A little over ten years years ago I was asked to contribute a short comic to an anthology benefiting a children’s hospital. The organizers requested the contributors draw what they used to draw as kids.
It took me some time to remember what that was. I had spent years focused first on developing foundational skills, and then on reaching a professional level of skill, and then on building a portfolio and getting enough work to support myself. I chased after a couple of specific dreams I had (working on Magic cards and working in video games) and was successful at achieving those dreams. I had some serious personal projects underway and felt a sense of purpose and a responsibility to use art to explore issues of great importance to me.
But when I thought back to remember the things I drew most, I was transported to a time when I didn’t question what my art said about me.
I drew pegacorns.
I drew them because I was trying to decide what colors I would want to be, and my friend Lucy drew them too. Because we were about to go outside and be pegacorns. We needed to agree on what we looked like so we could most fully imagine our pegacorn existence.
As I remembered the stories we made up about ourselves, the adventures we had, I realized there was a lightness there that my very serious grownup art didn’t contain. My pegacorns were serious; they tended to be orphans with secret royal heritage who needed to fight evil princes and regain their thrones, or captives being forced to labor in mines, plotting their escape. But more important was the selection of colors for their wings, manes, and tails.
I didn’t care how anyone would interpret my drawings. I was simply playing.
The comic I ended up making, trying to create a little gift to my 10-year-old self, has been featured on Muddy Colors before, shortly after its publication. The process was filled with so much joy! I felt totally free from my grown up desire to have deeply meaningful and important messages in my work.
It was so much fun I wondered why I wasn’t painting pegacorns, and I started a series I’d come back to again and again.
I found the process of painting what was important to the kid I was, applying my adult and highly-trained level of skill and imagining how much that younger self would love what I can do now. She wouldn’t have nitpicks about my technique. She’d even be impressed by my color choices. I think she’d look at the pegacorns in these paintings and immediately run outside to be them.
I enjoyed the process so much I painted a big one, “Starstuff” – 30 x 40 inches, so the little girl I was could have stood in front of this and felt completely immersed. I was telling her that her interests and imaginary worlds were worthy of an adult’s full attention. I really felt like I was unleashing an arsenal of skills, that suddenly the entire reason I spent so many years studying was to kneel down face to face with that childhood self and say “You matter.”
That piece hangs in my office to remind me I that I did not begin my art journey to be A Good Artist. As important as it is to use art to explore meaningful topics, sometimes what I need to do is just play.
What would you paint, as a gift to your childhood self?