When things get tough, I like to compare myself to a Phoenix. Not only is the Phoenix an awesome, flaming bird that even Dumbledore couldn’t refuse to have in his office, but a Phoenix also cycles from birth to death and rebirth — in a spectacular blaze of fire, no less — and this cycle from birth to death and rebirth is very similar to the phases of my own creative identity.
For much of my adult life, my three most prominent pursuits revolved around photography, writing, and art. When photography wans, painting waxes, and when painting becomes a bore, writing returns with a flourish.
But I made a mistake several years ago. I decided that I had to choose only one and then that “one true choice” would be my career. I felt it would make things easier, make the future clearer, and would give me more time to focus on my work. I mean, how was I expected to get anything done with something like a hobby taking up what little free time I already had?
Of course, my “one true choice” was a no-brainer at first, as I’ve always been immersed in my photography much more seriously than my art, which felt more like a way to blow off steam rather than a budding career, and I could always blog to scratch the writer’s itch. But since I had zero business and marketing skills, my photography “career” refused to budge. So, instead of doing the normal adult thing and taking a few business workshops, I decided my lack of sales meant my dream as a photographer was doomed to fail. I returned my cameras to their cases. I shoved my box of developed film rolls to the back of the fridge. I shelved my binder of negatives and let it collect dust.
I changed my mind about my career.
My success with art came about a lot quicker than photography. Within a few months of drawing portraits of hares and deer I was showing in local galleries, selling work on Etsy, joining other artists in art crawls and festivals. I had framers telling me I should illustrate children’s books. I won ribbons.
I’m not writing all of this to toot my own horn. I’m writing this to show both you and myself how very different my success was in art, despite diving into the very same ocean I’d been too scared to dip my toes in as a photographer.
Like most of my creative pursuits, my artistic habits waxed and waned. However it waned for reasons other than the normal phases of creative flow. Instead, the past two years of my life can be connected by a series of existential crises that every other month had me questioning: who am I and what do I want?
What was I trying to say in my art? Was there a story to tell? Did my art have any real meaning? Should I go into illustration despite my desire to work only for myself? If not, how would I ever hope to get into a larger city gallery with bunny drawings and zendoodles? Did I even want to get into a larger city gallery?
Self-help books, articles, and podcasts would all ask the same question: If money were not a factor and you could be doing anything you want right now, what would it be?
I. Did. Not. Know.
Actually…let’s take a step back. I did know. But my “want” had nothing to do with a career and more with a desire to travel, to see the Black Forest and The Avenue des Champs-Élysées, to own a few acres of forest, to have a room with bookshelves built into the wall, on which I will have shelved several illustrated versions of my favorite books.
Hypothetical Lina was a creative, sure, but one who didn’t worry about the next sale. Rather, the next experience. And while it was fun to dream about future Lina in her future library surrounded in future trees with her future family playing a future game outside in the future sunshine, it didn’t bring me to any career-based conclusions. I felt “broken” somehow, like the American factory had built me without a few key economical parts.
Occasionally, the desire to return to photography flickered like the little stars that appear in the sky at dusk. At first I was able to snuff out those flickers and turn my back on the camera shelf. I would redirect my creativity by teaching myself a new art technique or trying out a new medium.
I had chosen. There could be no going back.
Until the photo-feelings became too strong to turn away from, so I would give in for a bit of freelensing in the backyard, or an afternoon of snapping candid shots of my family in the living room. But the natural feeling of a camera in my hands scared the hell out of me. I had chosen.
Had I chosen wrong?
To give in a little more, I decided to let photography be a part of my marketing strategy. At the beginning of 2020, I put together a blog called “The Hiking Creative.” On it I planned to discuss my family’s hiking adventures, share photos taken on these trips, and paint something inspired by the area we chose to explore. It went well at first. My family and I went spelunking, found fossils and spearheads in dry creek beds, and visited castle ruins. Even though I never expected the blog itself to make me money, I figured it would be a fun way for me to promote myself and my art, while also scratching that photographic itch.
Then the pandemic happened.
What little art sales I was getting at the beginning of the year came to a screeching halt. All of the successes I’d faced in 2019 faded into the Veil like Sirius Black. Exhibitions were canceled. Art festivals were postponed and then scrapped altogether. Schools closed down and so I was no longer working from home but homeschooling. Not long after, the parks closed, campgrounds closed, and the lack of desire to go for a walk on the now-overly-crowded trails kept me inside with the curtains drawn.
My blog, The Hiking Creative, went wherever blogs go when they die.
The next several months were a series of desperate attempts to keep my art business afloat. I began making little sketchbooks to sell on Etsy and marketing myself through online videos and Instagram. I took classes. I joined in on a few virtual exhibitions. I nodded off while reading books about business and marketing atop a pile of notes written on discarded sketches, grumbling at the realization that these books were written for a pandemic-free world. Podcasts made me feel less alone, but I was soon fed up with listening to artists act as if the pandemic had little to no effect on their business.
In my world nobody was buying art. In their world, they’d just sold out yet another series.
Somewhere around late July and early August my anxious momentum slowed to a stop, and my train reached a station called Que Será, Será. I stopped fighting the pandemic and instead embraced this metaphorical “pause” button that has given many of us the opportunity to reassess key aspects of our lives.
I didn’t want to question anything anymore. I just wanted to play Clue with my family and eat pizza, maybe catch up on reading some actual fiction, organize a bit of the household clutter, snuggle the kitten.
Soon I was dusting off my camera cases and going through all of my film canisters. I checked the backs of each camera and found film still in several of them, film that would now be the story of “The Before” and of “The After.”
And I realized that, to the person who took the “before” photos, I was future Lina.
If I went back in time and told thirty-year-old me that I was no longer allowing myself to pursue photography as both a creative passion and a career, she would probably have a lot of choice words to say. No doubt she would bring up the fact that photography is, quite literally, in my blood, and that several of my cameras have been in the family for seventy plus years.
It’s only been a week or so since this revelation, and so I’m still letting it all seep in. It’s embarrassing, really, to discuss the crazy coaster ride that is my life, but I’m hoping my Phoenix journey will hit home for a few of you. Maybe it can give someone else that final nudge to do what she really really wants to do.
Not just what others want her to do.
Not just what she thinks others want her to do.
Not just the option that sounds best on a resume.
Not the fallback option.
The real deal.
But don’t regret your missteps or your string of wayward journeys. To a Phoenix, those are the ashes from which you are reborn. My ashes are a wonderful and supportive artist community, both online and local, and the experiences I gained by speaking in public, writing for the newspaper, entering shows, winning ribbons, getting artwork framed, learning to wire said frames, and the little platform I built on social media. I can’t wait to grow further with them and gain even more knowledge and experiences.
Will I stop painting? Absolutely not. For some reason I told myself I had to choose one, and while I can admire my efforts, I’m telling myself now that I am made up of many different identities and that it’s totally okay to have one, three, five thousand hobbies (candle-making, anyone?). I also still plan on selling the occasional painting and entering the occasional contest with a watercolor sketch.
My art career has not died.
It has been reignited.