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There are several essays available online exploring the question of what constitutes “visionary art” (Here is one by Lawrence Caruna and here is another by Alex Grey). For the sake of our discussion here, I’ll add an abbreviated definition so we can have a point of departure for the conversation to follow and the topic I explore in this essay: the WHY of Visionary Art – why do the artists who undertake this style feel it worthwhile and what place might it serve in the world.
What is visionary art?
Visionary art is, I think, an approach to creative work that reflects personal archetypal experiences of the world at large. This reflection couples – and this is incredibly important and vital – the artist’s own inner world and its dynamic interplay of emotions, archetypes, spiritual understandings with a broader world view exploring a particular idea or experience. It is neither a painting of a thing or simply the absolute abstraction to a point where ideas no longer apply. Instead, the best works of this type are a marriage of both inner and outer, the real and the abstract, the surreal, the mystical, and the dreamlike. This interplay can create or invoke a sensation that, when successful, is like a wordless dialogue between the inner formless world of the viewer and the inner formless world of the artist. The artist shares a vision – and idea – a perspective – of the world, their place in the world, and their understanding, in a sense, of where we as humans are or aspire to be in that equation.
Why now? WHY visionary art?
Every epoch asks, I think, the same questions: who are we? why are we here? where are we going? Every age of art has dialogued with these questions using the means and ideas of the time. The artists of the Renaissance responded, after a fashion, saying ‘we are three dimensional beings, caught in time and space, arrived at from various perspectives, and telling these stories that mirror our archetypal struggles.’ Which is to say: the art was exploring various shifts in perspective (visual perspective in art was pretty much non-existent before that time) and using that perspective to illustrate the stories that we’d been telling ourselves over and over again. As we trace the history of art, we can see various ideas evolving over that span of time.
Fast forward to the early 1900s and we see another major shift in creative approaches when artists, freed from the bonds of story-telling and reality-mirroring – both by the burgeoning industrialism-fueled upper class and the advent of the camera – dove headlong into entirely new and different approaches to art that began with studies in how we see – a la Expressionism, Impressionism, Cubism, and Futurism – to the explorations of the inner world – Surrealism, Abstract art, Minimalism, and so on.
While there’s a significant contingent of contemporary creatives that have continued to rehash the ideas already laid out by countless abstract artists that have preceded them and another equally significant contingent that reformulates the ideas of abstractionism while adding elements of our current zeitgeists and visual narratives (the digital, the glitched, and so on), there’s an entirely other school of thought that has run with the progressive idea seeded originally by Kandinsky and Dali and Max Ernst that, between the strict cultural narratives and their absolute dismantling to the point of meaninglessness, between the realist representations of reality and the abstract line and form studies, between the base and the utterly mystical, between the painterly and the graphic representation there is a point – an idea – a state worth exploring – that seems, when given the proper time and space, to offer a suggestion of who we are and/or who we can be – as people, as cultures, as momentums and the results of those explorations offer a kind of signpost or mirror or point of contemplation for the state of humanity at large.
On the microcosmic, the artists who bend themselves to this task, tend towards very personal explorations that result in pieces that are as much product as process, following the threads and lines and forms of the conscious, subconscious, and superconscious – internally and externally – to the most ultimate vision they can possibly express. The resultant piece, offered to the world – and at its most successful – hits a nerve as a point of reflection (“reflextion”) in those who see it – as one can find in the copious responses of those who have taken the time to contemplate them.
It our era of pop culture icons and watered down entertainment, it is easy to dismiss such paintings as these as too complex, that they linger too long in the forms and the layers – for surely the artist could have said the same thing in fewer lines, color, shapes. Who has the time anyways for contemplation?
But a great work takes all the time it needs to arrive at a worthwhile conclusion and to dismiss a piece as such is to discount both the reasons for the creator’s investment in those explorations. The works that we are talking of tend towards a kind of holographic relationship amongst the parts within the image. Each part is relative to each other part and, in it’s finest moments, no part can be discarded without dismantling the whole. Each element, like the finest of stitching, require a certain care and craftsmanship that lets one experience of the whole – like experiencing all of the movements of a symphony – allowing the true transmission of the ideas within the piece.
Why should it worth exploring?
These paintings tend to be explorations of some facet of this human experience. This is a necessarily spiritual or mystical exploration because, at that place where we lose ourselves, at that point where words no longer have meaning, we merge with something wholly other and yet, wholly ourselves. In this process, we are dialoguing about an experience of a part of our reality that simply ISN’T – that isn’t tangible thing or object and has no words or direct sensations to describe it even if we have ideas and words that can suggest it such as joy or grief or agony or awakening.
