What I Learned About Process + Learning, from the Process of Creating Art

Yesterday I had nowhere to be.

I could barely wrap my head around this predicament. For the first time in a long time, I had the luxury of having a whole day to myself! When was the last day I had nothing scheduled? No children’s workshop to run, no fitness classes to teach, no work to supervise, no meeting to attend, no reports to write, no spreadsheets to look over. Not a single pressing deadline! The daily grind could wait until tomorrow. Or even the day after. I was beginning to fear I was forgetting something!

You should probably stay home and do nothing then,” my brother told me when I shared my bare-boned Saturday plans, “This is rare.” With two day jobs and a number of volunteer positions – a quiet, slow day is a treasure!

Despite the day off, I was determined to do a number of things; a number of restful, enjoyable, life-enriching things:

1. Wake up slowly, but not too late in the day.  
2. Not do anything work-related – not even problem solving in my head, checking emails or reading work-related articles.
3. Write, read, or draw.  
4. Not waste away the day scrolling down social media news feeds.
5. Watch a film.
6. Do some chores. 

I don’t think I did too bad. I woke up a little after nine in the morning – not too early nor too late, with many free hours ahead of me! I steered away from even thinking of work obligations, and except for checking my email twice (just to make sure I wasn’t missing anything urgent!) I didn’t even look at my favorite management or leadership blogs. I wrote, read and drew. I spent very little time on the typical social media sites, even less than I do on a regular day. I watched multiple films, not just one – great sappy background to my drawing session, pairing well with the heavy rain outside. I even got my laundry done! (I had to feel at least a little bit useful!)

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A drawing by yours truly.
Original photograph by Tim Barker, captioned, “At Petra in Jordan, a man wears the traditional costume of the Nabataean culture that established Petra as their capital around the 6th century BC.”

But really, I spent the entirety of my day drawing. (Read more about it here.) All the hours working in my sketchbook yesterday reminded me of the wealth of time I spent simply working on art in college. I had to, it was my major. And for every hour of class in college, you were expected to work a minimum of four more hours outside. More often than not, that wasn’t really enough time to get your work done. Making art is really much more time consuming than most people expect. You could be working on a square inch of space for days! A small piece of art is sometimes made up of thousands of tiny strokes, all patiently put together by hand.

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Slice of my senior year studio at college.

It was this process of creating art that really helped me understand more about the process of learning. Here are a few reflections:

1. Just put in the hours.
When you don’t, it shows. Sometimes the hours are spent staring into space or doodling aimlessly, your mind experiencing a drought of inspiration. Sometimes the hours are spent making “bad” work. Sometimes the hours are spent in tedium, drawing dot beside dot beside dot, or drawing and redrawing and redrawing the same darn green pepper. Put in the hours, even when you feel like there is no learning or no progress. It’s practice, it’s all an investment. Those hours clear the path for a mind-blowing moment later, that breakthrough you thought would never come.

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2. Walk away from your work and come back. Then step back. Look at it from a different part of the room.
If you’ve ever stared at a single word long enough for it to become the most absurb collection of letters you have ever seen, then you know what a difference it makes to spend some time looking away. Stand too close to your work for too long, slaving over whether you have drawn that crease in the paper just right, and you may later discover that you obsessed over something of little importance to the sum of all parts. Stand too close to your work for far too long and it may appear absurd, flawed and out of proportion. Walk away for a minute and come back. Walk away for a day and come back. The space between you and your work will give you a fresh perspective, a point from which you can see how to move forward.

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3. Don’t be too precious about your work.
There was a time when I was given this advice often. I valued each simple sketch and drawing too much, instead of dismissing them to practice and process. If you’ve been able to draw it once, you can draw it again, my friend told me. I wasn’t accidentally making bad or good drawings. A single well-proportioned drawing wasn’t the last. They told me to trust in my skill and ability. I soon began to enjoy the impermanence of my sketches. I would draw a figure on the canvas with charcoal, then spray it with water, so that the charcoal dancer would dissolve and drip away. Then I would do it again. I would draw, then spray, And again. It was a healthy practice. When I began to let go of my work, it opened up my learning ability. Instead of hanging on to small victories, I was practicing towards creating work more profound than any of the quick sketches I had drawn and let drip away before it.

