Shadowy Façade

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There are endless supplies of guides on How To do something-or-anything; I’m more concerned with How Not to Do It. Much of the how-to tutorials seem aimed more at giving us a gloss of respectability in the subject, a sort of facade of excellence, than actual, practical depth. Expertise is, obviously, a relative thing, after all. It’s not all that hard to be considered an expert in or at something that is very rare or an extremely new discovery or invention: lack of exposure guarantees that few can have mastery. A whole lot more, however, is skill or knowledge that takes a dedicated effort to master to any level of real expertise.

My greatest expertise, if I can be said to have any, is probably in the category of performing ‘filler’ duties in most of the activities I try. Work as I may, I’m not likely to become great at most, and I seldom find learning anything all that easily or swiftly done. Being naturally lazy, I’m even less often found pursuing new knowledge and skills with great rigor and vigor just for their own sakes. So at best, I tend to end somewhere in the middle of the pack. I like to think of myself as the necessary delineator between the great and the mediocre.

All silliness aside, this seems to me an age in which we, collectively, have lost our appreciation for true expertise. Maybe it’s my imagination, but I get the sense that somewhere between the assumption that a speedy dash through Wikipedia will provide all the wisdom we need on any topic and our fascination with outliers—finding the novelty of savants and overnight sensations far more exciting than hardworking earned-doctorate intelligence—and the sense of entitlement our privileged modern existence gives us, we lose touch with the value of elbow grease and passion.

I wasn’t born either brilliant or extraordinarily gifted, and I’m not ashamed of that. But it’d be a pity to go to my grave without having tried to improve on what few bits of intelligence and invention I do have. If I manage to do my best in the present and keep moving toward an elevated horizon, I may not change the world for the better by a single degree, but I will certainly have bettered myself and I might have the slightest chance of shedding a little light around me as I go.

Looks like I’d better get moving!

Struttin’

digital illustrationIt’s especially nice, when I’ve caught myself wallowing in self-denigration and insecurity for a bit, to think on those things that actually, really, truly are pretty darn good about me. It’s no sin to appreciate the gifts we’ve been given, and their relative smallness in comparison to others’, as there are always people for whom we have [possibly unwarranted] adulation as exemplars of all those things we long to be, is irrelevant. Safe to say that every one of those great and mighty high achievers has some hidden insecurity and certainly, all have imperfections. Our inability to see those reflects more on our own worries and wishes than on who anyone else genuinely is.

So I go off looking at the astonishingly skillful artistry of others and am ashamed at how little I’ve accomplished in my artistic life thus far and feel inadequate and cheap, and sulk for a moment or two, and then I need to pick up my tools and get back to work and remember that I do this, to be fair, for the love and joy of doing it, not because I need to impress somebody. And I remind myself that despite my ordinariness, I am in my own way new and improved in comparison to where I started my artistic journey.

The same holds true for looking at others’ writing, cooking, gardening, housekeeping, home decorating, DIY projects, you name it. If there’s anything I do that I wish I were better at doing—and anything worth doing is worth getting better at doing, no?—the reason I have such a wish is that I know I’m far from the best, and I can only know how far I am from the best if there are others leading me there by example. In fairness to my meager position in the relative scheme of things, I need to recognize that most experts spent a tremendous amount of time and energy becoming the avatars that they are, that if I did think I were nearly perfect at anything it would be foolish and delusional and hubristic and, well, tiresome, and that I do improve over time, if not quite at the rate I would fondly hope I could.

This is not a pity party for Poor Little Me, lest you be misled by my maundering start: it’s a self-reminder that I am very fortunate, and yes, a little bit gifted, too. My gifts may not be the kind that were evident from my birth and improved exponentially over a shining, prodigious span of growth and productivity and marvelous output. But incremental growth and modest gifts can be celebrated, too, and since I have no need for fame or (however pleasing I may find the idea of it) wealth, it matters none whether anyone else celebrates them. That they do, and indeed, tell me so, is a kindness and brings the kind of wealth and fame that have a far greater value than the more worldly sort, when I accept them wholeheartedly.