While there’s obvious abstraction within the work that method alone doesn’t provide enough dialogue – enough points of departure – with the internal world. Instead, each piece becomes an exploration of a mood or a perspective with just enough points of departure to draw the viewer along on the visual journey. These pieces are meditations on an idea. They are a song an artist plays over and over as they steer the piece to the ultimate most final conclusion they can possibly muster.
This is the whole journey of the visionary artwork. Such works use some known concept of our human experience as a point of departure and, at their best, they travel a clear path through various facets of that experience to the highest and noblest aims they can possibly surmise. The most authentic of these pieces strip away the ‘trying to express’ and simply find the sweet spot between the representation and expression of the thing and the actual experience itself.
What value does this have to the world?
The reason this is of value to the world is that our stories are constantly evolving. Our ideas of who we are and what we are doing here have shifted dramatically over centuries. No longer does the bulk of humanity believe themselves to be living on a flat disk at the center of our universe, placed there by some benevolent creator dictator, and so on. Our understanding of our nations, our races, our borders, and our socio-cultural myths continue to shift dramatically. Even more importantly, we have, over the past several decades, been constantly reassessing our understandings of our physiological beings at the cellular, microscopic, and atomic and subatomic levels. Our relationship to the world has constantly been changing too – from our relationship to and our understanding of our impact on the environment to our relationships with this (still relatively new) digital world. We can add to this a quickening of the media and advertising machine that seems to know our every step and which ad to play and when.
It’s exhilarating and maddening and, it seems, leaves little time for contemplation. It is our arts which ask: who are WE in this?
This is the conversation that, at it’s very least, Visionary Art attempts to engage with and, at it’s best, can be – if not an answer – perhaps a signpost, a roadmap, a light along a road which can, at times, seem dark and troublesome.
So we return to the question: why Visionary Art?
Visionary Art speaks to a part of this human experience in a way that nothing else does or can. The best works in this style will last far into the future, celebrated as grand achievements and grand visions of our human potential and this experiment known as humanity.
The responses from the public – across social media feeds and elsewhere – often say something akin to the fact that the artist has painted or created a thing that the viewer feels, senses, or has desired to be or see. In this way, this kind of art becomes a part of our human dialogue that no one else is having, filling a void that no one else is speaking to. It dialogues to our highest human ideals and the varied layers of self that desire communication but, in our current cultures, don’t have words or myths or, at times, even a voice.
We are constantly telling ourselves new stories of who we are and why we are here. These stories strip away the walls of the politics of identity, intermingling symbols and motifs, color spectrums and patternings from around the world without any one or the other being more important than another. Nurtured by the vast amount of information available at our fingertips and the growing sense that borders are merely arbitrary lines in the sand, this kind of globalized and democratized pastiche from which something altogether new has arisen, offers a broad vision of humanity, of where we are going, and why we are here in a way that has never been seen before on this planet.
To be an artist is to be a storyteller. Artists are, in one form or another, telling a story with their creations. Even the artist who vehemently denies any story at all – I’m just making art for art’s sake! – is still a story teller since that, too, is just another story.
The purpose of the storyteller in our world has always been, I think, to reflect back to us some aspect of our humanity so that we can better understand ourselves. We tell each other stories of grief, joy, pain, heartache, and connection. Perhaps the sharing of these experiences is comforting. Reading the journeys of others, seeing the visual expression of another’s personal journey helps us feel less alone. Or, perhaps, it jars us towards a solution in our own lives to issues we ourselves face.
I think about these things as I create. What’s the story behind a line or a curve. How is it feeling? What’s it doing there, really? What’s it saying or singing or screaming? It’s not necessarily part of some complex narrative. It’s not like eveyr moment is so richly symbolic that the barest line has a novel attached to it. Maybe it’s just deflecting the momentum of another line or it’s breaking a shade of blue like a sudden pause in the visual flow. The line is always just a line but it’s a line in relationship to all the other lines and gradients on the canvas and, at that, it’s in relationship to the driving momentum of the piece as a whole.
For me, the main thrust of any story I build a painting upon is the emotional impact. I do my best to cut out the wordiness of my own personal story of what might symbolize what and instead work with the gut feeling of the piece. How that connects with where I’m at and what I’m doing or seeing in the world is what I want to draw from. That viscerality and the archetypal narrative that it’s joined with is at the heart of all our human experiences and it’s from that place, I think, that we often find our most honest expressions.
Sometimes though, I want to put down the brush and the painterliness and the seriousness of my work and play elsewhere. Which brings us to last week when I was planning to show some art at the Edwardian Ball in San Francisco. Violet suggested I make some drawings special for the event that fit with the Edwardian/Steampunk motif of the evening.
