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When I was little, art was a refuge . . . . until it wasn’t anymore. It’s a story that’s better told in video than in writing:

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Even then, I hid behind the scenes. I sketched things on this blog until the blog became more popular and I felt the need to make it look “professional.” Those words still lingered. A serious artist. That wasn’t me.

Fast forward a few years. I’m sitting down with my kids, sharing a bedtime story about a wizard who can’t do magic but falls in love with robotics. My wife adds some great ideas and the next thing I know, she and I are writing a book together. I’m comfortable writing the story but I cringe when my kids ask me to illustrate it.

“Maybe we can get a real illustrator,” I point out. However, in the meantime, I sketch out some characters and have fun with it. After all, the audience is tiny and I’m thinking back to my second rule. Everyone is an artist.

Eventually, though, we decide to publish it with the illustrations. I’m terrified that people will mock it. The words “serious about art” still linger. But nobody mocks it. In fact, a few people email me and say that the illustrations are great. But more importantly, every time I do an Author Skype or Hangout, kids ask about the drawings. Every. Time.

So now it’s two years later and I’m standing in front of a group of students who are excited to hear me read the last chapter of Wendell the World’s Worst Wizard. I glance back at the student-created robots inspired by the story. I fight back tears, because I am reminded of the fact that art has become, yet again, a refuge for me.

“Why did you write this book?” a student asks in the Q and A afterward.

“I wanted to write a bedtime story,” I mention. “I thought I was just writing a story but I realized, at the end, that I had stumbled on the theme by accident — that the real magic is in creativity and I don’t want my kids to lose sight of that.”

As I say it, I realize that I had written a book perfectly suited for me. I had been Wendell the Worst Wizard, unable to see my abilities until I was away from the system.

The Power of Audience

That was the first of many of these moments. I was so nervous I was shaking the next day when they played a sketchy video I had created in front of the entire auditorium, but then as people approached me afterward, I felt affirmed. The same thing happened when Adam Bellow mentioned Wendell in his keynote. And the same thing happened when I added a few sketchy videos to the sessions I taught on creativity and assessment.

It has me thinking about the restorative power of an audience. We all have some area of creativity where shame crept in and suddenly we abandoned something we once had loved – not out of boredom or exhaustion but out of shame and fear.

Maybe you stopped singing or dancing or drawing or all of the above. Maybe you bought into the lie that there are “creative types” and everyone else. Whatever it is, chances are there’s this side of you that walked away from art, not out of disinterest, but out of shame.

What I’ve learned, though, is that a small trusted audience can help restore what was lost. My first small audience was a group of seven dedicated muralists. We were a band of mistake-makers, hellbent on destroying the lie of the “serious artists.” Later, my own kids pushed me take creative risks, even when it was uncomfortable. Eventually, that small trusted audience grows into a tribe and the tribe gets bigger and, next thing you know, you have a bigger audience.

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John Spencer

My goal is simple. I want to make something each day. Sometimes I make things. Sometimes I make a difference. On a good day, I get to do both.More about me

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