Ross to calm the howling animals in your brain, you know what he’s talking about.

I can’t draw

There are people who can grab a scrap of paper and a pen and dash off a clean five-minute sketch that will blow your mind.  I am not one of those people, but I grew up surrounded by those people.  My living room walls are covered with my mom’s art, screenprints of giant pies over hallucinogenic patterns, photocopied pages from zines she pasted together in the 80s, shreds of tissue paper painted with contorted human figures, dark collages of book pages, cut-out letters, and splattered acrylic that cracks and flakes onto the carpet with each passing year.  My stepdad is a sculptor and potter and painter; I grew up with paintings of his that were bigger than me, canvases eight feet to a side that I imagined could crush me if they ever toppled off the wall.  My father was in a rock band when I was a kid, and his grim, restless devotion to staking out time for his art regardless of the consequences made a deep impression on me.  So I grew up saying, “Oh no, I can’t draw.”

Then I met a few more people, and realized that there’s a level of “can’t draw” that should shut me up saying that forever.  I realized that what I call “can’t draw” is actually “a pretty enviable natural talent with no practice.”  I realized that the reason the people around me were good was because they spent every free moment they could spare working on what they made, screwing up, making messes and figuring out how to salvage the work from the mess.  This is… hard for a perfectionist to hear, and it’s harder when you’re a child.

There’s something inside you that deserves to take up space out here

I’m not going to say that artists don’t make good parents, because I think that’s unfair and untrue, but I do think that artists have to work consciously to be good parents, especially around the subject of art, because artists are by definition egotistical.  We have to be.  The very idea that a stranger should give a shit what you think, what you see – to assert that as hard and continuously as you must, to declare that your vision is worth the time and money you’ll put in and the time and money you’re asking from your audience in return, you have to believe it yourself.  You have to be able to fall back on the private certainty that even when you make mistakes in getting it out, there’s still something inside you that deserves to take up space out here.  You have to be certain that what you’re doing matters, and that even if it only matters to you, that’s enough.

That is not what I was taught, unfortunately.  I was taught to be seen and not heard, taught that even when asked to participate, I was to be as unobtrusive as possible, while displaying lavish gratitude for being allowed to remain in the room.  To quote David Sedaris, a writer of funny essays about his abusive family that my family bonded over in between abusing one another: “My parents did not live in a child’s house, we lived in theirs.  Our artwork did not hang on the refrigerator, or anywhere near it, because our parents recognized it for what it was – crap.”

Don’t drag a bunch of shit out

I was about five when I saw my parents reading and drawing and talking in the living room, and I wanted to sit with them and draw too.  Not to interrupt, I knew better, I would just listen, just be part of the happy artist family creating side-by-side.  I brought out my markers and my notebook to draw in, only to be told, “Don’t go dragging a lot of shit out here.”  It became a favorite line.  Whenever I was caught exiting my room with more than one object in my hands, I heard, “Don’t drag a bunch of shit out here.”  The message was clear: our art is real and deserves to take up space, deserves to make a mess, deserves to inconvenience others.  Your art is shit and we had better not see it in the public areas.  I’m trying to remember the houses I grew up in, whether you would have known my parents had a kid if you’d just walked in the front door and looked around, and I don’t think so.  There was no evidence for my existence outside of my room, and that was called “keeping the house clean.”

Do you understand, child?  You are a mess.  Your art is a mess.  It is never acceptable to make a mess, even just for the duration of an art session, even if you intend to clean it up.  Don’t drag a bunch of shit out here.  This space belongs to our art, which is real, and our mess, which is necessary.

You know what?

Fuck that.

I’m here to make a mess.