Here is where my own personal storyteller comes to the forefront and I can give it an extra bit of space to go ahead and make a story up. How about a hot air balloon over a raging ocean? Maybe a lady at a bar inside a dirigible saying “Charmed, I’m sure” to someone off-paper. In each of these drawings I wanted to create a little visual vignette of a story. What is the movement? Where are they going? What are they doing when the abstract becomes form? And what does it feel like at that moment?
These too are a part of my story as an artist. Enjoy.
It is a silly thing – a frivolous thing. Hope is the breath of a bubble waiting to burst.
In the midst of our more confidently brazen facades, we scoff it off as naive – a thing for children’s stories and religious tales when the fairy godmother might come and sweep us away and the brethren hope for the return of their savior.
When all is well, what need have we for hope? When tomorrow and the next look as bright and full of possibility as today what need have we to break our stride? I’m ok. You’re ok. Everything is grand. Everything is ok. Our needs are met and our systems intact and life provides because life will always and forever provide in as abundant a manner as now – or so we believe – what need have we then for hope? It is, in those times, when earlier moments of want are forgotten, that hope turns into it’s own ego reflection and becomes ‘expectation’.
Hope is that fleeting moment – that briefest of uplifts – before the story kicks in. The story of “what I want or need”. Or what I believe it should be. What I think should happen next. And how we will feel or want to feel when it all works out like we expect it to.
Every archetype has its counterbalance. Discernment becomes judgement. Joy can turn to hubris. And so on.
We are talking about Hope.
When we awaken in the morning and it’s another day and the news bombards us with more vicious attacks and security outrages, political upheavals, and vomitous personality flaws, and the bills in a stack that need to be paid sit in unopened envelopes while I scoff down another breakfast and that one blood relative that just needs a break or a chance or something anything is still calling and I haven’t been paid and more stuff and dramas and dead weights and the kids or the cats or the car, maybe it’s the dog, there’s the old scars prickled with new scabs. It’s then when dreams seem so far away buried on some distant horizon blanketed in grey and the expectation of the day to day becomes a breadcrumb trail leading away from better times because now these days are the only days. It is then.
It is then, too, that hope seems a trivial thing. For what is there to hope for when yesterday’s trials just get worse today and the next looks to be about the same and rather than healing all wounds, time just continues to grind away? Every dream becomes dust. Your sweet reflection rusts.
Why hope? Why hope at all?
It’s not about a better job or the kids will be ok. It’s not about a sweeter place for our bones to stay. It’s not about things. It’s not about structures. Hope isn’t about belief systems and carefully weighed outcomes. It’s not about you. It’s not about me. Hope doesn’t care about any of this.
My structures will be torn down by his structure will be torn down by her structure til you build your structure all over again to be torn down all over again and the cycle continues. It’s not about winning or losing. Hope isn’t an outcome.
Hope is the breath of being and not being at the same time. An inhalation turns into the exhalation and into an inhalation. Over and over and over again.
Hope is the barest flicker of a candle flame in the middle between believing and not believing in the next gracious moment.
Remember when it was the pyre of all our desires burning in an ever lasting blaze? Everything – with or without name – all thrown in at once – won’t need that again! – burning burning – everything just burning away. We were dawn’s new day ever-lasting to become the sun as if we were only and ever the first greatest golden one and this is the end forever and ever and in the midst of playing that last note, that last chord, that last song we would ever hear and could possibly hear for once there will be peace on this earth world without end name without name flame within flame – has anything ever looked sounded seemed so clear…
Comes the darker hour of night.
Comes that moment after losing sight.
Mind chewing away on all the could have beens should have beens maybe why why did I even think – even consider – even entertain for a moment’s breath – I could touch that sky? Let alone – fly?
When everything – and I mean everything – the leaking pipe, the traffic light, the unopened envelopes, the endless parade of tirades, the places I’m powerless – the bottom’s dropped out – the cries of a billion starving mouths with nowhere to sleep, the still-boxed dreams that could have been – all whispering and whimpering amongst themselves, screaming and shouting and crying out loud:
Where have you been all this time. You’ll never make it. You don’t even know where to begin. Won’t you help me?
That candle flickers inside, casting a light, a glimpse – I’m still here. We’re still here. It’s ok. We’re ok. It’s going to be ok. One foot in front of the other. I hope there’s still a floor!
If I could be one voice in the dark. If I could be one spark in a world waiting to ignite. Needing to ignite. Praying to ignite. Hoping.
If I could be one dream. One whisper. One song. One being. Still banging that drum, ringing that bell, dreaming that dream. Singing that song and pulling myself apart at the seams… for you. For them. For us. For everything. Just to inspire the belief that there can be more than that and more than this because there is only this and forever this. And whatever we choose make of it.
