Raised Eyebrows

There have been many times when people looked upon me with raised eyebrows, if not utter disbelief. I am, of course, not only accustomed to it but somewhat proud of it, being an artist. If I never surprised or seemed a little off-kilter to anyone I would think it called into question my credibility as an inventive person altogether. So I’m happy to report that my assessment by others has been heavily salted and peppered with expressions of doubt, disdain or possibly, diagnoses of delirium.oil pastel drawing 1988The artwork above (four feet high, for your contextual reference) came from a period in my artistic development wherein I might have been forgiven for thinking there was a form of communicable facial paralysis among my contacts that left them all perpetually wearing masks of such disbelief. I had meandered through the three years following my undergraduate commencement, while working for my uncle’s construction company, barely producing a discernible body of small artworks the while, and still had opted to go off to graduate art studies. I had made a pitiful showing in my first quarter of work there, simply extending the slow, unproductive approach I’d had during the previous three years to cough up a tiny handful of pleasant but utterly unimpressive artworks without any particular evidence of having been changed or challenged by my reentry to the educational environment. But after the embarrassingly lackluster critique session that closed that quarter, I was perhaps uncharacteristically motivated to break out of the doldrums and sail in a new and more daring path, in hopes of visiting uncharted territories of worth.

Changing my approaches to media, techniques, subject matter, scale and speed, I found, all contributed to my discovering new sides of my artistic self. I became in some ways quite the opposite of the person I’d been previously in the studio, and while I never lost my love for the various characteristic media, techniques, etc, etc, that had defined my former self, I certainly never regretted having broken the mold I’d set that self in so firmly. An inordinate number of options and opportunities previously hidden from me by my insular fear and ignorance and self-imposed narrowness of intent and expectation suddenly seemed both possible and appealing, and I have continued to gallop around after them with abandon, sometimes with a hint of obsession and often quite tangentially, so I’ve grown to simply expect the raised eyebrows around me and relish the thought that they mean I’ve not settled too far into my former predictably fixed self again.

That, I think, is encouragement enough to keep me moving forward.

Leave the Lights On!

digital illustrationWhile I’m closing out an old notebook that I kept in blog form a number of years ago, I found yesterday’s post and this companion one. So what the hey, I’ll share this one with you, too.
It’s Thanksgiving Day [2005!] and I am particularly thankful this year for having celebrated a whole year of emergence from clinical depression. For anyone out there who has been mired in it, or still is, I send out a fiercely made wish for your recovery and new joy in life, along with this meditation I wrote after realizing not only how far and how long I had been away from my true self, but the cultural setting in which it is possible to get there without realizing it or even having others see it clearly.And with deep thankfulness that it is possible, with help, to be revived.* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Let’s stop all this rubbish about Depression as a romantic notion.

The myth of suffering being necessary to ennoble the spirit or, more commonly, to shape creativity and artistry and the personalities that foster them, is an inaccurate and unhealthy construct that belies the potential power of sanity and contentment. The idea that much of the great art that has sprung from the work of troubled or diseased artists throughout history would have been impossible, or the artists Not Themselves, if they’d been well or happy is simply a gross assumption of the inflexibility of the human spirit at best, and an insult to mortal intelligence, invention, and character at worst.

In a telling moment of literal as well as figurative turning-on of the lights, participants in a 2004 Canadian study on Deep Brain Stimulation as a possible treatment for otherwise-untreatable depression noted that the world became a visibly, physically brighter place when “area 25”, or the central zone of depression response in their brains, was stimulated to relieve depression. Many of the patients described a distinctive, even poignant, instant of pleasurable shock when the electrode stimulation, suitably placed, flooded them not only with unaccustomed sensations of contentment and ‘rightness’ in their world but also a clearly discernible brightening of their visual perception. It was as though, one commented, he had suddenly remembered a whole range of colors and values and sensory impulses and emotions that had been locked away for decades.

Nowhere in this was there any indication that the participants in the study experienced a negative change in their self-concept when their depression was eased. No mention is made of the patients losing their creative impulses or intellectual depth. Not a note of regret or sense of personal diminution.

The breezy optimist, on the other hand, is not by definition dimwitted or shallow or uninspired. While cultures that have embraced a darkly Romantic mythos of the suffering genius tend to dismiss brilliance that emerges from happier sources as a fluke or as slick, glib cheapness that won’t withstand the value-test of time, many stars and their accomplishments defy those definitions.

