September 27th, 2004
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climbing trees


This morning I pick up my weathered and stained copy of “The Wisdom of the Heart” by Henry Miller. Leave it to Henry to pick up on exactly the theme that has been circling around my brain for the last few hours. Reading his words gets me giddy and excited, all my worries about creating start to evaporate like the fog that hovered over the garden yesterday morning. I am reminded of having a class with Ross Mendes, wanting to run bursting from the classroom, excited to explore the world and learn everything I can about it.
It is nearly impossible for me to not quote the entire essay here. But I will refrain, and let those who are piqued it have their own little adventure in finding it for themselves.
“On the surface, where the historical battles rage, where everything is interpreted in terms of money and power, there may be crowding, but life only begins when one drops below the surface, when one gives up the struggle, sinks and disappears from sight. Now I can as easily not write as write: there is no longer any compulsion, no longer any therapeutic aspect to it. Whatever I do is done out of sheer joy: I drop fruits like a ripe tree. What the general reader or the critic makes of it is not my concern. I am not establishing values: I defecate and nourish. There is nothing more to it. -fr. Reflections on Writing”
And so the topic that is circling around my brain is the tendency of the artist to want to (or feel compelled to) either a) stick to what worked for others, or b) the tendency for sucessful artists to stick to the thing that gave them the success in the first place. Be it a style, or concept, or a format. One cannot put the artist entirely at blame for this, it is quite natural for the world to want you to do more of what they know you for. And also natural to keep doing what works. Especially in the field of illustration, we work hard to develop a “style” that sells and once we get it, it becomes a marker of sorts.
But with this comes a tendency to stagnate creatively. It can contribute to a lack of growth, and a fear of trying something different. If people like me for “this”, how will they react when I show them “that”. What if I lose everything that I have worked so hard to create? Is that fear real?
In my conversation with J, this morning on this subject we determined that it is the artist’s responsibility to always be trying new things and moving in new and unexpected directions. If we look at all of the great artists of the world, most of them constantly pushed themselves to new places, even when it was a great risk to do so. I silently wondered if there has been a psychological shift of late, since we now refer to art as a “career”, thus the connection to ‘making an income’. Wouldn’t want to impact my career negatively, but my personal work, that’s a different category. There’s no risk in trying something new when it does not impact my income.
Henry Miller himself admited to spending much time copying the great writers in the beginning of his writing career, studying them and attempting to emulate their style. He realized he was failing miserably at it and it was at that point that he felt he really began to write. Copying what works for others (or even ourselves) feels safe, looking into our own personalites and seeing what lurks there, then presenting it to the world can be terrifying.
When I give talks I enjoy showing examples of artists who are/were consistantly going out on a limb and experimenting with new ideas, many of whom bring all of their unique personality traits to the forefront. (Maira Kalman, Tim Burton, James Joyce, Frieda Kahlo, Charles Eames, Picasso, to name but a few). Things that are often perceived as quirky and strange to the general public, yet these are the things that make for a unique voice. We all have them, are we willing to present them to others? A conclusion that we might come to at some point is that we are not a good judge of what others will respond to. And so it is futile to even try. Our only job is to put things out there that we ourselves are responding to (to “defecate and nourish”). It is the judgement that stops us. But to what effect?
Henry quotes the surrealist artist Rene Crevel,
“No daring is fatal.”

 
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