Follow your heART (essay)

Three years ago, my friend and I attended an Emerging Artist Lecture at the Phoenix Art Museum. The featured artist was Brooklyn-based contemporary artist, Arcmanoro Nile. Beyond the event invitation, neither of us knew anything about Nile, but we were excited to be out. Doing anything. We are both English teachers who had recently left the classroom and weren’t used to do anything beyond grading papers on a school night. She had officially retired, and I had officially said goodbye to the high school experience.

Nile is an incredibly talented artist who captivated me with his discussion on choosing and layering paint. The engaging presentation included a digital progression of his work – an extensive collection for an “emerging” artist barely 30. All impressive, but what made the evening most memorable is the unique choices contained in some his art. Those artistic choices are the focus of this essay, well, specifically an artist’s desire and ability to push boundaries within their sphere of influence and perhaps within themselves.

Contained in some of Nile’s paintings are what appear to be crude drawings of what some would consider graphic images. These added images lack the sophistication of the background paintings they are part of; they appear as an afterthought drawn with a Sharpie. Without knowledge of the artist’s work, one might think they are an act of vandalism. How could someone do such a thing? That someone is the artist himself and they are intentional.

Do I think Nile would have landed in that coveted artistic spotlight in a premier art museum in the fifth largest city in the U.S. if his paintings did not contain that element of graffiti and improvisation… I believe so, but as someone who lacks the professional credibility to make such decisions, I don’t know. Subtly the interviewer, the MC of the evening, did approach the topic of the images with Arcmanoro, not with the personality of a news reporter pressing for answers but with the personality of a relaxed if not aloof art curator, one who exuded comfort with artistic expression. Armanoro did not respond with an elevator speech about his art. He was noncommittal and nonspecific about explaining all of his choices. I was glad for that. I do not believe artists should be required to explain their artistic choices, or worse, defend their choices. People have the choice to appreciate the art, or not.

I was fascinated by the unfolding of the evening: my friend’s uncomfortable shifting with each graphic share, the reserved crowd observing and appreciating paintings that contained drawings of exposed genitalia and little creatures, wondering what the young smiling artist thought of his recognition and the psychology behind his compositions, and my being reminded of all the penises I saw in the classroom. Pause damnation. Let me explain…

Months ago, I wrote a post titled, “Developing Male Brain” about the many sketched and etched penises I saw in the classroom. My story ends with a popup surprise. If you are new here, you’ll have to read my short story to learn more. I wrote that story, printed it, then put it in a folder. For months. Sharing that story was not an option. As a professional with a respected reputation to maintain, how could I? I changed my mind. My mind has changed. My creative side is now running the show. I decided to share the story for a few reasons: it highlights the plight of teachers, and it’s funny! I was pleased with my decision. The story was well-received, and I shared a piece of writing that had expanded my writing voice.  

I am not defending my artistic choices and I am not advocating for or rejecting more penis art; I am exploring (through writing) the concept of artists pushing boundaries, which extends well beyond topics that might be taboo. My use of the word “boundaries” includes anything that may limit an artist from stretching and growing.

One issue that prevents artists from evolving is their concern of what others might think, as in my example. Artists have differing views on the role and influence of an audience, but whatever the opinion, an audience is part of the process for those ready and willing to share their work. The witnessing of the art breathes life into it and motivates the artist, whatever the audience reaction.

Consider the reaction, but don’t let the (perceived) judgment of others thwart your art or your growth.

Write what you are inspired to write, paint what you want to paint, shape that clay, craft that ring, stitch the designs that have yet to be worn, move your body to its fullest expression, play that instrument, sing the songs that with your voice, only you can, take the photos you want to take, including those that allow you to step outside of yourself and witness the creator you are becoming. ✨ Not that you need my permission, but from time to time we all need a little motivation.

“All art is a kind of confession, more or less oblique. All artists, if they are to survive, are forced, at last, to tell the whole story; to vomit the anguish up.”

― James Baldwin

What began as a reflection on creativity led my mind down a trail of musings that eventually led me to remembering this art event, which led to the writing of this post. Funny how the mind works, isn’t it? In researching the artist, Arcmanoro Nile, I was surprised to discover that the Phoenix event referenced in my essay is one day shy of exactly three years ago (11/13/19). Funny how the mind works, isn’t it?

