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Breaking the Cage of Expectations

Alexia Towle

When I was growing up, I was taught a certain way to do things. A certain way to sit, a certain way to eat my food, a certain way to learn, to study, to kick a ball, to draw a face. It’s as if all the wonder and creativity of being a child was gone, and everything I did had been cut out of a cookie cutter.

This is something I noticed last year. I was obsessed with trying to be perfect in everything I did, setting unrealistic expectations of myself that I could never meet. I started to notice that this was extremely common among people my age. So many people I knew were living with fear, which held them down. This cage of expectations I created for myself was impacting my mental health, and that affected my art.  I don’t think I should start eating pasta with my fingers, but breaking that cage would make me a happier person and artist.

Sketchbook, Alexia Towle

There were a lot of changes in my life last year, which resulted in  a much bigger emphasis on academic success. At my school, there is a very high level of importance on getting an A in every class, including art. One of my best friends forces herself to play an instrument, play a sport, and take Advanced Placement classes that she isn’t interested in just so that her college applications would be impressive. However, this takes a toll on her happiness because she is always stressed out. She is not the only one. I watch people around me force themselves to do activities they don’t enjoy to raise their GPA. I’ve seen people change the way they do their favorite activities to get a higher grade.

This is what happened to me. I got stuck in a vicious cycle of a suffocating way of learning to the point where even a subject that I loved, art, was just another way to improve my score. Art is my passion, but I felt the need to change my art to fit the expectations of my art teachers. Art became a chore, and when I saw a bad grade,  I was more concerned about how to impress my teachers than how I could improve. I felt a wall keeping me from new ideas because of these self-imposed limitations.

I realized this was happening when I went to a summer pre-college program for studio art. My passion came back because of the constant artistic stimulation. When I came home and compared my art from the summer to my art from the previous school year,  there was not only a huge difference in quality. I could tell which pieces I enjoyed, and which pieces I forced myself to do.  

When I realized this, I knew something had to change. I tried to see that perfection is not important, and that it is actually a bad thing. This turned out to be a very significant change. I was so scared of messing up, of finishing an artwork where I could see so many tiny flaws. I remember one ink drawing where all I could do was criticize all of the mistakes in the anatomy of the people in the drawing. Now, I can look at this drawing with appreciation, and know that I learned from my mistakes.

Alexia Towle

Training myself to not worry about the final outcome was difficult. I still see mistakes in my work. But instead of beating myself up about it, I now know that I can learn from my mistakes.  I remind myself that I am not making art for a perfect final outcome, but because I love the process of creating art, even if my piece doesn’t turn out as well as I wanted it to. I am a happier person and I am much more creative. I can tell when I compare older artworks to pieces I am doing now that my art has improved. My charcoal drawings are stronger, my watercolors are more vibrant and eye-catching because I’m taking risks.The best part is that I am motivated to make pieces without being afraid of the outcome.

As for the artwork I create at school,  I do my best to ignore what my teachers, my peers, and my parents expect of me. Instead, I do what I want to do. I still struggle with not worrying about my score, but I see a big difference in the quality and quantity of my work.  Everyone worries about being judged by others, especially when you are a teenager. I’ve realized that everybody’s opinions are always changing, and everyone has a different opinion, so you can never please everyone. If you can’t please everyone, then what is the point of even trying? In the end, I am doing what I love so I now focus on my own happiness in my work instead of others’. Art has become so much more than just a hobby, it has become my passion.

Ink Drawing, Alexia Towle
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