Category Archives: Art

Letting the Genie Out of the Bottle

I just watched an amazing presentation on the source of genius and creativity by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat Pray Love, that I want to share with you all on my writing blog this morning. Not only did it answer a few questions for me as an artist but it confirmed some of my own beliefs about art and the myth of the tortured artist. Elizabeth talks not only about writing but writing as an art form and the writer as an artist but about the other arts as well so this talk is essential for all creative people.

As a student majoring in fine arts (I have a Masters in painting) and as the offspring of artists I’m, more than most, fully aware of our stereotypes, culturally, about artists as tortured souls that pay for their genius (modern definition of the word being that genius is being really smart or creative) with terrible mental and emotional problems. The quintessential poster boy for this viewpoint is, of course, Vincent Van Gogh. The viewpoint is so all prevailing that I know artists who have considered themselves failures when they didn’t die young, or bemoaned the fact they haven’t had a nervous breakdown yet.

Normally sane people, in other words, will drink, take drugs, cultivate disruptive and destructive behaviors, just to fulfill society’s prophecy that the creative individual is doomed. There are, naturally enough, tons and tons of examples. As I was studying art, being a rather sane individual that really didn’t want to booze myself to death or suffer from mental illness just for my muse, I had plenty of cause to think about this topic. I was also studying art history at the same time and it’s pretty easy to trace the history of the idea of artist as tortured individual from its origins. Great art has been produced of it, but is it really that useful of an idea? Can we change it?

Elizabeth wants to give us a new myth about artists and creativity and it’s actually a very old myth. Watch and rejoice:

Elizabeth Gilbert on Genius


The Passionate Salmon

salmonThe creative process is a tricky thing. Many hear the clarion call to create something – indeed it seems to be a fundamental building block of human nature – hence the proliferation of ‘things’ that clutter our lives from gadgets like egg slicers to paintings that uplift our spirits in some kind of deep and meaningful way that is ineffable. Of course the many millions of inventions that have been produced over the course of human history have many benefits, though there are many that have dubious benefit or can be labeled down right evil (the atomic bomb, the iron maiden). Our minds constantly seem to be thinking of new things. Even the least creative of us have the urge to create, improve, adapt, and otherwise manipulate their surroundings in some way. For many it’s an unconscious act (choosing wallpaper for the living room, selecting one make of car over another) that seems to have little bearing on the whole creative stream, but magnified by millions has an enormous impact.

It’s when you take a very active role in creating that the process of selection and manipulation becomes a powerful struggle. Which word? Which color? You’re like a salmon trying to swim upstream against a raging waterfall to spawn. The odds often seem against your work of art successfully being birthed into the world. Then all those little fish of creativity that do hatch then have to make their own difficult way back to that enormous sea. So few grow into a mature salmon. How do you have that original idea that will allow your small egg of concept to grown into a magnificent force of silver scaled nature? How does your book stand out of the crowd?

There are countless blogs and books out there to tell you how to write, how to be a better writer, how to sell, but there wouldn’t be a market for those things if it wasn’t actually a total shot in the dark, almost akin to that salmon heading upstream. You can be the sleekest healthiest salmon in the whole damn ocean but fate can still mess you up, you can still make the wrong move, just be unlucky. And ultimately art is not a salmon. The analogy can only carry us so far. Creating a story that lasts in the minds of your readers is not just about following rules, or even going with what’s been successful before. You can’t sit down and plan to be the next Dan Brown or Stephanie Meyer (read Stephanie Meyer’s story in her own words to get a great idea what I’m next about to say to you). If you do it comes out formulaic and dry.

You can only sit down and write about something you are passionate about. No matter how much college you had, or creative writing classes, or blogs on writing you read, you will not write anything that anyone wants to read, that strikes a chord within another person’s soul, if it’s not something that sings to you. Meyer’s had a dream and she followed it through. I have not read the book, I probably won’t because I’m sick of vampires and turned off my young adult fiction, but regardless of my personal preferences Stephanie Meyers touched an honest chord in her readers and now she has her deserved fame and fortune. Some of it was just plain luck, but without the passion it’s never going anywhere.


A Cause Without a Rebel

I don’t find the myth of the starving artist to be alluring. I don’t relish the idea of the writer in the garret, scotch bottle at his right, cigarette smoldering in the overflowing ashtray. I’m not drawn to self-destructive he-men like Jackson Pollock splattering his work over giant floor-sized canvases while his wife sacrifices her art and happiness on the altar of his genius. I don’t need to die young, wrapped bone and sinew in the chassis of my Porsche 550.

There are days when I actually consider that might be why I’m not a better artist.

Then I remember this guy, a printmaker of some skill, which was a friend of the family. My mother and her husband were both amazing artists in their fields but both suffered from anxiety disorder as well as other emotional scarring and trauma. This printmaker actually said “I wish I could have panic attacks so I could be a great artist”. Obviously he lacked the imagination required to move from ‘competent’ to ‘great’.

When I have my moments of angst over my lack of success as an artist I like to think about Raphael. He was hugely successful, very prolific, handsome, and amiable. What more could you ask for? Oh wait, he died at 37 years old. Ok, but that wasn’t too bad right? After all it was the Renaissance, more dangerous times and all.

