Tag Archives: Art

Spinning Out of Control

Spinning out of ControlLife has a way of getting in the way of art.  It sometimes seems to me that either you make your life all about art, and to hell with the rest, or you valiantly struggle through your life, crossing all your t’s and dotting all your i’s, and you never get a sodding bit of art done at all.  And then there is all the drama and chaos.  I’m feeling hemmed in right now.  I, me personally, am fine.  But between the time I spend trying to live a sane sustainable life, and the shit storm that is constantly battering the glass walls of my personal bubble, I’m finding it harder and harder to be creative.

And it’s like this shit storm just keeps getting bigger and bigger, picking up debris in its wake and spreading it across the face of my world.  You know when you buy a new car (new to you) and say it’s a Volkswagen Beetle or whatever (you pick) and suddenly you just see them everywhere on the road – or it’s because you’re playing Punch Buggy, but the point is that they go from being invisible to almost all you can see?  Is that what this storm of disaster is all about? Or is the world really going to hell faster and faster, like the spin cycle on a washing machine?

I don’t honestly know.  For me things are very much the same as they have always been: slightly better maybe, but with slightly less time.  I’m trading time for comfort.  But that’s just me.  Everyone else and everywhere else seems to be blowing apart at the seams, or at least in need of a few denim patches.  Oh yeah, and that time thing, it’s a bitch.  It brings me back to the first thought.  I spend more time working, more time fretting about things I cannot change in the lives of people who seem bent on destruction, and less time doing the things I really love: making stuff.

For me, making stuff is a huge area.  It’s writing, it’s creating Pan Historia, it’s painting, it’s learning new skills, it’s books, and museums, and pulling in inspiration from all around me to turn it into moments of insight and art.  But when life starts to feel like a buzz saw, saw dust flying until it chokes, and your eyes start to blink and tear up, where is the time to be found for the creativity?

My reaction?

Take a nap. Play a mindless game.  Lose myself in some meaningless movie made for TV.

Waste the precious moments even as I scream about losing the time: it was so hard to find, and as I get older it is an ever vanishing resource.

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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 Bones of a Leaf

The human mind is an amazing instrument capable of processing data from multiple inputs at speeds that make the fastest microprocessor look like a slow moving cement mixer. Not only that but many of the functions it performs are sorted and prioritized without the owner even seeing or sensing the processes involved. One of the astonishing abilities of the mind is the interpretation and creation of symbols: one thing standing for another thing. Letters form words that the brain then interprets. A picture of shape that is roundish, red, and has a sticklike appendage near the top becomes an apple. I catch sight of a piece of leaf with just the stem and a small part of the base and I see a tadpole swimming on my carpet.

Art, whether written, pictorial, or musical, is the mind’s conscious manipulation of symbols to create images, emotion, and meaning in the mind of the observer/listener. I take something that is not there, create symbols (words or images), and deliver it to you so that you have an experience. Creating words from letters, then forming sentences, all of which describe the world, exterior and interior, is really an astounding activity and yet so many of us, from children to the most humble, can do it. Of course a lot of people tend to stick to the literal, the true, the tangible. It takes another flight of fancy to make stuff up – to make beautiful meaningful lies.

But even the entirely made up should be full of truths eternal. They may be very small, but I believe that even in the most lighthearted or humorous or fanciful piece of fiction writing there should be yet another layer of meaning underneath the obvious. I should be able to paint a picture for you of another reality and underlying my fictional reality is yet another substrate of meaning, of symbol. A really satisfying work of art lingers with you a long time after experiencing it. It’s the movie that makes you keep thinking days later, or the novel that resonates years in the future so that you have to pick it up again, and lo and behold there is even more there than the first time around. It’s the painting that haunts, or the musical refrain that moves you to tears and you don’t know exactly why.

If I can ever write just one novel that has the ability to resonant in the reader’s mind long after they put it down I’ll have succeeded as an artist. If someone reads my words like I can read the remains of a leaf as a tadpole on my carpet then I have done my job.


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.


