Nose to the Creative Grindstone: Tracy J. Thomas

August 12, 2010

" ... it has been difficult to convince those who choose to follow more traditional paths in life that my focus on and passion for creative expression is as valid a career choice ... "

Those closest to me rarely read Aberration Nation. They're all too busy. This includes my oldest daughter, my husband, my brother, and my parents. While they're all highly supportive of my creative endeavors, they still can't make the time. A couple of them have a desire to better understand me but they still don't read.

Last week, I gave my daughter the manuscript of my new novel, DUST, which is almost finished.  She agreed to read it after finishing the first Sookie Stackhouse novel by Charlaine Harris.  Three days later, she was reading the second Sookie Stackhouse book.  She said she was sorry; she just couldn't resist. I guess this is why Charlaine Harris is on the bestseller list while I'm only on my daughter's to be read (TBR) list. I know she'll get to it soon.

My wonderful husband is supportive yet misses my J&J paycheck. While he fully understands who I am, my never ending drive toward a larger payoff eludes him at times, especially when there are new soccer shoes and school supplies to buy. 

My guest today, photographer Tracy J. Thomas, talks about the doubts of others. She has dealt with their lack of faith by continuing to believe strongly in herself and putting her nose to the creative grindstone in order to earn continued recognition and success.

I do that, too.

It sounds so easy, doesn't it? 

Well, it's not. Last night I cried because I've been rubbing my nose on that grindstone for twenty years, and I still can't guarantee that my writing career will ever take off. Thirty minutes earlier I was elated to get a call from my art mentor, Bob Hogge (Monkdogz Urban Art, NYC), saying he plans to start showing some of my work this Fall. An hour before that I was down because I haven't yet heard from any of the publishers who are reading my work. Two hours before that I was elated because Dtown Magazine is doing an article on me and my work in September.

Among other things, it's a roller coaster.

All these busy folks in my life who don't read this blog agree that I'm talented.  They want me to succeed but, like me, they get tired of waiting. That blinding spark that keeps me going resides in me; I feel it but they don't. To use Tracy's words, they also don't share "all my sordid memories which spark in me the drive and passion to create something beautiful, pure and healing by contrast." I need that. They don't. Perhaps this is why I need people like Tracy and a blog like this one.

In the August 16th edition of Newsweek, Tony Dokoupil and Angela Wu tell us that blogging is declining in popularity. In their article, "Take This Blog and Shove It," they state, "While professional bloggers are 'a rising class,' according to Technorati, hobbyist are in retreat, and about 95 percent of blogs are launched and quickly abandoned."  They say that, as it turns out, folks are just too lazy to write or read blogs in a consistent manner since, of course, there's no financial pay off.

This news makes me want to call Aberration Nation something other than a blog. It makes me want to be a professional blogger.  It also makes me glad that all the hobbyists are clearing out. It reminds me that human nature is set in stone. Everyone wants and needs a pay off.  Everyone needs to eat and buy their kids soccer shoes.  While I may be highly creative and talented, I'm also not an idiot. I can, however, go without eating. But I can't deny my child soccer shoes.   

In case you're wondering, there is no answer to the conundrum of spending time on creative activities versus those that provide a steady paycheck. I can't stop what I'm doing. This week I ate a fortune cookie. The message was, Genius does what it must, talent does what it can. I don't know if I'm a genius but there is a must in there somewhere. I must write. I must paint.

People like Tracy understand. We do the best we can to juggle--to give ourselves what we need while also giving those we love what they need.  We often walk a fine line between what sometimes feels like selfishness and altruism.

I write this blog because I don't have the time or ability to surround myself with creative people who share my glorious struggle. I search for them here. I read what they have to say and with every word, I understand myself a little better. With every introduction I write, I scream out, "This is who I am! Do you see me? Look at me!"  

So what if, according to Dokoupil and Wu, a recent Pew study has shown that blogging is withered as a pastime with 18 to 24-year-old crowd. I'm trapped in a beautiful cage where magic happens. The mirrors I lacked in childhood appear and people like Tracy come to visit.

I just wish those closest to me would stop by a little more often. 

What's your story? How long did it take to establish yourself as a photographer? Was the journey on a straight or twisted path? Are you surprised by your success?

