Pigment (Watercolor) with Alexis Joseph – color stories & creative fellowship
I interview a local paint maker, Alexis Joseph, who runs a shop called Case For Making in San Francisco. While I focus on a particular material for each episode, our conversations often lead me to address a range of topics; for instance, this episode explores the historical significance of pure pigments, the power of fellowship in creative communities and the challenge of the inner critic when it comes to forming a creative practice.
Listen to Associate Producer Liz de Lise’s song inspired by last ep’s interview with Deborah Czerescko on glass:
Alexis: Understanding your paint as a material is kind of getting to the core of the fact that your pigment particles are really like grains of sand at the beach.
So on a micro scale, it’s sort of like when you’re in the, in an airplane and flying over, um, wetlands and you see kind of all these little river rivers and rivulets and markings that the water makes on the land, that’s sort of what’s happening, you’re painting with watercolor. Um, so it’s kind of like this understanding of what the materials do naturally and why, can kind of help us to understand how to then paint with it.
My name is Alexis Joseph, and I started Case For Making, a small art supply store on the outer sunset about six years ago. And about four years ago when we started making our own watercolors.
SETTING THE SCENE
Case for Making is a store in San Francisco, in the Sunset district, that sells handmade watercolors, paper goods and other delicious arty items. Alexis Joseph and her team of paint makers have co-created over 200 colors over the past four years, landing on a consistent palette of about 72 hues.
Walking into Case for Making feels like walking into a candy store, but also a chapel. Jars of pure pigment line the walls, elegant blues and purples, vibrant pinks, luscious reds. I’m drawn to them all with the excitement of a child in the penny candy aisle of a general store; but I also find myself walking softly and reverently towards the jars, like a painter getting ready to pray.
Welcome to Material Feels, where we talk to creative people about the materials they have fallen in love with. Each episode focuses on a particular material and maker; our guests are small business owners, working artists and educators. So far we’ve covered clay, wool, wood, liquor, the body, sound, fire-spinning, time, paper and glass. I’m your host, Catherine Monahon. Each show is accompanied by an original piece of music created by Associate Producer Liz de Lise; we’ll be playing the song inspired by last month’s episode on glass, with Deborah Czeresko, at the end.
Material Feels is sponsored by Brown Sugar Botanicals. Brown Sugar Botanicals is Oakland’s black, queer and trans founded CBD company, proudly crafting herbal CBD infused products grown by resilient communities. Brown Sugar Botanicals will be reopening their online shop on June 1st, 2021. For our loyal customers who have shopped with us in 2020, look out for an email about a special update soon! Brown Sugar Botanicals thanks you greatly for your patience and unwavering support. Don’t forget to follow us on Instagram @brownsugarbotanicals!
I started this show because I believe that creativity is a human right, and I think the arts should be accessible and inviting to as many people as possible. I believe our relationship to the material world is a sacred one, an intimate, evolving relationship that can teach us about who we are at present, where we’ve been and where we might go.
Today we are exploring pigment in the context of watercolor. I have been fascinated with watercolor since I was about fifteen. Watercolor is an accessible medium because it is portable, easy to clean up, and you don’t need many supplies or much space to start creating.
I have a little pouch of art supplies I carry with me most places: a pocket-sized sketchbook, a travel watercolor palette, and my favorite tool, a water brush, which is a brush that has a plastic, squeezable, hollow barrel you can fill with water. These three items allow me to paint anywhere… while I’m waiting for a friend to meet me, on the train back when I used to commute, at parties or bars when I got tired of talking. Anywhere when I feel the urge to paint.
Watercolor is also a great medium for beginners in art. When you dip your paintbrush in the color and you make your mark on paper, it can feel like magic. And if you’re open to exploring, making a mess and trying something new, that magic can be intoxicating.
Before we talk too much about painting, though, what is pigment, how does it turn into watercolor, and how did Alexis fall in love with this material?
