Category Archives: art

12 x 12 x 12: reflections on a year-long creative challenge

On the cusp of 2022, I gave myself a challenge: paint one 12-inch square of wood each month using my kids’ left-over acrylic paints. 12 x 12 x 12.

Why give myself this challenge?

1. Big to small. My previous drawings were huge – three to four feet square, made with pastel and charcoal. Too expensive to frame. Too fragile to share. I love working big – I love the sense of moving inside a drawing as it comes to life around me – but I wanted to make portable pieces. In order to go small, I needed something ‘big’ to coax me along – a challenge.

2. Pastel to paint. Pastels and charcoal are messy. The pastel smears my hands, migrates to my face, and dusts the room. No matter how much I spray the finished drawing with fixative, particles fall, and the image fades. I wanted to make something more permanent – in a medium I didn’t know well – paint.  In order to learn new skills, I needed room to fail – twelve chances at getting something right.

3. Doable. Visual art is not my primary activity. I draw during bits of time at the end of the day, when I’m too tired to dance and over-saturated with words. I needed a challenge that would invite, not intimidate. Orient, not dominate. One I could pick up for twenty minutes and drop again.

The challenge worked. I made twelve pieces. During one busy stretch, I fell behind by nearly a month, but my challenge sat in the corner, calling me back, and I went. I learned how to prepare a wood surface and wield a brush, thick or thin, pointy or wide, wet or dry. I learned how to layer and blend, undo and redo, mix and separate. Seeing the twelve pieces together is immensely satisfying.

Still, the whole experience taught me so much more.  

1. “Suck” is the first part of success. With every painting, there was a moment I wanted to quit and give up. I had no idea what I was doing, no skill in doing it, and what was appearing beneath my brush was downright ugly. I was chasing beauty, taking huge chances with color and shape, and doubts hammered my brain. But I kept going – another color. Another pass. A different background. Until eventually, finally, something appeared that I liked. Every time, it felt like a miracle.

2. Hope kept me going. It wasn’t will power. It wasn’t faith in the process or the result or in myself. What kept me going were those flashing moments of joy – when a shape came to life beneath my brush. When paint slid thick in an even arc. When colors danced before my eyes. In such moments, I felt this joy as hope – as promises of more joy and beauty to come. I felt peace and excitement, ease and a desire to keep going. These blips of hope – the feeling of them, the memory of them, and my belief in my right to feel them – beckoned me on. I didn’t want to give up on one more splash of goodness. One more possible surprise.

3. Perspectives evolve. Even so, with three paintings in particular, I came to a point where the work felt finished, even though the piece was not as good as I wanted it to be. I had run the course of our relationship, and exhausted all hope. I had to let go. Nevertheless, as time passed, my perspective on these pieces shifted. I saw them anew – an intriguing shape I had overlooked, an angle of sight I missed. I flipped it upside down. Or someone else pointed something out – “That flower looks like it’s underwater,” Jordan says. All of a sudden, what seemed unredeemable wasn’t.

4. Risk-taking pays. Of the three paintings I consider the least good, all began with an intention to replicate what I had done the month before. Usually, I copied myself in the hope of skimming down an easy path to an end result I knew I’d like. Nope. As for the paintings I consider my best? Each began with a giant leap. I took a risk. I tried a new color. A new angle. A new technique. While not every risk I took produced something I liked, in my favorite three, something emerged beyond what I had imagined possible. And I love them for it.

5. I like pink. Usually I don’t. Pink is a ‘girl’ color — effeminate, vulnerable, exploited, objectified, and otherwise stripped of agency by the bearers of modern western culture. But when painting, I know otherwise. Pink is power – a jolt to my preferred blues, greens, and purples. Pink is a tart taste that pops. Pink moves my eye, my heart, my imagination, generating excitement. Some of my favorite works careen in and out, towards and away, round and round – propelled by girl-power pink. 

6. A rose is infinite. Eight of the twelve paintings are of roses. Seven take inspiration from the same rose. I studied it. The layers. The edges. The intimate core. The internal depth and outward display. My rose was dry, frozen in time, open yet closed, revealing yet hiding its depths. In my paintings, bands of color like topographical maps trace the world of a rose – one that rises and recedes, circles and contains. Roses are mountains – the deepest center the highest peak. Roses are waterfalls – cascading into whirlpools below. Roses are portals into the source of life. Roses are unfinished journeys.

7. I created a ritual. I did not set out to create a ritual. My challenge was prudent and practical: big to small, pastel to paint, 12 x 12 x 12. And yet, the movements of making soon assumed a singular cadence. Get fresh water, pull out the chair, choose a brush and color, and focus all my attention on one simple square. With devotion. For at least fifteen minutes. My mind calmed. My heart opened. It soon became clear. In these slats of time, I was doing more than painting. I was practicing a receptivity and openness I want to live every moment of every day — a resounding hope for what’s possible. I was marking out a square of time and space for love to swell, overflow, and carry me back to myself — a place to participate in the infinite revealing and receding of life. With a brush. A tube of paint. A piece of wood.

I miss it. Even today, as I look to the spot where I painted all twelve, an echo of joy beckons me back – a hope for more beauty to come.

What’s next?