I know I’m not the greatest of or at anything. But I like who and what I am and think I’m on a slow upward incline regarding what I do, and that’s reason enough to hold up my chin and puff out my chest a little and march on forward with a smile on my face and my head held high. I’ll bet you could do it, too, even if you merely do so by letting yourself believe what the people who love and respect you tell you. They don’t love and respect and admire you for no reason at all, and who are you to question your admirers’ integrity! Go ahead, own up to being the new and improved you. Preen a little. You deserve it.

Little Dragon with a Big Appetite

Ever feel tiny? Like everyone and everything else in the world is, by comparison, huge and powerful and towering and you can’t begin to compare, let alone compete? Have you let yourself be measured in comparison with anyone or anything else? Yeah, me too.graphite drawingBut isn’t it worthwhile to break out of that miniscule self-containment somehow? Isn’t the most valid measure of my worth found more truly in what I do as my best self, in what I become over time by growing into a finer and grander version of me? What you see is what you get–for now. And then I plan on continuing my progress as well as I can manage, for as long as I live. That’s all I can promise. With one little [ahem] caveat: I know that the best defense against seeing myself as inadequate to any task is the blessed ignorance of my true inadequacy. So I promise as a small [ahem] part of the larger issue that I will do my best to forget that there is such a thing as the improbable, let alone the impossible, and just get on with living my life, however insignificant it may seem likely to be. [Come on along.]

Gypsies at Heart

Becoming Gypsies

Freedom’s a romantic notion we imbue with pretty joys,

Dreamed escape from life’s commotion and the race’s worldly noise,

Endless travel, music, dancing, and the heat of thrumming hearts,

But though sweet, the dream’s entrancing magic’s only where it starts–

Gypsy life is what we make it, rich as fantasy can be,

Only when we reach and take it: yes, it’s up to you and me

To create this liberation and its joys for which we long–

Life becomes a celebration when we fully join the songphoto

 

The Mythology of Inspiration

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Whatever your vehicle, Ladies and Gentlemen, start your engines!

In another lifetime I was a teacher. Not a fabulous one, mind you, but one who took what I did seriously and did my best to give my students, if not the actual practice that would make them more productive and skillful and happy in their making of art, at least the idea of what might be possible for them and perhaps the instigation of the will to develop over the longer term. Like every other teacher in history, I knew that most of the burden of improvement fell on my students and had surprisingly little to do with what I could or couldn’t, would or wouldn’t, should or shouldn’t give them. And like every other teacher, I heard from my students every excuse in the book about why they would inevitably fail to accomplish any of this, how they were powerless against the forces that conspired to keep them from making the assigned efforts or finishing their work. Having used most of the excuses myself, I had plenty of fuel to argue my case after spending the intervening years (or minutes) rethinking it all as I moved from student status to teacher. And I knew too that I would have to keep re-learning it all as long as I lived, since every teacher is only a different breed of student and Life is the biggest, craziest, toughest and most creatively optimal classroom of all.

So I made up a little page of possible excuses and a smidgen of food-for-thought responses to them–perhaps mostly for my own enlightenment and prodding–that I shared from time to time with my students if they happened to be getting a little too enamored of creating excuses to spend their creativity on drawing, design, writing, painting, studying, researching, making mixed media installations, critiquing or any of the other topics I was attempting to encourage them to learn. Here are a few items from my little list, because I am well aware that I still need to remember them myself and keep trying to blow past them with determination and, I hope, a pinch of wit.

1          GREAT THINKERS THINK ONLY GREAT THOUGHTS

               (and I’m not a great thinker).

If this is true, explain why the Old Masters painted over or destroyed canvases, Einstein was virtually dismissed as a pea-brain by some in his school days and our early experts on astronomy believed the earth was flat.

