20 March 2017

Living the way you paint and viceversa.

I recently read a couple of books on mindfulness. One of them was "The Power of Now" by Eckhardt Tolle. I am not a fan of inspirational gurus of any kind and regard  books like "The Secret" as actually very harmful  since they guilt  readers into believing their thoughts  are the sole obstacle between them and a notion of success that looks like a brochure for a cruise to the Bahamas. But I admit I fall for the catchy titles and read these books looking for practical advice (and I am disappointed 99% of the time).

"Roses for a snow day" 10"x10" oil on wood

Over time I've come to realize that I am only happy and fully 'mindful' when I paint. At least to a degree that  other activities won't reach. I get lots of painting ideas while at work;  I am constantly framing street scenes or fruit bowls in the kitchen into possible pictures. I don't try to figure out the "why" or the "for what purpose" any more.  As long as no amount of hours spent painting or in art-related activities feel like work, I just know it is my 'calling'.

And yet I become quite agitated when people in the street tell me I should feel "blessed" or that I should be lucky with such a "gift".  You know where I am going with this. I thank them. These comments are well meaning. It is a "gift" of some sort. Some may dismiss calling it a 'gift'  because  they "worked hard  at it" but saying that sounds  a bit desperate for recognition of their toils.  There is nothing wrong with admitting you were driven by something else beyond a duty to perform.

Life drawing, chalk on grey paper
In the back of my head,  however,  I also argue with the idea of a "gift" because it has no donor and it is incomplete. Shouldn't this great gift come as a package deal?  Attached to other gifts like marketing prowess and a great business sense? May be even a degree of recklessness?  If there was an intelligent cosmic force (ok, a God) willy nilly granting gifts and pushing you to be an artist, wouldn't that force (inner or outer)  provide some 'extras'?  A bit of luck and savvy to overcome obstacles? In other words, if you call art making a 'gift', you are a paycheck away from calling it a curse as well.

"Nelson Square" 8"x10" oil on canvas

 This "gift" idea leads directly to a giver. It's hard to explain art in merely anthropological or evolutionary terms. (That doesn't mean there is no biological root to art, I am sure there is). But why would one persist in a behavior so void of profit and so full of  grief, the grief of not being able to make it a career for whatever cause or "reason". So against the ropes and seeing time pass by,  I'll go ahead and admit it, I have been giving God a lot of thought lately. Why grant a gift that can't be opened? Why call it a gift any longer? Why do it at all if there is a diminishing chance of making the work  match the calling? And isn't this just putting the blame elsewhere because is too painful to blame oneself?

Mostly because I am an atheist and  everything tells me there isn't such a thing, these thoughts seem idiotic. But there it is. The  Judeo-Christian-Islamic  touchy grouch who lashes out at anyone who recoils from his buy-now, pay-later  immortality plan is not even in the picture here. Or any other version female or male or animal of capricious forces beyond our understanding. I am talking about the inner impulse that drives artists. Whether it is Gods or genes or guts, I don't care.

There's a story from the Bible that seems appropriate:

It's the "Jonah and the Whale" story or at least my take on it. I liked this book from the Bible when I was young because of the visual appeal of the prophet living inside a whale (whales have tiny throats and can't swallow a man by the way. Another coin in the Bible's jar of lost logic).
"St Jerome"

The poet León Felipe, exiled in México,  introduced me to the notion that Jonah could be a metaphor for the person with a vocation in general and the artist in particular.  Jonah doesn't want to 'want' to be an artist,  he wants a comfortable life being and X-Ray technician or a tax accountant.  But God demands he shares his gift . And so Jonah runs away and escapes to  get a job in New Zealand as a crew set decorator, mistakenly believing  it might satisfy his artistic calling. Most of his fellow men agree having a calling is a luxury for trust fund babies anyway. Jonah would rather die than give up his job safety.
"Vancouver Alley"

In the Bible, Jonah manages to convert Nineveh but gets no reward except scorn. See,  he sets out to be a "prophet of doom" like the good lice-infested bearded ones of yore, and it so happens that the gullible people  (this time, what are the chances?) decide to change their wicked and fun ways and  dress in ashes and dung. Oh, goodie.  His whole life is a forced service to his gift and it brings him, personally,  no reward. He is the Bible's tragic clown. Job at least got back his camels when  God decided to wager on the strength of his faith with good ol' Satan.

Sure, there's a lot of worse fates than being a clown but what's the lesson here? That you should go along with your calling even if you know it is not going to be easy or even successful.  At least you'll be a LOT less tired from fighting against it.

In other words, f***  it. Just paint, sculpt, dance or make balloon animals. It's what you are meant to do. Just do it any which way you want, with a job, without a job, with cancer, in the kitchen, with chalk or ink or piss.

St James Church, Crossroads, Haworth
Pendle Stained Glass Ltd. 1999

Many artists are firm God believers and I have seen first hand  the results of having an unwavering faith of some sort. I've met mostly Christians of several ilks, catholics,  mormons, etc... that set out to make a living in art at a young age and succeed with kids and wife in tow. I've also seen other artists inspired by other faiths including the much taunted "faith in oneself" (talk about tautologies, you are the one believing in it). The key word here is they do have "faith", a belief that cannot be faked when you are really gambling your career success on it. One has to respect this and I do envy it to a great degree.
Art and faith almost require the same strength of conviction against  a void. 

 To mention just a few artists informed by their faith : Daniel Keys, John Burton, Tony Pro, ,Jeremy Duncan,  Josh Clare and many many others.

 If you know many artists, you know "gift packages" are also indeed very rare. They do exist.  Artists that were born in artist families do better. Artists that found or worked with generous mentors do better, succeed earlier, spare themselves a lot of mistakes. Exposure to the business of art making  seems like a better route than any schooling. I am just guessing here and interpolating from many random observations. I am always surprised at the amount of artists that are sons and daughters of artists. Sure, a great number of  artists succeed despite having none of the above and even less advantages than others. Talent can break many barriers.