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The Path of Frustration

defeated by basic woodworking

I think of myself as a calm, patient person. It's not self-deception, for the most part. At not one, not two, but three different jobs I've worked over the years, I've been told I have a 'calming effect' in stressful situations.

But every calm person has their breaking point, and funnily enough, it's not the biggest problems that ultimately undo the calm personality. It's the tiniest hairline fractures that suddenly break wide open and leave you staring into a mocking mirror-universe of your former rational self.

I'll tell you about mine.

I have a lot of completed paintings in my studio*. Most of them are on stretched canvas; all are unframed. Most of the time I'm fine with that. I finish my edges in black so that everything is ready to hang sans frame. There are some display and sale settings, however, where no frame is a non-starter.

The first time you price framing, it's a good idea to hang out near a swooning sofa. Framing is a big upfront cost for an artist, and your best bet is to pass that cost right along to somebody else. When that's not an option, you have to either come up with the cash yourself and hope you make good, or do what I just did and try your hand at woodworking.

I'm not one of those people who is naturally good at things. The thing I'm best at, actually, is trying to become okay at things I have no natural talent for. So I wasn't intimidated by the idea of making my own frames, even though I've never been a woodworker.  I studied some online tutorials, had a chat with my dad about measuring twice, cutting once, and using a T-square, and patted myself on the back. On the internet, everything looks so simple. Talking to your dad, everything seems so doable. I've followed instructions before; I can do it again.

Fast forward to a pile of wooden squares on my table, stacked haphazardly like skeletons in a horror movie. Not a single corner that aligns with any other, despite my borderline neurotic measuring and triple-checked calculations. I tried mitered corners. I tried square corners. I tried a hacksaw. I tried a jigsaw. I tried wood glue. I tried using corner brackets. Nothing worked.

it is impossible to explain this

My frustration right now is like a perfect storm, the confluence of three separate dimensions of disappointment coming together to make a monster.

  • Framing my paintings is not supposed to be the big obstacle. Making the paintings is supposed to be the part that requires sweat, tears, and monk-like devotion. I had expected it to be a straightforward process, one in which if I followed all the prescribed steps, I would get a predictable result. So now I'm disillusioned. Blind-sided.

  • I have now spent several entire afternoons on this endeavor and am no closer to solving my framing problem. I am out of practical, frugal ideas.

  • My whole self-concept is falling apart. I thought I was like Special Agent Gibbs, from NCIS—a person who, if the notion took me, could theoretically build an entire wooden boat in my basement using only 18th century hand tools. I don't expect to become a master of any craft in a few afternoons, but I always believed, based on my past experiments (with weaving, furniture refinishing, wheel-throwing, batik-dying, etc) that with a few afternoons of effort I could make reasonable progress on a beginner project in almost any area. Building a frame requires, basically, taking four cuts of wood and assembling them into a square or rectangle. This isn't high-level boat craft. It's something a child should be able to achieve in the arts-and-craft cabin at camp. And I have utterly failed. So who does that make me now?

  • these pieces of wildly different lengths were all supposed to belong to the same frame...

    I realize how overwrought this sounds. The distress of minor failure is the epitome of 'not a real problem'. But the emotion is real, if (hopefully) fleeting, and that's why I'm sharing it. I think it's common, if you're a do-it-yourself type, or a creative person, to try and to fail, and to sometimes take that failure to heart.

    And to hide both the failure and the frustration.

    We show what we're proud of. Our successful projects, our stories of successful problem-solving. And when we do share our failures, we put a gloss of lightheartedness over it, like it never really bothers us when our skills are inadequate to our ambitions. When our skills are inadequate even to the little side-tasks that come with the big, ambitious project.

    But I know a lot of creative people, artists and writers, and I know that sometimes the obstacles truly are demoralizing in the moment. Eventually, we find a work-around, or build up our skill set, and then we have a nice story to tell about a challenge we met on the road to where we are today.

    But let's be honest: there are moments in the middle when the road from Point A to Point B is just a dark path of frustration. Stupid frustration. Frustration that took you by surprise. And those moments can be so unexpected, and so overwhelming, that you're tempted to throw your entire work-in-progress out the window, call yourself an impostor, and quit for good.

    And I know there are plenty of people who have quit for good.

    Because they were new to the process, and hadn't had much experience feeling their way through doubt. Because they felt alone in that territory. Because they didn't realize that everybody flounders and fails, again and again, along the way to the well-lit Instagram photoshoot of the Wonderful Thing They Made.

    The whole point of this blog is to talk about frustration. I've seen enough of the aspirational, the inspirational, the faux-effortless. Life isn't like that. We are not brands. We are not glossy, finished products. We are not curated lifestyles. We are not consumables. We are not design.

    We are people, and our movements through life are full of error, full of painful reckoning, full of frustration. Just like they've always been. When we emerge, briefly, into moments of accomplishment, beauty, joy and love, it's like coming up for air after being underwater. These moments are so sweet, so life-sustaining, because they exist in the context of our ongoing difficulties. Let's not edit the story into flat marketing copy.

    Our stories have room for everything. Room for success and room for failure. Room for the murky, ambiguous space in between. Room for the minor setbacks as well as the life-altering tragedies. Room for the achievers who sometimes lose, and the losers who sometimes achieve.

    In a few days I'll revisit the problem of frames. For now I'm going to go do something I know will work out exactly as planned. Like washing dishes or feeding the fish. Just to rebuild my ego. I'm not ready to throw in the towel on this project, but I am ready to be a little more humble the next time I try something new.

    *I don't have a studio. By 'paintings in the studio' I mean 'paintings leaning against each other on top of bookshelves all over my house'.

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