A few weeks back, I was honored to be interviewed by my friend Saundra Goldman for her workshop, the Heroines Journey. You can learn more about Saundra and her work here.
I wanted to share this, as it really provides great background on my process and how I got to the place where I am feeling safe enough to try painting as a full time career. Enjoy!
Interview with Ann Flemings
I met our third and final Heroine’s Journey interviewee at the Creative Mix Meet-Up in Austin. I was impressed that a woman in her fifties had taken the plunge and recommitted her life to art after a thirty-year hiatus. I knew she would have an inspiring tale to tell, that she had courageously crossed a threshold that many of us long to bridge.
As synchronicity would have it, during the week we consider a turn toward our feminine aspect, Ann speaks of not only returning to her passion of painting, but also returning to the domestic sphere, the pleasures of tending to home and family.
Saundra: Tell me about your first career, before you started painting.
Ann: I graduated from college with the intent to be a graphic designer. I was probably a fine artist at heart, but I wasn’t sure how to make a living doing that. I wanted to have an income, so I went to school for graphic design.
After I graduated, I realized I didn’t love it enough to follow through. I tried outdoor advertising and even painted billboards for a while. I always had a business sense about advertising and morphed into the marketing side of things, which landed me a position with a little construction company. Then I realized I wanted to be more involved with people, and I got a job with a direct mail house.
At that point I decided to go back to school and get my degree in sociology and counseling, which morphed into getting work in the nonprofit field. I ran a transportation grant for people with disabilities in a small nonprofit in Pennsylvania. They invited me to apply for the recently vacated director of development position because of my marketing background and my success with this little program. And so I did, and that’s how I got involved in fundraising and development, and that became a twenty-plus year career for me. I moved from nonprofit into a small liberal arts college environment, and then up to a research institution, and eventually was recruited to UT Austin in 2007.
I had great success with that career. It was a wonderful blend of my business skills and my creativity. I was interested in how you influence people to do things through visual conversations, in addition to personal conversations.
During this whole process I made crafts and other creative endeavors, but it was always background noise. And then, as my career grew, I back-storied all of my art and I was no longer even drawing or painting or doing crafts, because I simply had no time. At this point I met my husband, had a child, and life became focused on the tasks at hand, with my family and with my professional life. There was no room for creativity.
Around 2011 I decided to take a small workshop at Laguna Gloria, and that reinvigorated everything for me. It reminded me where my heart was. I was inspired by my classmates, who were squeezing out creativity in whatever way they could. One gentleman had two children and was painting in his bathroom because it was the only space he could carve out in his house. I was so impressed with that, I thought, “Well I have a whole spare bedroom.” So I carved out a corner and began focusing on having a space where I could create. I wasn’t setting aside every Thursday evening or any other structure. The space was there and I could come to it when I need to.
That nugget grew for me and planted a seed of discontent with the rest of my professional life. There was something in that space that was very special to me.
Eventually, I started thinking about what it would mean if I bumped down my professional life, maybe take of a part-time position, if that would be a possibility.
I threw it out to the proverbial universe and sure enough an opportunity came along at the university, an opportunity for a part-time position with the music school. I had always worked in the technical fields, so this field was closer to my heart and it was a part-time opportunity, and it had no long-term kind of commitments, which was frightening to me. I turned fifty somewhere in there and kept asking myself, “What do you want to do with your life? What’s really important?” Where would I put my energy and what would matter in the end game? What would I think about on my deathbed?
All of that contributed to my decision to take this insecure part-time position. Then two and a half years later the contract for the music position came to an end. I had opportunities to take other positions, but I decided at that point I wanted to take the risk and see what happened if I focused even more time on my art. That was six-month ago.
Saundra: That’s a useful model and progression, because it begins by dipping in your toe. You’re not going to change your life completely and all of the sudden. You start with a little workshop and then you ask a question, rather than make a decision.
What obstacles have you faced in making the leap? Internal as well as external.
Ann: The external obstacles of course were financial. That was big. My husband was supportive and without that financial piece, I don’t think I would have been able to take the leap, either the part-time position or putting the professional paycheck aside. For people who have to be the breadwinner, it’s more challenging.
But then I came up against my own blocks. I started asking, Who I am as a person and a professional?
Would I be able to survive not having the validation of going to a professional space every day and working with a team, being part of a bigger community? What would that feel like for me?
I had to think those things through and test them, and that’s what the part-time position allowed me. I had to figure out if in fact I could separate from that professional, hard-driving type A person, versus being an artist. Frankly I’m still dealing with that. My inbox doesn’t have any urgent emails in it anymore. What does that mean? My identity for so long was wrapped up my professional world.
I’ve become more comfortable with it now. I can think of many ways you can live a fulfilling, important life, but I’m still struggling. I love being here for my son, to help him on the front end and the back end of his day in a way that’s not stressful. When I was trying to get to work at 8:00 and get home by 6:00, I was squeezing everything else in around the edges, and now I have time, which has been a huge blessing to the family.
