Drawing and watercolors: not for money, but for me

The above painting was not produced for money or for any material gain. Instead, this was made solely for the value of doing something for the reward that comes from creation. Despite being wonderful, this painting is not for sale. Courtesy of Alice Woo

Amid the stress of impending assignments and the ever-building pressure to apply for jobs, I found some time to do things this October break that I definitely would not put on my résumé: drawing and watercoloring. If you’re reading this, I’m already proud of you for making time to enjoy something that doesn’t matter at all (in my opinion). Please allow me to further encourage you in your pursuit of unimportance.

Capitalism seeps into every aspect of our lives; at times, the need to be productive weighs on me to the point of nausea. As an anxious person who has often been branded a “control freak,” I constantly feel a tendency to spend each and every moment pursuing perfection. The result? Burnout, fatigue and depression. This summer, while studying abroad, I had no choice but to find an outlet for my racing mind, as I did not have access to many resources I would normally have at home or at Vassar, such as therapy, friends or family.

My solution was to practice being bad at things. I got a little blank book and a pen, and I started scribbling the ugliest drawings you ever saw. My studios were seats on buses, park benches and small cafes. I did not draw in pursuit of acquiring a new skill; I did it in order to make myself slow down and focus on things outside of my brain. Eventually, I began using a tiny travel watercolor set, which I found even more difficult to control (especially on the bus), and therefore even more freeing.

It took effort to overcome the hurdle of my own mind and to put brush to page, but the freedom that followed was priceless. Speaking again as a perfectionist and former “gifted child,” it feels so counterintuitive, so against my nature, to continue doing something that I can’t immediately master. This unfortunate nature has driven me to decline invitations, quit sports and music lessons, and limit myself to my myopic comfort zone.

To be completely honest, I’m still not totally comfortable with the mindset of “if you’re not failing, you’re not learning.” Anyone who knows me can attest to the fact that I really enjoy being right. I really enjoy getting good grades and excelling and achieving, by conventional standards. But sometimes the pursuit of all those things (which are, in truth, meaningless) leads me into deep negativity.

But Alice, you say, isn’t it still capitalistic to hone a skill? Aren’t you still giving into your deepest desire to produce? To this I reply: Produce what? Pages of a sketchbook that I may later look and cringe at? I am proposing something that goes precisely against the utilitarian views of capitalism: Sit with the discomfort of producing absolute garbage for no reason but to dwell in your inability to do a skill! Perhaps you will improve the skill over time—which comes naturally with practice—but if that’s your goal from the start, then you will find it ten times harder to get started. Yes, I believe there will be a reward for your effort. But that reward does not come with the product, or from monetizing a talent. The reward comes with the process, and the more time you spend just existing in the world without any direct goal, the more time you have to actually enjoy yourself. I know it’s hard to push past the feelings instilled in us by our capitalist overlords, by years of schooling, by our unwillingness to sacrifice our overachieving-Vassar-student identities—but it’s possible, and it’s wonderful.

“My work is loving the world,” writes Vassar alum Mary Oliver in her poem “The Messenger,” “which is mostly standing still and learning to be astonished…which is mostly rejoicing…which is gratitude.” (Mary Oliver, “Thirst: Poems,” 2007). If we cannot completely do away with the concept of work and production, let’s redefine it. The work of attempting things just for kicks is equally important to me as any work for a grade. I will draw poorly, I will dance awkwardly, I will run slowly and I will write honestly in pursuit of nothing other than valuing life, without any pressure to be great.

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