A few days ago, my friend Jenna sent me an excerpt from a book called The War of Art. :
The act of creation is by definition territorial. As the mother -to-be bears her child within her, so the artist or innovator contains her new life. No one can help her give it birth. But neither does she need any help. The mother and the artist are watched over by heaven. Nature's wisdom knows when it's time for the life within to switch from gills to lungs. It knows down to the nanosecond when the first tiny fingernails may appear. When the artist acts hierarchically, she short-circuits the Muse. She insults her and pisses her off. The artist and the mother are vehicles, not originators. They don't create the new life, they only bear it. This is why birth is such a humbling experience. The new mom weeps in awe at the little miracle in her arms. She knows it came out of her but not from her, through her but not of her. When the artist works territorially, she reveres heaven. She aligns herself with the mysterious forces that power the universe and that seek, through her, to bring forth new life. By doing her work for its own sake, she sets herself at the service of these forces. Remember, as artists we don't know diddly. We're winging it every day. For us to try to second-guess our Muse the way a hack second-guesses his audience is condescension to heaven. It's blasphemy and sacrilege.
Pressfield, Steven (2011-11-11). The War of Art (pp. 156-157). Black Irish Entertainment LLC. Kindle Edition.
When I met with my friend Hillary for coffee yesterday, we circled around to this topic and she had some really profound words of her own:
When you create something beautiful, you're really just the vessel. The Creator puts beauty and truth inside of us and we just get to let go and let it pour out using the voice He gave us. When we put out an authentic creation, for a tiny moment, we get to reverse the curse and tell the darkness "You won't win this time." It's like that scene in Garden State where they all scream into the abyss. For one moment, you can release your frustration with your humanity and see a glimpse of what we are supposed to be. What a gift we have been given to express beauty and tell the story of all things being made new every day. –Hillary Butler
I've been thinking a lot about the book and what Hillary and I talked about yesterday; and I have been wondering why the process of art making has shifted so much for me into something automatic, necessary, and healing. It wasn't always this way. When I got to graduate school, my work quickly became tortured and dark. Why? Because I thought that this was necessary to achieving concept and content. So, I fed the darkness everything that it wanted and the darkness was like a black hole, hungry for all of my energy. Making work was never a relief, I was always left feeling suffocated by what I had unearthed. I deliberately dug into all of my hurts and heartaches and the self-loathing that came along with it. My work was primarily portraiture and It was of myself. I didn't know it was me, however... I couldn't admit that because the work was so dark and uninviting. The recurring symbol was this spherical cage-like thing that sat heavy on the shoulders of my subjects. The cages were cluttered with clogs and tangles; a collection of things that needed to be removed but were willingly held onto and celebrated. I didn't fully understand what I had done but I can see it very clearly right now, I made a tribute to my own self-loathing; something to come back to, over and over again. How terrifying and what a waste of perfectly good inner-light. But maybe it was necessary, in order for me to fully understand what work like that does to me. I hid from my work until I absolutely had to make something (in order to get the grade) and, in search of something weighty, I binged on the darkness one more time and purged. I felt ashamed every time I faced my peers and professors with the new work. I let the darkness win for the sake of production.
After graduate school, I had to walk away from my work altogether. Everything that I associated with it was torturous. But here's the thing; I am an artist and I was born one. Artists have to make work in order to survive in this world. Joe Santore, a professor at The New York Studio School, once told me that art was a disease. When he told me this, I felt the truth of it in my gut. I thought that it sounded so terrible and beautiful all at once. And I felt like I had been both liberated from the obligation to create and lost in a long hallway with no way out because I was convinced he was not talking about me. But, whether or not the two of us knew it at the time, he WAS talking about me. Art is a sort of beautiful disease and the medicine is more cowbell... (I did that for levity)... Just kidding, the medicine is the release embodied in creation. If said creation is avoided, the artist becomes consumed. But, to revisit the excerpt from The War of Art and my conversation with Hillary (which was not this intense - we would have fallen asleep on our drives home), art isn't about conjuring anything up, it's just about releasing.
I eventually decided to put charcoal to paper after being a year out of school and I was put on a path to restoration. I remember standing in front of the paper and becoming overwhelmed with emotions I couldn't quite name. I now recognize all of it as an enormous amount of gratitude for the antidote and subsequent freedom from the "disease". The piece I made is pictured below, the veil had been lifted and there was just a ghost of what used to be.
So, when my art simplified itself and moved away from this deliberate pursuit of content, it found it's natural resting place; which is neither light or dark, it just is what it is... When I create, I am releasing, and the end result is a reflection of my own humanity, and it's not dark and terrifying nor is it some sort of blissful walk over a rainbow. I'm not ashamed of it nor am I overly proud, I'm just left feeling naked and clean in the reflection of my own humanity. Both my beauty and my flaws reveal themselves to me in my work and these things are complicated, unending, and still a little elusive. I think what is even more beautiful is this; it connects me to my fellows. My work was once this icky black, self-centered barrier between the world and myself; It was a wall that barricaded me from a world of truth and beauty that I believed I did not belong in. But this new work opens the door for me. I hope it opens the door for others too. My work, and the response to it, tells me that I am fine just as I am. It is about self-forgiveness and redemption and it restores my soul. Hillary referred to that click moment in creation as “reversing the curse” and telling the darkness that it will not win…and that’s precisely it.
I'm busy working on my blog posts. Watch this space!