My career journey as an adult has lead me down multiple paths and was pretty far removed from photography, however most of my jobs did entail some sort of creative or artistic skill. It wasn’t until the age of 42 when the technology industry took a nosedive and I was handed my pink slip and a package that I began to focus on more creative and artistic outlets once again. I was off work for a little over a year and during that time decided to build a wooden canoe, focus on my writing and picked up my camera to begin shooting once again.

Long story short and a few years later, I was sidelined for 4 months by Achilles tendon reattachment surgery, purchased a new DSLR with a long lens, began to drive out to the local wildlife area to photograph birds out of boredom, developed an even more passionate love affair with photography, applied to and was accepted into the M.F.A. program at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco and am now happier than I have ever been in my life.

As far as success goes: I believe that success will come to any individual who follows their true passion with honesty and humility but it does require hard work and dedication for all the required pieces to fall into place.

With regard to your current creative focus, was there an "ah-ha" moment you can tell us about?

My most recent “ah-ha” moment came when I was presenting my thesis project proposal to the committee at the Academy of Art University this last November. I have always known I had a certain talent when it comes to writing, however my studies in Photography were obviously in the Visual Arts so I tended to place my writing by the wayside and focused more heavily on the visual and narrative aspects of my photography alone. There was of course a rather long writing requirement involved with my project proposal and I suddenly found myself enjoying the writing as much as putting together the photographs I was to present to the committee. I ended up receiving a full go ahead for my thesis project and was pleasantly surprised to hear the committee praising not only my photography skills but my writing abilities as well. They encouraged me to begin to marry the two along with the addition of video.

I realized at that moment I had been holding myself carefully inside a box worried about meeting specific project criteria involved in my thesis while the committee was instead encouraging me to think and reach further outside the box to allow all these creative possibilities to merge into a far more powerful piece of expression.

Out of this came my Blog where I merge my photography with my written words and I am now currently in the throes of videography working on a couple of short documentary pieces and planning a video supplement for my thesis. Stretch and experiment…don’t hold back…you will be pleasantly surprised!

For you, is photography more about creation or expression? It could be both, but does one dominate with regard to your need/urge/desire to be a photographer and why?

I think there is a necessary melding with the creation process behind all modes of artistic expression. So I would have to say it is a little bit about both for me. Sometimes the process of creation itself (out somewhere shooting whatever with my camera in order to create something tangible) evolves into an unexpected jewel for personal expression. Certain photographs I take begin to stir feelings, opinions, ideas within me that move me a step beyond mere creation and into the realm of a need to express something to the world. In that sense, photography, like my writing, becomes my vehicle for expression.

I am a relatively quiet, deep thinker. I have always observed the world from a distance and formulate strong opinions and observations based on that quiet study. You could say those opinions and observations and visual captures begin to fester up inside of me after awhile and I find a strong need to give them voice. My chosen mode of vocalization and expression is through my writing and my photography. Over the past few years I have found a way to merge the two to create an even more powerful mode of expression of my ideas, feelings, thoughts, opinions and beliefs.

Many artists focus on one particular subject or style. How important is this for career development in photography?

During the learning curve as a photographer, I think it is important to experiment with a multitude of genres and subject matter in order to find your perfect fit or passion. Along my photographic journey I have toyed with event and wedding photography, nature and wildlife, fine art, documentary, photojournalism, product, and portraiture; pretty much the whole shebang. Each genre has a unique set of characteristics and intricacies that require a different skill set and approach. Experimenting with the lot has provided me with a well-rounded learning curve and skill development I would not have received if I had focused on only one area or subject matter.

The ability to shoot most anything also provides you with a plethora of money making opportunities as you begin to build your business. When the economy goes sour and people stop buying fine art, there are always weddings to shoot and baby portraits to take. The ultimate goal of course should be to find your niche and exploit and promote it to the maximum. Right now my professional niche is HDR (High Dynamic Range) fine art photography supplemented by the occasional wedding shoot. While my M.F.A. niche at the Academy is focused on documentary/photojournalism for the completion of my degree.

Do you believe some of the various attributes related to being highly creative have caused you aberrations in life, helped you deal with life's aberrations, or both?