Alexis: So I stumbled upon some pure pigment in Germany actually. And, um, just became fascinated with it. And that began me on this kind of quest to understand the pigment as it relates to color as a material. From the earliest times, I mean, humans were gathering and using, um, earth pigments, so that’s, uh, any sort of ochre or umber and those were just, uh, available, um, in certain deposits all over the world. Um, so the colors that you, the color ranges that you can see, there are a lot of reds, a lot of oranges, yellows Browns. it’s more like specific deposits or like limestone deposits that have been kind of like leached over time with different minerals and chemicals that are in the soil. So it’s sort of like limestone is like a calcium carbonate, right. From little invertebrates that were in the bottom of the ocean. Um, that then kind of become steeped with iron that’s kind of leeching through the ground that then colors it and like these kind of rich reds, yellows, oranges, sometimes like more purple-y browns. Um, so then when you crush that down, like pigment has to be insoluble, so it doesn’t dissolve in water. Um, so it has to, a lot of earth or soil is, has a lot of, um, biological elements in it, like broken down leaves and things like that, which all over time are water-soluble. One of the base understandings of really understanding your paint as a material is kind of getting to the core of the fact that your pigment particles are really like grains of sand at the beach.
Like there that just microscope, it was just like so much smaller. Um, and that when you’re painting with it, the water that you introduced is sort of pushing those little particles around. So on a micro scale, it’s sort of like when you’re in the, in an airplane and flying over, um, wetlands and you see kind of all these little river rivers and rivulets and markings that the water makes on the land, that’s sort of what’s happening, you’re painting with watercolor. Um, so it’s kind of like this understanding of what the materials do naturally and why, can kind of help us to understand how to then paint with it.
Watercolor involves three components: a pigment that creates the color, a binder that makes the particles of that pigment stick together, and the water you eventually add to move it across the paper.
Pigments can come from a range of materials, and each color has a rich history that we could spend an entire episode on. Pigments have been used for painting on the walls of caves, on people’s bodies and on other surfaces as a method of storytelling, self-expression and adornment.
Harvesting pigments is a practice born about 40,000 years ago…. Each pigment has been influenced by over a thousand generations of innovators from cultures all over the world: walking well-known routes to harvest, experimenting with different binders, mixing, curing, painting.
Alexis gives us a rundown of which organic materials produce which color.
Alexis: So there’s earth pigments, reds, oranges, yellows. Browns, blacks were made from charred material. So charred bones or charred plant material, um, to sort of make it into a carbon, which then is insoluble and that’s crushed down and mixed with a binder or saliva. Whites were also available as chalks and certain deposits. There are green earths available, but they’re more rare, then you have, uh, your mineral pigments, like Lapis Lazuli, or Malichite, um, or azurite.
You can imagine after thousands and thousands of years only painting with red, orange, yellow, black, white, how exciting it would be to come across these like very vibrant blues. Um, so then you kind of you’re in the….and Renaissance and ultramarine blue lapis lazuli is like more expensive than gold and everybody’s freaking out about it. And it’s written into contracts, you know, like, um, Mary’s robes were always painted and ultra Marine blue because it kind of showed the wealth of whoever was commissioning the painting.
Alexis: Carmine is made from cochineal, which is a scale insect that infests the Nepal cactuses. So, um, or there’s the Mirixa nail at sea snails that you get that Tyrian purple, which is that, which was what was used to make the, um, that rich purple dye that was kind of reserved for royalty.
Prussian blue was made by accident. That was the first synthetic color that was produced. Um, that was more modern and the Egyptians had a synthetic blue that they were able to make, but that, um, that was lost somehow over time.
Then a little bit later on they, um, in Europe they ha they produced, uh, a competition among chemists and scientists to try to synthetically replicate the first scientists who could figure out how to synthetically replicate lapis, lazuli would win this prize. And so two, um, chemists were, I think they were French were actually able to synthesize lapis into Ultramarine blue. So then you sort of have this first really like made intentionally synthetic color, um, and their intention was to make it so that it could be less expensive and more readily available. And that sort of spurred this whole, like explosion of synthetic colors, quinacridone. You can have metallic pigments that are made from, um, crushed Mica powders. Um,
there’s Lake pigments, like Carmine or Rose Madder, Lake that’s made from the matter roots and then kind of adhered to, they use different things to, to kind of turn it into an insoluble medium.
ART HISTORY ASIDE
In just listing a handful of colors, Alexis has touched on history, politics and culture.
Because pigment is so tied to land, researchers can link specific pigments used by our ancestors to specific geological phenomena; pigment is also embedded in commerce and colonization.
When Alexis mentions certain colors being “written into contracts…” She’s referring to agreements between European artists and their patrons; customers wanted a specific percentage of a rare pigment used so that viewers of the painting could literally see their wealth and status in the final depiction.
