• hannnahmichelle

Sunseeker

Why I quit my job to attend art school.

I submitted this as my entrance essay for the Ottawa School of Art.


For as deep as my memory is rooted, I cannot recall a time where I wasn’t captivated by sunsets.


The sepia glow, the capricious kaleidoscope of skyborne colour and the ephemeral presence have always moved me to worship these moments with eyeball, camera and paints alike, standing humbly as if in a cathedral.


One of many frantic trips up the road by my childhood home, I snapped this photo as a summer storm blew in, ushering out the setting sun.
Storm Coming As Sun's Leaving

In non-sunset hours, I find myself trying to capture and quantify the feelings I get when witnessing one. Hours are spent at my easel, swishing acrylics across a canvas, or I sit and ponder how I could craft words together to encapsulate moments as immense, vibrant, and poetic as a sunset.


A creative soul, always, when I paint, or do pretty much anything, I read. Well, to be accurate I listen to most of my books, because, like a far-gone bibliophile, I binge the worlds of memoirs, high fantasy and thriller novels at a speed, consistency and multi-tasking level to which paper pages cannot sustain.


Found in those pages from time to time are sentences that give me pause, on theme with the sentiment found when daylight kisses the horizon. It’s a complex feeling. It’s a mishmash of hope, faith of an unreligious kind and a sense of finality that ushers in progress, an epiphany. When words can hold a weight like that, I find myself returning to them again and again, just like I do with my paintbrushes when immortalizing sunsets at my easel.


Capturing a day's last rays of sunlight is a passion of mine. This photo is a product of that obsession.
Cattails At Sunset

I had one of those moments, a sunset-level epiphany, while reading Untamed by Glennon Doyle.


Her book has many things that stuck to me like tree sap and had me pausing to safeguard her clever sentences on notebook pages, however the epiphany phrase that struck me the deepest is:


“Every time you’re given a choice between disappointing someone else and disappointing yourself, your duty is to disappoint that someone else. Your job, throughout your entire life is to disappoint as many people as necessary in order to avoid disappointing yourself.”


Doyle’s words are just the newest version of the same repackaged mantra we hear all the time: that your only constant in your life is you, that you only live once, that fulfillment is worth pursuing, there’s more to life than work and bills, too many people just contribute to the rat-race of society and never pursue pathways that could bring them true happiness.

So many of us deny our sun-seeking and clomp through the night, convinced that a world without light is perfectly fine.


For me, Doyle’s words, though nothing new, were the last little inoculation of permission I needed to start down a new path.


The reminder that I’m allowed, I’m supposed, to disappoint people to honour myself is like the final rays of light disappearing behind the gentle curve of a hill. There’s the knowledge that the sun will return tomorrow, but in the ensuing hours of peace and healing and unknown, you get to make a decision.


I have spent the past nearly 1000 days in a happiness vacuum, peppered with bright spots of peace and joy and dreams but lacking a true sense of fulfillment.


In 2018, I made the hard decision to quit a career that I had planned on having for years to come. That decision carved a crevice through almost six years of family-like friendships and community.


Shortly after I ended my career, I returned to school to finish my Bachelor's degree, I moved back home, a long-term relationship ended and I dropped into the general monochrome of mental health struggles. Reeling from the sharp 180 degree swerve my life had taken was akin to dropping into the eye of a whirlpool I’d been flirting with for most of a year.


In Autumn of 2018, in a muddle of soul searching, battles with depression and taking full-time classes for the last year of my journalism degree, I launched an Instagram page for painting and called it Unmoored Art. A small ray of sunshine in a wash of darkness.


The hero of my own story, Unmoored Art acknowledged my status as a drifting 23-year-old, untethered from shore and bobbing in the waters of uncertainty. Aside from art, I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing, and when I found myself feeling the most unmoored, I usually wound up at my easel, mixing acrylics and trying my best to capture the serenity and sense of order I found in natural landscapes, or the optimism expressed in a burst of sunlight.


