I've picked up on a common experience in my years of interviewing incredible women: we remember something about ourselves that is undeniably true, and then we notice how that thing has gone missing from our lives. The process of re-integrating the missing parts of ourselves takes a leap. I'm fascinated by these leapers. Maybe because not everyone gets there, even when they want to. Natalie Cox Crandall brought painting back into her life as a working mom during the pandemic, which has now led to her own artist studio. Natalie has undeniably taken her leap and has wisdom for anyone standing at the edge of theirs. You will enjoy this one.
Tell us about noticing that something you loved wasn't a part of your day-to-day life anymore.
I have painted since high school, and took art classes throughout college. In my adult life, I always had a little bin of painting supplies tucked away in a closet somewhere, and would pull it out from time to time to feel that muscle memory again. But all of a sudden, in 2020, I was a parent of two small kids, working a demanding job with a partner working just as doggedly, and in the midst of Covid lock-down trying to figure out how to get through each endless day. I was in daily survival mode, balancing a toddler and a newborn, while also showing up at a job that meant a lot to me to do well. My three year old was really impacted by the long, boring days without stimulation. This was when the playgrounds were all fenced off, and we weren’t even bringing mail into the house without sanitizing it. Bleak stuff. I felt guilty all the time, and one day pulled out tempera paints and taped butcher paper all over the walls. He and I started making “murals” of all of the places we missed and wanted to go to, and just the act of holding a paintbrush again brought me so much comfort. I remembered how I used to express myself through this medium, and started finding time to paint again after the kids were asleep. I started a second Instagram account, initially called @takemebacktohighschoolart, and at first was just posting the things he and I were making or painting together.
What can survival teach us about ourselves?
My “survival” in that time was real but was also supported by so much privilege: I had a stable job and a safe home, and obviously privileges from my other identifiers (race, ability, etc). Still, it was such a painful time to feel so connected to the pain so many other people were feeling, too, and also like it wasn’t safe for us to be together or to help in the ways we were used to helping. Making art and posting it, and then connecting to other people who saw it, and seeing the art they were making too or the other ways they were getting through (remember all the bread baking!? And home workout videos!?) felt like a life raft for me. I hadn’t reached for or used art in that way in so long, and yet, it felt so authentic to me again. I felt like I was re-tapping an old, ignored part of myself – which was what the “high school art” part of my profile name was about. I wanted to remember how to feel self-assured and creative again, and also show my children how to find their core in a struggle. I wouldn’t want to relive a single day of 2020, but I am also not sure I would have otherwise had the courage to listen to and start sharing that inner part of me if not for the hard times of that year.
The little voice is something I first started talking about with my son. He was grappling with a lot of big understandings, and I would tell him that he already always knew the right thing to do in his heart, and just had to listen closely to his own little voice. That advice was for him; but really it was advice for me, too.
Describe the little voice and how you found her again.
The little voice is something I first started talking about with my son. He was grappling with a lot of big understandings, and I would tell him that he already always knew the right thing to do in his heart, and just had to listen closely to his own little voice. That was advice for him; but really it was advice for me, too. We all have internal intuition, and I found that I’d stopped listening to mine in a lot of cases. When I paint, I can get into a “zone” where things around me go quiet, and I can hear the internal dialogue I often miss. I started realizing it was such a direct way for me to tap into my own subconscious and start to pay attention. To notice my thoughts, and step back from them or soothe them, and to give myself more space and agency over my own mindfulness for the rest of the day. I’m a better version of myself when I take some time to listen to that voice and be present with it. I like to picture my little voice as my child self – probably because my kids are small and I am so aware of the internal voices they’re building – and taking care of her is such an important way I also take care of me, now, too.
How did you make room to leap within your very full life?
I started finding slices of creative time everywhere I could at first. I had to make compromises with myself about what that time would look like, so that I would do it at all, instead of just skipping it and being resentful. That saying about “don’t make perfect the enemy of the good” applied for me here.
That started out as having a few different sketchbooks and colored pencils or nicer washable markers so that even during the daytime mom hours I could have some creative time while also taking care of my kids, even when I really wanted to be painting alone. Or investing in some new paints and brushes and then fully swapping late night TV binging for painting time instead. Or – the hardest one for me – getting up earlier than everyone else in my house to have some art time before the day begins. I’m so affected by the seasons, so this is hard for me in winter, but I talk myself into it by setting up the night before, having good coffee and music, and just knowing how much better I’ll feel the rest of the day if I stumble down in the dark.
I also have to name: the slices I’m able to find have gotten bigger and more productive as my kids are now out of baby world, or able to play on their own in another room, or interested in joining me and creating together. I still find myself feeling itchy or anxious when I’m away from creating for too long, but I’ve gotten better now at recognizing that feeling and knowing how to soothe it myself instead of just being grouchy to everyone around me all day. I also use “this is temporary, this is temporary, this is temporary” as an internal mantra all the time for so many things. I tend to want to speed through things, so reminding myself to either slow down and be present in something I’m avoiding, or breathe through something I’m trying to rush helps me connect back to my own mindfulness.
How does it feel to be doing this while your little kids watch?
Important. It feels meaningful to me to be a worthy person for them to learn from; and in turn more important for me to be that person for myself, too. I am still building my own confidence in calling myself a professional artist, but to hear them tell their teachers at school “My mom is an artist!” or create art that looks like mine on their own is just incredible. I want them to see art as a form of both self-care and connection to others, and also a valuable way to operate in an unfair world. Art can be such a powerful tool for progress and activism, so I want them to learn that, as well.
The fun part: tell us all about your art and how it feels to have a successful artist studio.
I named my business imPerfect Studio because I like the duality: both recognizing imperfections and realizing “I’m Perfect.” I had a painting professor in college who encouraged boldly painting over portions of work that weren’t working, and trying it again, which can feel terrifying to me. But he’s right; and the spots where you make layers of paint, literal repeated attempts, are often the most interesting in the end. There’s a metaphor in there, for sure. In my business, I use thrift frames and layers of paint to create art that I hope conveys a feeling to share with others… all the while making space to work on and talk about my own work on inner voice and growth.
It feels both vulnerable and powerful to be sharing my art and connecting in this way. It’s sort of like I’ve opened a door and turned on the lights within myself to a space I forgot existed, and now it’s bringing me to all of these other new doors. I’m still defining exactly what success will mean for this business, and following each opportunity that comes my way. I did my first art market last fall and sold out of every piece I’d brought before the end of the day – which still blows my mind!! – and now am branching out into collaborations with local stores and leading evening adult art classes. I also love working on custom commissions for clients, either replicating my previous designs in new frames, or collaborating on something they’re imagining in my style. I’m having so much fun doing what I love, and it’s such an honor to me to see other people connecting to it.
For someone about to leap, what do you most want them to know?
My “leap” has actually been built from many, many small and often scary small steps. Slowing down enough to really listen to what was important to me, and then make space for that in my personal life, and then share it publicly were all phases I went through that felt uncomfortable at first. But discomfort is a requirement for growth! I check in with myself now, with my own gut and intuition, when I’m feeling uncomfortable. Is it because something is out of alignment for me, or just because I’m nervous to go for something new and risky? If it’s the former, I work hard to speak on it. If it’s the latter, I know I need to push myself to try it, and trust myself enough to ride the wave of whatever happens next.
Natalie is the founder of imPerfect Studio, where she makes new art in thrifted frames.