What I learned from Taylor Swift on Friday

My 16 year old stepdaughter, Reesa, asked me last weekend over Google Hangout if I’d watched the new Taylor Swift documentary yet. I hadn’t, and we agreed that we’d both watch it as homework before we talked again.

I made a date with a friend and we cozied up on the couch with a laptop, college-style, to watch the doc. 

I won’t bore you with a complete analysis of the film (some takeaways were that I loved Taylor’s mom’s giant dog, and somehow my sympathies became aligned more with Kanye as a result of the movie…). 

What I will say from this: Taylor Swift works hard. The best parts of the movie showed her in the studio with various producers, coming up with songs and building on them. Her voice was far from perfect as she imagined up the riffs that later in the film would be featured on center stage. She would get stuck mid-song, on lyrics or on what happens next. She’d refer back to an audio recording she’d made on her phone at 4am when inspiration had struck. Lots of times in her studio, it didn’t look like she was doing much of anything at all – but she was present.

I know this to be true: it’s not those with the most talent that go the furthest in their careers. Talent helps, but can also exist in a basement with no food/water or audience, and not go very far at all. I don’t believe that talent necessarily has to be tied to exposure to be worthy. But talent will not get “discovered” if it’s not accessible in the first place.

So you have all kinds of artists – musicians, actors, and yes visual artists – that sure, have talent, but more than that, they are diligent and committed to their work. It’s hard to say how much of Taylor’s knack for creating a damn near perfect pop song is pure talent, because she’s been doing this at a professional level since she was a kid. But she has the discipline down.

For little old me in my clean, sunny studio way up in Alaska, I’ve been learning more about painting. As I paint more routinely than I have ever in my life, averaging about a painting every two weeks, I’m noticing that my paintings have become less fastidious. They’re not rushed. But, interestingly, as I’m more focused on carving out and committing to just sitting down and working, I’m creating a kind of muscle memory when it comes to painting similar scenes. 

McRoberts Fall

This recently completed painting is a great example of this. Before, I would have painstakingly studied and recreated each cranberry leaf on the tundra. This time though, I figured out the basic patterning and applied it myself. It seems like there is a lot more movement than there otherwise would have been.

I see and paint patterns now, whereas before I clung to the photograph I’m working from as my see-all-know-all guide. I still use the photograph, but now it’s to discern those patterns, studying the light, color, and landscape. My paintings are starting to embody more movement; they appear a little bit less fixed. It seems like there is more life in them.

Isn’t it interesting that more work results in less work, in a way? By studying and practicing constantly, I’m freeing up more interpretation of my own because I’m gaining better technical practice. 

So – thank you, T Swift, and other artists who inspire me – not just from what you put out there in the world, but how you just buckle down and do it.

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