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Get Messy Podcast

016 Don’t Compromise with Barbara J Graham

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Today I chatted with the incredible Barbara J Graham. She is the guest artist for Get Messy’s Season of Less. We spoke a lot about how she creates, how she puts her emotions into her paintings, and how she is able to express the intangible in something tangible. Barbara has a beautiful story about how she came to art and how art was there all along. How art kept knocking at the door no matter how many times she tried to ignore it. 

I think that you’ll find that the summary is this episode’s title: don’t compromise. Don’t compromise on your art. Tell the stories of your soul, tell your life, tell your life through moments and moments with art and just show up to the page. Even if you think that it’s not your time, I mean, Barbara was 37 when she went to art school, and that is incredible. That’s an incredible story of resilience and strength and courage. Her art is beautiful and expressive and if Barbara can can do it, you can too. I hope that’s what you take from this episode.

Barbara J Graham

Barbara is a full time abstract expressionist painter with a BFA(Hons) from Wimbledon College of Art. Graham draws inspiration from the philosopher Ekart Tolle who believes that life’s meaning is to be found in the joy of the present moment. Graham’s paintings are a collection of marks brought together like notes in a piece of music, each mark stands alone for an individual moment, yet they all work together in a harmonious whole to capture a moment and feeling in time.

Podcast Show Notes

In this episode, we discuss

  • Barbara’s ridiculously inspiring creative story and going to art school at 37
  • the common theme in Barbara’s creative life of not compromising
  • how Barbara is able to express the intangible as something tangible
  • resourcefulness and restraint in art
  • the myth of “good” art and “bad” art
  • making really bad art on purpose

Links mentioned

THE VIDEO VERSION OF THIS PODCAST IS AVAILABLE INSIDE OF Get Messy’s library

Grab some supplies and create while you listen to Caylee and Barbara. 

episode Transcript

Caylee:
Barbara is the guest artist for Get Messy season of layers. We spoke a lot about how she creates, how she puts all of her emotions into her paintings and is able to express the intangible in something tangible. We spoke about her story, she has a beautiful story about how she came to art and how art was there all along and it kept knocking at her door and no matter how many times she tried to ignore it, she could not. I think that you’ll find that the summary is don’t compromise, don’t compromise on your art. 

Tell the stories of your soul, tell your laugh, tell your laugh through moments and moments with art and just show up to the page and even if you think that it’s not your time, I mean, Barbara was 37 when she went to art school, that is incredible. That’s an incredible story of resilience and strength and courage and you should see her work. I’m going to add them in the show notes, of course, and I’m going to add all of her links so that you get to see her art. It is beautiful and expressive and, man, if Barbara can do it, you can too. I hope that’s what you take from it.

Barbara is a full time abstract expressionist painter with a BFA honors from Wimbledon College of Art. She draws inspiration from the philosopher Eckhart Tolle, who we speak about in this episode, and Mr. Tolle believes that last meaning is to be found in the joy of the present moment. Barbara’s paintings are a collection of marks brought together like notes in a piece of music.

Each mark stands alone for an individual moment, yet they all work together in a harmonious whole to capture a moment and a feeling in time. I hope you take these moments from this podcast and I hope you turn them into art because that is what these words are here for. You listen to Barbara, she is very wise, you listen to my absolute all of her and I’m absolutely in awe of her work and of the work that she gets other artists to do too.

If you’ve heard of Get Messy, you will know the power of her workshop. She takes three colors, and she creates wild color palettes with them. She’s very good at limiting her supplies and the input into her art and turning it into something so beautiful. I’m very excited for you to listen to this. I’m going to stop talking so you can listen to Barbara’s words instead.

Welcome to the Get Messy Podcast. I am going to jump right in be right up front and tell you that I totally forgot to hit record. Barbara is in and she basically just gave away the secrets to the universe.

Barbara:
They will forever remain a mystery.

Caylee:
Forever. Welcome to the podcast Barbara.

Barbara:
Thank you.

Caylee:
I’m really glad you’re here. I’m really excited to unpack your knowledge and your crazy wisdom and talk about what being an artist is and being a real artist because like we were saying before I view you as a “real artist” but I know-

Barbara:
Like what makes a real artist?