The Decade of Our Youth

bo-derek-10I went grocery shopping last night after work. Exhausted though I was we were completely out of food and I’d gone to work in the morning with a stale croissant from Safeway and Starbucks (possibly the worst supermarket and worst coffee franchise ever) so I was resolute in my desire to fill a shopping cart with a basket of good food from a different food chain. Taking my time I was drawn to the magazine rack as I strolled by leaning heavily on the handle of the cart. People Magazine had put out one of its glossy special editions “Celebrate the 70’s“. The cover features the Bee Gees, Farah Fawcett, Michael Jackson, Marlon Brando in The Godfather, Bo Derek, and Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta in Grease. The back cover is: Mary Tyler Moore, Richard Nixon, Mark Spitz, Star Wars, Patty Hearst, Donna Summers, David Cassidy, Burt Reynolds, and the Village People. I mention the cover images in detail because with the exception of Mark Spitz I could, without hesitation, name very single celebrity on the cover and the movie or show they were famous for or being featured in. This is particularly a feat considering Bo Derek was pretty much solely a phenomena of the 70’s – known for one bouncing boob moment and a, at the time, unusual hair style. It’s also amazing because if you gave me a cover of the 80’s, 90’s, or the 00’s I would be lucky if I got 25%.

Much as I thought I hated the 70’s at the time it is clear from this example that I am a child of the 70’s. While I was born in the 60’s and have always sort of revered that particular decade and felt the one that followed was really a pallid and sometimes laughable shadow of the previous epoch shattering decade, it is the 70’s that stand out in my mind with a clarity that no other set of years will ever achieve – no matter how important personally to me. It’s truly the nature of the beast that is called human. When we come of age is, for the majority of us, marked permanently in our brains in a way that no other time of our life ever really can match. We are marked forever by the intensity of our youth. We are moving from childhood to adulthood on a cresting wave of hormones and adventure. The life in front of us is full of the unknown and of promise. We are actualized hope and we soak up life like a sponge.

As artists, whether writers, painters, poets, musicians, or sculptors, we need to soak up the world around us with the same intensity all the time. For those of us mature in years enough to have gotten some distance from the decade of our awakening the line might seem quite clear from when we were almost entirely alert (though maybe not terribly self-aware) to the years that followed when, no matter how we tried, the lights became less bright, and the world started rushing past us so fast we couldn’t hope to catch every image, every emotion. We all get tired out from so many hours spent washing the same dishes, going to the same supermarket, working the same job, but as artists we have to recapture the wide-eyed all-encompassing gaze of our youth. Your mind should be like a camera recording snapshots of life that you can paste into the album of your work. Age is what makes the selection of the images more discriminating.

I bought the special edition of People Magazine only to find that what I had once found to be banal and boring (oh the irony that when we are most awake we are also at our most opinionated and jaded!) to be bright, full of hope, and yes, even innocence. The 70’s now seem to me to be halcyon compared to the decades that followed and I challenge anyone to disagree. I won’t be watching reruns of Charlie’s Angels anytime soon, but I can remember watching them the first time around far more clearly than I remember what I watched last night.


Thoughts on Immortality

kingsI received a copy of a trade magazine in the mail that I used to write a regular feature for as part of my last job. My feature was also always the cover story. The new issue included the latest of these regular features, now, of course, written by my successor. To read the magazine presents a seamless tradition. There was and is no byline on this feature. To the casual observer there has been no change at all. Life goes on within and without me. Holding a copy of this magazine in my hand led to some bittersweet reflection about the footprint that we leave in life.

I am one of those vain animals that has always longed to leave my mark upon the world – some tangible proof that I was here, that I existed. Perhaps it’s not just simple vanity or a purely self-centered self-interest. I have always been captured by history, and in particular art. Beginning with the evocative fossilized remains of the first human footprints to the air-brushed (yes, air-brushed – they would blow the pigment from their mouths over the back of their hands as they pressed them to the cave wall) outlines of human hands along with graceful renderings of animals in the Lascaux caves we leave our prints on the more durable materials that compose our world.

Pharaohs and Kings had their names and idealized images carved into monumental stone so that they would live eternally in the hearts and minds of those that followed, but even the humbler of our species created marks to trace their path by. If you observe closely the stones upon which ancient stone masons worked you can see the lines of their tools etched into the stone like you can see Van Gogh’s brushstrokes on canvas, even the bristles from his paintbrushes, more tangible even than the signature. Greek potters began the cult of personal identification by beginning to mark their wares with a signature much like earlier Ancient Egyptian stonemason crews also left their ‘team’ mark on the stones.

As we advance in time artists, scientists, philosophers, and more began to leave their names more indelibly than kings and priests. Eventually even more humble people make footnotes in the history books, the images, and the remains of our various civilizations. In my research of the American West I come across hundreds of such people, moments of their lives captured in birth certificates, newspaper reports, tintypes, and inscriptions in the family bible.