If you are that one only soul remaining – that one candle flame flickering – that one tiny breath. That whisper. That whimper. That one soul still left dancing… If you can be that and inspire that feeling in another – that sensation – or reflection – that is hope. It is the hope that we are growing towards better days and the best is not behind us.
It is the driving force that says: Grow. Survive. Thrive. There might be another day. There might be a better day. But if we don’t LIVE in this one we’ll never make it to the next. If we don’t build towards that possible future now, then what do we have? Life begets life. Breath becomes breath.
And hope begets hope.
If you see me crawling alone on the side of the street, destitute and wondering if this asphalt is the only thing that has ever been – I am only human – toss a crumb – a smile, a coin, it’s truly all the same – in my direction because you never know if what to you is the mere faintest of distractions might actually save a life, a soul, a spirit in need of resurrection, maybe just a human reflecting humanity in need of connection.
See, if I can be just one whisper, one underlying tone – one breeze upon the nape of your neck making you feel a little less alone, that taste that still lingers on the tip of your tongue reminding you of songs yet to be sung or that memory of a dance so good now long gone, that recollection of a time so serene, so magic, so visceral, so real or that possibility of what could be – it hasn’t even happened yet – if I could be that future – if I could be that
That it could be
The intimation of the greatest of pasts and futures in the now.
It is the song that sings: we have yet to hear the final note. Hope keeps it’s money in the game. Hope strategizes moves and sees me completing actions beyond which my tiny mind can even comprehend. And I – my mind – this heart – we are only messengers of hope – of life – of love and laughter and soft sweet surrenders for all whose candles flicker, whose wells run dry because they do sometimes.
Hope, said Alexander Pope, springs eternal in the human breast.
In the darkest of your night, in the softest of your light, in the deepest of your fright, in the barest of your sight… Hope eternally springs forth like a the barest of a new shoot, a new bud, a new blossom after winter’s cold remorse.
Hope is the effulgent light of our mystical hearts and the great human potential of all we could be. It is that well spring of eternal devotion that we direct ourselves towards – a notion that is as close to beyond our imaginations as we can comprehend. It is all of the everything at once. It is the sky folding into the earth and back again and our place in that as one more beautiful and intricate cog of a machine whose only true goal is beauty, life, death, entropy, all of it at once. It is mind no mind. It is a verse of the song of this infinite dance.
And it is hope that, even in the most trying of times – in the darkest of your moments – which may not be as dark as those of some but, still, may be darker than others – everything has its day and everything has its night – the darkest night hopes for the brightest light and the brightest light hopes for the darkness of night – it is hope that keeps us alive.
Hope says, “We will meet again.”
May you remember hope.
I wake up because the cat is mrowing because he’s hungry and I slept fifteen minutes later than I usually sleep and he’s come over to my side of the bed imploring me to please get up now because he is HUNGRY but I’d like to sleep even though I know I am going to get up because morning and painting. I pull myself up while Violet stays sleeping. The sun is up though not broken over the hill yet so it’s still early which is good. When I do the math, it means X number of hours til noon which is the general cut off time to go do other things even though I always think that I could get up earlier. If I wanted to. If I was enough. So I get up. Dressed. Tell the Fi – I’m coming. I’m coming. I open the blinds in the living room. I pull out his bowl. My mind, sometimes feeling defeated early in the morning, too many loose ends and threads that I don’t understand, people to call or emails to send but ultimately, for now, just looking for the thread to the brush…. I make tea. I feed the cat. I carry my tea downstairs to my studio. Then I go back and get the Fi because he’s old and has a hard time navigating the stairs. I sit in my chair, drinking tea, staring at my painting finding the thread – where I left off – the place I pick up again – and the part of me that wants to stand there for another 4 or 5 hours knowing there’s tired feet and a tired tailbone waiting for me. I drink tea. Eventually, the moment is right and I stand. I put some paint on my palette. I pick up the brush. I poke. I prod. I shade. Eventually, along the way, I wake up. Mind and heart scream and yell or whimper or plead or whisper entreaties of all the things I can do or be. Mind and heart – they just do what they do on and on and on. But, eventually, somewhere along the way, I hit that note. I strike that chord. And it’s all going and flowing and golden again, like it has always been. It’s that dance again that I know so well and love so much and am honored and humbled to explore every day and will do it over and over and over again oh my god I love painting so much. And when I walk away from that easel, I am again.
A friend asked me this:
How do you stay focused on one painting for so long? Obviously they take a while but if the initial inspiration was just a sketch made in a matter of moments – how do you keep at it 4 months later? Where do you find the will to keep going?