Caylee:
Exactly, let’s talk about it. To start, can you share who you are? Why you’re an artist?

Barbara:
Okay, so I’m Barbara J Graham,

I am an artist because I literally can’t be anything else.

I went through life making lots of compromises and trying to please other people and so I was 37 before I made the decision to actually go to Art College. It was literally a kind of do or die decision, I just thought if I don’t go now at the age of 37, then I will get to the end of my life having never tried to be a real artist, a “proper artist”. I just got to the point where I had to do it. I had to be it. I had to give it my everything. It wasn’t enough just to do it as an evening course or a weekend course or a hobby on the side. I had to literally dive in with both feet, as it were.

Caylee:
Yeah, I love that. I was going to ask you why, for you what was the decision then to go to art school? I think you already touched on it with you having to give it all of you. Can we talk more about that?

Barbara:
Yeah, so throughout my 20s and 30s, I had a career in television. When I was a kid I was always very creative. I wanted to be on the stage. I wanted to make films, and I also wanted to draw and paint. But I was raised with a very conservative upbringing that said no, you need to think about how much money you’re making so therefore, you need to go into accounting or banking or law or something like that.

In my 20s, the first kind of career that eventually made sense to me then was working in film and television, which sort of felt like an appropriate compromise between the two, I was being creative, but I had a viable career as it were. Although many people in television would say that television is not a viable career anymore.

But because I was freelance and working contracts, I was basically able to chunk out my time and so I would do a chunk of television and then I would do an art course. I was doing all the part time courses at St. Martin’s, all the evening courses, all the weekend courses, all the holiday courses, and just getting as much as I possibly could, and then I’d go back to television and the painting would stop and I’d be like, I just want to go and paint.

The draw of wanting to go and create stuff with my hands and smoosh paint around was just irresistible. At the age of 37, I’d just come out of a long relationship. It was meant to end in marriage and children but didn’t and I kind of just did a complete review of my life and just thought now is the time to throw everything up in the air and take a chance and go and study art full time. Because of my television career, I was able to go, well, just go and do the foundation. Then I can still work during the Easter holidays and the Christmas holidays and I’ll just see how I get on with doing the foundation, it’s just nine months.

Then of course, the purpose of a foundation is to apply for Art College. While I was there, I was like well, I’ll apply for art college I’ll go through the motions and if I get in, but I probably won’t get into anywhere good. If I get into somewhere good then I’ll think about it. I got accepted to Wimbledon, which is part of the London School of Art, which incorporates St Martin’s and Chelsea but specifically does painting. I was like, okay, so I must be okay.

I went to Wimbledon, I thought I’ll just do the first year, I can always back out and see how it goes. Three years later, I found myself finishing my degree and doing my degree show and just on a path that was taking me somewhere completely different and television was now… Basically managed to pay for my student fees because I had to pay top whack like 9000 pounds a year, but I managed to pay for it by doing television editing during the summer and the Christmas holidays, so I was very lucky to be able to create that situation for myself.

Caylee:
I mean you say lucky. I just say that’s a lot of hard work.

Barbara:
Yes.

But luck is created by hard work, isn’t it?

Caylee:
Yeah.

Barbara:
I think there are a lot of people out there that work very hard, but don’t necessarily have the good fortune to be able to engineer a situation like that. Not to sort of do down on anyone that’s thinking, well, I’m working hard and I don’t find myself in that situation. 

Caylee:
That’s very true. Yeah, that’s very true. I think I’m hearing from your story is that there was a lot of, it’s kind of I could use your destiny, and you kept trying to compromise your destiny. You kept trying to say, okay, we’ll just do this. We’ll just do like a little bit.

Barbara:
Yeah.

Caylee:
Art was just like, Barbara I’m here, let’s do this. Let’s do it.

Barbara:
Yes.

Caylee:
I love the idea that she’s just like constantly knocking on your door, you’re like, okay, a little, I’ll open a little bit. 

Barbara:
Yeah, well it’s like these motivational quotes about follow your dreams, follow your heart, listen to your soul and all of that kind of thing.

Art for me was literally yelling in my ear for 20 years before I finally stopped and listen to it properly. Sometimes it takes a while for us to catch up, but it’s like, but thank you for sticking with it because here I am at last.

