A moment that changed me: when I failed my O-level in my favorite subject | Life and style
Hhaving my hands, I drew with them. This is what the hands were used for: to grab pencils, to freely and happily draw marks. I scribbled on the walls of the house, on the sidewalks outside, as most children like to do.
In elementary school, we learned to write using slate and chalk, with wet sponges handy. Writing seemed like another form of drawing, scribbling curls and curves. We shaped individual letters into repeating lines. They were abstract shapes, delicious but insignificant patterns. I had trouble learning to read clusters of letters like words, but I could draw them.
I drew figurines too. Always women, fully dressed, in romantic costumes. I couldn’t draw the legs and feet, so the long skirts hid them. I couldn’t draw the hands, so the characters’ arms ended in points. When my father’s co-worker, an amateur painter, looked at my paintings, he told me that I should study nude figures and thus learn to draw body shapes correctly. A real little repressed Catholic, I was taken aback.
Our director taught us painting. Giving us poster paintings, he shouted at us not to be clean and tidy but to splash paint, to play with color mixtures, even if we ended up with mud pools. At home, I pinned my paintings on the curtains in the dining room and performed in art galleries.
In high school, we used rough notebooks for the first sketches of compositions. The margins of mine were full of drawings. In art class I painted, still in poster paint, and I also made lino cutouts. Art was my favorite subject, and since I loved it so much, I thought I was good at it. For the artistic O-level exam, we had to present a painting, do a timed pencil portrait, and a timed still life. I found the last two difficult, but still hoped to be successful. I failed, with a bad mark. I felt shocked. I had been overconfident. Now I had been declared talentless. I felt ashamed and stupid. A dunce. I didn’t tell anyone how I felt. Years ago, I had seen other children put up with the failure of their 11 and over years and feel dumb for life. I understood their humiliation and their anguish. Mine seemed minor in comparison, since at least I had passed the miserable 11 and more. It would be nice to complain about this blow. Pride also silenced me.
Other channels of creativity remained open: I continued to write poems and stories. After college, I embarked on a precarious life as a freelance writer, supporting myself through part-time jobs, living cheaply in town halls. I often went to exhibitions. I continued my obsessive drawing, which I now referred to as childish doodle. I never dreamed of taking an evening art class. I did not allow myself to do this. I was happy to engage in women’s liberation and we were focused on community and collaboration. Dressing up, performing in lively and colorful street theater performances influenced by Dadaism and Situationism was good. Solo painting seemed less. Although I had renounced Catholicism because of its misogyny, its Puritanism lingered in me, in conflict with my thirst for freedom and pleasure.
In my thirties, I made painter friends and learned from them, and the painter I married, new and fascinating ways of looking at art. However, I couldn’t afford to try to actually do it. Professional painters were the real thing. I was not. Although these new friends were abstract painters using acrylic, or engravers or sculptors doing installations, I continued to fetishize oil painting as the high taboo form that I was forbidden to practice. .
One night in my early forties, I dreamed that a tall woman in red came up to me, handed me a bag of paint and told me to start painting. The dream was so powerful and numinous, so authoritative, that it shook me. He embodied an optimistic and permissive vision. It was a form of energy that gave me back something that I had lost.
As a result, the next day I bought some equipment. I started by experimenting with pastels, chalks, pen and ink, watercolors. Finally, recently, when I started to write a novel about Matisse’s two assistants who helped him make his famous cutouts, I bought some oil paintings. Two painter friends gave me more paintings, a few canvases, a few lessons, encouragement and support. Continue with that. It was my mother’s advice, when she got annoyed at my hesitation, to try to discuss everything, and it annoyed me. Now I have seen his wisdom.
Although I enjoyed breaking my decades-long taboo on working with oil paints, I have found that I now prefer pastels and ink. I let my line art turn into cartoons that I send to friends. Everything seems free and easy. Not anxious. This time around, I can accept my limits but keep going.
Creativity involves asserting oneself. I realized that I was always afraid of wanting too much, of being too tall, of taking up too much space. This dream of the big woman in red reminded me that these fears and desires could make me take risks and experiment.
To cut Out, by Michèle Roberts is published by Sandstone Press (£ 14.99). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy from Guardianbookshop. Delivery charges may apply