To me, each painting is a song. It encompasses a mood, a momentum, a tone, a melody. It relishes in a particular note or chord progression. It screams or hums or parades through with a specific cadence or rhythm. During the time I work on it, I’m singing that song to myself over and over and over again. So I try to find songs that inspire me – songs I want to sing for that long or that need to be sung. It has to be something I want to sing for 4 months or 6 or longer. I am going to wake up and sing it every day and I’m going to go to bed singing it as well. To me, ultimately, there’s only one thing that is worth that. I don’t have a word for it. it is neither a shape nor a sound. But it leads me onwards. And I know it when I see it. And each painting sings another little part of it.
The initial melody – it comes to me in that first sketch. I might be sitting somewhere and there is that creative breeze (or tsunami) and I jot down a few lines, some curves, shapes, a sensation. It’s a good start. It’s like writing down the first 5 notes of a song that’s floating through your head. But there’s so much space left for exploration.
Later on, as my eyes travel over the painting, they pick up different moments and find new themes and melodies to explore. Musical sentences weave in and out of each other forming unexpected harmonies and rhythms. There are relationships to explore and discover and these open the painting up in ways I hadn’t planned on. I try to find ideas that speak to this process. I love the unexpected.
After a while, much of the basic image is created. It is then that the real song begins to find its real voice. It’s there that the song expands. It is like going from a sextet to a full orchestra. With larger paintings, I aim to make each violin become twenty with each casting its own shade and voice to the choir. Each oboe, clarinet, kettle drum – all resounding as if they are an entire section unto themselves. I become a composer at that point with this living breathing thing I’ve created, expanding each moment to its fullest potential.
Each time I sit down to paint again, my eyes travel over the painting, looking for the moment – the hook – that draws me back in… and then I’m back inside it. The painting is finished when there are no hooks drawing me back in and each little moment blossoms on its own and as a whole
I think often of what Jerry Garcia said of the Grateful Dead song “Dark Star”. If you know that song, you know it’s a particularly lengthy composition that was filled with new explorations every time it was played. You never know what you are getting into with it. What he said of it is this (though I can’t seem to track the exact quote down anywhere): that what he loves about playing that song is that it can be opened up anywhere. Between every note is an entire world of musical possibilities and that there’s no other song in their catalog that has that kind of space within it.
I think about paintings like that and my favorites to work on are the ones where that divide between each moment, each shape, can be opened up into infinity. As an artist, part of my job is to pick and choose the moments that are worthwhile to follow, the ones that really speak to and with the piece as a whole and help it become what it wants to be.
There’s a lot of songs to sing and, likewise, to play. If I am to consider myself a composer of painted songs, I look for and wait for that which inspires me. It has to push the envelope, hit a point, be able to be brought, led, followed to a peak that….
Well, consider this: we never tire of the sunrise or the sunset or golden light that ripples a tree’s leaves or the slope of a mountain against the blue sky or the crash of the ocean wave or the clouds that tumble by overhead. It never becomes trite. There seems to ever be magic, exuberance, nuance, relief even, in all of those forms and sounds and spaces. Whatever that experience is – that is where I follow each piece.
And so, I am an orchestrator of colors. A composer who is lifting his brush like a baton to conduct now the purples, the oranges, perhaps the blues or whites…. slicing through yellows and then the roiling clouds in pale golds, cascades of shapes, sounds, these pieces that create some emotive context and lead me, you, us…. into the place it wants to go.
I’ve learned over the years to trust that place and trust myself in that journey. We’ll get there, no doubt. I’ve learned to be ever more patient with each canyon and trough, each peak and each facet of that jewel. So that when we come to the glorious conclusion, we’re left saying: THAT. That is exactly what it is supposed to be.
If people talk about my art in the future, they will probably, at some point, mention the clouds. So before possible future critics extrapolate on my intentions, I’d like to share some thoughts on the subject myself – that is: the abundance of clouds in my paintings.
Because there is definitely an abundance of clouds.
If you are a modern-world living human it’s relatively easy to get ‘far’ from nature: to get somewhat removed from the sensation of the cacophonic stillness of the woods, the burbling silence of the brook, the majestic silence of… everything. With little effort, we instead get pulled along by the white noise tunnel vision world we live in – just trucking along to our human minds and their human contraptions, living in our paved over, concretized cities where ‘nature’ takes the general form of trees trimmed, coiffed, and hacked into submission, the squared off lines of neatly manicured lawns, bushes and hedges in perfect ordered rows, and so on.
