Unclouded Eyes

The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

“My six year old could do that,” a woman behind me remarks. I feel a twinge of irritation, but I don’t blame her; a few years ago, I would’ve agreed. To the average eye, Grace Hartigan’s work of Abstract Expressionism, The Gallow Ball, appears to be a splotchy mess of dripping colors.

I grew up belittling the work of world-renowned contemporary artists, baffled at their lofty prices. I believed that art should be beautiful or meaningful, and never understood how indecipherable images fit either description. Creating abstract art myself was out of the question—until last year, when a painting caught my eye as I was browsing online for inspiration for my AP Art portfolio. It was a painting that I normally would’ve dismissed as child’s work, but the longer I looked at it, the more captivated I became. I marveled at how a simple composition could evoke such strong emotions within me, and yearned to create something that could affect others as much as this painting had affected me.

My first attempt was acrylic on canvas. I did my research—spent days studying paintings and reading about the history, practice, and techniques of modern art. As I dipped my brush in paint and raised it to the canvas, I tried to imitate the techniques that I’d seen. Neither the process nor the result was enjoyable; I struggled constantly, and my product was a hot mess that lacked direction. Two hours and several canvases later, I bitterly vowed to never pick up a brush again.

The brush was back in my hand within an hour. I’d judged abstract artists for the seemingly minimal thought and effort that they put into their work, but now I’d learned the hard way that creating abstract art isn’t as simple as it seems. This time, instead of letting preconceived ideals limit me, I let my emotions take over. When I finally stepped back from the easel, I felt a sense of satisfaction. My work was far from a masterpiece, but I knew that the experience was a success because I’d learned about both art and myself. I’d always thought of myself as adventurous and open-minded for my love of traveling and trying new foods, and with art, I’d enjoyed experimenting with different mediums and styles. But I realized that everything I’d tried was within my comfort zone, and that there’s more to being open-minded than merely doing new things. True acceptance comes from the genuine desire to learn and understand.

Today, Contemporary Art Daily is one of my most visited sites, and I make a beeline for the modern exhibitions at art museums. Art is no longer confined to my original ideals of representational beauty. Although I still can’t claim to be a master of abstract art, I am a much more receptive person than I was before. I can now visit any contemporary art museum and thoughtfully stroke my chin while discussing work with critics. But even further, I can meet strangers with different backgrounds and perspectives and not only get to know them, but consider why they think as they do. My initial failure to appreciate abstract art taught me not to judge before I attempt to understand, and to respect even what I may never understand.

Now, as I stand in my local art museum, I fully appreciate The Gallow Ball. That lady may have seen a meaningless mess of colors, but I see lively movement and energy portrayed through bold brushstrokes backed with emotion. I see the details and layering as I clearly distinguish Hartigan’s techniques in each deliberate mark. Now I see through unclouded eyes.

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