May 13, 2015

4 Ways Art & Life are a Series of “Mistakes.”

Jennifer Painting

A child recently asked me what I did for a living.

I responded with my overgeneralized answer, “I am an artist,” as I’ve found that seems to be a determining factor as to whether people slink away from me assuming I’m a flighty and weird, or if it piques their interest enough to learn more (those people usually end up being fellow artists and kindred spirits).

“That’s your job?!” she asked, somewhat astonished, and then continued, “Well, my parents say that art is nothing more than trying to make the best of life’s mistakes.”

Gut punch. As a passionate artist who lives, eats and breathes art of multiple mediums, my first reaction was heart-struck defensiveness.

“They… they said that?” I didn’t know what else to say; I had never heard anything like that before. Could my most grand passion in life be nothing more than a whole bunch of mistakes?

After I lowered my defensive guard, that short conversation prompted a title-wave of introspective ponderings on what art really is, to me. I mean, on a more specific level, I was aware of what art did “to me” and “for me.” I was well aware of what intention I put into my art. But I had never, ever, entertained the idea that art was a series of cover-ups for things gone wrong. I started looking hard at my process; how my art developed and evolved within each individual piece as well as over time across works and mediums.

It then made me question “what really is a mistake?”

Dictionary.com defines it as “an error in action, calculation, opinion, or judgment caused by poor reasoning, carelessness, insufficient knowledge, etc.”

Breaking it down, “judgment” is close-mindedness, whether one is judging a person, something or a future outcome. When we judge, we envelope things in our own narrow subjective perspective laden with inherent expectations. And “reasoning” or rational thinking is over-rated.

One of my favorite Zen proverbs is “Let go or be dragged.” Sometimes it takes just releasing the stronghold of the perceived control that one has on their life, trusting in the heart’s ability to lead the way, and enjoying the scenery along the journey. And then “carelessness” and having “insufficient knowledge” is part of life. We all do our very best with the tools and information that we have at our disposal at that time.

So then I started looking more at the philosophical idea of a “mistake”—the broader implications of what people perceive as mistakes, and, more importantly, how they serve us in life.

They teach us, they keep life interesting, they open our eyes to other, sometimes better paths (detours, so to speak), they allow us to see different perspectives, they humble us and they remind us that life isn’t governed by a plan, no matter how hard we try to impose order.

So, in essence, a mistake is what controlling people who live in the past label aspects of life that don’t go as planned or as expected.

And then it hit me. According to my new definition of mistake, stripped away from the negative connotations that the word has grown to inherit, she was right, but not necessarily in the way she she and her parents had intended.

Mistakes don’t exist in the reality of an artist.

If one chooses to look back and judge life based on their subjective perspectives, expectations and the inability to predict the future, then the vast majority of life could be considered a constant string of mistakes. Otherwise, looking from an artist’s perspective, life is sheer perfection in its organic and unpredictable unfolding and arrangement. As is art.

So this idea of “mistake” actually made me open my eyes to view art and life with a much more grandiose appreciation.

1. In life and art, you can’t force things. That which unfolds in a purely organic manner tends to blossom into a whole new level of beauty that simply could not be planned. You can fight, you can resent it, but then you would completely miss the grand beauty in the unexpected as it arises naturally.

2. You can appreciate it all so much more when you go with the flow. It’s wonderful to have intentions as you dance your way through life… but then let go and grant that intention the space to evolve. You’ll find yourself much less frustrated when you’re not constantly fighting the intangible of your own expectations. Before I start a painting, I sit and meditate on my intention—what of me I’m putting into it and what I would like to pour from it. As I put paint to canvas, I give it room so that it may take on a life of its own from the seeds of my intention.

3. If you’re busy white-knuckle grasping at your immutable, static expectation of how life and your art should be, or pouting that it didn’t follow suit, you’ll miss a more beautiful detour. As a family photographer, I’ve learned that true beauty is in the candid. The smile of a child when they see a lady bug on a flower is worlds different than when their mom bribes with with candy to smile at the camera.

4. In life and art we limit ourselves by our past experience and our forethought. We use those two tools to impose order—our natural tendency as humans. Thus we tend to repeat the same experience or the same kind of art over and over again. It’s when we prostrate ourselves to the unknown that we are presented with the opportunity to grow from challenges and anticipate the unexpected outcome.

As for those people whose lives are governed by their narrow expectations—who truly feel that “art is nothing more than making the best out of life’s mistakes”—we artists are there to beautify their limited reality. We are there to mitigate their frustrations of self-imposed delusions and turn them into illusions of grandeur. To color the world with our openness, exposing the vast infinite between, and far beyond, the dichotomies of “being correct” and “making a mistake.”

We artists of varying mediums and of life don’t make mistakes—we live.
Bob Ross, Mistakes in life, birds


Past Mistakes, Present Opportunities.


Author: Jennifer K. Jones

Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photos: Imgur.com, Author’s own.

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