Thank you for visiting and reading. Be well. 💗 Michele

Photo 1: by Photo 2: Arcmanoro Nile (artist) Photo 3: The Gift of the Offspring, Oil, Acrylic & Glitter on Canvas, 48×54 in, 2016 (click photo to visit Nile’s website)  Photo 4: my photo

© 2022 Michele Lee Sefton

80 thoughts on “Follow your heART (essay)

  1. I clicked the link to read Developing Male Brain, quite funny and something I never thought about lol. You are so right, people can, and should, create whatever, however they want. I posted a photo I took of a Loon looking over his shoulder.
    I really liked the photo but was told by someone that I went against the “rules of photography”. He told me to never take a photo of an animal/bird from behind. What? I will so do that! And I will also like it! I try to be different. There are no rules in any form of art, it’s what you want to express and what you like. My two cents….. 🙂
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts Michele, you always make one think!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for clicking through. Something I did not want to ever think about again, after leaving the HS classroom, but time away allowed me to fully appreciate the humor of the moment. I did not learn that “rule” in my photography class. 🤔 It was an introductory course. 😆 I have become less of a rule follower since leaving my structured self behind. It is freeing and mind-expanding. I appreciate your story, that illustrates another example of arbitrary boundaries. Thank you, that is a fine compliment!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Interesting musings on art and creative expression Michele. I agree that we need to allow ourselves to freely express what we feel, at least to let it out for ourselves. I’m not sure all expressions should be shared publicly. Similar to feelings in relationships, I think much pop/abstract art seems like emotional purging, that in my opinion is not always good to express outwardly, but to feel and consciously choose what we do with them.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you, Brad. I appreciate your contributions here. I think it would be interesting to research why people create, from an individual perspective. Letting “it out for ourselves” is my main motivator. Beyond creative lesson planning, I suppressed my creative side for far too long. Once I gave myself permission to create/express (through words and photos) the flood gates were opened. A purging, perhaps, like you mentioned, but not all of it is for public consumption. The act of creating/releasing is itself the liberating reward. Thank you for sharing your perspective. 🙏🏻

      Liked by 2 people

  3. Thank you, Michele, for sharing a wonderful post and also for helping to free us. Tired–so very tired, I think that many beings are, of having say what is expected or act in certain ways, and this includes how we think and feel about intimate parts of our body. All can actually be seen in a good way–even a great way–if we could lose some of our inhibitions that are screamed at us by our ego.
    I believe that many of us secretly feel (even when society might attempt to force us to say, “oh, my dear, I would never so that,”) that we would like to be daring enough to go beyond our self-imposed limitations.

    Liked by 2 people

      1. Safely, yes. 😁 I don’t know that I freed anyone, but I did enjoy spending some time exploring this topic and greatly appreciate reading feedback and learning from others who have contributed to this thread. That includes your perspective. Your comment reminded me of the book Winning by Jack Welch. I read it in grad school – not a book I would have chosen on my own. What stood out to me were his thoughts about honesty in the workplace. A truly honest work environment, where people are encouraged to speak their truth, is transformative thinking. It can also save valuable resources. Radical honesty was not my experience in education, so yes, I agree with you about being very tired… Thank you for sharing your thoughts! 🙏🏻

        Liked by 1 person

      2. So glad that you travelled safely, Michele. About freeing anyone, there is the delicious paradox with regard to liberation: there is the realization that there is no “person” to free! It’s actually the dropping of the idea that we ever were one!

        Thanks for sharing about the book (I haven’t read it). I absolutely agree about the importance of honesty, personally, professionally, permeating all of our interactions. When it becomes the foundation of our life, so much changes for the better.

        As usual (you might get tired of hearing this), I will be looking forward to your next post! 🙏🙂

        Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh my gosh Michele my Belle, this is not just a story, its a journey through the amazing art of the mind and spirit. Oh yes girlfriend, it is funny how the mind works…like a domino effect of ideas and experiences. You painted this picture (no pun intended) of what you felt vs. what you saw. While people may clutch their pearls because of something they feel does not fall into their idea of art, music or literature, then let them be and judge for yourself. The mind is an amazing control center. It all depends what you allow it to do. FANtabulous post my dear. 👏🏼👏🏼👏🏼 Very thought-provoking! 😍💖🤗💋😘💐🤩

    Liked by 2 people

    1. A journey down the rabbit hole, perhaps. 🐇😆 A mind turned loose. Look out! 😂 Because I was fresh from the high school experience, where I had spent years writing kids up for similar “artistic” acts (haha), that evening (with other adults) felt surreal in some ways. 🤯 Art is subjective, that is one thing we can all agree on. The mind is an amazing control center, yes – some people are on auto pilot. 😟😆 Not us though! 💡🙌🏻 How do we turn this thing off? 😕 Thank you for enjoying my post, and for laughing with me. I trust you will. 😂 Have a wonderful evening! 💖

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Michele, I couldn’t imagine the artistic male students wanting to draw their private parts…kids not adults. Did you find any females drawing theirs? Probably not. What goes through the mind indeed. Yet, here we are, all grown up, drawing our own conclusions! Geepers! I’m gonna try to turn this solar system of my mind off in the next two hours. Love ya girlfriend. Hugs and plenty of smoches! 🤗💖🥰💋😘

        Liked by 3 people

  5. This was an absolutely brilliant read. I’ve been battling the same thoughts, being more expressive with what I write lately because like you said, it comes down to a choice anyway.
    I especially resonated with this –
    “I do not believe artists should be required to explain their artistic choices, or worse, defend their choices. ”
    I love the art you’ve featured here – it’s beautiful and thought – provoking. Thank you so much for sharing! ❤️