Caylee:
Yeah, and  it’s just like pouring out of you now in your work and stuff and it’s so clear that, I don’t know, I feel like your work is very fluid and it’s emotive. You do abstract painting, is that correct? What mediums do you work with?

Barbara:
Literally everything I can lay my hands on, so I would love to get stuck back into my oils but the problem is the chemicals that they give off in my studios in my home and I’ve got my six-year-old daughter there, so I don’t want to fill my home with toxic fumes. Yes, so other than that I’ve got, because if you’ve watched my tutorial video that I did, I said in that when I was doing my art degree, I literally had everything, all the materials and I still have all of those materials.

I am still now working with the materials that I accumulated while I was doing my art degree. I’ve got lots of acrylic paints; I’ve got… I’m just looking around my studio at the moment. I’ve got inks, watercolors, the washes, I’ve got oil pastels, I’ve got Neocolor water pastels, I’ve got pastel paint markers, I’ve got felt tips, I’ve got… Yesterday I started working with willow charcoal again for the first time in seven years, and I’m falling in love with it all over again. I live in a sweet shop, which is fabulous.

I think what really unlocked things for me was when I sat, because I was pregnant when I graduated and so my daughter was born three months after I graduated from art college, and so suddenly art had to stop again because there was this other thing that I had to concentrate on. I didn’t really start painting full time again until my daughter started school when she was nearly five years old, so there was this five year break. Yes, and I literally sat down with my materials and I was like, I do not need to go out and buy any more materials. I clearly have plenty so my objective now is just to explore what I can create within the confines of being at home on the kitchen table at that point because I was in a different house, with materials that I have to hand.

What really sort of started to fire something completely new to me was just going, “what does this paint do when I squirt out?” What’s the texture of it? Is it shiny? Is it gloopy? Is it matte? Is it glossy? If I mix it with another color, what kind of patterns can I create? What kind of effects can I create? That for me is what sort of just started me on this journey into abstraction.

My abstract paintings literally started as color experiments, color tests, and just trying to test out the capacities of the materials that I had around me.

It’s never like where think, I’d like to create that but I need to go and buy myself that piece, that medium or that brush before I do it. I’m always looking at what have I got around me, and what can I create with it. That also applies to what mood am I in today and what can I do with that, and that’s where the emotive side of it comes from, what am I feeling today? What have I got in my hand? How can those two relate to each other? How can I make pink… it’s a rainy Saturday. When you start thinking like that, you just go, okay.

Caylee:
Yeah, you’ve got a YouTube video, correct? That talks through your emotive process so I’ll link that in the show notes. You do it the opposite way that most people do it. Most people look at art and like I want to make art I need to buy XYZ and they just go to Amazon and they buy a whole bunch of things. Wait till it shows up and then it sits at the back of the cupboard.

Do you ever feel like you want to buy new things or is your approach always from a place-

Barbara:
All the time, of course. Absolutely. My goodness, yesterday I was just thinking if someone gave me 1000 pounds, what would I spend it on? I just, immediately I just had this list of paint that I was like, I would spend 1000 pounds really quickly in my head right now, just like that. It was literally five things that I would buy and it would come 1000 pounds. It’s very easy to do.

Caylee:
Okay, so what are your tips then for coming at it from a place of curiosity of your current supplies then?

Barbara:
Yeah, I mean I heard you sort of talk about this in another podcast about trying to rein yourself in on your supplies and actually I think be kind to yourself. I think there’s nothing wrong with going out and buying all of those supplies that you love if you’ve got the money and you can afford to do it and it’s not becoming an addictive problem that’s compromising other parts of your life, go and buy the stuff, surround yourself with the stuff.

It’s great it feels wonderful to be surrounded by all of these tools that you can do it. Don’t be harsh on yourself for going, I spent all this money. It’s like go ahead if you can do it, fine. But in the tutorial where I talk about materials, I talk about the time where yes, in the third year of my degree, I did accumulate a lot of stuff and I got to the point where I was frozen because I no longer had the excuse not to make incredible art.

Sometimes we can use buying materials as a substitute for creating.

We kind of think, I want to feel like an artist, but I can’t be bothered to actually create anything, so if I go and buy some stuff, I will still have that feeling of I’m an artist without actually making any art.