There are so many rabbit holes we could go down in terms of the cultural significance of specific colors; from red ochre, one of the oldest colors first used in prehistoric times, to Sheele’s Green, invented in 1775 by a Swedish chemist, a color which is thought to have accelerated the death of Napoleon, and several members of Napoleon’s household, since the color lined the walls of his home… and when the pigment is exposed to moisture, it creates copper arsenic, which then evaporates into the air…
Seriously once you start learning about pigment it is very addictive. Color is a part of life; and so much of it is a material we’ve manipulated to multiply the colors in the natural world, it’s this incredibly visible yet very overlooked culture we’re surrounded by all the time that has influenced everything, and once you start noticing it there is so much to learn.
While discussing pigment can lead to a series of heady history lessons and encyclopedic explorations, getting connected to the material world usually happens in a much more literal way; it’s that moment we’re gonna focus on.
Catherine: Can you tell me some of your earliest memories with watercolor? Cause I know you mentioned you’ve been working with watercolor a long time.
Alexis: Yeah. I come from a pretty artistic family. It definitely on my mom’s side. Um, so we always had a lot of art materials around and we had a closet that was filled with all sorts of things like collage materials and like little packing chips and scraps of leather and, um, many different types of paper. Um, but always just came back to watercolors was just one of my favorite things to play with. And I would just kind of spread out all over the dining room, like all over the dining room, count like table and the floor is, and just be making like paintings after painting, just exploring what it wanted to do on its own and making big, messy washes and folding the paper and hat, you know, just like very experimental and fun and messy.
Kids can take up a lot of space. Their imaginations propel them forward, and often one project becomes ten. A corner of the dining room table becomes a growing semi-circle of crafts, tangents and side notes. It’s a privilege to spread out and let creative play flow; not everyone has the space, or the parental permission, to make a mess. And if you’ve graduated from kid to grown up, now you are in charge of allowing yourself that freedom.
What gets in the way?
Messy play, unplanned processes and new challenges… I think these are essential for feeding our souls, aka being creative. Feeling safe is a big part of expressing creativity, because it can feel vulnerable.
What does a safe environment for trying something new feel like for you?
And how are we defining creativity? It’s commonly known as the generation of ideas or possibilities; a strategy for problem-solving or a way of communicating.
Creativity is strongly associated with the arts. But the arts don’t have a patent on this term! Creativity shows up in hobbies, interests, and life issues… living with illness and disability requires us to be extremely creative. Reacting and adjusting to natural disasters, weather changes, a pandemic… dealing with racism, sexism and other isms that make life difficult or dangerous… imagining or inventing something, adapting…basically, getting unstuck.
Then there personal moments of mundane creativity: your cat keeps knocking over your favorite plant so you devise a magnetic feline-combatant cozy for said plant. Am I a cat person? Yes. Do I have plant babies? Yes, yes I do. Is this a personal story? Maybe.
So where are the moments in your life where your creativity feels safe to thrive? Your version of Alexis’s dining room table.
While you’re walking through a city, your body is moving and your mind is wandering.
In your kitchen, where you spread ingredients on every countertop as you try out a new recipe.
When you are watering your plants, noticing new growth or pesky pests, trimming and tending.
Once you have a place or activity in mind, I want you to think about the voice in your head while that’s happening. The way you narrate (or don’t), and the way you react to yourself and your surroundings in those moments.
Hold onto that thought, and we’ll come back to it later.
Speaking of “coming back” to something… having consistent access to a safe space to do an activity we enjoy means we return willingly… And the materials involved can become a version of home.
Alexis: Um, and I kind of kept coming back to water. I did my undergrad degree in architecture and oftentimes I would do these really tight graphic renderings and then use like a little bit of watercolor. And I just loved that contrast of like the super tight, precise pencil lines and like these washes of color that felt more loose and free. Um, and then also in graduate school and I ended up using a lot of watercolor and I think it wasn’t until I started really researching watercolor and learning how to make it, that I understood why I kept coming back to it. Um, but I really feel like it’s the most pure way to work with color as like a, in a paint medium, uh, because the binder is just gum Arabic. So, um, it’s, which is tree sap, um, which is just kind of like the most invisible way to bind those little particles together, the pigment particles. Um, cause if you think about acrylic paint, you’re basically mixing in those, um, insoluble color particles into a plastic base. Um, and it’s kind of the same idea with, um, oil paint. You’re mixing it into linseed oil or poppy seed oil and the medium itself is so present. Um, and watercolors are just bound together by these little bits of tree SAP.
