Letting it Out

photo for march 12 blog

The other day I listened to a friend vent. And that’s ok–isn’t that what friends are for?

Heaven knows–I’ve had many friends who have let me whine and cry and yell and complain about my life. They’ve listened to me, and then did me an even greater favor: they forgot all about it.

They knew that those fears, anxieties, crazy thoughts, and self-doubts needed to be let out for one big reason: those thoughts weren’t me. My situation wasn’t me. They knew that “letting it all out” was the best way for me to leave it all behind.

When we’re possessed by our bad thoughts, we can fall into the trap of thinking that since our mind created them, they must be part of us. But they aren’t. We can’t let them hijack our mind and soul.

We need to get free of those demons, and find friends that will help us do that.

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Feeling Good?

There is growing scientific evidence that, “…when in a good mood, people become more intuitive and more creative…”
I read this in “Thinking, Fast and Slow,” by Daniel Kahneman, and immediately my mind rebelled. After all, the assumption that an artist must be tortured is so well accepted that it has become a stereotype. It’s as if, in our minds,  suffering is a requirement to being great. And looking at the lives of Vincent Van Gogh, Virginia Woolfe, Edgar Allen Poe, Sylvia Plath,  and Frida Kahlo, I have a hard time imagining any of them ever being in a good mood.

Still, science is science, and there are lots of experiments that support Kahneman’s statement.
So what gives?
I’m not sure. I am not a psychologist and I’m only a wanna-be artist, and the only story I know–really know–is my own. Yes, I draw and paint when I am sad and troubled. If I am upset, making art soothes me. I get lost in the process and my brain gets quiet. I slip away to a peaceful place and when I come back, I often find that I am ready and able to face my problems with new insight.

I also draw and paint when I am happy, excited, and feel full of potential. At those times, making art is energetic–I try something new, I take a risk, and the results might be something great or complete trash.

But I guess the question really is: At which of those times am I creative? And the only answer I can honestly give is that I am creative at both times. In fact, I make art both when I feel creative and when I don’t. If suffering isn’t a requirement for being an artist, then feeling creative isn’t a requirement for making art.
And while I realize that a good mood might oil the wheels of the mind, making it run smoothly to creative, new ideas and thoughts, I also know that the very act of creating can create that good mood.
Can science explain that?

Who I Will Be

The kind of artist I want to be isn’t afraid to try a new technique or style.

The artist I want to be remembers that inspiration is everywhere–and, more importantly, remembers to look for it.

The artist I want to be doesn’t blow her weekly gas and groceries budget at the art supply store.

She’s an artist who knows her strengths and weaknesses. (And most of the time, she’s ok with them.)

She doesn’t save the good paints and papers for herself, but shares them with her sons when they show interest, because there is always more where that came from.

(But not the watercolor brush that cost $23 and was worth every penny. Hands off!)

The artist I want to be will always wonder what really happened with Artemesia Gentileschi (don’t you?) while admiring her brave Judiths.

And she will be silly sometimes, serious sometimes, and will smile a lot.

And also will continue (for this week, anyway) to recommend “Exit Through the Gift Shop” to anyone who will listen.

The artist I want to be is humble, grateful, and determined; and thanks God every day for art that can touch the heart and make us better versions of ourselves.

But meanwhile, the artist I am is having fun. I hope you are, too!

Taking Back What Is Twisted

A little more than 10 years ago, when I still lived in New Jersey, I attended a two-day workshop with collage artist Jonathan Talbot. It was a wonderful class and the techniques I learned have become staples in my art methods.

But there was a lesson he taught that has followed me even beyond art making.

In the early part of the class, he showed us a page torn from a book. He explained that he would pass around the sheet so we could each tear off a piece to use in a collage. Everyone must tear off a piece, he explained, it was not optional.

When the page came to me, I immediately recognized that it was rag paper–very old rag paper. Plus, the print on it (was it letterpress?) had those funny ‘s’s that look like ‘f’s. I held my breath, tore off a piece, and passed it to the next student.

Once the sheet had made the rounds, Talbot asked us if we knew how old the paper we had just destroyed was. “One hundred years old!” someone guessed. “No, more like 500,” I said, my heart simultaneously racing and sinking. What had I done?

“Yes, 500 is a good guess,” Talbot responded, and everyone in the class groaned. But then he continued, “Ok, before you get too upset, answer this: What language is that on the page?” I looked down at my scrap and saw the phrase, “Gracias al Señor,” or “Thanks to the Lord,” so I said, in practically a whisper, “Spanish…”

“Yes!” he told us. “Anyone hear of the Spanish Inquisition? Good. So what you just tore up was a set of instructions for burning heretics. Now do you all feel better?” Relief passed through the class. “Nothing is too precious to be destroyed,” he concluded, and we went back to our works in progress.

