Saint Louis, MO

What I learned In The St. Louis Art Museum

Kyle Smith
paintingPhoto by russn_fckr on Unsplash

I've spent a lot of time in the St. Louis Art Museum. If you've never been, I encourage you to go soon. One time I visited recently, I felt a little discouraged. As an artist myself, I felt overwhelmed. How could I create something as fantastic as the pieces at the St. Louis Art Museum?

Then I remembered Bob Ross. If you're not familiar with Bob Ross, he had a TV show “The Joy of Painting,” which he hosted on PBS from 1983-1994. Each week on his show, Bob painted a mesmerizing landscape in just half an hour. He was known for his soft-spoken style, his signature permed hair, and his uncanny ability to make you believe that just like him, you could paint a masterpiece.

Most of Bob’s viewers didn’t know that he meticulously planned out his paintings in advance. He would create the original, memorize every brushstroke, then paint the scene a second time during the taping of the show.

Every once in a while Bob would make a tiny mistake and then repeat his signature phrase, “We don’t make mistakes, just happy little accidents.” Then he would either paint over the mistake or find a way to blend it into the scene.

There is a good lesson here not only for painter, but for every kind of artist. We like to beat ourselves up for mistakes. We are disappointed when we mess up or don’t perform perfectly.

But remember, you’re human. You’re imperfect. You won’t get it right every time. In fact, there are times when you will flat-out bomb. That book, that blog post, that article, that lesson or speech won’t go as planned, and in those moments that last thing you want to do is celebrate your mistakes.

But what if, instead of paint over those flaws and imperfections, you accepted them as a part of the picture? And not only accepted them … but celebrated them?

It doesn’t mean we compromise our standards. We can still reach for excellence while also accepting our humanity. Those happy little accidents, if we learn from them, can be the pathway to a life that is more beautiful and scenic than all the perfect paintings in the world.

Lastly, I made the mistake of comparing my own work to the work of other artists at the St. Louis Art Museum. I can't do that. You shouldn't either. Why? Because a museum is essentially the equivalent of a highlight reel. It features the best of the best. It doesn't show the work that was created in the background that is not finished. It doesn't show the struggles either. The museum is really a snapshot. With that thought in mind, I can now enjoy the St. Louis Art Museum even more. It's basically the introduction to an artist. If I really want to learn more, than I can look at other pieces and discover more about the work behind the scenes. Many mistakes are present but we don't notice them. For example,

“The Pity” or “Pietà” is the only work that Michelangelo signed. The sculpture creates the mood of the situation it depicts and is so beautiful that people don’t notice its small inaccuracies. But if you pay close attention to the body ratio of Mary and Jesus — Mary's fragile body had to be “strengthened” by the huge amount of drapery in order to make the work look balanced. Her hands, legs, and shoulders appear to be much bigger than Christ’s. What some people view as a mistake, others might not see at all. Perhaps the beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder.

Keep creating. Don't stop. Celebrate your accidents and mistakes. We all make them. And we can often fix them.

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I write about writing, productivity, and creativity.

St. Louis, MO

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