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4. Let someone have a look and give a word – even when it is still in progress.
We learned, worked and progressed in public space. We failed, fussed and made ugly mistakes in that public space too. This was an important difference between the studio art department and other academic departments. There was less private time for you to get an acceptable draft before eyes landed on the budding fruit of your labor. You can’t hide your embarrassing scribble of a portrait when your professor tells the class to take a walk around the room to see everyone’s progress (or your lack thereof!). You just have to surrender to the rawness.

Art students worked in the studios – day, night or both. Someone could be looking over your shoulder at any point from first pencil sketch to final painting, a witness to every awkward, misplaced, discolored mark in between. Of course this wasn’t always the case, but it encouraged humility. It was never just your best foot forward. Your dirty laundry was often in plain sight too. I ended up loving this process and even relying on it. I sought out the feedback from others to better understand and approach my work. You need people to respond to what you do, whether or not you’ll take their advice in the end. The friends I invited back to see my work or my studio, were those who took the time to form an opinion about my work and give a critique, no matter how brief or informal. Those that only had praises, they weren’t half as interesting or valuable to have around.

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Friends visiting my studio late one night. We all needed a break, a walk, maybe some extra hours of sleep.

I may spend less time on my art these days, but these lessons enrich my work. It’s no matter that I work in an environment so removed from the me that drew on a canvas with a stick of charcoal in one hand and a spray bottle in the other.

Thank you, Grant Snider and Bill Patterson for the comic strips in this post. 

Oh so you’ve got a career now?? Cute.

So you have seriously started the career path,” he said, “*insert smiley with tongue out hereYou’re one of the lucky ones.” This came from a friend I had met in DC last summer while doing a program in development project management. Interestingly enough, I am applying much of what I learned that summer, today. The quick chat I had with this friend was not only affirming, but it pushed me to look at my present position, not just my work position but my general position in the world today, from a different perspective – one that even more deeply appreciates the incredible spheres of influence I find myself in.

I have never thought of my life or my future from a career-based perspective. I don’t think I’ve ever jumped into an opportunity or a passion with a career as the end goal or next step in mind. Heck, I decided to major in art in college just because I wanted to. I honestly walked in with no plans to pursue art as a profession  I just wanted to be at college doing the things I enjoyed. (Thank God for supportive parents!) I had a little experience with drawing, but barely any with painting, and certainly none in sculpture or film photography, but I jumped excitedly into this fresh field that I had secretly always wanted to be a part of since I was a little girl. I loved it. But never really felt I’d be making a career out of all of it. It wasn’t until a few months ago, close to graduation and with work going up in the college gallery, that the desire to someday be a professional artist, exhibited and selling work internationally, really made itself clear to me. But that is a whole different topic, for a different time in my life!

What I know is this – I have simply stuck to pursuing the things I enjoy and the things that fire me up from deep down. And the things I not only enjoy but discover I am good at, these are the things I don’t give up. In my experience, these are also the things that bring the most joy to the people around me. Like my dancing, my drawing and even my writing.

I understand, however, that it is an incredible privilege to be able to do what I love and to pursue these without judgment, bias or threat of economic instability. Not everyone comes from a  background (familial, socio-economic,  or cultural) that allows them to simply study what they want. And even more, to study without pay — for which I am eternally grateful and will forever pay forward.

I remember feeling quite insulted and defensive when people would ask about what I intend to study (back in the years before college), and then quickly formulate a career path for me, or suggest jobs I might be able to get post-graduation so that I won’t starve. After all, all my interests continuously lie in the category of the world’s 10 lowest paying majors/jobs/careers/fields/etc.

I even felt insulted when a professor of mine tried to push me in the direction of minoring in her subject, because I was good at it but also because it would look good on my CV. Lady, those were the only words I needed to drive me away. In my mind I spat at the notion of doing things so that they could appear on my resume or my CV. I was at college to learn, not to build a resume or jump start a career. That is all I’ve ever wanted to do, learn. Friends, you are reading the blog of someone whose first life aspiration was to be a window washer (and later a lawyer, but for very shallow reasons related to title, attire and office space).

When I think of the word career, it feels so tied down to a title, a job description, a specific placement. A suit, even. I think that the way I like to work and live is a bit more fluid than that. I have never simply been saturated in a single line of work, or study. Instead, I find myself to be happiest when I have at my fingertips, a small, but persuasive selection of activities. Perhaps I have thought of my life in from a career based perspective, but one of a mini-spectrum of careers. And I just never thought to use the word career.

