How I Learned to Be an Artist from an Athlete
Committing to a process is a lot like falling in love
I studied art history, museum studies, and art business for years. But I didn’t learn to be an artist until I married an athlete.
When I first met my husband, I had been working as a personal trainer in a luxury health club for three years. It was the only job I could get after graduating with an art history degree into the Great Recession of 2008. I was hired based on one quality alone: I look like an athlete.
Any woman like me who stands over six feet tall can tell you the blunt, boring question we get over and over, from strangers and acquaintances alike: did you play basketball or volleyball? I stopped playing basketball halfway through high school, but during the recession I was happy to go along with what people thought of my appearance, if it got me the job.
A few years later, as I was getting to know John, one of the first things I thought about him was, “oh, this is someone who likes this job.” That was the first glimmer of something that I had been missing, something John embodied that I had been trying to fake: athleticism.
The Mental Leap from Athlete to Artist
I knew something was missing; I liked my job, but I knew in my my bones that I was in the wrong industry, that my true love was in the arts, not in sports. But I found, to my horror, that taking the athlete away left a gaping void in its place. If I’m not an athlete, or at least pretending to be one, what am I?
John’s athleticism was something I was starting to deeply admire: a commitment to a sport, to a physical endeavor. It made him more attractive as a partner, too: seeing him commit wholeheartedly to a steadfast relationship with his sport, with all of its ups and downs, was no small assist in helping me imagine him committing to a loving relationship with me.
It’s worth noting here that my time in the arts — studying art history in college, interning in museums, a post-graduate diploma in art business — was dominated by appreciating art, but never creating it. Art was for others to create, but not for me.
After being hired for my first job based entirely on the measurements of my body, I had gotten used to achievement based on how I looked. I had never actually committed to a practice of any kind, especially not one of creating art. So when it came to leaving the job where what counted most was what I looked like, to creating and carving a new path for myself, I was totally lost.
In the years we’ve been together, I’ve watched John play and practice a number of sports, from triathlons to surfing to golf, all with equal engagement and attentiveness. Of course, there are ups and downs; everyone gets their heart broken sometimes. But the outcome is simply not what inspires the athlete. The engagement, the play, is what keeps his heart inspired and brings him back everyday.
Play is what I wanted, and what I had been completely divorced from. When you’re playing, you’re paying attention to the game. That attentiveness is what I mean when I talk about the athlete: the true love of sport, the expression of one’s heart through the movement of the body. In sport, the heart has to be inspired for the body to make the effort.
Process Over Outcome
As in sport, so with art: the heart has to be inspired for the body to make the effort.
We become indoctrinated from an early age to commit only to outcomes: the grade on the test, the score on the scoreboard, the pay of the job. This inevitably alienates us from one of the most fulfilling relationships of our lives: with craft, with process…indeed, with ourselves.
I hadn’t found a creative practice for this exact reason. I tried writing; many attempts at blogs, journals, essays, all abandoned, because I could not see the point if I didn’t have a byline or book advance — some external outcome — to inspire me. As any true artist could have told me, those outcomes will never be sufficient inspiration; in fact, they’re downright impossible to come by in the beginning.
The inspiration is in the craft, in falling in love with the process. Becoming an artist, or an athlete, is in learning how to play. And play is the only way to fall in love with something, enough to keep showing up to the practice every day.
For the true athlete, sport is not about the outcome, or the PR, or the handicap. Those are metrics that are outgrowths of the process. When the PR or the handicap stalls, that means time for evaluation. Am I still inspired by this pursuit? Is this sport still interesting to me? If the answer is yes, then the athlete knows to rest his body so he can play another day. If the answer is no, the athlete abides. His heart will find another sport.
I was noticing something, right there in my very own husband, about releasing attachment to an outcome. I wanted my creativity to bloom and my career to seamlessly flourish into a new field, but with my heart set upon only those things — those external metrics, those outgrowths — I was completely neglecting the process, and again abandoning my artist.
Cultivating the Practice
It started with macrame. Our dog chewed through his hand-knotted paracord leash, and I spent an hour repairing it, knotting these cords over and over. Like John on his many trail runs, with his many golf swings, there was repetition here, the practice of a craft. The repetition soothed me, and keeping my hands busy was act of self-care I never knew I needed. I didn’t quite know what I had stumbled upon, but I knew it was something.
It was simply a craft that I wanted to practice, nothing more or less than that. But that soothing engagement, that rapture of my attention, was enough to keep me coming back.
Discover your interest
Try this: pick an art or craft you’ve always wanted to try. Maybe that’s writing, or singing, or watercolors. If your craft is in the visual arts, then you might have to buy supplies; make that part of the process, too. What materials look interesting, or grab your attention? This part of the process is entirely about discovering your interests, about finding something that inspires your heart.
Really, this is first and foremost a process of getting to know yourself and your interests. Of, dare I say it, falling in love with yourself.
Stick with it for a month
The amount of time needed to build a habit is hotly debated by experts, but around 21–28 days seems to be a generally accepted standard. Use this as the amount of time you’ll take to give your new practice a chance.
I became enamored with knotting; there were just a few knots to learn before the crafter is ready to create functional and decorative objects alike. Soon after I fell in love with fibers: cotton rope mostly, but other natural fibers like hemp, jute, linen, and silk all captivated my attention.
What kept me coming back, long after three weeks, was the simplest curiosity: what can I create by tying knots in these fibers?
Release negative self-talk
The most important thing here is to allow yourself to make mistakes. You won’t come back to the practice if there’s no room for error, or a tyrannical inner critic beats you up for every mistake. Allowing yourself to be a beginner is the first prerequisite for getting to know your inner artist or athlete.
I was becoming an artist. I was engaging with materials and a technique — knotting and weaving with fibers rather than surfing a board on a wave or swinging a stick at a ball — and I was showing up, regularly, to a practice. And I had started doing so by watching an athlete.
It’s an ever evolving relationship. It’s a relationship with oneself that grows and evolves as you pursue your sport and art. You grow alongside your practice; the vagaries of life are more tolerable when endured alongside engagement. Engagement — our attention — is the most valuable commodity in our world today — the practices of sport and art are two of the last remaining ways to pay our attention directly back to ourselves.
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