Narration: So how do you turn pure pigment into watercolor? What does the process of paint making actually look and feel like?
Alexis: So you take your pigment and you put a little mound on a flat hard surface. It could be either glass or a slab of marble. you make a little divot in the center and you introduce some medium and you just start mixing it together with a pallet knife. So you just go pretty slowly and you use your palette knife to sort of fold in the ???. And then once that’s all incorporated, uh, you mull it. So, um, Muller is usually made out of glass and it kind of has a handle on the top and it’s and hard on the bottom. And what I like to kind of think of that as like a finishing sandpaper. So it’s that really fine grit where you are just smoothing out the whole volume of the paint, making it really well incorporated and coated in, um, making sure each little particle is coated in the, uh, gum Arabic so that you can make sure that it’ll adhere to the surface of whatever you’re painting. then you pan it. So you’re gonna slowly kind of build a little dollops of paint in the can to get it to be the right height. And then you kind of tap it down and then you fill the next pan. then you wait like four or five days until it’s fully cured. And then we make labels.
Catherine: I would love to hear about like a specific color that you’re just in love with right now and why.
Alexis: I mean, I feel like my whole life, I actually have felt really confused by color and I’ve tried to read color theory to understand it and it just didn’t make sense to me. Um, but I’m such a tactile person that as soon as I really saw pure pigment, it was like color isn’t material to understand just like any of the other materials that I felt like I understood it more in relation to architecture. It’s just like, what is good at these things? Like concrete is good at these things that has these textural qualities. And, um, it feels cool, you know, like it has just this more tactile quality. it’s there for you to feel and play with and understand.
Alexis made a reference to color theory and I just wanna slow it down a little.
Color theory is the study of the relationship between colors; it’s very technical and feels like math. When people begin to study color theory, it involves a lot of color wheels, charts and swatches, with an understanding of mixing colors, what a warm or cool color is, how human beings perceive colors, how they visually mix, match or contrast with one another when side by side.
It can get pretty elaborate, and it honestly isn’t my favorite. So I totally get Alexis’s initial confusion with color, and her aha moment when she realizes that with pigment, colors have understandable, tactile qualities.
Alexis: So I came across the pure pigment. Here’s this material to play with and feel, and understand and making it into paint, um, is the way to get to know it. And then it gives you this level of information for when you go to paint with it. Each specific pigment will have its own unique characteristics based on its chemical makeup, you get to know it and you’re kind of trying to figure out what it wants or what it doesn’t want. They all just have their own little personalities. So some of them might be very thirsty, so they want a lot of medium, but you kind of can’t get tricked into giving it too much medium because then once you put in the little half pans, it might just dry and crack and shrink to a level where you can’t sell it. Um, so sort of like you kind of run through this process of like, okay, I know that this is an earth pigment earth pigments tend to be very thirsty and very dry and want a fair amount of medium, but they, at the same time, you could introduce a lot of medium and they’ll never become runny. Like they’ll always sort of stay a little chunkier, like a little bit more like peanut butter. Um, and that can feel like confusing if you’ve made another paint color, that is a very fine particle size. We’ll kind of quiz each other and get really excited about like, somebody will be like, Oh, well those, yeah, those pants are like French Vermillion, but like mixed with like a little bit of Zircon Yellow. And then one of us would be like, yeah, but like with a little Kramer white mixed in, you know, like we’re just like get really excited that, that somebody, because we all were, we can all like visualize those colors mixing together. Oh yeah, you totally nailed it. Like, it’s exactly those three colors. We just get really excited.
You probably noticed that Alexis started saying “we” – she’s referring to fellow paint makers at Case For Making, a team that has grown over the past four years. When you are in community with people who work with the same material as you, there is a common language and sensitivity… often you find yourselves seeing things similarly. Alexis and her business partner Gina had to close down the shop to the public when the pandemic hit; a few months in she began to coordinate COVID-safe working sessions to that paint makers on her team could still connect with one another and their material.
