On being an Artist
It would seem that I am about to veer off road and careen wildly across strange landscapes; far away from the terrain I usually travel. Not so, dear reader, I am going to go deeper into the artistic soul, and heart, that is the underpinning of writers and poets. I travel that same road we are all on; no matter the level of our competence we share this journey. To this point I have offered my thoughts, on writing poetry, and lyrics, not as an expert – but as a working artist and an observer, perhaps casting a light into shadowy places in our understanding of what it is to be a Poet or Songwriter. I am going to connect some dots – I will do this with no more authority than the fact that I am an Artist – I sculpt, I draw and paint, and I write poetry, prose and songs, all these disciplines come from the same wellhead. I do hope you are entertained, maybe enlightened, and do forgive the fact that I lack the ability to be mundanely linear and coherent. (If I do – it is a lucky accident, and the connective activity of rouge neurons attempting to conservatize my thinking.)
“Don’t think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It’s self- conscious, and everything self-conscious is lousy. You can’t try to do things. You simply must do things.”
This article is going to be about the starting point on our journey as poetic writers – the off-road of being a Poet, an Artist. This is for those that feel they have the tools, but not the spark to write well – this will be for those that think the Muse ignores them – this will be for the frustrated and self-critical – this will be for those aching to get on paper, or a computer screen the language of their souls – those words that never seem to shine, or have the richness that they feel is there – those joyous fountains, sorrowful wails, brilliant illuminations, deep emotive wellings, and lucid clarities, not translated and, alas, stay un-delivered to the world.
My normal process for coming up with this column is, usually, spurred on by some poetry I have read or the lyrics, to a song, I have heard. How that comes about is what may be interesting – it isn’t always the poem or song’s content, but often how I perceive the piece to have come into being. The mechanics are important to me and I trust that I have, in my vagabond and odd way, delivered some cogent points in that regard. I will address that more later in the article.
I want to explore the very starting point, even before there is a twinkle in the Artist’s eye. I want to write about the seed of artistry, the genesis of that good effort and human outlay we call Art. The definition of the word ‘Art’ I leave to you to look up. I will not debate Art’s value – I believe that is mote and refuse any attempt at diminishing the need for all Artistic expression in a balanced and healthy society. A person that sees Poetry, and indeed any form of writing, as important as any artistic endeavor, writes this article.
Recognition of self as Artist
I don’t remember when I declared myself an artist. It happened in the midst of doing art. In other words, I was compelled to create and in the process found the artist. There is no right way to become an Artist. I suggest the Artist existed before the recognition, that same recognition being unimportant. A poet begins to write and in the process the Poet emerges. Trust the process. ‘Tis Like taking your first baby steps the, poetic muscles become stronger and more defined.
“Imagination is the beginning of creation. You imagine what you desire, you will what you imagine and at last you create what you will.”
George Bernard Shaw
From darkness to light
This is esoteric – I believe it is in the human soul/mind/body matrix that we are designed as creators. That inherent ability can manifest itself in a myriad of ways. Every thing we, as humans, create is a form of artistic expression. Politics, mathematics, architecture, finance, business, military arts, sciences, all have a creative core – we as humans have created distinctions that aren’t real. and may well hurt us as a society. What we perceive as Art now has become separate and of less intrinsic value – music, painting, crafts, dance, sculpture, and all, have become lumped into ‘Entertainment’. That doesn’t mean that there isn’t an industry to promote and exploit these arts. It is that the worth of the Artist is not comparable to the worth of a Banker. (Well, I may have to rethink that comparison!) The darkness is the void in us and from that void will emerge a person’s human expression. This is separate from and distinct from the evil of trying to quantify a person’s aptitude and intelligence. I wrote the provocative word evil, because it is in the individual to be responsible for their own life, to find that expression. If such quantification helps the person solidify what they already know – fine. But I believe it not to be so, in most cases, being told by an authority, or the score of a one size fits all test, that you have no aptitude for something is irresponsible, damaging, and a recipe for misery. That system was, and is, designed to put people into the existing work force and down plays those abilities that are not considered valuable to society – as arbitrary and transitory as the latest story in the Media.
(The e-mails will now come pouring in. Don’t e-mail me, I am intransigent on this point – my experience will out.) Work is good – art is good! Art can be work and work can be art! They are not mutually exclusive. Trust yourself. You know if the yearning is there – don’t be afraid to acknowledge that internal artistic urging.
