“You don’t need anyone’s permission to live a creative life”.  Elizabeth Gilbert

I’ve always felt that I had permission to be an artist.  Not in an official way, like I asked someone and they said it was ok – but in a way that no one told me it was a bad idea, so I took that as permission.  My parents weren’t really the type to worry about my future career.  Also, in the small town I grew up in it seemed that people didn’t have expectations of expensive winter vacations, travelling abroad, owning fancy vehicles or living in large houses – things an ambitious career would afford.  These things just weren’t part of our reality.

This also meant it was totally up to me to aspire to do or be what I wanted.  I feel like I can identify with Elizabeth Gilbert’s experience when she writes about permission in her book “Big Magic”.  Not only did her parents drive a Ford Pinto, but she writes, “maybe because they didn’t worry too much about me, I didn’t worry too much about me either”.

For awhile when I was young, in the 1970s, my parents started a photography business in our home; a small three-bedroom rancher.  The living room could be converted to a studio in minutes, with easy to move furniture and large paper rolls hung on the wall that could be pulled down for a backdrop – lights were stored in the corner.  My dad designed a plywood cover for the spare room window and painted it matte black, which let fresh air flow in but kept light out.  This was the dark room.  It was right next to the bedroom I shared with my little sister.

I loved the dark room, with the trays marked for different chemicals that each had their own purpose, the special tongs with rubber ends, the enlarger, timer, and white photographic paper with a particular smell.  The joy of watching the photos come to life.  For a while I had my own little SLR camera too – my younger sister was my reluctant model – and I got to see my photos get printed in black & white.

My mom grew up on a farm in Ontario and my dad had been a college geography teacher in Barrie.  When they moved to the west coast, photography was a hobby they enjoyed that they thought maybe they could turn into a business.  I learned that you didn’t wait for permission, some magical moment or perfect conditions to do something – you just did it.  I saw that it was often frustratingly hard work, but that just felt normal.  It gave you a chance to learn and enjoy moments at the end when your effort and problem solving actually produced something.  You were the designer, the maker, and the fixer.

The photography business didn’t last once my parents attempted developing colour (instead of just black and white), which seemed to cause infinite problems and started to take out some of the fun.  Then came colour photo labs with one hour processing that was difficult for my parents to compete with. So, my parents changed direction again and started the roofing business – photography, roofing – to them it was just another venture where you solved problems, made things, and worked hard.  My dad always said that having a university degree made him a better roofer.

When my parents later recognized my interest and ability to draw (it’s not like there was a lot else to do inside), they equipped me with a black hardcover sketchbook and Prismacolor pencil crayons.  Then when I showed an interest in wanting to learn to oil paint (paint by numbers can only cut it for so long), they set up a little studio for me in the corner of the dining room (at this time, the other corner was the office for the roofing business).  I had my own desk to work at and shelves to let my little 8” x 10” canvas boards sit and dry.  I can’t really overestimate what this little corner did for me as a 12-year-old.   At this early age I started to envision myself as artist and I dug into trying to learn to paint.  No one warned me this might be a tough road as a future career, because of course it would be.

I remember a radio interview with a mother whose daughter was living on the streets.  She said that growing up, all her daughter wanted was to be a hair stylist.  Her parents on the other hand wanted her to be a doctor or lawyer.  In tears the mother said, “if only we had let her be a hair stylist”.  If only they had given their permission for her to be who she wanted to be, maybe she wouldn’t have turned to the streets.

Not giving permission may be to protect someone from harming themselves or others, like not having permission to smoke when you’re a kid or to drink and drive.  But if what you want to do isn’t going to hurt anyone, why should we not have permission?  Especially if there is a deep part of us that is pointing us in a certain direction.  In the case of the aspiring hairstylist, it seems that not having permission could be more damaging than having permission.

My parents taught me the value of listening to my own inner voice, simply by treating me with respect and encouraging me to trust in my own abilities.   Sometimes growing up, I did crave more guidance and exposure to the larger world beyond just school and our small town, or maybe that my parents were more conventional or had money.  But in the end, I am grateful to have been brought up learning independence, how to work hard, and that problems were interesting to solve – that you didn’t need permission to be an artist.

Image above:  One of the black and white photos I took at age 7, I had my sister and my dog “Tabaya” posed in the grass to create perspective, something I would have learned from my dad.