I’m here to make a big mess, the kind you’ll spend centuries cleaning up.  I’m here to make mistakes, the kind that’ll scar me for life.  I’m here to make art, and it’s going to be bloody, and it’s going to stain, and I’m not here to apologize.  I’m not the kind who can throw out a clean ballpoint caricature that you could sell for twenty dollars, and the guy who can do that couldn’t do it ten years ago either – ten years ago he was swearing because the side of his hand was stained blue from all the time he spent scribbling.  Ten years ago he filled a trashcan with a whole ream of paper and didn’t draw a single thing worth saving.  He made such a huge mess, for so fucking long, that he took down whole forests with his mistakes.  And now he’s at Comic Con or his publisher’s office, staring at the clean, polished prints of his work, and he doesn’t recognize them… because all he can remember is the mess he made.  The mess that somehow brought him here.

This is my desk while I was working with the pastels this weekend.  Normally I do my drawing over on the couch by the window, because the light’s good and it’s an excuse to get out of my chair and keep my ass from putting down roots in the cushion.  But I was mixing media here, trying to find a good way to lay linework over pastels (charcoal pencil, turns out!), and I needed the hard surface, so I sat at my desk.

2019-05-18 12.48.20

For the first twenty minutes or so I fretted, in the back of my mind, about the pastel dust I was repeatedly blowing off the page onto the desk.  I saw the colored fingerprints I left on my keyboard and mouse while I worked, and I cringed.  I imagined my wife coming into the room, imagined her scolding me for the mess.  She’s never done that, not once… but I can imagine her doing it in vivid detail.  I’m an artist.  My brain is excellent at inventing villains who tell me to give up.

But there were moments – these pure, arresting moments – when it wasn’t simply that I was no longer bothered by the mess, no longer worried about cleaning it up… no, I felt its necessity, its essential role in the process.  My first finger is black with pastel residue, so that when I brush away dust from my page, it leaves dark streaks there.  A mistake.  Then comes in another finger, this one golden from smudging another part of the picture, and it softens the dark streaks, gives them depth and dimension, and suddenly there’s something there that wasn’t there before.  A ghost in the paint.  A happy little accident.

I try to enhance it, not by selecting another pastel but by dragging my fingers over the desk, picking up undifferentiated dust and debris and probably some skin cells and then going after the paper like a toddler, all ten fingers clawing and stroking and shoving the color where I want it to go.  I feel like a caveman – thoughtless, seeing only the lights in my head, I seize the most colorful thing in my vicinity and crush it in my fist, watch its neon-bright blood pour between my fingers, slap my palm on the wall to make it splatter.  Nothing but this.  No money, no fame, no love, no possible future could be brighter than this, could be more important than making this mess and immersing myself in it.  Even the art that results – you know as well as I do that it’ll be a fragile, tenebrous shadow of the thrashing, violently colorful vision in my head.

how can I get that perfect blue out of your eyes

No one will ever see what I really wanted them to see, and that’s part of the misery of being an artist – that we must always be cursed to know how far what we made is from what we imagined.  But… in a way, this is also the only reason to make art.  Not the followers, not the mails, not the likes, not the reposts, not even the finished product, because the finished product doesn’t capture that vision, can’t ever quite satiate that need to get it out.  It’s the feeling of sinking my fingers into clay, into paint, into earth.  It’s the scrawling, feathery symbols I draw when I spill the pencil box.  It’s that moment when I’m so immersed in my work that when someone comes along and says, “Hey, you’re making a pretty big mess there, are you gonna clean that up when you’re done?” I stare at them in feral silence, thinking, “How can I get that perfect blue out of your eyes and onto this paper?”  Maybe they can see it in my face.  Maybe that’s why they fuck off so fast.

Getting your hands dirty is the only thing that matters.  The doing, not what you’ve got when you’re done, however much or little it is.  The villain in your head starts to rant, shouts, “You’re making a mess, and for what?  You made a mistake – now it’s ruined.  You made something imperfect – so you’re worthless.  You took too long, and you wasted our time.”  And what I’m trying to say is this:

The mess deserves to be here.  It lives here.  It works here.

The doubt does not.

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