Art-ful, Art-less

I started a new cycle of art making a couple of weeks ago, and, as usual, do not have a method or destination in mind. I try to approach the ink and watercolors and rice paper with an empty mind, just as I did when in kindergarten, not expecting any particular outcome and always a little surprised at the end.

As can be expected, there are a lot of ‘botched’ attempts with this approach, usually the result of too much rather than too little. It is really not a practice I would advocate for an artist ‘serious’ about making money or a reputation. I am painting for fun, to be surprised, to meditate, to explore.

This also puts me in mind of some pondering I have been doing regarding writing. I made my living as a commercial copywriter for many years, writing poetry, short stories and essays mainly for my own enjoyment. In the 90’s I made several concerted efforts to get some of the creative stuff published but except for a few poems nothing caught.

In my reading lately, I have noticed how many professional writers have a list of 20, 30 or even more books to their credit. Now they, my mind tells me, are the real deal, the real professionals who have dedicated their career to their craft.

So then how do I measure my output, my success or lack thereof? Am I by definition a writer simply because I write? Or, is there a measure of commitment or public acknowledgement or commercial success in which I do not meet some standard – either self-defined or societal?

As usual, I arrived at no conclusion but I was reminded how I am defining my ‘self’. I am not a writer or artist; instead, I write and I do art. I am at the age now when roles are optional and there is no need to play any. Rather than do, it is time to be. So I be writing and I be painting and I be sitting in the sun. 

When this art cycle is over I will add some of the better pieces to my gallery. Meanwhile, here are a few previews.

april showers
April Showers
on the range]
On the Range
Morning dew
Morning dew
Great Falls
Great Falls

Here there be dragons

dragon mapI do not write for a select minority, which means nothing to me, nor for that adulated platonic entity known as “The Masses.” Both are abstractions, so dear to the demagogue, I disbelieve in. I write for myself and for my friends, and I write to ease the passing of time.
Jorge Luis Borges, author’s note to “The Book of Sand”

Writers, artists, inventors, scientists – we all start out as beginners, amateurs, doing what we do because we love doing it so much. If we are writers we send friends copies of our little essays or books; if we are artists we give them pictures for Christmas; if we are inventors or scientists we dream that our little discovery or gizmo will benefit the world. In other words, we start ‘doing’ because we are ‘in love’ by which I mean we are creating in a state of love.

Eventually, the time may be months or years, we start to think about extending our reach, spreading our message, expanding our circle to include more than friends and acquaintances. We measure how many followers the blog has, wonder if we can sell our creative work in a gallery or bookstore, debate whether we should get a patent or partner and start a company. We enter another territory.

None of these things are wrong in themselves but they are like the big blank areas seen on old seafaring maps that read in spidery script, “Here there be dragons.” If we are not careful and alert, we can move from action taken in love to action taken by ego, from action born in creativity to action designed to please others.

In fact, it is almost inevitable that we go into this unknown territory and get lost – at least for a while. It is a very heady sensation to know that something you have done is liked by others – the more the better. And it is normal to want to continue that love affair with the greater public – nothing is sweeter than appreciation. But it is a dangerous affair in which compromises are expected.

One day you may find yourself deciding to write about something that will attract more readers or support a popular viewpoint. Your art may start reflecting the critics’ perspective rather than your own. Your inventions may be designed to please stockholders and bottom lines.

If this is where the detour ended, it might be acceptable to cater to your audiences, but more likely than not, those compromises usually twist or end your originality. The creative muse does not operate from the back seat but must drive herself. I often hear artists, in particular, talk about the muse as a woman and say that she is a hard mistress.

I believe that is true. To really access the creative well, nothing must stand in the way – not audiences, or demographics, or market trends, or stock offerings. Creative people may be criticized for being self-centered or ego-driven, of caring for more about their art form than their families, and to a certain extent that can be true – but it is the nature and the price of the gift.

I think Borges’ words are a good reminder to keep our priorities straight. We must forget our audiences, fame, money and acknowledgement for all of these things can easily pass away leaving us empty and broken. Instead we should spend our creative currency in pleasing ourselves, our friends and easing the passing of time.


cycleIf I write a post for the blog or do some kind of art, I feel I have earned my keep for the day. There is a feeling of satisfaction, of duty done, of requirements fulfilled. On the other hand, when I don’t write or do art, I feel adrift, without purpose. The day seems shallow and pale.

