Laurel Vlieg is an artist and an educator who has recently transitioned away from teaching to pursue her art full time. She works from her home and has workstations spread through the house, so the interview began with a tour.
She works on pottery in the garage, finishing it with the kiln in her basement, and paints in the bonus room above the garage. We pick up a cup of tea, settle down next to a couple of paintings she is working on, and begin to talk about her work.
“I’m a visual artist, but beyond that I’m an educator as well. I think the visual arts part has sort of taken over my life right now. For all those years I’ve been teaching, its sort of been sidelined a bit, but now I’m focusing on the arts again; in pottery and painting.”
She started her interest in visual arts early in life, though never took art in high school.
“I went to college for Education, and right away took a minor in Visual Arts. When I was in high school I actually didn’t take art, but my mom took me to her painting class.” … “That was kind of the start.”
Laurel has recently made a shift away from full time teaching so that she can pursue her art more. This isn’t the first time Laurel has made this shift. In some ways she has been wrestling with the place of arts in her life for some time. Initially she went into education as a practical way to pursue art, but art has slowly been taking a more prominent place in her life.
“After I had both kids and had been teaching visual arts for a while, I said I really wanted to go back to school and take more visual arts for a focus. That was what I had wanted to take from the beginning, but my practical father and my practical self said, “You can’t get a job too easily in that.””
Much of her drive to be creative is deeply rooted in her understanding of what it means to be made in the image of God.
“I go back to the very beginning in the Bible, and it says, “In the beginning, God created. Created! First thing. And I think we are made in his image, and called to be creative, in his image.”
This doesn’t only apply to visual artists, but really to all of humanity.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean that we are all artists, in the visual artists way, but we all are creators in our own unique fields, and I think we are imaging God in that.”
Many of us don’t really think of our lives, or our work, as creative. Which it quite sad, actually. Creativity, we think, is reserved for those who society sets aside to make pretty things to decorate our world while the rest of us are doing the “real” work. Not only is this damaging to those who feel deeply called to these more artistic pursuits. It is also damaging to the view of our own work. This was something Laurel worked hard to correct while she was teaching.
“There is a quote from Madeline L’Engle that always hangs in my studio, it says: “If the work comes to the artist and says, “Here I am, serve me,” then the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve. The amount of the artist’s talent is not what it is about.” You could cross out artist, and put any other vocation, and it would be true for any one of them.”
This time of transition for Laurel has really caused her to reflect deeply on what the motivations behind her work are, and what she feels should be. Like every other occupation, there are certain temptations that need to be avoided.
“There is that worldly perception that success is all about how much money you make, or how famous you are. You know, its all in celebrity and money. So basically, as an artist it’s a struggle to say, ‘I’m not a celebrity, and I don’t really want to be one.’ Honestly, I really don’t want to be one. But it’s a real struggle to not have that sometimes take over my brain, and go, ‘Oh, I have to sell more work, or I have to do this.’ Even though I do make things to sell, I can’t get caught up in that being the only reason I do it.”
Given the dangers of money and celebrity as becoming the main motivation behind her work, Laurel has been working on creating her own definition of success.
“I think personal satisfaction, because at the end of a day of working you feel that good tired, you know? That tired that says I’ve accomplished something. Not because I’ve made X amount of dollars, but because I’ve created something. And it’s good. It doesn’t have to be perfect. It doesn’t have to be fantastic.”
There is a passage from the book Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear by Elizabeth Gilbert that has helped her clarify the motivations behind her work.
“Many years ago, my uncle Nick went to see the eminent American writer Richard Ford give a talk at a book store in Washington, DC. During the Q&A after the reading, a middle-aged man in the audience stood up and said something like this:
“Mr. Ford, you and I have much in common. Just like you, I have been writing short stories and novels my whole life. You and I are about the same age, from the same back-ground, and we write about the same themes. The only difference is that you have become a celebrated man of letters, and I—despite decades of effort—have never been published. This is heartbreaking to me. My spirit has been crushed by all the rejection and disappointment. I wonder if you have any advice for me. But please, sir, whatever you do, don’t just tell me to persevere, because that’s the only thing people ever tell me to do, and hearing that only makes me feel worse.”
“Now, I wasn’t there. And I don’t know Richard Ford personally. But according to my uncle, who is a good reporter, Ford replied, “Sir, I am sorry for your disappointment. Please, believe me, I would never insult you by simply telling you to persevere. I can’t even imagine how discouraging that would be to hear, after all these years of rejection. In fact, I will tell you something else—something that may surprise you. I’m going to tell you to quit.”
“The audience froze: What kind of encouragement was this?
“Ford went on: “I say this only because writing is clearly bringing you no pleasure. It is only bringing you pain. Our time on earth is short and should be enjoyed. You should leave this dream behind and go find something else to do with your life. Travel, take up new hobbies, spend time with your family and friends, relax. But don’t write anymore, because it’s obviously killing you.”
“There was a long silence.
“Then Ford smile and added, almost as an afterthought: “However, I will say this. If you happen to discover, after a few years away from writing, that you have found nothing that takes its place in your life—nothing that fascinates you, or moves you, or inspires you to the same degree that writing once did … well, then, sir, I’m afraid you will have no choice but to persevere.”
In many ways, Laurel feels this little story mirrors her own experience. She feels as though she can’t stop doing to work God has placed before her.
“There’s many times when I’ve said to Gary, ‘I’m done. I’m not doing this anymore. I can’t stand it. I can’t stand the rejection. I can’t stand…’ whatever it is, right? And then I realise, I can’t really stop it. I can’t really stop doing it. So I may as well enjoy it.”
It is this drive to continue to do what she feels called to do, to put effort toward the work God has placed before her, that has forced her to rely more consciously on God. Because of this, her work has really become devotional for her.
“What’s kept me going, more solidly within myself is keeping a regular focus on God; what he wants from me. Keeping regular devotion times, you know, regular for me. And recognising that this is my God time as much as my studio time.”
Being conscious about God’s presence with her in her work is a continual reminder of the ways in which God is still at work in her life.
“I am constantly seeking out, within my work, those connections to God and to my relationship to God. It helps me remember that I am a work in progress as well. I haven’t arrived. Nor has my work, and it probably never will.”
This realisation has allowed her to see real value in what we perceive as our failures, and our need to accept that we still live in a broken world.
“I think we are in exile. We haven’t arrived. I’m remembering that I’m going to fail. Things will fail. It’s okay. … Unless we’re at that place where we can accept that we are going to make mistakes, you’re not actually going to learn a lot. Because you learn way more from all your errors than you do from all your successes.”
This is advice that Laurel would often give to her students before she would begin a class with them, and is coming to see just how true it is for all of our life.
“We need to be okay with being broken, to live in fullness with God and in fullness with out abilities. Otherwise we are going to be tearing ourselves or each other down.”
May we all come to understand and accept our own brokenness, and the brokenness of those around us.