But soaring overhead – clouds. Clouds are wild. Clouds exist even where other wildernesses have been subsumed. Clouds are the wind and the water and the earth and the sun all getting together and making love. Those massive formless vaporous shapes. Cumulus clouds alone can extend 40,000 feet into the air (that’s over 8 miles!) (true fact!). Reflecting the landscape, clouds echo the roll of the hills and the proximity of a body of water. Their swirls and eddies are the wind whipping through. They are ever changing from long lazy sweeping spirals to towering ominously beautiful thunderheads.
Clouds: they are no shape but every shape. These massive bodies of crystalline water vapor are every color all at once, reflecting, refracting, dancing about. From a distance they can seem to have a fine edge but get up close and the edge vanishes. Yet, for all that mysterious formlessness, the average cumulus cloud is equal in weight to 183 full sized Asian elephants. (That’s about 1.1 million pounds for those who don’t know the average weight of an Asian elephant which is about 6,000 lbs.)
Imagine that column I might paint – disappearing behind an eight mile tall – million pound cloud… That’s a reasonable scale from which to begin. It’s not so big that you can’t comprehend its scope but not so small that it disappears behind the cloud.
And yet, we too are clouds. Clouds of thoughts and ideas coming together and trailing away again. Clouds of molecules dancing about. We are clouds of forces woven together to form this identity we call ME. And then – that ray of light passing through the hole in the clouds – we stop – or at least glance up – in wonder: is this is the heavens shining down? Is that what enlightenment might feel like? Look like? That is the image we’ve painted since, well, who knows… since forever.
But clouds: I am a daydreamer to the core and when I look to the sky, there are the clouds arcing overhead. Or rumbling. Or weaving. And so on. I’ve been daydreaming for as long as I can remember and, in all that time, while all sorts of things around me have changed – even the trees around me these days are different than those I grew up with – the clouds… the clouds have remained.
Clouds, lacking edges or clear definition, even when they seem so solid, are like dreams happening with in the no-thought void of interdependencies. They twist and twirl, forming all of the shapes all at once. When I look at the clouds in the sky, I’ve never given much thought to what they might be. Instead, I see them as they are: bursting, broiling, sweeping and swirling – just passing through the sky – tumbling onwards, forming and reforming, a perfect example of what it is to be.
I will leave you with this – some of the final lines of the Diamond Stura have echoed in my head since I first read them many many years ago:
Thus shall you think of this fleeting world:
A star at dawn, a bubble in a stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream.
A frequent question that is asked of me: where does it come from? What inspires me?
Violet reminded me that the etymology of the word ‘inspire’ is rooted in the word ‘breath’ and that ‘inspire’ is a way of saying ‘breathing life into’. So the question really is ‘what breathes life into my work?’ Where do I find the momentum – the life – to keep putting brush to canvas? Everyday I wake I think about those paints, those colors, that question.
What keeps me going?
To answer that question, I have to begin with another question… one of many.
As, perhaps, every painter has asked: what is there left to paint? And why? Why do I want to paint that or this or this other thing? What makes it interesting? What makes it necessary? Why is it worth pining for, wracking my body over, eating, sleeping, and dreaming about?
It begins with questions and drills down from there.
What does it feel like? What does it taste like… smell like… sound like? What is the sensation of the thing – here – in this tactile world we exist in? How does it cut or how does it nurture? Does it need to cut? If so, where? And why? Does it dance? Can we dance with it? If so, where and why?
Will I love it? I mean, truly and deeply the way I love myself or my wife? Will I love having created it? Will I love that it is created? Will I be proud of it? Will it dig deeply into the soul of the world and be one more facet of that source of reflection?
And, if it is to be as it is sometimes where it is to be something that is there simply to be beautiful – like a flower or a dewdrop or a cloudburst – then what? And why? How does it fit in my work and what else am I feeling? Is it a salve for hurt – because in this world sometimes, salves are necessary for wounds – or is it merely a distraction from something that, while taking more work will, ultimately, be more rewarding? That is an important question, too. There’s a lot of ideas that come and go. There’s a lot of easy ways out. I think we, as humans, need to be vigilant of ourselves in that way. When do we take the easy way out? When do we start repeating our own patterns because that is what gets the reward, gets the adulations, gets the proper response.
I could just paint lots of lovely sunsets and that’d be that. And maybe I do. But there’s people already who do that and they do it well so I don’t feel this world is missing any sunset paintings I might make.
If it’s going to be a big piece, it needs to have a reason. It MUST have a reason. And the reason doesn’t start with a statement. It starts with a question, an inquiry, a digging deeper into the soul of the matter – into the heart of the thing. That’s where we find something of value – a note that sings rather than simply murmuring along with the rest of the maddening crowd.