Catherine: I love that because it’s like, it feels like you’re on a team, like on the same page connecting it back to the material you love so much. Totally.
Alexis: Yeah. We have like such a sweet group of people who are here. Um, and we’re definitely pretty bonded over the color experience and talking about it and figuring it out and also coming up with the blends together and trying to figure out recipes and testing that, um, it’s always just been so fun when I like we, we gathered together to make our own Payne’s Gray. Um, and it ended up being like, I think there was like eight of us here when we did that. And we were just like trying to figure out our recipe just by color mixing with our regular watercolors and then making big batches of paint and kind of slowly measuring and introducing like a little bit more of each of the colors and then taking it to the front window and like mixing it up and swatching it on the paper and all talking about like how we wanted it to be if we wanted it a little bit more like purple or a little bit more green or, um, it’s just so fun to be in those moments with, and you’re just all in stormed and just so in it, uh, and get so excited like when we get, when we make it and it’s just so fun.
Catherine: You have a group of people working with the same material. It’s like, it’s so beautiful to be, to have that collective feel.
Spending quality time with a specific material changes your reality, because it changes how you perceive the world around you. Certain sensations are heightened. I ask Alexis how her relationship to pigment shows up in everyday moments, outside of the Case For Making community.
Alexis: I can’t go anywhere without thinking about our colors. Like, I’ll go on a hike and I’ll be like, Oh, that lichen on the tree. I’m constantly color mixing in my head. So I’ll be like, Oh, that man, we really nailed it with our CFM Cypress. Like, it’s really the color of a Cypress tree and it really, you can’t really see that like fluorescent glow that’s sort of behind there and that color. And I get, I just sort of think about those things all the time or, um, or like lichen that I saw on this hike down in Carmel was like, I couldn’t call it almost couldn’t color match it from our color collection.
So we’ve talked a lot about pure pigment, where it comes from, how it can behave, how we turn it into paint and the community that we can discover when we delve into a particular material. But what about the act of painting?
Catherine: Watercolor is like my medium of like, um, decompression. And so when I dip my paintbrush in my paint, I typically paint right what’s in front of me, like stuff in my room, um, or eyes are just what I go my go to. So I guess I was just curious, like when you, when you do dip your paintbrush into pigment, just what comes out of your brush?
Alexis: I like to layer single strokes of color. I like to do repeats of the same thing and then sort of examine how they’re different so that I can discover things that happen that I’m, I’m not trying to make happen. You can try to be as intentional as you want, but with watercolor, there’s always going to be things that happen that you don’t want to happen. So then I tried to take thinking out of it where I’m just building these layers of single strokes and then looking at them after to see what happened and then ask myself like why I like specific ones.
For those of you who have never used watercolor, I highly recommend it. Watercolor can come in liquid or solid form; there are liquid watercolors that come in a bottle with a dropper or tubes of wet paint that are more like… I dunno, mayonnaise consistency? Solid watercolor looks like candy or colorful miniature loaves of bread and comes in little pans. You need to add water to the pan to get the pigment moving; once it is softened, you fill your brush up with color and apply it to watercolor paper. If you’ve already wet the paper beforehand, the paint springs onto the page and the pigment seems to travels on its own, creating patterns like what Alexis was describing earlier: water moving across earth. It’s mesmerizing.
You can make a line, a squiggle, a blob, a dot. You can blend colors.
You have the freedom with that color to make a mark that is completely your own.
And with a dab of new color or splash of water, you can completely transform it.
Catherine: Can you describe a little bit for someone who maybe has never worked with watercolor or never noticed, never paid attention, so, so closely, what are some things that watercolor does that, um, we might not want it to do?
Alexis: Well, I think it comes back to what I was saying earlier about like understanding that each of these colors are made from dry, pure pigment, which we know is insoluble. So it’s sort of like grains of sand on the beach. There’s so much change that happens because as the water hits the surface of the paper and the pigment particles, they’re just floating around, they’re all floating in the water. So as the water evaporates, it sort of leaves these trails and pushes the pigment around. And then it evaporates to this point where it’s gone and the particles are on the paper.
Catherine: Why do you love what you do?