Caylee:
Amen.

Barbara:
I mean, I’ve done it as well, certainly in my TV career time, I would buy all the art magazines and I would read all the art magazines and I’d feel that, that was kind of my substitute for actually being an artist myself and I’d build up all these magazines, and I’d never read them.

If you want to be creative, get yourself a twig from the garden and a cup of coffee, black coffee and see what you can create with that.

I think we can easily sort of look at someone’s art that we like, and then we go, I want to be able to create like that artist, so what brushes are they using, what paper are they using, what paint are they using, and then you go out and buy all of the materials that you see them using. I’m thinking that, that will help you create exactly what you’ve seen them create. But of course, that’s simply never going to be the case, because you are not them you need to create your own stuff

If you find yourself sort of saying I won’t be able to create something unless I have that brush and that paper and that paint, then you’re making excuses for not making art.

Caylee:
Absolutely.

Barbara:
This is why I’m talking about definitely use what you have, experiment what you have. For me a lot of creativity got unleashed when I developed my three colors system that is part of the tutorials this month. Once I started really enjoying, stretching the possibilities of what three colors could do, that fired up a lot of creativity in me and that’s why I started really digging down into what was within me. 

Having lots of materials around you isn’t necessarily going to inhibit you. But buying more materials as an excuse, as a substitute for being creative is dangerous territory, is going to stop you.

Caylee:
Absolutely, I mean it makes you feel really good when you do that, and it’s almost the same feeling that you get when you make an art, but it’s hollow, right?

Barbara:
Yeah.

Caylee:
It’s like, if you’re hungry and you eat a chocolate.

Barbara:
Or like we go and buy ourselves a really fancy expensive outfit when we know that we’ve got no occasion to wear it. It’s like you look amazing in it in the shop and you just think, I’m going to go to some wonderful event wearing this incredible outfit but you never go to those kind of events anyways, just it’s all in your head.

Caylee:
Yeah, so it’s like artist is the event so let’s not get all the stuff all around it and just go to the event.

Barbara:
Yeah.

Barbara’s 5 year break in art

Caylee:
Tell me more about your art break. I’m very interested in it. I had a very tough time coming back to art after I had my son. You were talking about five years before you went back to art, what did art look like for you in those five years?

Barbara:
I’m a single mom and being a parent is hard. Being a single parent is really hard and I was also trying to sort of think practically and had a business selling jewelry for a while to bring in some extra money. That was all encompassing, that just filled my time. When I knew my daughter was about to start school, I literally sat down with a life coach and said, “I’m miserable unless I’m making art, but I need to make money.”

I was looking at this sort of looming date of September, do I carry on with my jewelry business or do I take another risk? She helped me make the decision that the risk was going to be worth it so I gave up my jewelry business and sat down and put all of that energy that I’ve been putting into trying to make money to survive, into just going, let’s do this, let’s make art and hope that the money somehow sorts itself out.

Caylee:
That’s an amazing story of courage and taking the leap.

Barbara:
Yeah.

Caylee:
All of your story is just taking the leap and going to art school so late in life, that’s difficult. It’s a lot more difficult. It’s difficult for a 20-year-old, let alone… I’m very impressed by you.

Barbara:
You know what, life’s short; you’ve got to take those leaps. My decision to go to art college, one of the things I was in this beautiful house in Richmond and the rent was like 2000 pounds a month or something and I was just like, “Why?” I was like, okay, so I need to work in order to pay the rent so therefore, I can’t go to Art College.

I was like, why do I need to pay so much rent? I was like, well, I’ve got all this stuff, where do I keep all my stuff. This goes back to collecting stuff. I had this kind of epiphany I was like, well, if I don’t have all this stuff, I won’t need to pay all the rent so then I can rent somewhere much smaller and cheaper, like a room in someone’s house then I’ll be able to afford to go to art college.

I literally did a yard sale where I invited all my neighbors to come and buy everything in my house and what I didn’t manage to sell to them, I then chucked in the back of a van and took it to a car boot sale and was mobbed. By the end of the car boot sale, I was literally giving everything away for free because I was like, I don’t want to have to take it to the charity shop. It was amazing what people didn’t take even though it was free.