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Why thank you, Deepthy! You made my late-night writing worth a few lost zzzzs. 😁 Sometimes things won’t let us go until we get them out! You understand. 😊 It is a beautiful blessing – not for the faint of heart! I am glad you enjoyed Nile’s art and I appreciate learning what stood out to you. 🙏🏻 From my own experience, when something won’t leave me alone, like the story I mentioned in this post, then I listen and share. Eventually. 😁


  6. This is a great essay, Michele. It’s something I’ve been thinking about recently ‘One issue that prevents artists from evolving is their concern of what others might think.’ I often wonder ‘how far is too far’ when expressing my creativity, but to be a true artist I don’t think you can be bound by the perceived judgement of others, like you said.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I am glad you found value and connection in my late night write. 😁 Thank you very much, Ingrid. It is an expansive topic worthy of greater consideration. There are many factors that may play into creative decisions, especially when it is a livelihood, but I do believe art takes on a life of its own and often demands to be heard (and shared). I do think it is the artist calling to bring it into reality. 💖 Otherwise, we are tortured by its persistence! 😆

      Liked by 1 person

  7. What an interesting artist and important post! I think it’s vital as a creative to not think too much about the audience. It can really stunt or stop you all together. A few years ago I had a blog post go viral. Within days I had over 100,000 people visiting my blog. This new found attention completely and utterly stopped my writing. I became paralyzed with fear at writing anything “unlike” the thing everyone loved (which, incidentally wasn’t even my best writing). It’s taken me years to return and now I don’t hold my breathe when I hit publish or cry when it’s not viral. I am simply writing what feels right and hope those meant to connect with me will find me.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, his work is interesting. He certainly is a storyteller! I had so many thoughts and questions about his choices, but I don’t think all questions need answers. Thank you for sharing a personal experience about the artist/audience relationship. That is a fascinating topic worthy of many more essays. 😁 I think when we have the pleasure and privilege of creating just to create, vs. focusing on results (e.g., for a job/business) it is freeing not to think about the audience – just let the art come through. ✨ What a gift that is! Having read some of your stories, I am familiar with your creative work. I would love to read the post you mentioned. If available, can you send the link? 😊

      Liked by 1 person

  8. We seem to be on similar wavelengths… I’ve been considering throwing in my “art” towel until I’ve had some revelations this week. I LOVE ‘pushed boundaries.’ In some areas, I’ve realized that I have zero boundaries, yet in others, I’m stuck behind some. Brilliant writing. It cements some thoughts I have about pushing forward. ❤️ And, it actually aligns with what I wrote this morning. 😇❤️🌻

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Your connection to my post, as an artist, reinforces my decision to write this post. Writing this essay was more of an inspiration than a decision, I suppose. I find myself pondering this topic and related topics more and more. This essay pushed through late Friday night. Thank you so much, Jessica, for reading and letting me know how my thoughts resonated with your artistic path and your recent writing. Wonderful! 💖 I will visit your blog soon. 😊

      Liked by 2 people

      1. It’s definitely an inspiration and a big shout to folks like me who sometimes need a reminder to keep up what we’re doing. Sometimes, for me, it seems easy to slip under limited thinking- pushing the boundaries to that means, stepping into my authentic. 24/7. Still learning to trust that as an artist is a process. I love the part of this about the exhibit you saw. Because maybe art is like some wonderful cosmic thing that connects where it’s meant to. ❤️ Or not. Or maybe!

        Liked by 2 people

    2. Tamara Kulish from

      As an artist I haven’t always felt I connected with my audience, many would request that I paint things I wasn’t drawn to paint, telĺing me what would sell better. They may have been right, but I was painting for me. I tried many times to create work that would be more commercially viable, but alas, that’s not the mountain I wish to climb!

      Above All, I think we just need to be true to ourselves and what our creative spirit wishes to manifest!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Love that on so many levels. Thank you. Love that you were painting for you. I’ve lost my feet in that sometimes. Love what you said at the end. Yes- it all goes back to that. Thank you!

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Tamara Kulish from

        Jessica, trust your hands! That’s a big lesson I learned years ago! If you reach an impasse, try a new technique. Nothing is more intimidating than a blank canvas, so have some fun and pre-paint some backgrounds, nothing particular, just have fun with colors! You’ll be surprised how they speak to you!

        Liked by 2 people

  9. Tamara Kulish from

    Michele, I revisited the penis post you referenced and got another laugh! Yes, males have this preoccupation with their parts! I laugh at how universal this is! 😅🤣

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I love this comment. 💗 Your words are priceless to me. Leaving the HS classroom was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done, but the last three years have taught me that teaching can take on many forms. ✨ Thank you. 🌼

      Liked by 1 person

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