Life As Art – Failing to Succeed

Japanese bridge

Failure is not an option for me.

I hate to fail. At anything. Anytime.

I blame it on my massively type A personality. Or my ENTJ Myers-Briggs type, affectionately known as “The Field Marshal”, the Bringer of Order to chaos, the need to control everything and everyone.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that I’m good at everything I try. Far from it. Like singing, for example.

I’m a terrible singer. Like Cameron Diaz in “My Best Friend’s Wedding” terrible.

But I’ve seen enough American Idol auditions to know that you’re either born with singing ability or not. I, simply, was not, and I’m fine with that. I accept the fact that I lost the genetic lottery on that one.

What burns me is failing at skills you can actually learn.

For instance, watercolor.

Flashback to 9th grade art class and I’m sitting in front of a painting that looks equal parts mud and ugly, streaks of uneven color staining the paper like an unintended Rorschach test.

Watercolor is everything I’m not. It’s wild where I’m controlled. It’s ethereal where I’m heavy-handed. It blends and bleeds where I’m all about boundaries. And despite being an art snob, I simply could not master the frustratingly, deceptively simple-looking techniques.

Amazing what a few strokes of watercolor can produce

Amazing what a few strokes of watercolor can produce

I was happy when we moved on to wire sculptures and I started bending metal to my will, forming an anatomically correct spine for my sleeping baby fawn.

So when I heard of an art class put on by UK artist Bridget March, I decided to exorcise my watercolor demons.

In our first lesson, she proclaimed…

“I don’t teach drawing. I teach a way of seeing things.”
Bridget went into the psychological processes involved in learning how to see, switching from the “unruly, arrogant” left brain to the “wide-eyed hippie child” right brain. While I was reproducing an upside down picture of a man in a chair, Bridget talked about freeing the mind to experience the world, being ready to ask a question without already knowing what the answer would be.
Bridget March - phan thiet 1
I had met Bridget a couple of months earlier, interviewing this eclectic woman who lived on a houseboat in the UK and left a career in product design to pursue a career in art. Three years ago, while she was lecturing at Leeds College of Art, she returned to her art school training and started doing more drawing. She resolved to work the craft market / country fair circuit, once a month setting up her vintage travel-themed stall selling her prints and magnets, in the rain, in the snow.
“I sold a lot of work but I couldn’t make the transition of giving up the day job and hoping to make ends meet. You have to pack up the car, set up a stall, and whatever. So you lose a day each time you go to market. But then at that point, you become a creative laborer.”
Bridget March - jack fruit lady crop
Deciding to pursue her dream of devoting all her time to producing artwork, she landed in Vietnam where living expenses are much lower.
“I love urban landscapes, especially old architectural elements. The next thing I’m going to do is spend more time in Cholon (Saigon’s Chinatown). I’m seeking out Old Saigon. There are so many buildings that are unnoticed. They’re not pagodas, but it’s that lovely feeling of colonial architecture. It takes you back to the merchants who built their properties; from one window he could see the port and from the other window, he could see the market. He could literally see his entire empire operating. A lot of the streets here used to be canals. Even now, you can see the old merchant houses between the big hotels. You can feel the history.”
Cho Lon small
Listening to Bridget talk, I could suddenly imagine myself eschewing my trusty Canon for a watercolor palette. Sitting on the Spanish Steps in Rome or in a frilly cafe on Paris’ Rive Gauche, a trendy scarf wrapped around my neck (because even in my wildest dream sequences, my rational self still knows I could never pull off a beret), sketching and painting away while taking notes in my worn leather journal in artsy handwriting that would magically replace my own utilitarian chicken scratch.
Bridget March - Moleskin

This was the beginning of a new me.

For my first watercolor class, I came fully equipped after an expensive visit to the local art store. I had a brand new watercolor kit, two pads of cold pressed paper, fancy pencils, markers and extra tubes of watercolor. I was like those people you see on the bunny slopes, decked out in the latest ultra-thin, super breathable GORE-TEX ski suit with embeddable heating elements, all the while struggling to go 5 feet without falling.

Watercolor Class - Palette
After my first few attempts at watercolor, though, it turns out that I probably should’ve sprung for the watercolor kit that comes with an included whiskey flask.
They "say" it's for water, but I think I'll fill it with something a wee bit stronger, thankyouverymuch

They “say” it’s for water, but I think I’ll fill it with something a wee bit stronger, thankyouverymuch

Bridget starts her classes with a little bit of art theory. We set to mixing colors and learning the secret behind painting doors and windows, trees and sky. We were assigned homework from the drawing class blog which we had to show everyone the following week and be critiqued.
Watercolor Class - Theory
For my “Doors and Windows” homework, Bridget said, “I think you’ve done a nice job with the window.”
Translation: You stink.

Translation: You stink.

For my “Sky” homework, Bridget cheerily declared, “What an ambitious use of color!”
Translation: You stink.

Translation: You stink.

Methinks Bridget has an endless supply of euphemisms for “You stink”.

But I needed to hear it. I needed to know that it’s okay not to be the best at everything.

My self-confidence is still intact, though. I interviewed for a position as a guidebook writer earlier this week and I’m sure I’ll be stunned if I don’t make it to the next round of selections.

Bridget March - postcard for Hoi An_0001

In my mind, I’m already packing my bags to uncover the stories behind distant ruins or wading through wet markets and popping into trendy restaurants.

Bridget March - urban sketching 06

Because the lesson isn’t that I failed to succeed. It’s that I must fail in order to succeed.

Who knows how many unmastered skills will litter the wayside on my way to finding a new, perhaps totally unexpected one that I’m really good at? One that enriches my life. That teaches me to see through new eyes to better appreciate what I have, the world around me.

Bridget March - postcard for Hoi An Yellow Flowers

The key is to keep trying. Being willing to take on scary new things (like the thought of spending the next eight months traveling the length and breadth of this country) even if they don’t always work out.

Yes, watercolor is still my nemesis – my wild, unruly, “let the colors bleed” enemy. But it is also my teacher. And I will not fail you.

For my full article on Bridget, please click the image below.

A Brush with Vietnam - Oi April 2013

If you haven’t guessed, I’m a huge Bridget March fan and she has graciously allowed me to sprinkle her artwork throughout my site, lending it a bit of much needed class.

All illustrations are courtesy of Bridget’s site. Like her on Facebook for all the latest on her drawing classes and stay tuned for her upcoming book, “A Week in Hoi An”.

And if you’re fortunate enough to be in Saigon tomorrow, Bridget is selling some of her work for the first time in Vietnam at The Art Market at VinGallery. I already have a few pieces picked out.

What about you? What skill do you wish you had that drives you crazy?

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9 thoughts on “Life As Art – Failing to Succeed

  1. Fay

    Wish you success with your interview, guidebook writer. Think that’s where the skill is right now.., the writing,,,,,,

    1. James Post author

      Thanks, Heather! As a joke, in the class right before Bridget’s art show, I told the other students: Hey guys! We should set up a booth right next to Bridget’s and call it “Bridget’s Students” and sell some of our work! You should have seen the withering look on Bridget’s face. Art class? $25 a session. Withering look? PRICELESS.


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