It’s been lovely to be able to make life better for my family. However, sometimes I feel that’s such a small piece of the contribution to the greater good, and I have to remind myself that that these small blocks are really, really important. I mean somebody has to raise the children, somebody has to keep the family together. And I think women do make things better. I don’t mean that in a traditional division of labor by gender. Women in the workplace make things better because of the way we relate and make connections. We smooth the edges.
If I do ever go back into the professional life, I’ll approach it differently because I appreciate so much more the contribution that women do bring to the table. We are not as honored as I think we should be, and that makes me sad sometimes.
Saundra: When you’re looking at obstacles to the work, so many women have spent time, not only raising their children, but taking care of their parents. Terrific sacrifices have been made. But it’s also interesting to hear your point of view. You’re actually reclaiming a piece of your home life.
We’re always moving these pieces around the board, trying to see how they’re going to work together — art, life, livelihood. Some women can handle all three simultaneously. For the reset of us, we can have it all, but maybe not all at once.
Ann: “You can have it all” – I cut my teeth on that phrase in the eighties.
But I don’t know now anybody can have it all. I think you have to figure out what’s important to you. I’ve got a limited amount of energy to give across my day/week/month/life, and where do I want to spend that?
I was pouring myself into my job, and I was successful. I had a couple of great teams and raised a huge amount of money. I’m proud of what I’ve accomplished, but I look back and it was so exhausting. I gave myself at the price of missing time with my son or exploring that artistic element that I had to abandon earlier on in my career.
Stability and security have always been important in my life. Now that I have that, what choices will to do the most good?
I believe presence is our greatest gift. And presence is love, being there. What and who do you want to love? I love my husband and my son, but then part of it is being courageous enough to love yourself.
Sometimes for women it’s really hard. Maybe for men, too, but for women I think it’s hard to say, “I choose you.” I went through this and still feel selfish sometimes because I have so much time to focus on my creative life.
Saundra: It’s common. I get this from students and clients a lot. They tell me, “I feel selfish. I don’t deserve it.” So I think this is a wonderful message, to love and choose yourself.
Ann:. I still find myself trying to overcompensate. I’ll do the taxes, all the grocery shopping, all the cooking, and then I get burned out. You have to be conscious of all of this.
Saundra: Did you have any mentors or role models in this process?
Ann: I have two people I would consider mentors. One is an older female artist who I visited with back in last fall. I wasn’t looking for a mentor at the time, just a conversation about art and how she had become successful. But it turned into a critique of my work, which I wasn’t prepared for.
It was good, and I love her for it, but I’m still recovering.
And then I met with an international artist from Britain, who helped me gain some perspective. “Look,” he said. “Your son is in fifth grade and he’ll probably graduate and then go to college, so you’ve got about seven years to figure out where you fit in the art community, and to hone your skills.” He helped me back up and look at the long-term and to take some pressure off.
Saundra:. I want to say something about the first encounter. In the writing world, this kind of thing happens all the time. You go to some workshop and all of a sudden you’re being critiqued when you’re not ready. Natalie taught me that it takes time to build spine and trust so that you know how to filter the comments you’re getting. Also, I tell people when they get critiqued, they should put the comments away for at least forty-eight hours, maybe longer. Set it aside long enough to get your ego out of the way, and then come back and see what’s relevant and what’s not relevant.”
I do like the long-term perspective. Someone asked Julia Cameron, “If I start learning to play the piano now, it’s going to take me ten years to get any good.” And she said, “But if you don’t start now, in ten years you won’t be anywhere.”
Ann: Right. If you look at that seven-year time frame, he was not saying stop everything.
Saundra: No, he was saying give yourself some space.
Ann:. With creative work, you can’t push it. It’s such a process that it’s maddening in some ways for somebody like me who’s results-driven. You want to put your time in and get X, but with this, you put your time in and you might get X, but you might not.
Saundra: It becomes about the time you put in.
Ann: I’m coming to that. It’s the only thing you can focus on and do, the only thing you can control.
Saundra: It’s the only thing that you can measure in terms of getting it done or not. You just show up.
Ann: In Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Big Magic, she talks about the concept of the muse and how up until the Renaissance, the muse and the genius were outside the artist. Only in the Renaissance was genius thought to reside within the artist. When we remove that ego piece, it relieves the burden from your shoulders. You’re not responsible for the good, the bad, and the ugly that you’re producing, only for showing up.
Saundra: One last question. What one piece of advice would you give my students who are trying to reclaim their creative work, whether it’s writing or painting or making music?
Ann: I think it goes back to the first thing we talked about: Dip in your toe in and keep it there.
Saundra: I like the add-on, “and keep it there.”
Ann: If you keep going back and forth, I don’t think you get any traction to see if it’s something that’s right for you, if it’s going take hold.