SEEING THE BIG PICTURE
From Art Works: How Making Art Illuminates Your Life Ganesha Books, 2013, pages 3 – 7
Don: As a child, I rolled red clay into the shapes of human organs—Don the anatomist. I drew an invading armada and blew up the enemy—Don the hero. I copied the dark, brooding colors of the masters—Don the great painter. I drew my classmates’ favorite cartoon characters—Don the popular kid. I was the great pretender. Art gave me any identity I wanted to assume, and I was able to make my mark. I remember sitting on the living room floor, drawing on the cardboard shirt inserts my grandfather brought home from work. Later, when I was in elementary school, I would impress the other kids by drawing for them. As an adolescent, I became the boxer, the warrior, the pornographer, using my imagination to take on any role I wanted to while making art. At the same time, I found an outlet for my turbulent emotions in a kind of compulsive, tight, black-and-white style of drawing. When I was fourteen or fifteen, I sketched my first nude model in a drawing class, a mighty experience. However, I didn’t begin thinking of myself as a real artist until I returned to Chicago from the navy. By then I was in my early twenties, working in my father’s dress factory. My wife had given me modeling clay, and I became obsessed with making figures from the clay in my free time; I couldn’t stop.
Amy: It is impossible for me to say when I created art for the first time. It depends on your definition of art—whether you distinguish between the experience of making art as a child and that of making art as an adult. When I was four years old, performing on stage in a ballet leotard and tutu, was that art? I had an appreciative audience, but my work certainly lacked technical merit. What about when I was seven, inventing songs on the piano? Or fourteen, drawing in art class? At some point, others began judging my creativity against “serious” art, but looking back I’m not certain when that first happened or if it wasn’t happening all along on some level.
In my twenties, I started identifying myself as a fiction writer, and some of my work was published. These were the years when questions such as “What is art?” and “Is my work good enough to justify the time I spend on it?” loomed large in my mind. Gradually, however, I realized that these questions were strangling my passion for writing and that most important to me was experiencing the world creatively—having a creative view of the world rather than always worrying about the end product. I began trying to let myself create something because I needed or wanted to do so, just like I had when I was a child.
Elizabeth is three years old, wearing her party dress. The family has just finished dinner, and everyone is sitting around the living room, talking and drinking. Her mother asks the group whether they would like to hear Elizabeth sing a song. Enthusiastically, everyone says, “Yes!” Elizabeth has sung “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” without hesitation in private and public a hundred times—in the park, in the car, while playing in the tub, or while dancing in the living room. She loves this song.
Now, slowly, she walks to the center of the room, surrounded by aunts, uncles, cousins, and, of course, her parents, all silently watching her. Any of a number of things might happen next: Elizabeth might break into tears of panic and run out of the room. She might belt out her song, beaming. She might whisper her way to the end in a voice no one can hear. Regardless of what she does on this occasion, however, as long as those around her gently encourage her own pace and desire, the child may take for granted that she is a singer. That is, although she may not call herself a singer at this age, she will assume that singing is a perfectly appropriate thing for her to do.
A ten-year-old boy has just been chastised outdoors within earshot of others for disobeying his mother. He is angry and humiliated. He runs to his room, slams the door, and wishes he were dead, so his mother would be sorry. A few minutes later, he begins to draw a picture of soldiers fighting a fierce battle. Gradually, he feels so much better that he hangs his drawing on his bedroom wall, forgetting his anger. He might even feel enough excitement about his work that he brings his mother upstairs to see it.
Regardless of whether you call yourself an artist, just by the nature of having been a child, you have had the experience of making personal art. If not now, then once at least, you transported yourself with fantasies of being in another place or time while drawing, painting, writing, playing music, dancing, or acting.
At some point in our lives, most of us shifted from freely exploring ourselves with artmaking to a more self-conscious stance, one that eventually leads many people to quit making art. Why does this happen? Perhaps at some point other children or adults stopped noticing our work, or we grew afraid of being called untalented. Perhaps we grew uncomfortable with the emotions and thoughts our art expressed. Someone may have openly shamed or discouraged us from making our art for any number of reasons—it was too messy or wasteful or threatening of an activity. Whatever the case, by adulthood many people tell themselves that the creativity they express in their work, play, or homes could not possibly count toward anything as significant as art. They comfort themselves with the notion that making art doesn’t matter anyway; it’s an activity strictly for the creatively “talented.”
Yet there is a reason that art continues to play a large role in the human experience, despite the lack of financial reward or critical acclaim for most people who make it. For people of all ages and levels of experience, artmaking serves as a way of seeing the world and themselves. Making art also is a way for others to see us.