People change careers multiple times in their lives and often wear different hats all at once. Even in my studies, I pursued more than a single passion. I was a Studio Art Major and a Dance Minor, fulfilling some important leadership positions in our college dance community. Towards the end of college, I also identified as a poet.

So now that I have graduated and am working my first full-time job, where do you think my education has sent me?

This little artist/poet/dancer, is now waist deep in the development sector in her home country, the Philippines. My main thrust in the direction home, after having lived away for so long, was to manage the non-profit organization I founded some years back (more about that soon!). We serve children and youth at risk.

I now work full time at a social enterprise that provides livelihood training and jobs for those with very limited opportunities. Among our workers are survivors of abuse, human trafficking and prostitution.

I’ve also been doing math, and brushing up on my economics.

(If you know me well, this when you catch yourself laughing. AT me.)

From the outset, it is a little funny to think that an art major and dance minor who loves to write poetry,  is working in the business and development sector straight out of her undergraduate studies. So far, it seems to be working to my advantage, stepping into the development equation with fresh artsy eyes, but with a substantial bulk of development and leadership experience under my belt. I’m not exactly academically equipped for some things at work, but this also means that I have not been brainwashed or overeducated by this economic theory or that development case study. In fact, somebody I met last weekend told me that he was excited to see how I would integrate art and development, and that he could tell from talking to me that I had lots of experience in both those areas (What affirming words for me to hear!! I cannot wait to share what I’ve got up my sleeve when it comes to development and the creative arts.) The best I can do is to approach my work from a very human perspective, after all, the human element is my most valued element in my workplace – it is why I do what I do. I’m after human development.

So I try to walk in each day with an open mind, a generous heart and a teachable spirit. Every day I live out important lessons I have learned both inside and outside of the classroom – from positions of leadership and responsibility – and those today, as I have always anticipated, are the experiences that really count. Each day I am learning more and more.

Thankfully, I have not been thrown into the dungeons of economic lions, all hungry to devour every creative bone and muscle in my body,  despite working in a substantially economic-y, business-y environment.  Rather, I am learning to be a lithe and friendly panther in a neighboring space.

Okay, so I don’t know where this panther metaphor is going, but I just kind of like panthers… and pigs.

On some days, I am honestly just so overwhelmed by the amount of good that can be done in this world. Earlier this week, I spent some time at the office reading about the big and small moves that individuals are doing to end poverty around the world.  Sigur Ros accompanied my thoughts through my earphones, as the workplace was buzzing with busy women making cards (more about the actual nature of our business soon).

I paused my reading to enjoy the feeling. I was thinking about the future of development, a  field from which I simply cannot keep my heart away.  My insides just filled up, in a way much like goosebumps but in your blood, and with more weight, not just airy elation. With more reality. And more grit.

When I think hard about it, right now there is no other job I want more than mine.

Dress to De-Stress

Looking at my closet (now pretty downsized thanks to the trans-Pacific move and summer-long purge of my belongings) I don’t think you can tell that I’m now a “working girl.” I can report for work at an office, have working lunch meetings and engage in other adult-like shenanigans. The social encounters of the past week or so have got me thinking about revamping my closet to better suit the world of desk jobs, conferences and other professional events.

BAH!! Who am I kidding?!

I am happily and pretty recently employed, yes, but currently boast of a flexible schedule,  more task oriented than clocking in hours at a desk. Thank goodness! Can anyone seriously picture me working out of a desk all day? My great schedule allows me to carve time for work with my non-profit organization, the Buhay Makulay Children’s Project Inc. (We’ve got a big annual event coming up soon!), for teaching Zumba classes, and hopefully soon to do some art and dance programming. It also allows me to be very involved with people and engage our workers, partners and potentially some new communities as well!

But yes, I’m feeling a little pressure to tone down my outfits. Just a little! I may slowly (with respect to my meager fresh-college-grad budget) acquire more “professional” articles of clothing. I figure I need a pair of pants that aren’t bright red, jaguar print, bright blue or severely distressed. Or shoes that aren’t bright yellow and tops that don’t have large, intentional tears straight down their backs.

Last week I went to a lunch meeting, (not directly for work, but for networking), and had no idea that I’d be at a place with a dress code. I maybe should’ve gotten a hint when I was told we were meeting at the “Executive Lounge,” but I guess I was in denial because I showed up in a pair of decent plaid shorts, but still shorts, and my trusty pair of barely-there, but very cute, turquoise sandals. When I arrived at the place I purposefully ignored what I think know was a large note about the dress code written in fluorescent pen. I think it may have said something about no shorts and no sandals… but I wouldn’t know, of course. I was ignoring it.