Our popular culture worships celebrity and notoriety, which is sort of the dark underbelly of the shining desire to leave a tangible traceable mark upon history; a trail that can lead from one moment in time to another and allow people to make connections between the past and the present and feel the wash of history flow through them as something real and relevant. Celebrity can be a vanishing thing; here one moment and gone the moment after.

My impulse to write or make art is inextricably tied up with my desire to one of the threads of the fabric of the world. It’s a desire for a tangible immortality that transcends time or fleeting fame. I was here. I existed. Perhaps it stems from doubt about the existence of an afterlife, or perhaps it’s just natural hubris, but when I look around me at my achievements past and present there is really only one way that I feel I have made a unique contribution to the world, and that is my community site Pan Historia.

However how indelible can a web site be? I know that I have touched hundreds of people, and that I have made a difference in some of their lives that will be remembered all of their lives, but how about the future? I believe this question can be asked of the whole of the internet. It’s very nature is ephemeral and ever changing. Who tomorrow will remember communities like Pan Historia or even MySpace or Facebook? Where are the graceful strong carved lines in stone? How can I rest assured of my immortality when in a the flip of a switch all that I have worked for is gone forever with one electronic wink? Achievements on the internet seem as brief and fragile as human life itself.

Proud as I am of my personal achievements I do feel like I am rushing headlong to the abyss, and I don’t know what is on the other side. Desperately I crave the book that I can cradle in my hand, put on my shelf, and know that it will be here after I am gone. Books burn, degrade, rot, or get recycled, but surely one such tome can survive the ravages of cruel time to carry my name long after I am gone? Some future person will happen upon it on a dusty shelf in an obscure second-hand bookstore, a throwback to a gentler slower past, and there will be my name, my words, and it will be as if I still live.


Come With Me to the Sea…

Someone I greatly respect as an artist and storyteller once said he considered plagiarism to be the sincerest form of flattery and that it didn’t bother him because unlike the thief, he could always create more. On the other hand this very artist suffered from those that would steal his thunder and wanted to share the rarified sky and clouds with those whose feet walked above their own uninspired heads. The fact is that they were counterfeits and that the truth lay in his belief that he could always ‘create more’. It is the creativity itself that is the gift, not the individual piece.

I bring this up because one of the interesting features of sharing your writing online, whether it is a blog or at a site like Pan Historia, is this electronic act of trust. I’m putting it out there, assuming no one will take it. Of course it seems to be hubris to think anyone would, but it’s always a risk, however seemingly bizarre.

There was once a writer at Pan who was fairly good. I invited her to create a collaborative novel in order to help the site grow a community of writers beyond the standard historical or fan-based fiction. She created a whole fantasy world for her writers and I was pretty impressed. Then one day she decided to pull the plug on it because she decided she wanted to be a published author and someone might steal her material. The shock, at the time, was profound for me.

First I was very surprised that she considered the possibility of theft quite seriously, and the second that after months of working with other writers she would yank the framework from the tapestry they had built together out from under them. This being the early days of Pan it was simple enough to make sure it didn’t happen again through policies adopted, but I have never quite forgot it. It had an impact on me because I share my work all the time. I cast it out to the universe with each key stroke. I have no manuscripts lying under the bed, gathering dust, that I jealously guard.

Almost every single word I write is, in actual fact, published. Some may languish unseen in forums so old and dusty that the page never receives a call from a casual mouse click, or may have even disappeared from pixelated virtual reality all together, but every character of it has been shared. In all that unmitigated personal hubris (the assumption that anyone else would care to read it) I have never had cause to worry that anyone else was lifting it and trying to make it their own. If it came to a day when I wanted to see my words become ink upon a page – well I can write more.

Words flow outwards to the sea.

I don’t believe they should be dammed or ideas and creativity grows stagnant. You may only be a small creek, and it may only run with quick cold water after the spring thaw, but don’t impede it, and don’t consider it so precious that it grows thick and turgid with algae until it dries up completely and not even a lonely frog can find a home.

And if once those flowing words reach that great swollen ocean to mingle with all the waters of the world so that you fear that you will lose them, remember words are timeless. Who knows what shore they will one day cast up on to inspire again?

Let creativity leave and breathe. What do they say? If you love a thing… let it go.