2          GENIUS IS BORN, NOT MADE.

This may actually be so, but untended and un-exercised, genius has no value whatsoever, and many a great achiever has acknowledged beginning an illustrious career ignominiously and becoming expert through sheer will and work.

3          EXCELLENT IS GOOD, GOOD IS AVERAGE &

               AVERAGE IS TERRIBLE.

               (Corollary: Good is excellent, average is good, terrible is average!)

Creative and inventive people often have a penchant for self-disparagement and perfectionism that leads them (and often others) to devalue work of quality; it’s also a common temptation to simply fall back on the platitude of ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ and accept mediocrity because one is too fearful or lazy to be honestly critical and opinionated.  Accept it and get on with things.

4          IT DIDN’T TURN OUT THE WAY IT WAS SUPPOSED TO.

Oh, come on.  Almost nothing does.  Sometimes it just isn’t finished yet when it seems to have Not Turned Out.  And more often than not, the real result is an improvement on the original plan anyway.

5          IT CAN’T BE DONE.

It’s better to go down in flames of glory, for having tried, than to prove only that  you couldn’t (or just wouldn’t) do it.  And what if it does work?!  Don’t you just love those rare chances to say I Told You So, anyway?

6          ALL THE GOOD IDEAS ARE TAKEN.

            All of the good ones haven’t been invented yet, Silly.

7          I CAN’T THINK OF ANYTHING.

You don’t have to.  Steal ideas all over the place.  Just remember to cite sources, give references, and wherever possible, to thoroughly revise and synthesize things into your own particular combination or version of them.

8          WHY SLAVE TO HAVE IT ALL WHEN YOU CAN SETTLE FOR LESS.

            Perhaps because apathy is as dangerous to existence as the threat of annihilation.

9          IT COSTS TOO MUCH.

Some of the same people who whimper over buying a five-dollar sketch pad and two ninety-nine-cent pencils (two weeks’ supply, say) think nothing of adding four dollars’ worth of popcorn and soft drinks to their seven-dollar movie tickets: that’s Whiners’ Math.  But most art supplies can be hideously expensive, especially for those productive enough to use masses of them.  So it’s a necessary and healthy part of the solution-oriented artist’s life that analogs and alternatives be a constant study.  What can legitimately serve as a substitute for the too-expensive?  Often the product of such inventiveness proves more exciting than the work as first conceived.  Sometimes it’s important to make the commitment to spend the real money for the real thing, too: how serious are you?

10        I’M NOT INSPIRED!

Genuine inspiration occurs ZERO times in the average artist’s life. WHAT!!! Heresy! But truly, if we’re talking spiritual/mystical magic, most must instead rely on a painstaking and passionate process of trial, error, adventure and eventual coalescence to allow artistic completion and quality to arise.  Don’t wait around to be inspired, in case it’s not in the cards: deadlines and opportunities wait for no one.  If you’re the incredibly lucky one inspiration smiles upon, have conspicuous spasms of joy, make feverish use of the favor while it lasts, and get ready to work hard on the next thing when you become a mere mortal again.  We’re lucky enough just to be able to be the real thing, Working Humans.  Don’t knock it.  There’s joy enough in that.

Stay tuned . . .

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. . . for being tuned up and ready to roll is more important than knowing where the road will take you . . .

 

Sources of Brilliance, Such as We Are

digital drawingTropical Splash

A-chatter in the curling fronds, the wet-leafed canopy, the ponds,

Among the tangled twining root of every vine-choked tree’s broad foot,

Wild birds spread out their neon wings in this green palace of such kings,

Shout to a sun that’s seldom seen, deep in this hot palace of green,

But bring a blaze that’s all their own, as bright as such a place has known.

Take flight! Take wing! Aim for the sun–race with them upward, every one,

Above the canopy, to see whether a sun can really be;

And if it’s not, let no bleak night deter a second from our flight:

Upward and forward, light or none, we always ought to seek the sun–

And if not found, our calling is that we must light these palaces.