Yes, I literally had downsized, I’d found a room where I was going to move to and I had to measure the wardrobe, it was probably about 50 centimeters wide, and I measured it and I was like, right, I could only have the amount of clothes that I can fit into that space and so everything else had to go. I really had to pair my life back in order to create this opportunity for myself, in order to create the space in my life to be able to go and do what I really wanted to do.

Yeah, in some regards, that discipline has stayed with me, I’m no longer sentimental about anything because I know that actually having too much stuff can stand in the way of you moving forward in the direction that you want to be moving to. While I don’t think there’s anything wrong with having lots of stuff, it becomes a problem when it stands in the way of you moving in the direction that you are meant to be moving.

Caylee:
That’s quotable, that really was. I love that I found so many cords between your story and your art. I feel like you’re very resourceful and you’re very good at giving yourself restraints, kind of like looking, this is everything I’ve got, if I move the pieces, this is what I could have and what I could have is my desires, my heart and so you move that way, which is also courage.

Barbara:
Thanks.

Barbara sees her art as a collection of moments

Caylee:
Let’s talk more about your art. I’m definitely going to leave all the links in the show notes, but maybe you can describe the type of art that you make.

Barbara:
It’s a collection of moments. While I wasn’t making art, I was spending a lot of time… In that period between graduating from university and my daughter starting school, it was incredibly difficult and so I was doing lots of mindfulness practice, meditation and listening to Eckhart Tolle. I don’t know if you’re familiar with Eckhart Tolle, who wrote this book, The Power of Now, and that really resonated with me because there’s this, the notion is, is that you only have this precise minute right now that you’re listening to this podcast, this is reality.

It can literally be boiled down into a fraction of a second, followed by another fraction of a second, followed by another fraction of a second and your happiness in life is determined by your ability to find happiness in this fraction of a second moment that you literally can carry in the palm of your hand.

That really resonated with me and so when I started painting and exploring, I realized that mark making is a collection of those little moments in time and you can make an angry mark, you can make a peaceful mark, you can make a luscious mark, you can make a sexy mark and a painting is basically a collection of all of these fractions of time, preserved together in a compositional whole and it’s a moment in time, it’s a collection of moments in time. Now, those paintings can be done in a short space of time themselves, it can be done in 10 minutes, five minutes, or they can take weeks or even months to evolve over time.

But that’s what it is that I like to drill down to. I like the idea of paintings being able to be a diary of a feeling or a collection of feelings and it’s not necessarily that, this is a sad painting and this is a happy painting, but it’s more complicated than that, because we can go from being sad one moment to happy the next depending on what the circumstances are, and that can all be collected in the same work.

In many ways the paintings are kind of self portraits of a flux of emotions that are experienced through the duration of time whilst making that work, all brought together in something that is compositionally satisfying.

It’s not just all randomly splayed together, there is then a moment where I will look at the work and go, does it feel balanced? Does it feel harmonious, does it work together? Does it feel cohesive? How do you then bring all of those emotions into something that feels unified? That’s when I know that I’m sort of at my end result.

Caylee:
That’s incredible. I feel like that was a very difficult question because your art is abstract, but that was beautiful to listen to and that was very insightful.

Barbara:
Thank you.

The inner critic – why are you a dick to yourself?

Caylee:
Tell me more about your editing brain. You were speaking about creating with your emotions, and with moments in bringing everything into the moment and then afterwards looking at it and seeing does it flow, does a good look good compositionally? How are you able to do the latter without being a dick to yourself and saying, well, why did you do that? That was stupid. Is it a conscious effort?

Barbara:
Creating harmony is definitely a conscious effort. What’s interesting is you phrasing it in a negative way. I would never look at anything I’ve made and go, God, you’re so rubbish. Why did you make a mark like that? Equally, I would never look at anybody else’s work and say that this… There are no mistakes. I’m just trying to, because you really …  just sort of, how do you not be a dick to yourself? My question is why would you be? How can you be a dick to yourself?

Are you talking about some sort of self flagellation, where you just go, I’m not an artist because I’ve made such awful work. Are you saying that you have that kind of thought process or?