Alexis:I feel like the most important aspect of why I love what I do is because of the people who I get to work with. And I didn’t, when I opened the store, I didn’t, I really, there was no planning that went into it. I was getting divorced at the time and I had a full-time job and we had this space already. So it was really more, I think I just needed something to just pour my energy into. And so there was no business plan. There was no really thought beyond, like, I’m not risking that much by doing this. Um, cause I had a, I had a job, I jus t put the opening inventory on my credit card, trying to do everything as cheaply as possible. And um, I never expected to hire anybody. then the first person I hired, it just, it just felt like such a gift to be able to work with them. the second person that I hired is still here and we’re super close and she’s been here since I first brought that first kilo of Ultramarine Blue and has just been like right there in every color conversation. And you know, she’s seen all of this come together and um, and we, we got through the closing of the shop and pandemic times, mainly just her and I keeping it going. every person who’s joined us over the years, it’s just happened really naturally. , so you just have this really lovely group of women making paint together and it’s been like the most fun and most rewarding aspect of this whole business. What we sell is a by-product of the time that we spend together. It has just has become really important, I think for all of us to be able to have each other and this place to be able to cope over the past few months. I mean, I feel like it’s almost every day that one of us just like, I’m just so happy that I get to come here. Like, it was just so nice to have a place to go that’s not at home and with people who, who we all feel comfortable with and trust and, um, get to just like laugh and talk about color and make things with our hands. I feel like it saved me during this time for sure.
Two paintmakers, Rawley and Gina, share what it’s meant for them to continue working with pigment during COVID.
During the holiday season of last year, November 2020, I was in a really dark place. I know a lot of us were. I talked to a few friends about it and they asked me what usually helps when feelings of hopelessness and self-harm overwhelm me.
To calm myself down, I usually imagine centering on the wheel or visualize the sensation of wedging clay. Do you think a studio might be open? A friend asked me. It was worth a shot: I emailed two studios in Oakland and reached out to Matthew (from episode one). Two of them weren’t in operation due to COVID, but I heard back from one down the street from my house. Working my full time job and producing this show, I didn’t have much time to actually make stuff in the studio, but I started a work trade with them which meant every Friday for two hours, I showed up to one of my happy places whether I liked it or not. Of course I always liked it. But sometimes it’s hard to make yourself do something you know is good for you.
The way I feel when I walk into a ceramics studio and interact with other “clay people” as we call them, I feel like I’m coming home. The way the tools are organized. The test tiles. The clicking of the kilns as they cool. The calm, intentional way that people who work with clay move around a space. The easy way of talking to one another, or not talking to one another.
Getting into that studio, even when there were just two other people in the building, masked and wielding a spray bottle of disinfectant, pulled me out of that darkness. I could say it was the clay that saved me, but it was really the community, and the safe space they’ve built just by showing up day after day, doing their thing.
Catherine: You mentioned in a recent workshop that you don’t ascribe to the myth that some of us were more creative than others. And that really resonated with me and is like in line with the whole reason I make this podcast.
Alexis: So we are all born creative, we’re all able to make marks and we’re all curious. That’s all you need to know. I think that a lot of us were told that we are either good at art or not good at art and either pushed to pursue it or told not to just sort of forget about it, that your strengths lie elsewhere. Nobody needs to be told that at all. And there’s just something so ingrained in us, which is why you see all children drawing and making marks and exploring their own way of making marks. All people should be encouraged to explore their own way of making marks. Um, because just to have that creative outlet, um, is in service of everybody.
I think so often we’re, if we think about being creative, we have this narrative in our head that we’re supposed to produce something good, um, and practice so that we can get to a place where we can produce something. That’s good. And if we can just take that out of it, just like that doesn’t matter. That’s just like this outside voice. Um, and get back to just that childlike, playful curiosity, and just explore materials and marks and color and your own way of doing all of these things. That’s a creative practice.
Alexis brings up an common internal conflict here. The conflict between trying to be good, successful productive, versus exploring the unknown, making a mess, or doing something…just because.
One challenge with making art that I have personally is… people always want to know what something means. Or why I made it. Sometimes I don’t have an answer, or I’d rather not verbalize it. I don’t feel whatever I’ve done needs to be… or wants to be… explained out loud.
That need to explain and define – where is that coming from? Is it just a part of being human, to want to know? Or is there another reason for that pressure?
If you were to look at all the creative practices that have produced the enduring meaningful parts of our society… there may have been a time where it didn’t make sense to do that thing or it seemed silly to someone or it wasn’t making a lot of money. With creative practices, there is always that tension.
