Monday, July 23, 2012

Of Hammocks and Harmonicas

The summer has marched relentlessly on, on to triple-digit temperatures, on toward September peering threateningly over August's shoulder.  The summer-long process of creative recovery for this painter, poet, and pie-maker is in its eighth week with just four more after this.  It is only a breath over a month until the fall semester begins and the work of learning by lecture and laboratory resumes.

A couple of things I have learned are worth sharing.  Well, many of the others are worth sharing too, but I want to reflect a little more on those before writing publicly about them.

Of the ones I will share, the first is that the creative needs space, time, and privacy in order to create.  Whether we are encountering the canvas, keyboard, or guitar, it is impossible to listen to our own inner, creative voice when the voices of the world are crashing around our ears.  There's a good reason why we use that word, "crash" to describe the  destructive sound of an automobile accident, or the thunderous clap of an electrical storm, or the falling of a giant tree.  If a tree falls in the forest, does an artist lose her concentration?  Probably.  If someone subjects the writer to constant interruptions, does his dialogue crash and burn?  It's been known to happen.

Distractions abound, and I've discovered that even the friendly sunflowers growing outside my window can be distracting if the inner voice I count on is having trouble being heard.  A thing that helps is to have a room of my own in which to make art...a thing that helps even more is to have that room organized and tidy, straightened so the path to art runs straight and true.  A thing that is critical to success is the stillness that fosters the integration of memories with the intention to express.

That being said, it is not always possible to have a room of one's own.  Sometimes alternative places and moments of sanctuary must be found.  If you need help finding such a place, here are some I came up with that work even better than a closed door.

1.  Backyard hammock.  They have to find you first, and this is the last place they look.
2.  The Silent Room at the local library.  You can't set up an easel, but you can take a laptop or sketchbook.
3.  A camp site in a nearby State Park.  Some don't even have cell phone coverage.
4.  Your neighborhood coffee shop.  Most people don't recognize acquaintances out of context.
5.  A vacationing friend's house.
6.  Get up an hour earlier than the rest of the household.
7.  Stay up an hour later than the rest of the household.
8.  Take a sketchbook or notebook to the local zoo.  The animals don't care.
9.  The bathroom.  No, I'm NOT joking.
10.  The town's park.  Take a lunch and find a shady place. 

There's one side of the coin.  The other, of course, is engaging in real life, in real community, for if we don't have a life, where will our art come from?  It's one thing to listen to our inner thoughts, but if that's all we hear we get self-centered, boring, and even radical in our work.  Not that radical is wrong in art, it's just that if we want to make relevant art or shape relevant stories or write relevant music, we need to hear the voices of others.

The tragedy of Aurora, Colorado happened just four days ago as I write this.  It's really tempting to pontificate about loners and gun control and all the other things I'm reading about in its aftermath.  But that's not for me.  I think that a thing I've learned about being in community and how it makes us more creative is that engaging in real life alongside others develops our compassion, our feelings for others who may be very unlike ourselves.  It takes our focus and reminds us that the world is a place of infinite beauty and fascination, and that our job as artists is be a lens, a voice, maybe a gesture that helps others connect to it.

I don't know what I will end up doing about the tragedy in Aurora in order to grieve as all Americans grieve right now.  I know I won't pick up a harmonica and blow the blues while riding down the highway.  I know I won't start a campaign to do away with automatic weapons. 

But what I may just do is try to make art that is relevant, is life-honoring, and reminds others of the endlessly fascinating and beautiful thing that this world is.

The picture at the top of the column was the result of the perfect yin and yang moment, reached when the perfect balance of isolation and immersion in community occurred for me during a plein air paint-out at the California State Fair.  I was privileged to photograph the birth of two baby goats in the children's Petting Zoo area, and I realized that the isolation of painting and the community of an event like the fair are the ideal ingredients for artistic voice to be heard.  Artists on their own are considered weird or nutty, usually avoided, and often left totally alone.  On the other hand, if immersed in the surrounding community while something as life-affirming as a birth takes place practically on your shoes, you get the perfect combination of room-of-your-own, plus hearing the lovely voice of the world.

When given that perfect nexus, you can't help but rush to give it words, color, shape, line, or gesture.

"Are we so impoverished that we have nothing to reveal but small talk? Let us struggle for more richness of soul" Frank Laubach

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