2011 Summer Interview Series,  Thoughts

2011 Summer Interview Series | Mandy Steward @ Messy Canvas

I don’t remember when I found Mandy’s blog, Messy Canvas, but I know that it was through Kasie’s blog and I was instantly hooked. She asked the tough questions and even if questions weren’t being asked her commentary always gave me more to devour and digest. There are writers behind the blogs that you just wish you could know a little bit better and so that I why I chose Mandy for part of the interview series this summer. Enjoy!

First off, give us an idea of who you are, why you blog and your geographic location.

My name is Mandy Steward. I’m an artist/writer living in Oklahoma City. I blog because I need to process my life through words and photos. Blogging gives me an opportunity to document my discoveries and to dialogue about them with others.

Your blog has changed focus over the years. In the beginning you were focusing on scrapbooking and designing, however now you’ve switched gears to focus more on creativity, writing and the overall aspect of the artist’s relationship between themselves and God/higher being. How have you evolved to switch focus and dedicate towards a particular subject and are any of the older topics still viable in your day to day life?

It’s true. My blog has changed along with me. It’s interesting to go back and see my own artistic journey through the posts. When I first started my blog I was a freelance graphic designer working largely with the companyScrap Girls. For about 3 years I was a partner in this company and so my artistic life really revolved around graphic design and the scrapbooking industry.

What happened though is as I began to gain artistic confidence, I begin to stir up other artistic dreams and so my blog began to shift as I went on this journey to find my niche. I started sewing, painting, drawing and even opened up an Etsy shop for awhile. Eventually I returned to focus largely on a thread that has been woven throughout my whole life – writing. And I think I’ve kind of landed there, at least for now.

What I found is that chasing my dreams was a little more confusing then I would have anticipated because many of my choices were also wrapped up into questions like: Can I be an artist and be a good parent? What does God think of my artistic pursuits? What will others think if I become a bit obsessed with my craft?

I had a lot of religious and people-pleasing baggage that was holding me back from being brave enough to do what I wanted. And so I think what you’re referring to on my blog is that transitional shift, that messy process of becoming more and more of myself.

Like Henry Miller said, “The world will only begin to get something of value from me the moment I stopped being a serious member of society and became—myself.”

I’m working through what it looks like for me to be an artist and how much that affects all the other areas of my life. The result is a blog that addresses a lot of questions about how to be an artist, how to be a writer, how to live out your dreams, how to be persistent when things get difficult, how to allow for mess and imperfection and vulnerability, how to face fear and tame the Ego, and how all of that feeds into the bigger picture of what it means to be human and to maintain some semblance of faith.

The topics of scrapbooking and graphic design have sort of fallen away. I really only open Photoshop these days in order to tweak my photos. And don’t tell anyone, but I have never been much of a scrapbooker anyway. It was for a season, all part of my learning process.

You once wrote “I think I need my creativity to be in small spurts” (Feb 21, 2007). Do you still feel this way and if not how have you changed from feeling this way?

Absolutely. Just a couple of weeks ago I wrote in my journal, “I think life happens in bursts.”

Currently I’m spending a couple hours each morning writing before my kids wake-up. Could I write longer? Absolutely. But it’s just not my reality in this season of my life. It’s way too distracting to write when my kids wake-up, so that rarely ever happens. I honor that two-hour window of time first thing in the morning. It’s a small spurt for my creativity, but it is very fulfilling.

I usually get a few other spurts throughout my day. Moments of alone time to journal or read often come mid-afternoon or in the evening after my kids are in bed.

Going through the course of my day, I am always exploring, collecting inspiration in jotted notes or photographs or collages. I consider this research for my art and they too come in spurts, little gifts, unexpected insights into the lights and darks of humanity. Part of the mystery of being an artist and having senses attuned is always being ready to catch something when it shows up. Creativity comes to us this way, in spurts amidst the mundane. But we need both, the bursts and the times in between. When I think of this subject, I always think of this quote from Gift From the Sea:

“What release to write so that one forgets oneself, forgets one’s companion, forgets where one is or what one is going to do next – to be drenched in work as one is drenched in sleep or in the sea…And then, pricked by hunger, we rise at last in a daze, for a late lunch. Reeling a little from our intense absorption, we come back with relief to the small chores of getting lunch, as if they were lifelines to reality – as if we had indeed almost drowned in the sea of intellectual work and welcomed the firm ground of physical action under our feet.”

Several posts are where you write about comparing yourself to other artists and their seemingly abundant creativity and productivity. You certainly aren’t the only one comparing yourself to others, wanting to be them instead of learning from them and creating yourself. How have you worked through this and if you are still in the process of finding your own niche, what are you doing to create that particular habitat for yourself?

This is such a dance. A lesson in give and take.

Like I mentioned earlier, I’ve tried a lot of different artistic mediums in the last 8 years or so. Any artist I liked I tried to copy their work. If something resonated with me, I tried to do it myself. I think a lot of trial and error like this is normal and even helpful. But it can also be fairly discouraging because you end up creating a lot of what feels like crap. Lots of mistakes. Lots of failure. Lots of envy for the artists that seem to have already arrived.

I think when it comes to art it’s easy to focus too much on the “am I being successful?” question and not enough on the “am I enjoying this?” question. Anytime we can isolate what it is we enjoy, we’re much more likely to relax and create better art.