Since February I have been in a painting cycle when art predominates. These periods usually last from six to eight weeks. At the beginning the brush feels clumsy in my hand, the paper is stubborn and the ink indifferent. What is most important at this early stage is to persevere which often means making sloppy, inarticulate pictures and wasting some good paper. It is almost a sacrificial ceremony or rite of passage.

After a day or two or three, the ink and water become more tractable, the paper receptive and the brush responsive. Then the real painting begins and usually continues for several weeks. Of the 50+ pictures produced perhaps five or six are good and I am satisfied.

The third phase of the work is the winding down process which is where I am now. I will have the desire to paint and create but the well is running dry. Slowly the brush starts to falter, the ink to smear and the paper to become cold and isolated. I know it is time to stop but I am reluctant to leave the creative high. I am reluctant to feel I am not earning my keep and so I turn to writing.

All of the words that have been left simmering on the back burners start to heat up and spill over and sputter on the grill of my mind. And so for the next month or two, I will use words rather than images to communicate. One medium is not better than another, one is not easier.

It is in this period before the new cycle takes hold that I am restless and unfocused. While I wait for the words to arrive, I think of a poem I wrote many years ago when I was just learning how to listen to the voice.


I opened a vein
this morning
and bled a poem
all over this clean white sheet
staining it a rich burgundy.

Hot tears
will not remove it
but you can
try ice.


Flower Garden
Flower Garden 5

A friend of mine who is an artist stopped painting last year after he realized he was repeating himself in terms of technique, subject matter and approach. A few weeks ago we visited a local museum together in an attempt to jump start his creative engine. It may be months before something clicks but it will click eventually. Meanwhile he suffers.

To follow a creative career is hard work, often painful and frequently not valued by the larger society. Few parents encourage their children to become poets, actors, dancers, painters or composers for they recognize that the arts do not often bring success, at least in material terms. For every rock star there are thousands of unknown garage bands. For every Picasso there are thousands – perhaps millions – of weekend painters.  It is true of all the arts.

So why do it? A creative person does what he or she does because it is more painful not to do it. In the beginning it really isn’t about fame or money or the thrill of execution; it is an undeniable hunger or longing that demands self-expression. And this self-expression comes at a price.

To access the creative realm, courage is need. Inhibitions must be set aside along with the fears of the ego, and the artist must embark on a journey that may lead to judgment, failure, ridicule, poverty, madness or even, worse, indifference. These are not unfounded concerns – just read the lives of the artists.

So why risk it? Because when the artist can open to the Creative, the small self is swept away – at least for a while. A new reality is experienced that is vital, raw, unlimited and filled with joy. It is a feeling that your real self has been found at last – a homecoming. There is nothing – except perhaps sexual intimacy or mystical revelation – that can approach it, and all three of these activities are related in that the small self is absent.

Luckily, this joy is not contingent on the quality of the work produced nor the ‘worthiness’ of the artist. It requires only the willingness to surrender the small self to the Creative Self.

When someone in a creative field starts adjusting his work to attract fame, money, recognition, satisfaction, pride, etc. the purity of the surrender is lost and with it, I believe, the source of originality and inspiration. When the artist listens to the demands of the market place rather than the voice of his inner nature he has effectively shut the door on his creative journey.

It is not easy to maintain this balance between selflessness and the self – and this is the great struggle of the artist. How long do you keep painting when you can’t make a living at it? How long do you keep going to auditions when you never get the starring role? How many rejection slips does it take to discourage a writer? How do you hold to your vision when your family is in need?

I don’t have any answers to these questions. They are unique and personal to each individual artist. Some people keep creating in spite of the odds; others commercialize their work; some give up and get a ‘real job’; some become teachers and hope to inspire others, while some wait for retirement from the everyday world.

Meanwhile, the creative journey continues in each of our lives and we can define our ‘art’ in our own personal terms. The art of engineering, of homemaking, of cleaning, of parenting, of computing – all are worthy vehicles ready to carry us along our individual paths to the Creative Self.

I have a new post on the art blog at