Here is one of the secrets of my work:
I paint what I feel like.
No need to mask your disappointment. You thought there’d be more. But that’s the truth of it. There’s a lot of people in the world doing things that they are not. They do things they don’t like, that they don’t condone, that they aren’t proud of, all for reasons they aren’t entirely clear on. There’s also a lot of people trying to be something other than what they are – some idealized version of themselves, with some plan, some big vision, posturing to be of this or that.
There is also a great big world around me insisting that I need to be all kinds of things to complete myself and that it has all the answers as to why I feel so terribly incomplete. Yet what that world will rarely admit to is that the belief of your own incompleteness is part of the equation. Every religion, every corner store, every government works very hard on wedging itself firmly between YOU and everything else and telling you how they complete you.
And it’s true. They do all complete me. Because they are all me. And there is no escaping that and I move on.
So I ask myself “self? how do you feel?” Because there are many voices telling me what to be and how to feel and what to believe, but only I actually know deep down what is going on inside of myself.
Maybe it’s summer and I feel like summer and the sun is out and the windows are wide open and on days like this I feel invincible or, at least, impressively optimistic. So I ask: what does that look like?
Maybe it’s winter and the tides are receding and the rivers are slowing and my blood, exercise and take care of myself tho I do, feels thick. Maybe I feel more patient and I want to explore what it looks like when the windows are closed and the sun disappears.
Maybe now I feel like great broad brushstrokes that have all wrapped up within them all of my passion, my doubts, my fears, my dreams.
Maybe now I feel like fine delicate lines that are the painted diadems on the eyelid of the divine.
Maybe now I feel the slow somber beauty of decay.
Maybe I feel both at exactly the same time and that’s just fine too. Because underneath every feeling is another feeling. Beneath every desire is another desire and another one and another and so on. Follow every one to it’s absolute end. Use your work as your meditation. You were blessed with a tool all your own for your own personal salvation. Use your work to complete yourself.
If your art is what you feel like, you will never run out of fodder. The heart of your work will be flawless. It will be rock solid to it’s core.
People will discuss your technique, your brushwork. They will find things to marvel at and they will find places to critique. That’s ok: we all have room to grow. I do. We all do. That’s life! So we continue on, with patience and care, following those threads to their most complete ends.
If you are ever without doubt as to what to paint, start with what you feel like.
Businesses run on products: product conception, product development, product sales, product redevelopment, and so on. Products products products. If we are not buying a product then we are producing a product or selling a product or discarding a product in order to replace it eventually with another theoretically superior product. These products are largely made for two reasons: to make money for the creator/sales person and to satisfy a utilitarian need that some aspect of our human existence has necessitated. Sometimes that aspect is basic: a shirt to protect us from the cold, shoes to protect our feet, etc. Other times – and this is often the case – the need goes much deeper – products are bought and sold to satisfy a desire to be attractive, to be beautiful, a desire to reflect some part of our perceived identity, and, most importantly, a desire to be loved. In the end, it seems difficult to decipher the difference between ‘basic need’ and ‘desire’.
Artwork, at its purist, at its most whole, is born from the desire – an inner urge – to create. It is the desire of self-expression and bringing something new into the world. That urge drives us forwards – compelling us to always do more – because that which we have already made is never fully satisfying.
From this act of expression arises a piece of work which, if we can let go of the need to show people up, or prove ourselves, or tout our skills, or impress our friends or loved ones… if we can let go of the desire to make a new product, fill up our own shelves… If we surrender instead to that creative flow and just drown ourselves in the act then the work which arises from that pool is a thing of beauty. It may be nightmarish. It may be the heavens unfolding. It is the all and everything. It is, at that point, an act of love.
Art in and of itself is not a product. It can go on products. It can be housed with products and ultimately, it does become a commodity. But in its fruition, in its blossoming into the world – it is merely the act, the creation, the vision. And so when we sit down to do our art, that creation should not be a means to an end. It is not the basic utilitarian urge driving it. It is not and should not and CANNOT be done as a thing merely to make money. Thinking ‘how much am I going to make from this piece?’ merely serves to limit its expression. We put it in a box with a set of conditions and value structures that our brain is constantly folding over it and and we will forever consider: have we put ‘enough’ in for the value it is supposed to have? True art making is an unconditional act.
There is the myth of the Starving Artist. The artist does not starve because he or she is afraid of “work” or because no one is buying his or her paintings. Sometimes, and I have been this artist, the artist ‘starves’ (or at least is thinner and hungrier than most) because everything other than art making seems purposeless. The artist doesn’t wake in the morning saying ‘o how much money I will make today.’ Or ‘I will do a good job and my boss will like me.’ Or ‘I am quickly moving up through the ranks, maybe I will get a raise.’ Everything else is merely feeding the ability to return to art making. So we nudge things along sometimes in order to create enough space to do our work and surrender into the Act.