Caylee:
I think you are just obviously way elevated because a lot of people struggle with the inner critic, and the idea of objectively asking yourself questions about your art like, is this compositionally pleasing? Does this follow design principles? That seems to cross a line where you can easily dismiss yourself because of the inner critic.

Barbara:
Okay, I think I’m with you now. 

Bad art is a myth

I think there is a misconception that there is some sort of universally held standard of what makes good art, and what is not good art. That is a myth.

Some people and I see some sort of, I’m a member of lots of artistic online forums, and some people think of it as will this sell, if someone’s willing to buy my art, if I can sell my art, then that’s the kind of stamp of approval of I am now therefore, an artist and I’m a good artist because someone else likes it enough to buy it.

The truth is, people will buy awful art and brilliant art if it speaks to them, the standard is irrelevant. What I say is get rid of this idea that there is some universal standard of something that’s good or bad.

I do see people that in certain online forums, and they’ll post the painting that they’ve just made and their question will be, is it any good? It’s just like, well, do you think it’s any good because you’re the only person that it should matter to.

What I love about the Get Messy community, and I think it’s completely unique to the Get Messy community and I absolutely celebrate it, is that first foremost, your artists, the artists in Get Messy community are making art for themselves, because you’re making it in an art journal, it’s deeply personal and it’s for your pleasure, your enjoyment and your satisfaction.

Of course, it’s great to take a photo of it and post it in the forums and on the website, and get other people to say, it looks amazing. But first and foremost, you make it for yourself and that’s the most important person that you should be making your work for, it’s not about trying to make it for some abstract standard of what makes good work and what makes bad work. That is a myth; forget about it, it doesn’t exist.

Making bad art on purpose

In fact, if it’s something that really bothers you, I challenge you to just spend a week making really awful ugly art, make terrible art, make work that’s worse than a five-year-old, make work that you hate. Get all of that out of your system and you’ll suddenly discover that this like, I was making something that I thought I would hate but actually that’s… You really surprise yourself with something that you really like. It’s just that the art is about experimentation and exploration and if you’re always going to be saying, but is it any good, will my critics like it? Is it good enough to buy? You’re never going to make stuff that’s really true to your soul.

Yeah, I make loads of really awful stuff and it goes in a little pile in the corner. If I’m feeling sort of I need some inspiration, is the awful stuff that comes out and I might start working on it again, or cutting it up. But I will never say making awful art means that I’m somehow therefore unworthy of making art. If I’m editing my paintings and I’ve made lots of marks on it, I’m going to look at a mark and go, that doesn’t work with the other marks or it’s not very satisfying or it’s sort of a bit tentative sort of be covering it up and replacing it with a mark that I think is better or better suited.

Well, sometimes in the composition that mark that fell a bit actually is crucial to the overall composition and it’s the thing that makes the whole thing work but you never know until you’re looking in the overall composition. Honestly, with your Get Messians who are sort of making work from their soul, if they’re going to make work and then they’re going to look at it and criticize themselves as you say, it’s you’re being a dick to yourself, and why would you want to do that, don’t be a dick to yourself, be nice to yourself, because it’s you.

There are plenty of other people out there that can be a dick to you, but you don’t need to be a dick to yourself.

Caylee:
I love that you give this… so much in there to unpack… but I love that you’ve given both, like if anyone is struggling with this, they really just need to go back a few minutes and just play that on repeat and play your words on repeat, and repeat until they get it through their head. But you’ve also given really practical advice which is very helpful and I think spending time actively, purposefully trying to make bad art is a brilliant idea and I’ve done it in the past because you too, your, I don’t know, your subconscious or whatever,

your subconscious artist is very sneaky because she’ll put in some beautiful things when you are purposely trying not to make beautiful things.

Barbara:
Absolutely. Like I said, before my abstract paintings came out of simply me picking up a tube of paint and experimenting with it. I wasn’t even trying to make art. I was just trying to see what I could do with the materials and then out of that evolved an art practice that’s completely different from what I did at university. Believe me, I’ve gone through this whole trajectory at university at art college, I was obsessed with being able to paint the perfect ear, the perfect hand, the perfect face and doing figurative work, much to the detriment of me being able to explore the material itself, but I had to get it out of my system.