Injustice comes into play when people with class privilege don’t feel that tension as acutely. They have more freedom to be creative, to play around and make a mess even if it doesn’t pay the bills. This is a major injustice, because expressing creativity is a human right.
A lot of creative expression does not meet the expectations and rules of a capitalistic society. Which is why art can still be seen as being on the outside, on the margins, the other.
So many of us have been programmed to prioritize being good whatever that means, being productive to make money to be successful. Paying bills, getting health insurance, putting food on the table… it makes sense that a lot of those things would come before spreading out a bunch of watercolor paper on the floor and making whatever marks come to you. And yet that activity is so valuable; it gives you a chance to commune with yourself, see the impulses of your mind play out on paper, reflect on what feels good to you, figure out who you are and what you want.
Alexis: And that’s not to discount. I mean, I love going to museums. I love seeing finished work. Um, all of that has incredible value as well. It’s like, that’s not part, that’s not what I’m talking about. This is like, all people are creative and we need to reinforce that. And it doesn’t matter if your stuff is never in a museum. Like, it doesn’t matter if anybody even ever sees it. It’s like, there’s just, it’s okay to generate ideas and make marks and have an output. Um, that’s only for you.
Catherine: Yeah. And what you’ve just said, just reminds me visually of you making marks and making marks and making marks for the to notice things that just come up, you just like something that I feel so many people are robbed of when they’re told that they’re not good at art.
Alexis (53:46): The only thing that matters is what you like. You kind of have to like redo this process of unlearning all of that, um, negative, like the self-talk that kind of cuts ideas off, you have to unlearn how your brain sort of just goes to that place of like, this isn’t good. Or why am I even making this? Or like, um, I don’t even know what I’m doing, you know. It’s like, great. You don’t know what you’re doing. Like then, like, whatever you do make will be so interesting and surprising to you and might ask you other questions, you know, that will generate other answers that you make making marks and like, which marks of yours do you love, you know, and just kind of like falling in love with your own way of making marks and just like letting that be enough and interesting and fun.
Alexis points out this phenomena, regardless of a person’s field, their material, their skill level, their experience with the arts.. there is often this reaction, either out loud, or in your head:
What am I doing
I’m not good at this
What’s the point
There is a time and place for criticism in the creative process and let me tell you: it’s at the end. Critique is a healthy way to reflect on what you’ve done… but too often, this inner critic in our minds jumps in way too soon. It’s inappropriate, it wants to analyze, protect, say no, stay safe.
Now honestly, I totally I overcame this. I thought that since I have been making art my whole life, I have somehow tamed that voice…
But that’s not true. When I tried weaving with Danielle (the second episode of the show on fiber), I felt nervous that I was going to do something totally embarrassing or involuntary, like I was going to break the loom, or be too slow on the uptake. My hands felt weird. I found myself wondering, have I always had so many fingers? What does one DO with all of them? Am I thinking about my hands too much? What did she say? Ugh this is torture.
This is also how I felt when I took a surf lesson with my unbelievably kinesthetic sister who is a dancer. She stood up on the board after about her third try, and I could tell, or at least I thought I could tell, my instructor was so disappointed that he was stuck with the uncoordinated, out of breath, sibling. Me, that would be me.
So I went deeper. Where else in my life does this inner critic show up? And who do they sound like? The voice for me has changed over time. For a while, and I think a lot of people can relate to this, it was my mother’s voice. Telling me I should shower more, I should eat a bigger salad, you know, life stuff. Then strangely in my 20s it morphed into the voice of my former partner; it took me nearly two years to extract that from my daily existence.
Now, my inner critic is most active when I spill something in the kitchen. It’s kind of like a scene from Lord of the Rings when Gollum fights with himself, aka Smeagul. YOU SPILLED THREE CUPS OF CASHEWS ON THE FLOOR!? YOU IDIOT! But I… it was an accident.. oh no… DO YOU KNOW HOW MUCH YOU JUST IMPACTED YOUR CARBON FOOTPRINT? I’m a monster, I’ll never have cashews again, I’m sorry. WASH THEM! WASH THEM AND THEN INDIVIDUALLY DRY THEM YOU CARELESS WHISPER OF A HUMAN!
Oof, I am so sorry, that idea got out of hand real fast. The associate producer loves Lord of the Rings, so I blame them.