Yes, depressed, manic, even twisted and tortured souls with the deepest of psychological, physiological, or chemical-addled warps and wounds have been the vessels and sources of high art and equally high drama, but they are far from alone in that. To say that they only achieved their greatness because of their damaged state is a cruelty, an insult, and a cop-out that says we all could not be greater than we are, if not equally “gifted” with darkness. If being let off the hook ourselves is what we seek, then let’s just be honest and say we don’t relish the burdens of effort and experimentation and get on with other things. I have a suspicion, as it is, that if there’s a notably higher percentage of mental illness among persons who could be classified as particularly ‘creative’, then the cause/effect relationship is one of persons being used to having to problem-solve their way out of unusually difficult circumstances on a regular basis, and so developing stronger problem-solving (read: creative) skills.

Meanwhile, cheer up! Look at the dazzle that being joyful brings. See the energy and wit that, when not wasted on grief and moroseness and morbidity, can be devoted to pursuing greatness instead, and run after it with childlike delight.

Lullabies and Parallel Universes

photoI have said that music transports me to Other Places. Indeed, all art has that potential for me, for internal travel. It’s one of the great joys of art. As I write this, I’m listening to a live broadcast of this evening’s concert from the Swedish Radio Choir‘s (Radiokören, or RK) concert, one that travels particularly far and wide–and deep–in my heart and mind for a whole lot of reasons.

The note from chief conductor Peter Dijkstra:

Tonight at 1930h I’m doing a concert, live on Swedish radio SVT2 and on Webradio (http://sverigesradio.se/sida/default.aspx?programid=3989, at least in the US) , with the Swedish Radio Choir and Orchestra with an ‘alternative Passionprogram’:
Ligeti – Lux Aeterna
Bach – BWV 12 Weinen, Klagen, Sorgen, Zagen
Poulenc – Stabat Mater
Highly recommended!!!!

Right at this moment, the radio host is interviewing Maestro Dijkstra, and hearing both of their voices, I feel almost as though I’m in the concert hall watching them chat onstage, myself. I’m quite sure I recognize the lady’s voice as that of the same well-spoken broadcaster who interviewed my husband when he was conducting on that same stage at Berwaldhallen at this time of year a few years ago for RK’s Vårkonsert, or Spring Concert. Peter Dijkstra had fairly recently signed on as RK’s chief conductor at the time, and was in town part of the time rehearsing the choir; it’s amazing how quickly the miles disappear when we hear familiar voices or sounds–and the Radio Choir’s distinctive choral sonorities are certainly a part of that equation for me, as well. Their recordings have been for decades among those most widely recognized worldwide for consistently outstanding quality and depth in an incredible range of literature.photo

So here I sit, listening to music sung by a beloved choir and conducted by a truly fine, familiar conductor, and despite being at my desk in my own house, I am traveling to worlds and galaxies far beyond the view of my window. The György Ligeti piece is a perfect vehicle. It’s best known for being that magical, eerie and ethereal sound heard in the famous scene of approach to the monolith in Stanley Kubrick‘s seminal film 2001: A Space Odyssey, and on a personal level is memorable and imaginatively inspiring even more directly because I have heard a couple of groups conducted by my spouse, in both rehearsal and concert, of this famously difficult piece. Each time, the piece itself transforms the performers as they work to ‘get inside’ and master it, and in turn is transformed by their performances, by the acoustic and atmosphere of the place where it’s being sung, and by the expectant and electric energy of audiences who are constantly challenged and awakened by its dramatics, both distinctive and subtle.

Johann Sebastian Bach and a great many of his works are widely familiar to audiences all around as well, and both in spite and because of their very familiarity bring us to an array of places remembered and imagined each time we hear them sung or played. The more famous and oft-played a composer’s works, the more variants we’re likely to come across in style and interpretation, in levels of technical expertise and period accuracy, and especially in the performances’ potential for transportation. I find it profoundly intriguing to see and hear how deeply performers can immerse themselves in the math and mystery, the dancing joy and bottomless grief and resounding laughter and historical drama of Bach, and to experience the accompanying journeys offered to me as a listener. I go to places of Biblical and Apocryphal history, yes, but also to more abstract aspects of the music and the texts: to dark forests and sunless night, and to soaring starry space; to drought-quenching fountains and streams; to realms of green and warm and welcoming respite and meditation.photoThe Stabat Mater of Francis Poulenc, in his characteristic tonalities and performed here with exquisite power and emotional richness (and with a supernal soprano soloist’s voice soaring over the top of the intense and wildly beautiful waves of the choral singing) pulls us into a specific story, but is nonetheless large enough in its musical generosity to allow visions of many other places and states of being. This, too, is a strength of music and of outstanding moments of swimming in it–that it allows us to transcend what is and see, hear and feel what may be.

