On Being A Team Player (Preliminary warning: It's Not All About You)

Having talked in previous blogs about my place in the chronological and physical pecking order (being the 'little squirt') of my family, I now take you back to a point in my life, at the tender age of four and a half, when my sister was chief supervisor of myself and my friend Shelby, (or so we'll refer to her for the time being).

Shelby and I were learning how to make pictures of butterflies using chalk, crayons & purple dye. You know the ones - you draw in the outline of your picture with chalk, colour it in with crayon and when you tip dye over the lot, the wax stays while the chalk sucks up the dye, leaving you with a beautiful, if not soggy picture of thick dye outlines and brightly colour crayon patterns. All was going well until Shelby and I finished our respective artworks and on so doing, I took the moment to proclaim out loud that my picture was the better of the two.

Now, had it been just Shelby and I at the table, this may have gone on unnoticed, or at the very least, confronted with a look of disdain or envy from my dear friend before moving on to the next rudimentary activity. Unfortunately for me, my comment was picked up by my sister (who was at the time and still remains 10 years my senior). She took it on good authority to induce a public shaming, by which she rebuked my artistic critique, and then demanded that I take back my initial feedback in favour of something far more cowardly and fluffy around the edges.

From that day on, there was a shift. I continued to smile politely, and nod in agreement with people who told me that art wasn't about perfection, that beauty was in the eye of the beholder.

But on the inside, I was seething.

The truth was that deep down I really did think my work was the best. My lines were more defined, my composition better planned, my colour choices better distinguishable and crayon work more rigorous in contrast with the cheap craft dye that my sister had bought for us from the toy shop up the road. My comment didn't need scoffing at because one could see the evidence as soon as they held the two pictures up against each other. Mine ruled and hers was subordinate.

After that pivotal, scalding rebuke of my intuition and authenticity as an artist, something in me changed.

I realised that if I wanted something done, I couldn't rely on the judgement or motivations of those around me to help me do it, or even to be advisers to my cause for greatness.

As far as I was concerned, I was making my own way, on my terms, and I knew far better than anyone else how to get to where it was I was going, and without the unsolicited feedback thank you very much.


It's not really surprising that as I approached my teenage years and continued into adult life, I recognised (thanks to a few faithful and honest friends and my own human conditioned limits) a person who on the surface seemed to have it all together, but scratch beneath that and you quickly found someone fighting with themselves, a severely unhinged control freak and self-proclaimed life-is-tough-look-at-me advocate of the highest order.

I loved doing things the hard way. Rather than seek help, it was constantly my mission to prove to everyone I thought might be watching, that I was the winner, that I could do better, run further and play harder than the next person. Being a lover of skateboarding, punk rock music and circle pits this played out on numerous occasions, but usually ended in me getting to school on a given Monday with bloodied palms and a story to tell about how I'd kicked some poor boy over in a mosh pit.

Despite having a lot of fun on many occasions at music festivals and in extracurricular ventures, I was desperately insecure and unhappy. Constantly bent on proving to others (and myself) that I was just as good as those I was measuring myself against and never able to relax or let my guard down around people who might actually like me for me. I came out of school wanting to test myself, oddly wanting to help other people on their personal journeys (despite my own personal messes) and wanting to do something really good for humanity, but still being depressingly stuck in the same cycle of thinking about myself as good or bad, on top or at the bottom, and missing out on a lot of opportunities to grow and develop my skills as an artist and as a person because the underside of wanting to be the best all the time, is that when situations rule someone else that prime position you can begin to feel like a big fat loser.

Unsurprisingly, this same attitude has filtered through my creative practice as well as most other parts of my life. This binary struggle between having it all or believing I was nothing. But fortunately for me, my art has allowed me to explore and challenge a lot of the beliefs I acquired in my younger years. I'm not saying I don't still have insecurities, or those bad days where I feel both guilty and/or lesser than the people around me, but over the years I've become a lot more tuned to my own thoughts and feelings when they come up, and I'm working on developing my internal bullshit detector on a daily basis, both when it comes to my own mind and the motives of others.

 I wish I could say I learnt my lesson from observing my own mistakes and learning from them when it came to putting myself on a pedestal, or allowing myself to think of my compatriots as lesser than myself so I could feel better, but honestly it's taken me almost my whole life (30 now, for those who haven't yet read my other entries) and I'm still learning. I've had periods battling heavy depression because I felt so terrible about how critically I viewed friends of mine who have been there for me through the years, but I know the reason I did so was because this narrative I chose to hold onto read that it was either them or me, that we couldn't all be winners. Brain waves are hard to retrain, and it seems that for every thought I have that I recognise from how I used to view myself, I'm now having to arrest and redirect in order to create a new reality (thanks Norman Doidge).

As an adult it has taken me moving to another country on my own, while sustaining my creative practice and then only just getting by, barely affording food, resigning from my first stable job since my arrival at the end of my first year and consequently landing myself in hospital for surgeries which were in direct correlation to stress, circumstances which ultimately forced me to be kinder to myself and (in my thought-life as well as on a surface level) realise the way I was living wasn't doing me or anyone else any favours.

Attempting to dismantle the world view I picked up as a kid, which informed so many of the big mistakes and saddest times of my life as an adult, has been one of the hardest things I have ever done and continue to do. It has only been by letting others into my creative world, not being afraid to share ideas or projects with other artists and putting my judgemental attitude aside, that I've felt safe and deserving enough to offer my skills and strengths to others and their respective projects, and be in a position to accept the same help in a way which is neither self-thwarting or domineering. I've since found an abundance of freedom in my own work and in playing a relatively small part in a larger whole.  

This, in my experience is the best place to create from, and its a place I'm trying to cultivate in my life with the people I surround myself with... Baby steps, with the support of others just like me who are neither losers nor invincible perfectionists, who all have their 'off' days, and their standout moments, but who above all come through when it counts. Needless to say life's a lot easier when it's not all about you (or me for that matter).


#youngestchild #artistlife #teamwork #ellenspictures #centrifugal #centripetal #arttherapy #floatingwhims #elizabethgilbert