Last week, I was invited to chat with Jennifer Brown, director of BACA Wines. In what has now become a common interview platform in this age of COVID, we spoke over Instagram Live. After talking about my professional journey (and talking about wine with Jennifer!), we opened the chat up to questions. Some of the questions kept me thinking long past the initial discussion, so I thought it would be fun to explore them further, particularly those questions pertaining to reinvention and regret.
When I was younger, I never felt like I was meant to be an artist. I grew up in an environment with a heavy focus on academic success, and although I painted as a hobby, the idea of painting professionally was never considered. I went on to study history at Yale (which I loved – often I wonder if should have been a history professor), then law at Stanford, and I began a career as a lawyer in NYC at a white-shoe firm shortly thereafter. Although not forced upon me, it felt as though this was the path that was expected of me, and I followed accordingly.
I would paint watercolors on the side, whenever my career afforded me the free time to do so. I even painted some wedding and baby shower invitations for friends and family. But that was really the extent of it.
Eventually I moved back to Boston and worked at a smaller firm with a boss I adored. Although I had a nice career with a fancy-looking CV, I was unhappy. I felt as though I was not making my mark on the world, whatever that meant at the time. And, day to day, I didn’t always love what I was doing.
Then my brother bought me an easel and oil paints and canvases for my birthday and Christmas (they are five days apart) and told me I had talent (very nice of him since I had never painted in oils … ) and that I should really try to see if I liked the medium.
So I tried it. And I liked it. And then I loved it. I read so many books on landscape painting. I looked at YouTube and most of all, I experimented ALL the time with different techniques. I did not paint well when I first started. I wasn’t sure about perspective. I didn’t know about gesso or underpainting or how to clean my brushes. Almost from the beginning though, I cared about color. And texture. The colors and the layers had to be “right” on the canvas. And I kept layering and layering until I was satisfied. I was working all the time – practicing law and then painting in the evenings and on weekends. And it just sort of started to click. My friends were meeting men and having babies. I wanted to meet someone but more often than not I ended up just working on how to become a better painter.
My two older brothers bought all of my early works, which were probably (mostly) garbage but showed maybe some early eye or talent for color. And I always had my own voice when painting. I didn’t care really in the beginning how my stuff looked because I wasn’t “supposed” to be a painter after all. I wasn’t trained! I think that gave me a lot of freedom to break some rules. I wasn’t bound by shoulds. Now of course, as a full time artist, I am much harder on myself and much more aware of how my work is perceived by the average viewer and by more traditional art gatekeepers (art advisors, curators, jurors). But still, what a blessing. I know I am very lucky. This is a career I had never even entertained as an option in my teens and twenties.
I am often asked, and I often think about, whether I regret the path I was on prior. If I wish I could take back the decade of schooling and working I spent without taking a single art class. If I wish I could have just jumped into painting sooner – in high school even. If I think putting myself into massive debt to go to law school, only to then quit the profession altogether, was a massive mistake. No, no, no. no. I have few regrets. And I don’t see those choices as mistakes at all. Everything I’ve done in my past has made me who I am today, every step I took was, in fact, a step in this direction, even though it may not immediately appear so. To regret what you cannot change is just wasted energy.
As you move forward, and you enter a new career or you otherwise reinvent yourself or leave a relationship, you come to realize that everything you’ve done along the way has gotten you to where you are now. You are you. Now. With all the layers. Every choice I made simply informs who I am now, and I think about that in my art too, as I paint multiple textured layers, one on top of the other, to create some of my favorite pieces. Every mark and color and form I add to the canvas is not a mistake, even if it is entirely painted over, as the texture remains and informs the next layer. Most of my best works are three to five full paintings painted on top of one another - in essence, each layer informs the next, both in my works and in my life.
Across my website and Instagram (and below in this post!) there are several paintings that have multiple layers of paint informing the final layer. Can you spot them? Hint: click on each piece to find out!
In the next few months, I’ll be breaking ground on my dream studio (more on this soon!), a goal I had set for myself early on along this path. To me it was an indicator of success, one of the key moments that would tell me I’ve made it as an artist. I expected it would take 15-20 years or more, yet here we are less than ten years later. Less than a decade after my brother gave me an easel and oil paint for Christmas and believed in me enough to set me on this journey.
And finally, along that note, that is my real big advice to all of you out there. Surround yourself with positivity. My own voice may be negative at times – we all have a bit of imposter syndrome or doubt every now and again – but when I listen to my friends or family or see how my daughter looks at me (or witness my dog looking at my work haha), all of it is overwhelmingly positive. You have to surround yourself in life with people who think you’re amazing! It’s one of the best ways to respond to the small voice that sometimes tells you you’re not good enough.
I will be speaking at Lesley University as part of its signature Strauch-Mosse Visiting Artist Lecture Series on the evening of April 14 (https://lesley.edu/news/lesley-announces-spring-2021-speakers). More on that through my Instagram account @juliaspowellart, website, and my next newsletter. My talk will delve deeper into regret and reinvention and roads taken and not taken! And there will be lots of time for questions.
Can’t wait to chat more! Thanks for reading – and responding. I appreciate you all so much!
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