For a time I was doing the sewing thing, and I fell into this process of creating stuffed animals based on my kids’ drawings. I received a lot of positive feedback on these creations. I had people suggesting I create a whole business out of this. I really was excited about how they turned out and loved making their drawings come to life, but I just couldn’t get passionate about sewing long-term. I remember thinking, I should just suck it up and do it. This could be my big artistic break, my chance at being successful. I felt guilty for not wanting to pursue it. I was fearful that if I didn’t continue it I would lose fans or friends or blog readers. People would think I was a failure. My identity became wrapped up in success because all the artists I loved were being successful.

Since that time I have found a niche in writing. It feels nice to have one thing to focus on, but even within writing there are the challenges of comparison. It can be so hard to fight for your own voice, letting yourself do art your own way. I have dreams to create non-traditional books that look more messy like my journals. I also have dreams to publish a novel some day. Getting to these dreams will mean lots of battles with comparison along the way.

Something that has proved helpful to me is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance book. I have learned volumes from its truths. He has a line in there about how Shakespeare had no Shakespeare to learn from. He just had to do his own thing, what felt right within him. Last night I was journaling this very thing. If I don’t see someone doing what I want to do, then I’m going to have to create my own way of doing it. Trust my instincts. Trust being out on the scary edge of creativity.

I have also learned to give myself plenty of grace. Coming into our own artistic voice takes time. I am certainly still on the journey.

You’ve written several e-books and are now working on a book that you hope to be published through the means most are familiar. Has developing the idea for this book been different than those you’ve self published?

No, no different, just more extensive and elaborate.

Themes sort of show up as I’m exploring through life, and this one was no different. It is a book about wanting so badly to chase my artistic dreams and doing the daring things I feel inside of me, but wondering if the God of my Christian religion would be okay with all that. I went into a very dark place last fall and winter, and I needed to write my way out of it, so the book just sort of emerged. I wanted to give it a go at traditional publishing, and this was a large enough manuscript to do so. So here I am on that adventure. We’ll see where it leads.

Your four children are homeschooled/unschooled. What led you and your husband to decide on this path and what resources should one use to research this path of education for their family? What are some of the positives and negatives you’ve encountered?

Wow, this is a huge question. I’ve written an e-Book about it. Would it be a copout to just point you there? Artist, Botanist, Cowboy: Homeschooling by Imperfect Curiosity. It includes resources I used in my own research to see what educational choices would work best for our family.

That being said, I’d be lying if I told you I have fallen into any sort of comfortable rhythm with homeschooling yet. I still feel like I’m faltering constantly. I think this homeschooling topic is just one more area of my life that I’m learning to develop my own creative voice and confidence within. There are things I want to do with homeschooling that I haven’t yet had the guts to do. I’m getting there.

My husband and I are avid learners. We love asking questions. When we want to learn something we become obsessively involved in it until we figure it out. We are excited to give our kids an environment conducive to chasing curiosities, this ability to focus on and figure out whatever it is they are passionate about.

What books have your taken creative inspiration? What books or blogs are we missing out on?

Oh my, I’m a book nerd, so I could go on and on. I keep an active list of what I’m reading on Goodreads .

The novel My Name is Asher Lev fascinates me, for obvious reasons. It’s about a Jewish boy trying to merge his religious life with his artistic life.

The Artist’s Way was like a therapy session that boosted my artistic confidence. I went through it in 2007-2008.

I’ve already mentioned Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Self-Reliance. Amazing.

The Sabrina Ward Harrison journal, The Truth and the Questions is brilliant for dream-casting and stepping more and more into yourself. It’s a book of journal prompts.

Any Keri Smith book stimulates my creativity. My favorite is How to Be an Explorer of the World: Portable Life Museum.

On the more spiritual side, Anam Cara by John O’Donohue is rich and poetic and mystical.

I’m currently reading The Awakening by Kate Chopin.

I don’t read any blogs regularly. But there are two that I like to check when I think of it:

Keri Smith and Right Brain Planner

And finally, tell us the five people you’d love to have over for dinner and why!

I love questions like this, but my answers shift constantly depending on what I’m researching at the time.

If I had a dinner party tonite, it would include the warm camaraderie of the Notting Hill dinner scene and these five people (oh, and homemade ice cream for dessert):

Sabrina Ward Harrison – We’ve had a handful of delightful conversations and she always inspires me to push the limits on what I think I’m capable of or allowed to do.

Anne Lamott – Just put myself through an author study of her non-fiction, and am totally enamored with her messy faith in Jesus, especially since I’m trying to make sense of my own.

Tim Burton – I connect to the dark, eclectic images of his movies. The make-up, the stripes, the splashes of bold color against the grays and blacks. He personifies mess and haunting mystery to me. I just finished watching a bunch of his movies and interviews, but I want to know more. I also wouldn’t mind perusing his sketch books if he happened to bring a few along.

Joseph Campbell – This man fascinates me. His philosophy is often simplified as “Follow your bliss.” He saw life through the lens of stories. He had eccentric views on spirituality. It’s hard for me to read what he writes because it’s so dense, but it’s rich too. He stirs me to ask big questions. I like that.

Bill Cunningham – My husband and I watched a documentary on him in the Spring. He is so intriguing. He embodies an artist living an obsessed life. Everything revolves around his fashion photography. He is immersed in it and he loves it. Watching him challenged me to believe fully in myself and my artistic dreams. Also, he hints at faith issues in the documentary but gets teary-eyed and won’t elaborate. Maybe he would elaborate in an intimate dinner party over a glass of wine or a dish of homemade icecream.

Mandy blogs at Messy Canvas and on her Tumblr blog, offers her books here and you can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.

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