Getting to know my present day inner critic, they are a potent blend of overconfident authority and unrelenting insecurity. A blend of very specific standards, expectations and values, that, if I can align with them, everything will be okay. I will be good and safe. Sprinkle in a dash of middle schooler me who wants to get an A and make teacher happy and BOOM, my inner critic has been conjured. They are… wow. They are not fun. They remind me of Hermione halfway through Prisoner of Azkaban. Very stressed out, a little mean and overly committed to being in two places at once.
In psychology, the inner critic is a defense mechanism we’ve nurtured over time. We are extra hard on ourselves so that if other people are hard on us, we’ve already endured the equivalent of a gruesome beating. You can’t hurt me, I’m already suffering haha, I win! It’s ironic because we are trying to stay safe by creating an unsafe environment in our own heads. Mm.
Who is that voice actually serving? And why is it more prominent in some situations but not others? Like, I’m very upset when I spill cashews on the kitchen floor. But when I spill paint everywhere I do not care. When I break a plate in the kitchen I’m practically violent towards myself. Earlier today, this literally happened, I was rushing and knocked a mirror into a window in my room, completely shattered the single pane window and my reaction was basically like, haha, oops! That was kinda silly! LOL. I feel like it has to do with safe spaces, and maybe some like early childhood programming? Possibly?
So if your inner critic comes out more frequently in specific situations, I wonder, why do those situations feel unsafe? And is your inner critic in a position where they have become an obstacle?
There is no way we are ever going to completely remove the inner critic. They are a part of us, a mechanism that may, in certain circumstances, result in learning from mistakes or avoiding impulsive behavior. Like at some point in time, book three Hermione or late night Gollum might be useful to my life. But seeing them for who they are, I know I don’t have to do what they say.
Circling back to creativity: these inner critics are quick to come out of the woodwork when it comes to creative endeavors, because trying new things can feel vulnerable. I think the key for changing the way we talk to ourselves is the knowledge we are not alone in this struggle.
When we air our inner critics out and show someone else what’s going on in our heads, it all becomes a bit more tangible. You can include someone else in the conversation. Honestly, I feel so much better now that you know how upset Gollum and Hermione get about spilled cashews.
Try it: conjure your inner critic and introduce them to your closest friends. How does that interaction go?
In the context of art-making, this means engaging with others. Why not include other people in your creative ventures? Changing up the texture of your creative exploration can lead to unexpected discoveries, including a feeling of safety and confidence.
Alexis points this out when she reflects on classes she’s taken with other watercolorists.
Alexis: I’ll see what I am made the result of what I made after being taken through this process of another artist, other artists like vision or something or practice. And I’ll be like, this is so obvious that I am made this, you know, like, of course I solved these problems in my head this way on paper. Oh, I always respond in this way. And like, these are the marks that are the result of that decision. And how do you sort of flip that on its head and be like, I, this is my automatic response and how do I understand what the opposite could be and how do I use that information to challenge my own ideas and my own practice and keep exercising that practice. you don’t have to know where you’re going. You just have to start somewhere and follow a path or like follow your own line of inquiry.
Note the connection between the community of people working with a particular material, externalizing your inner critic and feeling safe to explore a new, uncertain activity that can evolve into a feeling of home.
To me, this connection represents a narrative that dispels some myths around artists and creative people in general: the idea that we are geniuses in our studios creating in isolation. That we are starving, on the margins of society, fueled by trauma and born with godgiven talent that can’t be taught! Like, sometimes that might be true, but no, it’s not it’s not true.
Once we begin understanding our relationship to the material world, listening in on materials and learning from all kinds of makers, we learn over and over that creativity is human nature. And people who embrace this part of themselves are makers… not in the sense of making art, but in the sense of co-creation: they are building nurturing, life-giving community.
And you deserve to be a part of it.
Material Feels is produced by me, your host, Catherine Monahon. I’m a writer and audio storyteller with a background in art education; I live in Oakland, California. Associate Producer Liz de Lise composes original music for the show as well. This episode features sounds from www.FreeSound.org, as well as underscores and music created just for the show, by Liz. The show is a labor of love; and your contributions mean the world. Here’s how you can support us:
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Here is an original piece of music composed by Liz, inspired by glass as a sculptural material and our interview with glass artist Deborah Czeresko.