Experiencing The Difficult Work

Mark Rothko, Four Darks in Red, 1958

I was reading a piece about a book I read ages ago, Dahlgren by Samuel R. Delany. It, like many works of literature, is a difficult book to read and to understand. Mostly, I interpreted it, because there was plenty I didn’t understand. The timeline is weird and almost mazelike. I wasn’t sure where the beginning really was. And that’s all by Delaney’s design for a post-apocalyptic world that’s lost its sense of history and progress and perspective.

I always think of Rothko when I consider tough or obscure art. Seeing that painting up there may make you think “ooh, that’s nice,” or “what a simple piece of junk,” but we aren’t really experiencing it the way it was meant to be seen.

Literature that’s difficult, like Joyce or Wallace or Woolf, challenges readers. The struggle to get through it, or to figure out what’s going on, or to understand what it means gives us a prize of accomplishing those things. The view from the mountain.

But we usually have to chuck a preconception or two out the window. Like Rothko’s paintings. They’re meant to be seen in person. They’re beautiful—to many—in photos. But they’re huge in reality. The one above is nearly 9 feet square. But you meet it head on in museums lucky enough to have one. If they understand it, too, it’ll be hung so near enough to the floor that you can get it to fill your entire field of vision. And then you feel your soul filling up, as well.

Yuko Takada Keller’s Medium Is the Message

Sort of, anyway. Yuko Takada Keller makes gorgeous and intricate tracing paper installations that often reflect natural dynamic forms. She does everything on her own, from crafting each piece to hanging them, which seems a massive task, and her care and personal investment make her sculpture intimate and more meaningful.

The size of her works masks the delicacy of each individual piece, like a drop of water is always at risk of evaporating or splashing out of its wave or pool, but can be powerful with many others like it.

Metaphors abound. Keller’s use of paper takes the thing most often used as substrate for other images—or to obscure them—and makes it the focus.

The Hard Days Are Most Instructive

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.

Returning to Form, Maybe

I’m back! Probably! It’s been a long, traumatic move. Being in a new place, with old stuff, is disorienting. Habits I thought I’d established are more easily broken. But still, change is usually good. It’s inevitable, so better to go the Taoist route and bend rather than break.

As easy as it is to blow off posting here, it’s also uncomfortable. I like the discipline of it, and I think it helps me, creatively. It’s also easy to beat myself up about missing days, but that approach only makes us want to stay away more. Whatever we do—our thing, our work—if it’s habitual, is valuable not just for its content, but also its ability to act as outlet, or creative hydrant. Its meaningfulness is deeply ingrained in the simple act of creation. We should continue.

Time Is Relative, Works Are Your Friend

When you make art isn’t as important as the fact that you do it. And, if you aren’t doing things, you slip past being an artist. We only exist in the moment, so what we do is—in a metaphorical but existential way—what we are.

Of course, I can’t just make art in the eternal now. I have to feed and wash myself. I have to feed the cat. I have to go to the job. But as cool as it is to have made stuff, it’s the momentum that keeps me going the longest. My title doesn’t mean much if I’m not doing what I call myself.

We’re all stuck with time. Like relatives, it’s just there, and you don’t have a tremendous amount of say in how much you get. You choose your work as you choose your friends, what you do, how much you make.

These abstract labels are good for stepping up, for declaring oneself in the game. You can’t wait for someone to anoint you into the club. But it’s the down and dirty of what you chose to do today, or are doing right now that feeds your craft, your sense of self, and your mental health.

Breaking All the House Rules

I don’t think I’ve written about how much I love Budgie, but they formed an essential part of my musical identity as a young person. They were technically still a band when I discovered them, but only the bass player/vocalist remained, and the best stuff—in my opinion, of course—was behind them.

I bought Bandolier, which I consider their finest, on a whim at a Tower Records and it was the best blind music purchase I ever made. The title above comes from the opening track, “Breaking All the House Rules and Learning All the House Rules.” (Later shortened. Budgie were notorious for ridiculously long titles.)

I learned you could be both silly and serious from that band. That you could create with practice and precision but still be a little wild. They brought into sharper focus that the rules were good for structure, but now and then breaking them wasn’t so bad.

I’ve been re-evaluating my habits, including the daily posting here, and why I’m doing it. Considering what I’m working towards and the way I want to get there. This is advice I would give to artists: be disciplined, make your habit a daily practice.

And, also, don’t make me the arbiter of how you create. Break all the house rules now and then.

