Wait, Why Art, Again?

Nauman-Duchamp-460x575“If every poet on earth stopped writing
right now, forever, what would be lost?

we have more cherubs, urinals,
colored lights than anyone can look at
in a hyperextended well-educated
middle-class no-guns-in-the-home
American lifetime.”
From Poem As Fountain by Lesley Wheeler ~ Image: Nauman – Duchamp by Carolyn Capps

(See all the images/poems by Carolyn Capps and Lesley Wheeler in the current edition of Midway Journal)

When I was a little girl, I wanted to be an artist. I wanted to draw cartoons or sing on stage or invent underwater cities. I sketched and colored. I wore costumes and sang into my brush. I daydreamed about living with the fish at the bottom of the sea.

Did you? Did you wonder and explore and want to make things that no one had made? Do you still? Or do those things feel childish or like something someone else does?

This curious, expressive part of me began to wither during my school years. While I got praise for my artistic work sometimes, I got far more reinforcement for politely paying attention, following directions, and for not wiggling around and putting my feet on the furniture. What’s more, as I got older I got afraid that whatever I made wouldn’t be good enough, interesting enough, original enough. Who could do better than Snoopy and Fantasia? I didn’t get a part in the sixth grade musical, and there was already Shirley Jones and Julie Andrews. And my underwater city? It would just get covered in algae and barnacles, right? After a while, my visions of cartooning or performing or living with the fishes – like Luca Brasi in The Godfather — slept with the fishes. (For those too young to know the reference, that means died, or more precisely, was killed.)

Did this happen to you, too? Maybe not. I admire those whose artistic lives persisted past grade school. They had more confidence and courage than I ever did. And yet even creative lives that persevere into adulthood are often eroded by the pull of family or finances or the unfolding fear-fest of life. (To be clear, I believe there can be tremendous artistry in raising a family, making money, and hanging out with fear, but not everybody approaches them that way. I certainly didn’t.)

I’m not judging here. I get it. I understand and feel the pull of a politely-pay-attention-follow-directions-sit-still life. It’s easy and safe. I don’t twist anybody’s undies and it’s unlikely I’ll be criticized. Making art, by definition, means emphasizing your differences instead of how you fit in. That’s a vulnerable and sometimes scary place to be.

But I think it’s worth the risk. There is something missing from a life without art — something rich and complicated and human. As the saying goes, “Earth Without Art Is Just ‘Eh’.” I would add that a livelihood without creativity isn’t all that lively a ‘hood.

Like a starfish that loses a limb, though, creativity can be regenerated. We can invite that child-like wonder back in. It’s been slow for me and my Polite Part is quick to resist the risk of art, but it’s happening more and more. Mindful movement helps. Every time I do Standing Bow Pulling pose or I take a Nia class or I go trail biking with my husband, I am creating, embodying something new. My brain and nervous system fire differently when I bring my body and mind into alignment. It doesn’t matter if I fall out of Standing Bow, if I feel awkward in Nia, or if my chain comes off on the trail. Moving my body mindfully starts more in motion than just my physical self. It reminds me that creating is what human beings do.

Gradually, after years of sneaking peeks at living with playful, artistic authenticity, I feel a part of myself perking up, puppy-like. When I am creating something as simple as a cross front cha-cha-cha or as complex as a book of essays, I feel fulfilled, complete somehow – even if I stumble or I’m not ready to publish it. I can almost feel a whole bank of neurons light up when I’m selecting songs for a playlist or ingredients for a salad. When I’m posting a blog post or launching a new routine, it matters less how it turns out and more that I’m taking the risk to do it.

In Lesley Wheeler’s Poem as Fountain (part of her collaborative project with the images of Carolyn Capps that you can see in its entirety in the current edition of Midway Journal), she suggests,
I say it’s the making,
not the architectural sketch but the feel
of a pencil in the hand, that saves us.

It is the act of creating itself that makes all the difference.

OF NOTE: Rebecca George and I are living life as artists in the months leading up to our Life As An Artist retreat March 28-30, 2014. Our Web site – https://sites.google.com/site/6monthsofcreativeplay/ – has tales of our experiences, inspirations and ideas for your own, and of course, all the goods on the retreat. Please check it out, and while you’re there, sign up to receive the weekly “Inspirational Breeze” to support you on your artist journey.

  1. What is the point of art? An interesting question and one which I’m not completely sure of the answer. Perhaps it’s the difference between a strict puritanical white washed church and a catherdral with beautiful stained glass.

    • Right, one of my questions, exactly? Why make art? Why do you write poetry? Does it, as one of your poems suggest, reduce distortion? How do you feel before, during and after writing a poem? Is it possible that just the doing is the point? I say, keep doing it.

      • Yes, it is very cathartic whatever that means. To write a good poem and know that it’s good when you’ve written it has got to be one of the best experiences ever.

  2. Nice. I love it. My experience is, though, that sometimes I have to write a string of bad poems (bad essays or teach a string of bad classes, in my case) and I have to keep showing up to be there when the good one comes through! ❤

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