Once a person recognizes the artistic yearning the practical brain kicks in. There is no criticism in that statement, it is the way we are made, and what it is to be human. Someone created flint knapping and that skill was taught to others that had that ‘aptitude.’ They in turn created new ways to do the job and that led to other skills, or arts. The first steps in any Artist’s journey is to find an expression and then to imitate the work of other Artists that resonates in them, to me, a joyous time of self-discovery. In learning the rules the mind and body can incorporate those skills and, from there, jump ahead, as new innovations are realized, from that which has come before. Innovations that would not be possible, unless it was on the shoulders of other, previous, innovations – on the shoulders of previous innovation – and so on. Learn the craft!
This is the root of all Art, whether the ‘How To’ was stumbled upon or learned.
In the 80s I sculpted doll parts out of a product used for jewelry. The process started with me thinking I could create a new art form on the shoulders of an existing one, then thinking that the jewelry clay would work. I had to, by trail and error, find ways to make the clay do what it wasn’t designed to do. Other artists and those I taught created other innovations and a new artistic community was created. I learned doll making before I attempted to create a new Art Doll expression. All art is created this way.
Poetry too has tried and true forms and modern innovations that stand on the shoulders of the poets who came before. I learned those rules early on and as a Poet they serve me well as the context of all of my work. I will consciously pick a form that best allows me to express what I wish to express.
Learn the craft, the rules, first before you creatively break the rules – you can’t create new ground till you know the old, in that relevancy is created.
Improvement by choice – the coolest (A technical term) thing that happens to an artist is when the piece reaches out to you and says, ‘This isn’t right! Improve this! Fix this!’ That can only happen if the artist is engaged in doing the work. Trust your own intuition – you will see it in your work and you will see it when others point it out. Criticism is valuable, but it is up to you whether the piece is changed. Every bit of criticism I get I file it all away. It may not apply, to me, to the poem or story at hand, but well may be appropriate to another piece I have yet to write.
You will always stumble when attempting something new, because you look to another and how they do it – but with time and effort, an assured-ness comes into play, and you no longer look to another, but trust in the skills you have acquired.
“The imagination imitates. It is the critical spirit that creates.”
The Fallacy of Failure
Every trip has a first step. There is no failure in Art. Things don’t work and do require fixing, but that is true of every life process. It was said during the Renaissance that nothing was to be made perfectly, for only God can make a perfect thing. The truth is we as humans are unable to make something perfectly – there is no compelling Heavenly ideal, or if there is, not one we should aspire – the work is to make it as good as you are able, up to your personal ideal – at the time. As an artist learns their chops, a voice will emerge. That voice being a clear resound, on what is in the nature and soul of the artist. The poetic voice I have often written about is just that – the self-discovery of a way in which the work of a poet manifests in the form, word choices, and imagery. Will there be periods of unproductive gloom, self-doubt, and self-depreciation – I am sorry but yes! I do find the times when I’m non-productive very upsetting, but that is because I have an expectation that is being thwarted. In fact I do know that it is a time when my unconscious mind is going over its assets, and the font will again produce fruitful poetic waters.
Lord Byron’s take on those dark moments and the Muse’s neglect:
‘This bosom, responsive to rapture no more,
Shall hush thy wild notes, nor implore thee to sing;
The feelings of childhood, which taught thee to soar,
Are wafted far distant on Apathy’s wing.’
‘Farewell to the Muse’ George Gordon
But if you do find the will to work then remember this:
“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep,”
Scott Adams (American Cartoonist)
Approaching mastery by intention – Avoiding mastery.
The above is a strange statement, but sadly ‘tis true. The problem with mastery is that you go right back to the beginning of the process. Once you have mastered an art form you begin to imitate yourself – sad bit of business that is. It is better to continue to learn, risk, and keep creating within your chosen discipline. If you are a Poet, write in as many forms as you can, or stay in one if your heart tells you that is right for you, but always work and strive to find that personal ideal that is imprinted on your soul. You may never be satisfied, but I believe that is indeed a joyful place to be – creation/opportunity comes from uncertainty.
Here is the best quote on being an artist I have ever read:
“Creativity is inventing, experimenting, growing, taking risks, breaking rules, making mistakes, and having fun.”
Mary Lou Cook
Ken Lehnig(c)2010 repost from an article by Ken Lehnig in the March 2010 isuue of Majestic