The collage I made that includes that scrap hangs in my living room. I think about Talbot’s point often, and have reached an understanding of what he meant, and also what he didn’t.

That’s because to me, the lesson is also that there is nothing that cannot be redeemed. There is nothing that cannot be used as the raw material for art. Nothing is beyond hope.

In Letter 9 of C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters, one devil explains to another that only God can create, and all tempters can do is twist His creations so that they are used unnaturally. (Devils did not create wine, for example, but they can tempt people to drink too much of it too often.) So I like to remember this: Art allows us to take back what is twisted, to take our own fires of The Inquisition and use that heat and light to restore beauty.

Too much?

I wonder about an alcoholic taking his or her first drink. Do they know, immediately, that what they just tasted might own them, control them, take their life? Do they know right away, and do they already feel that it is too late to turn back?

Yes, I have written about creating with feeling. I have written about my efforts to think less while making art. And I don’t take any of that back–and yet–I also wonder about the power of raw emotion. It’s uncontrollable power. Can it be destructive?

Sometimes when I am finished with a drawing (it might or might not be a good one), there seems to be such an amount of direct feeling in the lines on the paper that it defies the effort I used to create them. I wonder where that amount of emotion came from, and it scares me when I don’t know. Why? Because, somehow, it seems like a lack of effort to control my drawing, or to discipline myself, and that seems both irresponsible and dangerous.

I think of, years ago, watching Nirvana give their Unplugged performance on MTV. Anyone who saw the performance of the last song could have guessed that Kurt Cobain’s death would be tragic. Watching it, you see him express raw emotion that escapes him and will take control and torture him until he succumbs.

Maybe, being less talented that Kurt Cobain was, I don’t need to worry. Then again, I think I might strive for balance, just in case.

What’s so funny about peace, love, and understanding?

So yes, I enjoy listening to Elvis Costello sometimes, and that song in particular.

But it was NPR that I was listening to when my mind started to wander (sorry, David Green) and I stumbled onto yet another blinding flash of the obvious.

I was thinking about people who are not happy. They may not be unhappy, but still, they feel something is missing, something is not right, and sometimes they are not sure what it is, or why they feel that way. And it makes my heart ache to see this.

I began to wonder why I don’t question myself more about my own happiness. “Do what makes you happy,” and “You deserve to be happy” are statements I hear and accept without skepticism. But should I? Is that all there is? Just being happy and doing what I want? Feeling entitled to something? While there is nothing funny or trivial about happiness, I  believe I might need something more. (And yes, I realize that does sound entitled.)

I realized (and this is what should have been obvious to me) that the question I have become preoccupied with is, “What is God’s will?” I spend more time wondering, “What should I do?” than asking “How do I feel?” It’s more about actions and attitude than about emotions. The emotions are secondary. Peace, love, and understanding are about what you do, not what you feel.

In his book The Seven Story Mountain, Thomas Merton recalls his realization that anyone–anyone!–can be a saint, if they allow God to make them one. That sounds so much easier than it is! And there is no promise that such a path leads to happiness. But it might lead to something greater.

“If you want to identify me, ask me not where I live, or what I like to eat, or how I comb my hair, but ask me what I am living for, in detail, ask me what I think is keeping me from living fully for the thing I want to live for.” –Thomas Merton

At this point, you may be wondering what any of this has to do with art, or drawing, or journals. The answer: I’m not sure. But I do know that figuring out what to do depends on your opportunities to be quiet and listen sometimes. And art is a great way to be quiet. Creatively quiet, letting your mind wander into those blinding flashes of the obvious.

Does It Take Five Minutes?

…’cause that’s what I have time for. Anything that takes five minutes or less gets done; everything else has to wait.

Having spent five and a half years getting used to the limited energy that a brain injury leaves you with, I feel ok about this. Although some interpret my attitude as either aloofness or self-importance, it isn’t either. I am used to prioritizing ruthlessly, to cutting things out of my schedule that  I really enjoy–knowing that I won’t really enjoy them anyway if I’m worn out.

A few minutes with my art journal here and there is all I’ve had time for. (I’ve had even less time to upload those pages to flickr or tumblr to share with others.) At least those time constraints have led to some interesting results. What is hastily done doesn’t have time to get precious, and what might seem careless can also seem care-free.

But I hate letting others down. I’ve got some pending blog posts and other updates to share here that I will get to–promise.

As soon as I have more than five minutes. 🙂