Snapped while sitting on a breakwater with my mum in Key West during our February 2020 trip to Florida. This was the only sunset we were able to witness during our trip, unaware that the state would soon be consumed with COVID-19 cases.
Sepia Sunset Views

I graduated in June 2019, still quite sure that, at least for the moment, I didn’t want to be a journalist. I also didn’t feel free to seriously ponder what I did want to pursue because just over two months earlier my father was diagnosed with stage four colon cancer. Dad, at 58, passed away a few short weeks after I spent the morning curling my hair, applying lipstick and walking across the graduation stage. As his health had declined, he’d left his business, an automotive and RV repair shop, to my brother and me. His death meant that, through the grief, I had a year and a half of helping stabilize a business and secure a dream that wasn’t mine, but rather my brother’s, something I was committed to doing, yet it still reaped a cost.


Stepping into that role had me pulling a duvet of other peoples’ hopes and expectations around my shoulders. I then added my own thoughts about their hopes and expectations on top.


Throughout the 500 or so days I spent involved in the family business—my inheritance—I consistently engaged in self-talk to try and convince myself that I belonged, that I should stay.


I am good at business management; therefore, I should stay.


I am good at sales; therefore, I should stay.


I am good at organization; therefore, I should stay.


My brother would be burdened without me; therefore, I should stay.


I’d talk about art from time to time with our mechanics: a mural business, a colouring book, commissions requests, Christmas tree ornaments. They would caution me, with love, about being too hasty in pursing art full-time, I had to make sure I’d make enough money at it.


I am making a good income here; therefore, I should stay.


I’d help resolve issues, spearhead solutions, stabilize workers, support my family members. Clients would leave reviews online of their experiences with us, mentioning me by name in their glowing testimonials.


I am making a positive impact here; therefore, I should stay.


We’d have close-knit days with laughter and jokes and singing soft rock songs. Or afternoons of quoting stand-up comedy skits at each other.


I have family here; therefore, I should stay.


As the months wore on, no matter how true my points to myself were, I was wilting. My gaslighting gained a companion, a daily nattering against my skull that repeated: this isn’t you.


This isn’t you. This isn’t you. This isn’t you. Thisisn’tyouthisisn’tyouthisisn’tyou.


Queue: Glennon Doyle, Untamed, sunset-words, epiphany, permission-giving validation moment.


“Your job, throughout your entire life is to disappoint as many people as necessary in order to avoid disappointing yourself.”


I started thinking about what my life would look like if instead of being concerned about the idea of disappointing others, I focused on honouring myself.


What could my life look like if I built it to feel the same as a sunset, always? If rather than for only a brief time on clear-skied days, or for stretches of moments at an easel or keyboard, I lived the life of a sunseeker, always?


A friend mentioned fine art school. I Googled. I sent an email.


Basking in the setting sun streaming through the trees, I sketched pinecones, winding down after a fantastic day of canoeing, swimming and hiking.
Canada Day Sunburst

Stepping out of the self-talk space and deciding on a path for myself pulled that comfy duvet from my shoulders and had me realizing that the disappointment I’d been trying to avoid creating in others wasn’t my concern. That difficulties would crop up through my stepping out of the business, but that I was obligated to not spend another day trying to convince myself into contentedness.


Not disappointing myself means that my 25th year is to be spent in pursuit of the things that set my soul to vibrancy. At this moment, that path starts with art, deepening my knowledge of it, my practice of it, my commitment to it, my ability with it. Living to honour myself, at this moment, means seeking out a community for myself. It means, at any moment, I can be unmoored and bask in a daily, happy nattering that goes: this is you.


This is you. This is you. This is you. Thisisyouthisisyouthisisyouthisisyou!


It's safe to say I was elated to be turning a new page and having taken the step to attend art school and pursue my passion of being a full-time creative.
Reaction To My Art School Enrollment

Being a sunseeker means taking consistent steps in the direction epiphanies encourage me. It means building my life to feel like precious, vivacious and eloquent sunset-moments as often as I can make it so. To live life in reverence to what I create for myself, understanding that the light fades periodically, but returns, darkness sets in, as it does for everyone, and you can use it to chrysalis yourself, to incubate and heal and grow.


This is all so that my skin can drink in that sepia glow, more than just at dusk, more than just with paints, but from the profound expanse of the life I choose to make for myself, daily, as a sunseeker.



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