Building an Artist’s Life: Jolie Guillebeau at TEDxConcordiaUPortland (Full Transcript)


Jolie Guillebeau – Artist, Therapist

Wow, you guys are amazing out there! I am so thrilled to be here with you and to be able to share my work with you today.

And now that I’m on stage, I thought we might re-arrange things a bit. I’m going to tell you the story of all 1000 plexiglass squares, one by one. It really shouldn’t take us more than four or five hours.

Now, really, I do want to tell you the story of these plexiglass squares, plus another one thousand paintings that I’ve created. But I have a feeling that you may appreciate it if I talked about them as a whole, rather than piece by piece. And that is exactly the point.

In 2009, I had a terrible year. I had been a high-school teacher for ten years, and I came to my senses and I went back to… I went back to school to fulfill my life goal of being an artist. And I was an amazing art student. But, once I finished the program, I promptly fell apart.

See, I had wanted to be an artist since I was 7 years old. And I was so close! But I didn’t know what to do next. So I did nothing! Seriously, I did nothing. I didn’t complete a painting the entire year. I was depressed and miserable, and I didn’t understand why, because I’d finally gotten the qualifications to call myself an artist. Except not really, because artists make art. That’s the very definition of the word. It’s a field that is defined by our actions, not by your qualifications. And I wasn’t making anything, so that degree was useless.

I was too hung up on the idea that, as an artist with a capital A, everything I made needed to be big and grandiose, and glorious. And since I only thought of simple ideas, I ignored them all. But in early 2010, I got fed up. and I determined that I would make something, anything, no matter how small, every single day. And I committed to this publicly.

On January 15th, I sent an email to all my friends and relatives describing my plans to paint 100 paintings in 100 days. Basically, I’d paint a small painting and tell the story about it and then send it out as an email newsletter to at list that grew eventually to be a few hundred people. It was little like a daily postcard. And out of those first 100 paintings, 87 sold.

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So now I was making things, and I was selling them. But I still didn’t feel like an artist. Because there was this voice of judgement and perfection in my head that said: “Real artists paint outdoors, in all sorts of weather.” “Real art requires sacrifice.” And I was only painting things that were fun or easy in my studio. So, I committed to another 100 paintings: Landscapes… outside. During the wettest summer on record. But I still didn’t feel like an artist. Because that voice said: “Real artists paint portraits!” So, I committed to another 100 paintings… Portraits.

Basically, every time that voice of judgement popped up I chased it instead of running from it, determined to prove it wrong. So I just kept painting. And this January, four years later, I completed my 1000th daily painting. Thank you! I’ve learned a few things along the way, one, small things repeated over time built into something bigger. I’m never going to be the kind of artist that wraps the Empire State Building in purples around it. I’m the kind of artist that paints dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of tiny paintings. I’m happiest when I’m painting small paintings of things that make me happy. And just the way that many many heartbeats build into a life, hundreds of small paintings can become something big, and grandiose, and glorious.

I am a lifelong bookworm, and when I’m not a bookworm, I’m a klutz. But two years ago, I started taekwondo. The first step when beginning taekwondo… googling the phone number to the taekwondo studio. The next step: working up the courage to call and make an appointment to visit. Ten steps after that I tried on the uniform for the first time. Dozens of classes and hundreds of kicks after that, I earned my first promotion to yellow belt. Yes, I repeated these beginner kicks and forms hundreds, maybe thousands of times since then.

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But every time they built into something bigger. They’ve become the first board break or new color belt. Next Saturday, at about this time, I’ll begin testing for my purple belt. And I have to tell you that I am more nervous about that than I was about standing on this stage. But I just have to trust that everything I’ve already learned, all those tiny steps, will build into exactly what I know I need to do.

The next thing I learned: Making lots of things makes it very clear what matters. I use plexiglass when I teach because it clarifies values as beginners are learning to draw. The clear plastic, the color plastic, eliminates the distracting details, so that you can see what really matters. It’s a visual filter. And in the same way, making a thousand paintings, a painting of thousand plexiglass squares, really clarifies what matters. And for me, what mattered was being an artist. Sometimes those paintings, those daily paintings, that email was sent out at midnight, because my day job and other things interfered.

But if I had to choose between a goodnight sleep and being an artist, I always chose art. The other thing I learned is that it’s not my job to judge the work. It’s only my job to make the work. When you’re painting a thousand paintings, you can’t be too critical because… if the paint drips in a funny way you have to just go with it. There’re thousands to complete and you can’t get picky about just one. There’s an arc to the process. Of these 1000 paintings, most are in the center of the curve. They are pretty good. Some, maybe they’re better than others, but, overall, they are pretty good. There’re a few, at the very top of that curve. and those are the ones where everything came together beautifully. The paint didn’t drip in a funny way, the plexiglass didn’t chip or crack.

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