If you are already a practicing artist, you know the power art generates in your life. In this book, you will find a personal mentorship to help you review and enliven your work, something that even an experienced artist needs at times. What professional artist hasn’t encountered a stumbling block in his or her private and creative life, especially when trying to blend art and a career? We lose inspiration for a particular project. We get burned out in general. We miss the high of the early years of artmaking, when reviews and money and the marketplace didn’t drive the process or end result, when we made art simply because we loved the reward of discovering something amazing about ourselves and life along the way.
Of course, most people will not become professional artists. But the desire and ability to make art reside within everyone on some level. No matter how long it has been since you made art or what you presently do to earn a living, you can recognize the integral role artmaking plays in your everyday life. In her work What Is Art For? acclaimed researcher Ellen Dissanayake explains that the innate need to create art spans all cultures and times, serving as a kind of biological, hardwired system all humans possess. Like preparing and eating food, making and using art is a necessary part of our lives, but often we allow this natural experience to atrophy.
Young or old, skilled or unskilled, we can all reach into ourselves to create something personally meaningful. Consequently, “talent” is not a prerequisite for making art. Making art is for everyone. The very act of creating something will expand our perceptions of ourselves and the world, fulfill our need to express ourselves, and strengthen our ability to communicate. The skills that we desire will grow as we grow. The added benefits to our personal and professional lives—knowledge, healing, self-awareness, and a creative attitude—will deepen as we examine more closely our own artmaking experiences. Most likely you recognize these benefits of making art; a part of you also may even recall feeling art’s fullest potential—if only for a moment.
However, if you currently do not consider yourself an artist, getting past this label might prove your first challenge. How could you possibly call yourself an artist?
Forget the label for a few minutes. For now, let yourself take a leap to where you might be someday, to what it would feel like for you to be an artist. From this future time and place, imagine yourself able to see beauty (a word you can easily substitute with meaning) surrounding you, knowing that you have everything you need to create whatever you presently define as beautiful (or meaningful).
From this place in the world it is possible to experience the significance of all people, things, and events—even if they might normally seem chaotic, boring, or dangerous to you. In this context, the word beauty includes the ugly, the mundane, and the awesome, with each offering positive potential as one of the qualities that makes life worth living. Imagine also possessing the power to change the space around you as well as your perception of the world so that your life grows richer, fuller, and more meaningful. If you choose to develop a personal relationship with art, regardless of whether you call yourself an artist, this imagined experience will become a reality. You will discover that you can change your world, organize chaos, and find beauty (i.e., meaning) in all situations.
If this is what making art does, then why doesn’t everyone make it? Why do even professional artists struggle or give up? Obviously there are many things that we know benefit us but that we choose not to do. However, there is a difference between choosing not to make art although you know it empowers you and choosing not to make art because you are unaware of its potential in your life. Many of us, some professional artists included, lose sight of this potential—or never realized to begin with—how powerful making art is for our whole lives.
Of course, even when we want to make personally meaningful art, this act can feel risky, both for the artist and to our culture’s safe and accepted ideas. As a culture, we have surrounded art with myths that keep it at bay. Buying into these myths causes us to forget what the essence of making art is, what its deepest possibilities are for each of us as individuals. For instance, how often have you said something like this?
To make art, I would have to study _______________ first.
Artmaking is the last thing I need to fulfill my life. I need a better job, more money, and more free time. Making art has nothing to do with those things.
Art is only for people who possess a special talent or an audience for their work. There’s no point in making art if my work won’t receive attention or I can’t make a living at it.
But I can’t even draw a straight line!
Artmaking is not about drawing straight lines. But most of us have told ourselves so often that this is precisely what making art is about—the quality of the final product as measured against everyone else’s art—that we have given up hope of creating anything worthwhile. Gradually, we have lost the desire to make art, even if only as a natural outlet for play or our emotions. As a result, the life of an artist becomes the equivalent of a mysterious, elusive priesthood to which only an elite few are called; art becomes a largely inaccessible form of magic. According to the myth, to become a real artist, one needs the right things—the artist’s equivalent of the robe, incense, and incantations that transform an ordinary person into a priest or a magician. Most of us are unable to sacrifice our lives in the way that a professional artist must to reach the full power of the creative life. This book in no way underestimates the remarkable gifts that have been passed on to us by fully committed artists in all media. However, even as “ordinary” people (or as personal rather than professional artists), we can share in the same flow of power and energy to enhance our own lives that professional artists experience.
As noted before, at some point people may have told you that to make anything worthwhile, you first need to have the proper tools, the right things. The truth is people have made art with breadcrumbs, thread, and toilet paper. Specific, expensive materials are not needed to create meaningful, personal art, no matter what you choose as your medium. You can make art—whether music, sculpture, dance, poetry, or any other form you wish to explore—with anything. No matter who you are, the need to create something is an integral part of you.
So where to begin?
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