I have always felt a little deviant or different in terms of the way my mind thinks and in what I believe. I have never really felt comfortable with conforming to the “norm” nor with being just another sheep that blindly follows some self-possessed shepherd. This is most likely due to being born with a creative mind. People have often looked at me differently, scratching their heads when I have refused to conform to what they deem to be “normal”. So yes, being highly creative has caused aberrations in life, though it has certainly helped me deal with life’s aberrations as well.
I grew up in a highly dysfunctional home and gravitated towards my creative abilities as a means to release a lot of the tension that was built up from those horrid life experiences. Both my writing and my photography continue to be a form of positive therapy for me and have allowed me to face, work through and have provided me with a voice to express pent up anger, angst, sorrow, etc. As ugly as they have been, I have come out of it all with an internal strength and passion and I often turn to those sordid memories which spark in me the drive and passion to create something beautiful, pure and healing by contrast.

During difficult or challenging times in your life, does photography sooth or inspire you? Is it therapeutic in any way?

Photography and writing both sooth and inspire me. It doesn’t matter how stressful my life is, when I have my camera in hand and I am shooting, I am sucked completely into the moment and all that tension suddenly vanishes. When I don’t have the opportunity to get out and shoot, I can always turn to my writing which is one of the most therapeutic things I have ever done for myself. Writing allows me to gather my thoughts and make some sense of the chaos of life. It also serves as a pressure valve when a million thoughts are building up in my mind. The ultimate therapy happens when I am able to meld my writing with my photography to get my point across. I experience instant release.

Have you ever had to deal with people in your life failing to understand your creative personality, interests, or drive? If so, can you tell us about it and how you've dealt with it?

Yes, at times it has been difficult to convince those who choose to follow more traditional paths in life that my focus on and passion for creative expression is as valid a career choice as sitting 16 floors up behind a desk for 8 plus hours a day. I already traveled that route for many years in my life and discovered how miserable it made me regardless of the steady paychecks, world travel and ability to purchase what I wanted whenever I wanted it.

I have dealt with their doubt by continuing to believe strongly in myself and putting my nose to the creative grindstone in order to earn continued recognition and success. You can achieve great things with a dream and the belief in your ability to do so.

Do you think there is a difference between creativity and talent? What are your thoughts on this?

Every single person in this world has the capacity for creativity. We can all dip a paint brush in paint and move it around the canvas, cut out a snowflake from a piece of folded paper with a pair of scissors, place pen to paper and make up a story, cut our favorite photos from a magazine and glue them on a piece of poster board, or pick up a point and shoot camera to capture a beautiful sunset. In fact I believe all people should have some sort of creative outlet simply for the fun of it and to balance out their life.

Talent is another issue entirely. I believe certain people are born with inherent gifts and talents. If those talents or gifts lie in the area of a creative medium such as painting, sculpture, writing or photography, then that innate talent adds more fuel to the fire during the creative process and the end result is usually pretty outstanding.

Part of the journey for creative people with innate talent is reaching the point where they recognize and believe in their own talent. Once you believe in your innate abilities and have discovered your desired mode of expression then passion should drive you to create, experiment, stretch and share your gifts with the world.

Have you developed a specific creative process that enables you to meet your creative goals? If so, can you tell us about it. Where do most of your ideas come from?

The majority of my ideas come from my personal life experiences. I draw a lot on my experiences (both the positive and the negative), especially the experiences that move me to emotion or passionate reaction. I am a fairly well read individual who loves to peruse political events and opinion pieces from the major news organizations. When I feel myself reacting to a political hot button topic, social or environmental injustice or human interest story, I am often moved to create something in order to express my personal feelings or reaction surrounding that subject matter. Facebook offers an endless stream of fodder for creative thought and expression based on the multitude of personalities and belief systems that merge in one place across the Internet.

I also spend a lot of time just watching people from a distance. For my thesis project I take long walks through the seediest parts of the City in order to develop a better understanding of my subject matter (the homeless). As I walk, wander and chat with the people on the streets, my creative mind begins to kick into high gear with all the possibilities. I am a realist (thus primarily a nonfiction writer and documentary photographer) and I have a need to be immersed firmly in reality before I can clearly express what it is I intend to say or create.

What is your primary motto or mantra in life? Why is this important to you?

"You yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe deserve your love and affection." – Buddha

I am not a practicing Buddhist; however The Buddha’s words often speak strongly to me. The aforementioned quote resonates deeply for me because for many years in my childhood and my young adult life I failed to love myself. Coming out of the abusive environment in which I was raised I did not feel much confidence in my individual abilities and talents, and I definitely did not believe I was worthy of self love or even of love from another human being. I stand here now happy to say I was able to work through that self doubt and lack of self love and am finally confident in my abilities and the gifts I am now able to share with the world.
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All photographs in this post are copyrighted by Tracy J. Thomas.

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