The beautiful and wonderfully accomplished women I had lunch with temporarily appeased my under-dressed woes by saying, “Enjoy the tropical weather!” knowing that I had sort of just returned from a country with four seasons, or “It’s okay, you just graduated!” But it certainly got me thinking about better dressing “the part” (whatever part that may be)– at least on the days when I am having important meetings! I should maybe stop showing up to things in sneakers, shorts, or happily faded and oversized tees.

I did ask one my bosses, who also happens to be someone I am related to – Do you care what I wear to work? No, he said, with an expression that seemed to think I was asking an odd question. This also happens to be the brother that both semi-scrutinizes and  semi-enjoys (I think) my outfits, articles of clothing and accessories by commenting that they are “interesting” or “strange.” Tee hee!

I’m an artist! It’s fine!” is what I’ve always reasoned for my choices of mismatching but matching ensembles. And I insist they always work. Often there is something colorful or loud about what I’m wearing, even if it’s just a pair of slender earrings that fall longer than my hair, or the vintage fork that is wrapped gracefully around my middle finger as a weapon ring.

I work with communities, non-profit organizations, foundations and communities that serve the less fortunate and people at risk. So it’s less about dressing professionally, but more about dressing appropriately and comfortably.

After moving back to Metro Manila, I was a little taken aback to rediscover that  life is a little more… conservative over here. My short jean shorts and torn up shirts have their place and I can’t just walk around the city, especial Makati, in whatever I please. College was such a tease! I felt like I could get away with wearing whatever I wanted! I’m now trying to discover ways to still use the clothes I have (since I don’t have the means or the desire to just shop shop shop for more), but show less skin, and at the same time not completely melt in the Filipino heat.

Yesterday I invested in two new pairs of pants, of the more basic persuasion. I found a simple pair of black skinny pants, but with super awesome but subdued leatherette detail running down the outer legs, and patched into the inside of the knees, like riding pants. Yup, pretty basic. I also love the men’s section and found a comfy pair of dark jeans, 50% off! (These purchases mean no more shopping till November, at least!) And here’s a new pair of boots I scored with a pair of gift certificates that I was given. (Couldn’t resist wearing my funky and bright flowery tights today! My idea of toning down my outfits??)  Glad to have another pair of shoes that allows for hours of painless walking, and even dancing too, if necessary! 😉

I think every morning my mom enjoys and possibly partially worries about what I might walk out of the house in. She lets me be since she knows that with the loss of many hours that I used to spend in the dance studio and the art studio,  the way I dress is one of the primary ways I am currently able to express myself.

The new year begins at Wheaton this week. For the first time this fall, I don’t have to think about new classes, I’m not thumbing through a syllabus or getting my work shifts sorted around my class schedule and dance rehearsals. I’m no longer a student for the first time since I was two and a half years old!

However, this is a great time to be home and a great time to be working- I’m busy, I’m doing things I enjoy and I’m beginning to get plugged into community. Not to mention, the Philippines is finally getting some positive reviews in the news! Despite another devastating season of rain and flood, the forecast for our economy is bright and flourishing. Read more about it here. Below is my favorite chunk of good news:

“Times are pretty good in the Philippines if you are young, skilled and live in the city. Young urban workers are helping to give the country its brightest prospects in decades, economists say.

With $70 billion in reserves and lower interest payments on its debt after recent credit rating upgrades, the Philippines pledged $1 billion to the International Monetary Fund to help shore up the struggling economies of Europe.

“This is the same rescue fund that saved the Philippines when our country was in deep financial trouble in the early ’80s,” said Representative Mel Senen Sarmiento, a congressman from Western Samar.

The Philippines has certainly had a steady flow of positive economic news recently. On July 4, Standard & Poor’s raised the country’s debt rating to just below investment grade, the highest rating for the country since 2003 and equivalent to that of Indonesia.

The Philippines is the 44th-largest economy in the world today,according to HSBC estimates. But if current trends hold, it can leap to the No. 16 spot by 2050. The Philippine stock market, one of the best performers in the region, closed at a record high after the recent S.& P. rating upgrade, and the country’s currency, the peso, reached a four-year high against the dollar at about the same time.”