Your first assignment, he told me, is to draw different parts of a beetle five ways, and each drawing should fit the page horizontally or vertically. These were instructions from Ben, an artist I had met on a recent online date and instantly decided we must be friends. A trade had been arranged: drawing technique lessons for help with public art submissions.
This beetle, in the span of five hours had become my savior. I found him under a stool next to my door, and he was perfectly preserved and almost prehistoric in nature. By the time he became my subject, the bottom segments of his legs had been inadvertently ripped off so he sat slightly lopsided and very low to the ground. Yet somehow, in his imperfection, he exuded a grounded self-assuredness that was calm and regal – an insect version of Nefertiti.
Just a few hours prior, I finally broke down on my couch, after weeks of holding it together. I was recently jobless, I had a terrible cold, and my life was once again feeling directionless. I felt paralyzed by my inability to make a decision about my career, or more appropriately, my nonexistent career that I no longer cared to pretend existed. My professional life spanned floral design, paralegal, yoga teacher, lawyer, consultant, copywriter and then it hit a patch of resistance that we’ll call cancer for the moment. Cancer was three years ago, almost to the day. But cancer would unfold into something else that was far greater than I could have ever expected.
Cancer fueled artist, which fueled memoirist. Which fueled a reflection of life and death, and darkness and the light of which we are in constant pursuit. And then I entered into the dangerous territory which I shall call artist creep. Artist creep was fully solidified three months ago when I was on a trip meeting with my book designer Emily in Los Angeles. I had been quietly working away most nights and weekends for almost a year on an illustrated memoir when it began to develop a life of its own. This story in words and pictures had passed through its infancy and adolescence and was maturing into a finished creation when I realized that I couldn’t pretend that I didn’t want to be an artist any longer.
As I stood over Emily’s printed out pages, her little daughter Willow came into to see what we were doing. Willow pointed to her favorite drawing and Emily said, this is Nicole, she’s an artist. The pride / conflict / fear / elation I felt in that moment is something that I don’t think I will ever forget. It marked a point of surrender, of acceptance that I had to pursue being a professional artist. It was a crushing realization that I had spent so much of my adult life evading the creative dragon that persistently nipped at the heels of various professional achievements.
There are many of us floating around Brooklyn who have attempted to be responsible adults well into our thirties and realized we have been fighting against the grain to the point of exhaustion. And sometimes against the grain is the conventional understanding of going with the grain. We are on the cusp of Generation X and Generation Y and don’t have the role models that younger millenials will have for a nonlinear life. We are generalists who have dabbled in a little bit of everything always hoping to find that perfect chemical reaction of intellect and interest that will transport us into suddenly feeling like a grown up.
When the magic alchemy doesn’t show its face, we self-perceive as failures. Alain de Botton touches on this idea of crushing failure that is endemic in highly meritocratic societies. He describes the modern day proxy for social value as professional identity. Maybe that’s why I’ve always hated the “what do you do” question endemic to New York City. What I did never described me, and I was constantly evading the inner creative that had longingly gazed at the ceramic studio after poli sci classes at UC Berkeley. I didn’t deserve to succeed, and I didn’t deserve to fail either, because I’d never given myself the chance to be professionally content.
This beautifully imperfect beetle revealed itself as the complexity of identity. We are the sum of parts, and professional identity is rarely as perfectly packaged as we are conditioned to believe. The idea of one career path is a dangerous illusion, and it is one that I am still grappling with. Can I be an artist and a writer and a member of a technology product team? Do these cancel each other out?
Drawing my beetle five ways, I focused on a leg, and how its delicate spines collected light. I noticed the subtle ridges in the hard plates of its thorax and the beautiful symmetry of four spots on either sides of its body. For every wave of hyperventilation inducing anxiety was an anchoring of calm. Finally, I stumbled onto something that truly mattered to me. Sketching my beetle, I was slowly reclaiming my 20-year-old self. Instead of Wheeler Hall, I’m choosing the messy, muddy ceramics studio, 15 years later.