There is no end product. All art is ever only the detritus being HUMAN. Art is the expression of living. Of breathing. Of seeing. Of one’s own personal vision. Art speaks to and from this act in some way (and this is ultimately why art can be valued so highly but we’ll get into that another time…). Ultimately, though, the end product is the Self Which Has Created The Work. That is Art as Path.
We artists, we often do just enough to create a space for ourselves and hope that everything else will fall into place, just as it does in our work. This is why it can be difficult sometimes for artists, on their own, to also be marketers and promoters and sales people and so on. It is a business to run that fills up the schedule.
Give us things! People ask. Market to us! Because then we’ll know how to choose what is best!
In a world that is constantly pushing consumption with a thousand and ten flashing ads, how do you stand out anymore? How do you even share your creation?
So we go back to square one: art as an act of love. It will shine through. It may take time: the first painting, the first bit of writing, the first moment… May slip under most radars. But then there is the second, the third, and so on. You are playing a symphony all on your own. It takes time for others to pick up on that tune. It takes some patience on your own part.
As a symphony, however, it’s best to learn to play all the instruments. Think of your art as the lead violin. It is, anyhow, the instrument that sings – the one that all of the other instruments are framing. Perhaps the web master hat is the oboe and the accountant hat is the kettle drum and the archivist is the cello and so on. This is learning to play your art and all of those hats as a symphony together, rather than as separate components.
However, this still brings us back to the actual creation of the thing. I have sat with business leaders and motivational speakers and all sorts of people. They tell me the steps I can take to build my email list and get more Facebook followers and create affiliate programs and so on. All of those steps continue to define me as a product, a commodity, with an ideal, a soundbite, a public image, easily consumable and digestible for this fast paced world we are told we live in.
And all of these steps always look to me like they lead away from sitting with the vision, this raw unfolding thing.
I consider this painting on my easel. It is a painting commissioned by someone. Certainly there is a desire for them to be pleased with it. Of course I want that! But I can’t let that be a driving force: ‘gosh I hope they like this! I hope this reflects the value we have ascribed to it!’ And so on. There are all sorts of thoughts that arise: how many hours am I putting into this? Is it enough? Am I working hard enough? All the stories and the product outcome and the chatter and nonsense. All the self-image and ego and drama and dreams and clutter – detritus of a consumer culture that echoes through my psyche from countless ads, commercials, social norms, and societal structures and, who knows, is maybe just part of the human experience which I am working through in my own way.
Would I make this for nothing? For no return? There are projects I engage in like that – where the cycle of returns has a different value structure. But in the end I do have bills to pay and rent and phone and all the other trappings of modern life – not to mention dreams: owning land, a home, etc. And my time is of value and I’ve spent hours practicing and practicing what I do. And, in the end, I have a thousand other paintings to paint. So we create value systems and we give to each other in exchanges in order to support growth: in ourselves, in others, in the world.
Because of exchanges like that, people say that it’s money that makes the world go wrong. I think that’s incorrect. I imagine that it is love that makes our world go round. Without love, we are useless empty shells, consuming, never-endingly consuming. We are just some more product creators, at that point. Yes, the world will go round, but without the love, it will be a greyer place. Without love, I could never bring this painting on my easel to the place it wants to go – to the place I want it to go. Even if this emotion of ‘love’ is in our imagination – even if it is merely a story I have made up – a feeling conjured up as a reflection to a thing I can call ‘not love’ – then it is, to me, the worthwhile driving force I have found. This love of creation, A love for others. A desire to bring love into the world. Even just the sensation of dancing with the creative act – this sensation that, followed, seems to conjure up, for me, my most ideal self. When I turn away from the canvas, it is what drives me to be more compassionate, to make smarter decisions, to care for others, and to give of myself.
There is only and can only ever be the present moment when making a piece of art and, to find that core passionate creative force – to create from that place in the making of our art – whether it be painting or writing or baking bread or driving a truck or helping others in whatever our paths may be – and whether our work be light or dark, sweet or otherwise – enables us to create something that ultimately feels like a worthwhile pursuit. I imagine that a thing made from a place of loving-kindness is ultimately more nourishing, more valuable, more beautiful than it would be otherwise. It may take a while for the world to catch up to you. You may sit in silence, alone and wondering who hears, but to have played that note, that instrument, that symphony will, ultimately, allow you the happiest life you can imagine.
Were that the place from which all things were made from, I imagine we would have a happier and healthier planet.
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