My mother amazes me. She is tireless and wonderfully feisty. She still lives in the rambling house on an overgrown acre of land that I grew up on. She has an electric chainsaw she uses to cut down trees. She does heavy yard work in her isotoner slippers. Every year to clean the moss off the bricks on her 1000- sq ft patio she, by hand, digs up every brick and turns each one over and puts it back in place making the patio new again. Three years ago she spent a summer single handily building a 40 ft retaining wall for her brick patio. She carried a mountain of sand down 3 flights of stairs in Safeway shopping bags, bit by bit, till she back filled this colossal retaining wall entirely by herself. She has also has mad baking skills. If there is a heaven, they would serve her signature almond cake every afternoon at the angel meet and greet. It is to die for. Literally.
I was talking yesterday to her about her early childhood. She grew up during the war in England. Her mother preferred her elder daughter, the one with the singing and dancing skills. Her mother, who decidedly favored her “pretty” older sister, would often sternly remark to my mother “If you can’t be an ornamental, then at least be useful!”
Can you believe a mother saying this to her own child? It just kills me whenever I hear this story.
As is so often the case with young children who only want to please and be loved by whatever parents they were given, my Mother took this shameful remark as the cold truth. Understandably, she set about being useful seeing as how being pretty was clearly not an option for her.
She can laugh about it now but honestly I think choosing to be useful, although at the time seemed like an unfortunate resigned way to exist, is a pretty good mandate for life.
I originally stumbled upon the practice of helping people through teaching a small, once a year workshop at Esalen , Ca. I noticed that during and for weeks afterwards I was extremely happy. For me, getting out of the studio, working with other people and incessantly talking about what I loved doing was incredibly beneficial.
I have realized a few things the past couple years about being useful and how it relates in the area of personal creativity…
An antidote to the isolation of your own art making is to help others in theirs.
It is virtually impossible to be self absorbed with your own creative struggles when you are helping or teaching other people.
Helping others in their creative process galvanizes and clarifies your own.
Laughter occurs more when you are around other people.
I am tossing out this pretty basic idea in the hopes that it might help spread the word.
Maybe it is time to for you to teach that workshop or class you have imagined?
Maybe call up 3 friends and do an art day.
Try sharing something you are excited about online.
It seems almost a universal principle that if you can be useful to others, sometimes consider people other than yourself, that a fair bit of happiness is sprinkled down upon your head.
My mother has given me many things, but apart from the almond cake, this little truth exemplified by her life centered upon helping others is particularly sweet.
Ornament 12″ x 12″ Oil on Panel 2003
the founder of Art2Life.
With over 20 years experience as a working artist and educator, I’ve developed a systematic approach that brings authenticity, spontaneity and joy back into the creative process.