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The Talent Question

The Talent Question

by Bethany DuVall

As an artist, I hear it from people all the time:
"I appreciate art, but I have no talent."
"I can't even draw a stick figure."
"If only I had the talent, I would paint/draw/write..."

So I started asking people: What do you think talent is? Almost everyone had the same response: Artistic talent is the mystical unicorn that carries your ideas directly from your brain to your hand so that they flow seamlessly out from your fingers onto the canvas.
I've never met this unicorn. Here's what I know about talent and art making:

1. Getting your hand and your mind to work together is a skill that you can learn. A mechanic who's been working on cars for twenty years will usually be better at her job than a mechanic who started six months ago. This is not because of talent. It's because of practice.

2. Coming up with images and ideas for creative projects, appreciating beauty in all its forms, and connecting your experience with creative expression – this is talent. We all have it to some degree. A mechanic with the intuitive ability to understand engines as a whole will pick up the skills faster than one who does not, but both will pick up the skills with practice.
Even if you have both the creativity and the skill set, it is very unlikely that you will ever produce an image that is exactly like the one you imagine. In 23 years of painting, I never have. In fact, accepting this has had such a profound impact on my work that I remember the exact moment of that epiphany.

In 1997, I was alone in my college dorm painting. I was working on a piece I'd tried twice before and had wasted miserable amounts of acrylic and canvas on these failed attempts. But I couldn't get the picture out of my head. It was Father Gregory from the movie The Mission. He sat on a rock in the middle of the rain forest playing a primitive recorder while native tribesmen stood among the trees, weapons raised, ready to strike. As he'd played his haunting melody, the tribesmen cautiously lowered their weapons and came out to listen. Father Gregory's voice came over the music: With an orchestra, we could have charmed them all.
I'd seen the movie only once, about four years earlier, but Father Gregory's comment on this moment had stuck with me. I kept trying to capture it, and kept failing.

But this time, it was working, sort of. Father Gregory's face under my brush was correctly proportioned, but the features and pigment were off. The trees around him were taking on a washy, haunted look. This was not how I remembered it. I remembered beauty and peace. There was a quiet violence in the painting before me.

I considered gessoing over it – the artist's version of erasing the whole thing. But something was right about the painting, even if it wasn't what I was going for. I sat back and stared at it. I'm not sure for how long because the scene started stirring into different things in my head. In the movie, this scene was a triumph. But I was old enough now that I knew more about the devastation that European colonization and missions created in the Americas. I began to see that forcing the painting into my preconceived direction would be telling a story that wasn't true. I began to understand that however well-intentioned, this moment was an assault on a way of life.
I gave in to the direction the piece wanted to go. I let the musician become a native man holding the same recorder Father Gregory had played, and imagined the way the music would change in his hands. The trees became the faces of the listeners. They were screaming silent screams. It was disturbing and beautiful and true, and the best work I had done to that point.

You can learn skills. If you can't draw a stick figure, that's a good place to start. If you have ideas for artwork, or even just an appreciation for beauty, that is reason enough to learn the skills. The artwork has things to teach you. Our job is to meet the images in our heads with the best of our abilities and grow from there. And if you ever meet that unicorn, don't send it my way. I have too much fun learning from my mistakes.

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