Monday, December 17, 2012

Happy Surprises

I often write about story, in large part because my artwork is based on story. But there are layers of story that go beyond the artwork itself. When I began to exhibit my work, I realized that part of sharing my work also involved sharing my own story. I found that there is interest in an artist's story, perhaps because it is a path that is outside the scope of most people's experience.

So it dawned on me that I better figure out my own story if I was to share it. Some of the questions I had to be prepared to answer were why I did what I did, what was my process and what led me in this direction. Because my path was somewhat eclectic, I had to also explain how my prior life connected to what I now did. How did a person in finance become an artist? That in turn forced me to think about reinvention, both the new threads of my life and those which were consistent with my past experiences.

When I began to work on my interview series I found myself trying to distill other people's stories to a sound bite description. Now no one's life is quite that simple, but I do think we often have themes that are echoed throughout our life.

Sometimes we need to live enough of our life to see the patterns. What are we consistently drawn to? What factors drive our choices? And we need to examine the flip side as well. When we are drawn to something, does its opposite repel? I started my career with a social work degree and ran nonprofits. I discovered that I was good at creating something out of nothing. The more I had a blank slate, the more creative I could be. The flip side of that was when no one was exerting control over me, telling me how something must be done, it freed me to find a path that made sense to me. Just as I welcomed the blank slate, I rejected being controlled. Now one doesn't always have a choice early in one's career, but I understood early on the environment in which I flourished. I have often said I like rules, but only if they make sense. That means I have to vet them or create them. I found I had a talent for devising systems that worked and what are systems, but rules and structure. I liked solving the puzzle and figuring out a way for it to continually solve itself through a system that made sense. And solving puzzles is a way to exert control over one's life, to make sense of it.

Along the way I found myself in a situation where someone tried to use their knowledge to exert control over me in the realm of finance. I decided I better learn about finance so no could ever take advantage of me. Off I went to get an MBA in finance. I suspect my motivation was uniquely female as I doubt that most men are drawn to finance as a defensive move. Once again, having control over my life became the driver. Or better yet, no one else holding that control. Financial knowledge has proven valuable throughout my life and finance proved to be a career that actively engaged me in puzzles to solve.

The other part of my personal equation has been story. Back in the days when I was running nonprofits I was involved in fundraising. Now fundraising is all about story and it requires you to tell your story authentically and with passion, important aspects of storytelling. When I went into finance I discovered there was also story. On a broader level the story was about the larger purpose of the business and how it fit within society. The balance sheet told a story if one knew how to read it. Occasionally one sees a business that really seems to have a soul, a central core that guides them, not just lip service, but something real. When it does, it is usually because a key person in leadership can articulate the story and engage others in it. They can connect the story of the company to the individual stories of their customers and employees.

Story has always been present in my life, but it was only when I focused on my artwork that I began to realize how central it would be to my work, how powerful it was in reaching others.

So my story is very much about solving puzzles and telling stories, perhaps as a way to understand my world, to make it make sense. First I solve the puzzle, then I explain it to others through story. I've learned there is another element that I didn't anticipate. It is a late arrival to the table and ironically the opposite of control. I have become a believer in surprises. I have found that if one relaxes into life and welcomes the unknown, interesting things will happen. I came to this lesson later in life because I was much too busy trying to force the pieces to fit prior to then. My story since has often been one of happy surprises. Now this doesn't mean that I just wait around for surprises to hit. I am a big believer in maintaining momentum and positioning oneself during those lulls while we wait for the universe to help assemble the pieces. But I must confess that I've become downright mystical about how life unfolds despite the fact that I am a very "feet on the ground" person.

So when I get up to tell my story it is about the common threads that link my varied pursuits, telling stories and solving puzzles. It has a touch of magic to it as well, with things unfolding in unexpected ways. Keep in mind, I am a studier of magic. When I was a kid my brother did magic shows for children's birthday parties. I used to sneak into his room and examine those hidden mirrors that made the trick work. Now I examine my own surprises looking for the mirrors, trying to understand how they happened. And I have learned that while there are things that one can do to help the likelihood along, there is still some magical spark that sets it in motion. Those happy surprises reinforce for me that I am on the right path, doing something that is personally meaningful and contributing on a larger level.



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