I’m known amongst my very tiny circle of friends for spending the maximum amount of time possible at home, supposedly working, but often procrastinating and recovering from being social. But there is undeniable benefit to getting out there with fellow humans. We are social animals, and it benefits us to gather.
With that in mind, I determined to make it to the Oregon Zoo’s annual “Squishing of the Squash,” a fall tradition wherein the Asian elephants are given a couple of the biggest pumpkins grown regionally, and they amble over to enthusiastically stomp them into pieces and eat chunks to the considerable vicarious joy of the crowd watching them do it.
We went, as evidenced by the shot above, and were not disappointed. It seems a simple thing in the abstract, just a short trip to the zoo to watch some large creatures smash some gourds. But it was a new thing, a short journey into the cold fall air, new smells, animals, people, food, and colors. All of our mutual delight fed into the event, and the morning was joined in happy unison. It was beautiful.
Your town has its traditions, from the podunk to the metropolis. Pick one and go, it’ll feed your work and your spirit.
It does seem like the cycles of life are unsteady, randomly faster and slower. The days are indeed long, and the years are, truly, short. One of the consequences of growing older is a sense of perspective. Looking back is a vast open field of texture and color. Looking forward is a shrinking window of potential.
A regular patron at my work place was on his way home this evening, when I happened to notice him collapse onto the sidewalk as he was being helped across the street. The shift lead on duty, expected to deal with emergencies of this kind went to see about helping him while I took care of the shop, though I’d have rushed along without hesitation. The man is someone I’ve know since coming to Portland. He’s quite old, rather frail, and I know his name and what he likes to eat and drink. I still don’t know if he made it. After the paramedics came, there was nothing else either of us could do.
These incidents remind us of life’s fragility. We will all die some day. If we’re lucky, it’ll be later rather than sooner, excepting some incapacitating or degenerative condition. The time we have, though, is all we have. Even granting reincarnation means a new cycle wipes the slate of memory—and along with it, experience, knowledge, and that hard-won sense of perspective.
It can sometimes seem art is not so important, given our tiny lives, burning through a spark of existence on a little blue marble swirling through the void. But it’s part of our attempts to make sense of the world, of death, of our search for meaning. It is, in the end, as important as everything else.
Toyin Odutola, Unclaimed Estates (detail), 2017
The first thing I noticed about Odutola’s work is the fabulous attention to texture and changes in surfaces. Most obviously, it’s the skin of her subjects. Faces and bodies writhe with sheen and curves tightly bound together.
It’s mesmerizing stuff and is worth staring at for a good while to take in the complexity of her drawing.
Mostly this metaphor is so I can post this photo of a nearby park. The metaphor is the work that seems so confining always has another vista beyond what’s in front of us.
But there’s something else, too. Before I took that photo, a couple and their two dogs were running around on the grass in the fading sunlight. We can’t forget that life goes on around us, and sometimes we need to enjoy the grass, friends, and sunshine before it’s gone. It’s good to keep working, but life feeds the work.
In the above photo, my friend, Chris, is playing a little Star Wars Battle Pod. Video games are a prime source these days for feeling accomplished—provided we have some sense of progression in skills and scores.
Making art has it built in. I just finished editing the 100th episode of my show (plug: available on Tunes and at itsjustcalledtwobrothers.com) and it seems impossible we produced even this simple podcast for a hundred straight weeks. But most of the things we make come embedded with some sense of accomplishment. This makes us proud, confident, and capable.
It can also make us anxious, wondering if we can pull off a thing in the future, thinking we’re hacks, and that what we’ve made isn’t as good as the stuff we admire. The only solid advice I’ve taken to heart that seems to work for getting past too much of either good or bad feelings is to eschew both extremes and start working on the next thing.
It’s a Zen or Taoist approach, to be sure. It’s nice to feel the good things. But if we indulge in them, it stops the work or leads us to second guessing ourselves. Humility is helpful. If we care less that the things we made aren’t pleasing everyone, we can keep moving to the next piece. And when we feel proud of the things we’ve made, it’s better if we simply move on sooner rather than later and let that feeling motivate us to make more.
Sometimes is failure. Sometimes is success. Usually more the former than the latter, but such is creation, maybe?
But one success you can count on is doing the work. Skipping out a day here and there is sometimes just life intervening in your best laid plans. But when we get lazy, hoo boy. Guilt and depression are my punishments, whatever my justifications.
But work now is a gift to future me. And motivation to push past anxiety and get something worked on is easier if I can remember how it feels to not do it. We remind ourselves what it felt like the last time we neglected the work.
On especially rough days, we can begin the Rule of 5: tricking monkey mind by promising we’ll just do 5 minutes on a project. The trick is that it’s never just 5 minutes, you feel the familiar pull of creation and the bliss of flow just a short reach away. Bam, you’re making again.
There it is. I was hoping, when I found the booklet with all my classmates’ drawings alongside mine, there’d be something I could point to and say, “see? It was obvious I should be making art from the beginning.
But I look at that mass of scribbled black and have to say I don’t think it’s particularly telling. It’s weird, I suppose there’s that. But here’s something else: it goes to show that very few of us start any creative path with any shred of expertise. We learn, we try, we fail, we slowly slowly slowly improve.
That’s him, lying in wait for an unsuspecting leg to pass by. He’s a curious boy, natural for a cat, of course.
But he does something with his curiosity. It’s easy for us to have whims, to imagine just checking something out on impulse, and sometimes it’s the real world around us, but now and then it’s a creative idea. Easy to imagine doing it, harder to get to work.
But for the cat, everything is potentially play. The closet seems mysterious when someone opens it unexpectedly, and even though he’s been in there before, he starts a game of it: the tiny room is rife with possibility. There could be anything in there, you never know. It’s brave to walk in and explore it, somehow.
Try approaching that creative curiosity the same way. It’s a game, it’s mysterious. Maybe others think it’s just a piece of paper. For you, it could be anything.
I’m sad I haven’t noticed Lucinda Parker’s work before. There’s a building near our apartment that has two of her paintings in their lobby, which faces the street. I passed by one night recently and they stopped me in my tracks. Her visions are chunky and hard edged, but they fit together and turn in unexpected ways, like I’m seeing them in a dream.
She’s got a visceral style of painting, making lovely rough fields of color that join together in a vaguely cubist way. Similarly, her perspective shifts in unexpected ways. The image draws my eye, but then bends space, pulling me further in. It’s wonderful to experience in the larger works in person.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.