Wait, hold on… I’m rummaging through my hard drive for more examples of happy productive artists (preferably ones that were slow starters because they were too busy just sort of wandering around aimlessly until their mid-thirties)…

Hmm… Rembrandt won’t do because though he started out happy and successful (in love with his wife Saskia) he ended up with tragedy and poverty.

Maybe painters aren’t the best source for the happy successful artists sans angst? I should turn to literature.

Ah! Henry Miller.

I’m sure he had his moments of angst but he lived a very long life, was successful during his lifetime, and screwed tons and tons of beautiful interesting broads. There you go. Oh and on the subject of long lives I did think of a painter: Picasso! So he was an asshole to all around him. I’m sure he was totally happy.

I, too, can be a happy successful artist. Of course if I’m not an asshole will that hinder me? Perhaps I should cultivate being more of a jerk?

Or maybe, just maybe, I should stop navel gazing and write something besides another blog post?

Oh, ok, I just have to share this will all three of you that read this: so last night I’m trying to go to sleep but the lovely lady has on her show because she’s not quite sleepy yet and I’m trying to ignore it, but you know I can’t ignore dialogue. I start to listen whether I want to or not. I’m not sure what show she was watching but I wish I had a photographic memory so I could share with you all (that’s you five over there) the deathless bad writing. I never ever heard anything so hackneyed in my life. Without seeing the actors or other distracting visual content I could just focus on the clichés. It was horrendous. I had to turn on my light and start reading Elmore Leonard before I made an ass of myself and told her just how crappy the show was. Would that have qualified me as an asshole artist? Did my restraint forever doom me to be just another wannabe?


The Soundtrack of Art

Ok, completely different tangent, or maybe a tangentially related tangent: I do not put music on to write or to paint.

I love music and have a large and eclectic collection in some varied styles that I enjoy.  Another time we can talk about my favorites.  Today I want to discuss why people listen to music for everything.  I don’t have an iPod.  I didn’t ever having a Sony Walkman (remember those, kiddies?).  Right now, because I’m writing and not doing chores (there should always be a difference between those two), I’m listening to the sound of the train.  The train sounds different in winter during a blizzard then it does in summer in clear skies.  It is infinitely more eerie in winter.  It’s almost like a foghorn in tone.  The bell to warn people off the track sounds much farther away, muffled by the snow that falls.   I can also hear the sound the snow plow makes as it passes by, heavy shovel lowered, scraping along the tarmac.  Very far in the distance, so far it’s nearly inaudible, I can hear sirens.

It’s much quieter when the snow falls because much of the sound is dampened by the thick blanket of frosty white.  Sometimes you get that wonderful surprising ‘thump’ as the accumulation of snow grows too heavy for its precarious position on the slanted roof and it comes down in a wet lump and disappears into the snow below.  Only a few days ago I was actually listening to birdsong because there were an earful of Cedar Waxwings outside in the branches of the old apple tree and partaking of the brilliant red of the sumac fruit.  They would cling to the naked branches like dying leaves refusing to give up the ghost.

All of these sounds would be lost to me if I was sitting here with earphones pressed into my ears or blaring out of my speakers.  My life rarely comes with a musical soundtrack.  I often wonder if it’s the movies that have changed the way people go through life, always with music.  When I walk I like to be able to hear the blare of the car horn as I step heedlessly off the pavement, or snippets of a passing conversation made more tantalizing by the lack of context.  I’m even amused by the cars that go by, steel chassis vibrating, bouncing on the tires, as the inmate destroys his eardrums.  Sometimes I catch a phrase of a favorite song on a summer day as someone drives by with their windows down.  Snatched from a random moment like that music retains its evocation.

It’s the constant all pervasive and completely ubiquitous use of music that puzzles me.  All at once it is the most popular art form and the one most abused.  A quiet moment turns your head to a beautiful and provocative painting or sculpture; an erotically set solitaire diamond graces the throat of a pretty woman; a hand woven blanket is sprung from the hope chest and laid upon the guest bed to delight the guest; a bouquet of spring flowers is carefully arranged in the hand blown glass vase.  Music we just put on and ignore.  It becomes the background noise of the supermarket, the elevator, and then our lives.  The lyrics become embedded in our brains, like the refrain, but do we really ‘listen’ when we’re too busy doing something else?

The notes are often distorted or muffled – not allowed to speak with the clarity in which they were composed.

I went to the opera recently.  The sounds produced by the orchestra and the crystalline voices were like a revelation.  They entered through the ear but then poured into the soul and opened up the heart like a daylily to the morning sun.  Each note was clear, even when woven into a tapestry of sound.  The words sung became infinitely more meaningful for their clarity until it wrung emotion from the body like water from a towel.

It is, for this exactly, that I do not listen to music when I write or when I paint.  I listen to music.  I sing and dance to music.  I let it fill me up and then overflow until the house is awash with music.  When I sit down to write or stand before my easel I need to listen to my voice, not the muse of another artist.  I want my own pure thoughts and emotions.  I need to listen to the wind blow, the honk of the car horn, the laughter of a child passing outside.  I need the soundtrack of my art to be my own life.