I felt I couldn’t call myself an artist until I could paint the perfect portrait and so I did that, I got that out of my system and that’s away and done. Yes, now it’s, yeah. Once I dropped that side of myself and my art tutors were constantly saying, been the whole obsession with trying to make perfect observational art. It’s been done, it’s dull, it’s boring, it’s not you. Sure enough, once I sat down and started really experimenting and not trying to make art at all, that’s when I started on this trajectory of making abstract art that I feel is worthy of my soul.

Caylee:
Worthy of your soul. That’s amazing. Yeah, it definitely comes down to that.

That’s why making bad art works – you release those expectations of yourself. You just accept that you don’t have control. It’s not like step one, step two that you follow, and then you’re an artist or, and then you’re making beautiful art. It’s you kind of have to give up a lot.

I think this is something that I struggle with a lot so that’s why maybe I’m honing in on it, but I struggle to let go of control. I was talking to Connie Solera about that and she was saying, but then you can also lean into that.

Like you were saying, with you wanting to do all the perfect things, you did it and then you’re like, okay, and then you move past it, and you’re like a kid, that isn’t my path, but now I’ve done it and it’s fun. It’s that whole idea instead of hiding your weaknesses you just amplify your strengths and I mean I think one of your big strengths is your stick to itness like you go for it and no matter how many times things are telling you don’t do that or even if you yourself are pushing it to the side you still get there in the end. Make bad art.

Barbara:
Yeah, make bad art. Equally, it’s like, if you feel that you need to be able to draw the perfect ear, then yeah. Then lean into that and draw the perfect ear and do it and then draw 100 more ears and draw 1000 more ears. Then when you’re bored of drawing ears, draw one more ear and that will suddenly be representative of something that’s coming from within you, is more representative of what is the kind of art that you are supposed to create.

 Caylee:

It’s kind of like doing what you think you are supposed to and getting that out of your system so that you can do what you’re really supposed to.

Barbara:
Absolutely, that’s it.

Advice to someone wanting to go to art school, but feeling like it’s too late

Caylee:
If there’s someone who’s like you, maybe they are exactly 37 and they want to go to art school. What advice would you give them? What advice would you give yourself looking back at where you were at mid thirties?

Barbara:
Art school for me at the age of 37 looked like an insummountable challenge, but I broke it down into manageable chunks and this applies to any life goal. You want to buy a house, you want to run a marathon, all of that. You don’t run a marathon by getting up one morning, eating a burger, strapping on a number and then go, right, so 24 miles, here we go. You break it down into the chunks and you go, right, well, tomorrow I’m going to walk 100 meters and the next day it’s going to be 200 meters and the same with anything. With art college, it was that I broke it down into chunks, so I was like, okay, I’ll do the foundation and that’s three terms and in between I’ll be working to earn money to help me pay for living and paying for the school fees and art college.

I didn’t go to art college the three-year full time degree thinking I was going to do three years full time. I just thought I’m going to do the first year and see how I go. Literally, and then it was like by the second year I’m still going and I thought, okay, well, I’ll do the second year and see how I go. By the time I sort of did the third year, I literally, I was just like, I can’t believe I’m here. I can’t believe I’ve actually made it. But I never set out thinking, that’s it, that’s the next four years stretching ahead of me doing Art College and making very little money and my goodness, how am I going to survive? I literally just did it step by step.

Caylee:
I think the most difficult thing with all things is just the getting started and starting that momentum because once you’ve got the momentum, you can keep going and it’s a bit easier to keep going then it’s then to start.

Barbara

Yeah, but you’ll only start, if the first step is doable in your head.

If you’re listening to this and you’re going, I’m 37 and I’d like to go to art college, but I’ve got three kids to look after and I work full time and you can think of all the reasons why art college is impossible. Then break it down into a smaller chunk. It’s like, well can I do the application process?

Can I at least go to the open days and go and walk around the art colleges and see what they are like and meet people and talk to other people and find out how they did it. Just do the small chunks without dismissing the whole idea, because you never know, you might find a way through it. If I hadn’t gone when I’d gone and all the other parts of my life had continued as it was … I was pregnant by the time I graduated, going to art college now seems would be even more impossible.