Waiting for Thing to Happen

It’s a cliché that we shouldn’t wait for the world to recognize us for our work. So how do we get the attention? Instead of offering any how-to advice—because, hell, I don’t know, either—let me pose a couple questions you might ask yourself that I find myself returning to.

  1. Why do I want recognition? Answer this and you’ll either spotlight your ego (“I’m a genius, duh!”), or realize you care less than you thought you did, or understand you don’t know why.

The first is shallow, for good or ill, and that might not be a reason to disavow seeking fame for your amazing thing, but you should own it. The second is a pleasant revelation, and you are now free to do whatever you want—but do keep sharing your work. The third is the hardest, and you can either engage a therapist, or think hard about it till you figure it out. Or both. Both would probably be good for you.

  1. Does it matter if I don’t get the thing I want?

This can lead you back to the first question if the answer is yes, or free you to stop making art or forge ahead in sheer abandon, finally not giving a damn what other people think.

If it matters at all, though, keep working.

In Which Pride Goeth Before a Long, Hot Summer

And our shadows are taller than our souls. Which I’m still not sure means anything, but it sounds damned good.

It’s Pride Sunday, an unofficial holiday that demarcates a lot of admonition and exhortations to be oneself, yourself, our true selves.

This is a day to celebrate differences, and particularly gayness with several allied associated bands of people trying to be their authentic selves. Celebrating as a marginalized group is empowering, and the history of Pride bears that out.

But I was reading an article in Scientific American on ways we either misunderstand or overlook what qualities we call “true,” or “authentic.” And there are multiple ways we fool ourselves into thinking we know what we mean by all of it.

But the article strikes an inspiring note by the end, even as it tears apart our cursory understanding of authenticity.

Healthy authenticity is an ongoing process of discovery, involving self-awareness, self-honesty, integrity with your most consciously chosen values and highest goals, and a commitment to cultivating authentic relationships.

We choose who we want to be as much as we reveal who we are by being honest, internally. We can be proud of that, too, and keep trying to become more of that ideal self, choosing the qualities we most admire.

Creating a Memorable Moment in Your Work, Which I Don’t Know How to Convey

This is another for the double category of “You Already Know How to Do This,” and “It’s Automatic.” Which I find funny, but isn’t useful to anyone else. Unless…

Unless it’s a way to recognize that people who try to sell you “how-to” instruction don’t always—often?—know how to create a system for doing these things. General advice is fine, but it tends to get bogged down in unique details, mainly the ultra-specific “well, here’s how I did it, this one time, anway.”

But systems have drawbacks, and a big one is the shift to someone else’s concept of how to make art. A little of that can be useful. A lot is a recipe to imitate for longer than it takes to learn a new skill.

When we learn to draw, or write stories and essays, or play instruments, or dance, we usually begin by imitating our heroes, copying the thing we love because we suck at the thing and it’s disheartening. But as we get better, we believe in our abilities, and the more seriously we take it, the more we begin to look inside for our own voices and expressions of unique self.

The more that happens, the easier it is to fashion memorable moments, and meaning, and a new voice. What becomes memorable is the connection we make by deeply engaging with ourselves. And because we are more like each other than different beings, those deep resonances automatically draw viewers and listeners in. We don’t have to follow any system or trick.

Opinion it is, but in my experience there’s no shortcut to memorability.

The Lyrical Lifestyle Is an Interpretive One

I’m not one to go quoting rock lyrics—oh, all right, yes I am. Mostly I do to myself, but if some unsuspecting cow-orker or friend accidentally quotes a piece of a song I know or something close to it, I’ll jump in there and finish a line. Usually I’m just the weirdo being weird, and I have to explain what I’m talking about.

I thought a long time ago that it was easily as valid a choice to apply some lyricist’s rhymes to my life as any random philosopher. And I still do, mostly. Snippets of philosophy rarely do justice to the thoughts behind them pulled out of context. We apply phrases and lines to events and situations to graft our own extemporaneous meaning onto those things, anyway. So what does it matter the context of the original?

Art making is sometimes similar. Our influences and favorites sneak into our work all the time. Usually it’s not wholesale, but just a hint of the thing it came from. It’s a method of brushstroke. It’s a melodic quirk. It’s a metaphor stretched in a peculiar, but compelling, way.

Little pieces of out-of-context art from fellow artists, like lyric snippets, have stuck in our souls. When they emerge, it’s because they’ve become part of us, and therefore shape our own work. Embrace that weirdness, because it all makes you, you.