Music can fill me with passion, and it can also empty me so completely of passion that it lulls me into the abyss of restful peace where I feel nothing can touch me at all.

The images in this post are not based on any of the music in this program at all but rather are documentation of one of the small worlds I myself created a little while (well, a teenager’s lifetime) ago. I wanted to make a place that would act as a safe haven, fantasyland, and visual lullaby for the baby boy my sister was carrying. More than seventeen years later, our younger nephew his brother still has the same little woodland clearing in what’s now his room and seems not to be overly anxious to erase it under a more sophisticated or grown-up paint scheme and decor. So I suppose that perhaps it still offers for him adequately what I myself will never grow too old or mature to want: transportation to other places and planes, times, spaces, moods, hauntings and hopes and happiness. I hope that the luminous-paint stars that I sprinkled on that bedroom ceiling still light up after the lamps are turned off at night.photo

Growth Spurt

Shades of Remembrancedetail of oil pastel drawing (face)

Mural detail

I’m going to see if I can’t put up a post every day for a while now. Some days I’ll just post an image or two (old, new, any medium) and other times, if actual thoughts or ideas occur to me I’ll make a supreme effort to get them into text before they vanish utterly like so many puffs of pixie dust. In honor of that concept, today’s drawing post is an older piece that represents a period of welcome growth that was spurred by my disappointment and frustration when I met with my chief studio adviser in grad school after a counterbalance of deadly dry time left me with little to show her beyond a handful of insipid scrawls that were mere ghosts of old ideas rehashed. In response to her admonition to ‘try something different’ I had a semi-hysterical bout of throwing out baby, bath water and tub all in one fling, deciding that the desperate measures I desired were a school of opposites. I’d been drawing 16″ x 20″ and smaller fussy (and excruciatingly slowly executed) surrealist still lifes in graphite pretty exclusively, and the exclusions came to include imagination and fun as I spiraled into frustrated ennui.

My solution: work large, explore a multitude of drawing media, work faster than is comfortable, draw subjects unfamiliar and intimidating, and quit critiquing unproductively midstream. It’s one thing to make small adjustments along the way, another to be immobilized by constant critical interruptions obsessing on the imperfection of my technique and execution–practicing past which was really the whole point of my doing graduate studies, after all. The result was that in the same several weeks it had taken to do the previous sad-sack batch of four or five drawings, I filled a gallery with walls about 5 meters in both directions from floor to ceiling with drawings, any one of them filled with greater energy and sense of adventure than the previous set combined. Not necessarily championship material every time out, mind you, but the mere act of pushing my productivity was a healthy kick in the keister for this would-be artist.

It’s entirely possible that my family and friends would have appreciated my taking a slightly less exaggerated approach to the change-up, since it resulted in massive amounts of large-scale (including a number of up to 9′ x 15′ and 4′ x 20′ murals) works that led, at the end of their assisting me with the installation of my thesis exhibition and lugging said works hither and yon, to whispers among them wondering why I hadn’t opted more kindly to become a skilled miniaturist. Or found less overworked relatives and friends, at least. But in the end they were all incredibly supportive and enthusiastic about my starting to learn how to manage my life in art production, and I learned perhaps the most important lesson I’ve fallen into yet, which is that the Muse requires equal ass-kicking; inspiration rarely happens without the regular pressure of constant and assiduous practice. If I think I’ve gotten to the point of needing no more practice to improve, I’ve clearly lost my last brain cell and should just lie down and rid the world of some ‘surplus population’. The mass-production approach to making art is, while a great boost via mere numerical odds to the number of possible “keeper” artworks, also an expensive enterprise, one that made me a much more devoted recycler in the process, to be sure.

Still, I wouldn’t trade this one essential atom of wisdom for all of my other education–anything worth learning and doing is worth practicing. I’ve had fallow periods aplenty since then, of course, but when I get the itch I know full well that the best way to scratch it is to dive back in and practice on a constant and vigilantly pursued basis. So many have written and spoken so eloquently of this in the past and continue to publish brilliantly on the topic, but until I stumbled on the experience in my own naive way I had no real appreciation for the power of this one prized truth.

This mural is one of several of the 4′ high by 20′ wide oil pastel on paper pieces that were part of the big life-changing project I tackled in those enlightening days of yore. This post is the first of my attempts at every-day blogging to bring the next degree of change to my life as an artist. Onward!

mural of faces

Oil pastel on paper, 4'H x 20'W