In fact, the timing in terms of my life trajectory was perfect. I literally went the last possible minute, I think for my life, otherwise I would have been wasting another 20 years. It’s like, now I want to do an MA and I’m trying to work out, how am I going to do an MA and how am I going to fit that into my life? Yes, it’s like if the thought is there, don’t dismiss it out of hand, just take it one little step at a time and see where it takes you.

Caylee:
I think that the thing is if you just see all your problems that you’ve got and all the reasons why you can’t, I think people could take advice from you and just look at them objectively, like get them in a little block and say, okay, I’ve got 12 children at home, what time do I have to fit art in? Instead of trying to model your life or make your life revolve around the art, just see how art can fit into your current life or how you can shuffle things, sell things at the boot sale.

Barbara:
Yeah, and it might be something radical, like downsizing your home and getting rid of half your stuff, or it might be something completely different, I don’t know.

You’ll be surprised by what you can make possible to do.

Caylee:
Yeah, I think hindsight is 2020 so I like the fact that you look back now and you’re like it was actually the right time. Whereas back then, you’re like, how is this possible? How am I going to do this? Many of our moments in life are like that, where it’s just, you take imperfect action and you just get started and you realize it was actually perfect all along.

Barbara:
Yeah, just get started because even if you… What’s that? Even if you don’t manage to achieve going to Art College or whatever it is, you’ll achieve something. It’s like, if you want to lose weight and you’re set out to lose 10 pounds, but you lose five, you’ve still succeeded in doing something.

More than zero is enough

Caylee:
That’s my favorite thing – more than zero is enough. Instead of beating yourself up, like if you start the 100-day project and you only do two days, that’s two days, that’s more than zero.

Barbara:
Yes.

Caylee:
That’s great.

Barbara:
I’m so guilty of that. I’ve done the 100-day project two years now. The first time I lost at 30 days. The second time, I didn’t even last 20, but you know what? I enjoyed the process and that’s fine.

Caylee:
I love hearing about 100 day failures. It’s my favorite because I mean I make art every day, but I cannot do 100 days. I’ve tried like four years, not for me. I’ll try again next year.

Barbara:
Yeah, and it’s just, I enjoy it because it makes me think of something that I haven’t tried. Yeah, because the whole point of the 100-day project is going, right, what are you not doing at the moment that you could be doing or would like to be doing? Your brain is thinking about that and you come up with something and you start doing it and you investigate it for a bit and then you either get bored of it or life gets in the way or something else.

But you’ve still created 15 days of something or 30 days of something. I mean, you and I are talking because of my 100 days project last year. Yeah, I started in a sketchbook prior to the 100-day project last year; I didn’t work in a sketchbook. That’s kind of my art journal and I was making time lapse videos of me doing it and so those started uploading onto YouTube. If I hadn’t started that little project, even though ostensibly, it was a failure because I only got to 30 days, you and I wouldn’t be talking now.

Caylee:
Yeah, good things happen.

Well, I’m really glad that we met and I’m really glad that I got to talk to you today and very glad that I got you to share on Get Messy because man, your workshop was incredible. The art that Get Messians are making from it, such a gift, such a gift to be able to take your emotions and turn it into something outside of you and into art. Thank you.

Barbara:
Thank you. I’m learning so much from seeing the work that the Get Messians make because it’s just so fascinating to me to sort of have this kind of very narrow principle and see how it gets expanded upon and explored and text added and all this other patterns and materials being used. It’s such a revelation to me. Thank you for the opportunity and thank you to all the Get Messians who have taken part and uploaded all their work and tagged me on Instagram so that I can see it. Because I love seeing each and every one of them. It’s absolutely fantastic.

Caylee:
Yeah, Get Messians are great.

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Your podcast host, Caylee Grey

I'm Caylee Grey. Creator of Get Messy, official fairy freaking artmother and your pro excuse-squashing ninja.

In the Get Messy podcast I’ll be chatting to a selection of amazing, real-life humans just like you are who are dealing with the very same barriers … but overcoming them to create their art.

Together, we’ll explore what it REALLY means to be an artist. Practically. Warts and all. So that you can be an artist, today, now, even if you work a day job, have a million and one commitments and own a cat that likes sitting on your art.

No more excuses. Okay? Okay.