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.
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.
There’s a weird feeling when you’re engaged in a transformative action, like, say, moving, and also picking through bits of nostalgia. For me, the past week and a half has been littered with feelings of trepidation and elation, both brought on by the realization of moving possessions and location. But it’s also given me a strange desire for familiar media.
So, I’ve watched bits of Groundhog Day.The Empire Strikes Back. Also, much more obscurely, the Yogscast Jaffa Factory series on YouTube. While I’m wary of the dangers of nostalgia in general, I’ve kept a kind of distance from these things, unable to stop the perspective I’ve gained over the intervening years. Rather than try to recapture how I was feeling at those particular moments, I’ve been seeing some things with present day filters and world views.
It’s my hope that this is good for my work, to keep moving forward by acknowledging the past and things I’ve been influenced by, while crafting something new. I suppose that for others to decide, but it feels right and good, at the moment.
It’s always hard to work my routines into such a big anxiety- and stress-inducing event as moving house, but I’ll still be giving it a shot. There’s value and relief in hanging onto whatever steadiness can be had on a metaphorically stormy sea.
One of the reasons for keeping a sketchbook on you at all times (or whatever notebook you’re drawn to—ha! Drawn!—for your medium and your thing) is to be ready to work on creation or making when its time. Not just when inspiration strikes, but to order.
It’s well demonstrated that creativity can be made to order by habitual attempts. Even when your best equipment is all boxed up, a moment to get out of the world and into your vision is good for you.
Because they’re not red hot, gettit? Cheese aside, there’s an advantage to working on several things in parallel. I’m not against extreme focus, but if you’re the type to be scattered, scheduling creative stuff in blocks—or just picking up where you left off when you notice the thing—there are a couple advantages to it and you don’t have to apologize or despair for this habit.
People asking what your thing is might want a pat answer. Sometimes, there isn’t one: you do a lot because you’re interested in a lot. You’re a Carl Sagan of art. Sagan was an astronomer. But he also wrote books. He hosted and co-wrote a popular tv series. That series spanned geology, physics, and chemistry, among many other things, as well as astronomy.
Having many creative loves, or many ideas that demand you work on them now, is perfectly fine. Maybe you could finish a thing sooner if you focus on that one thing. But would you have as much fun?
For weird, synchronistic and untraceable reasons, I got Flesh for Fantasy, above, there, stuck in my mental earholes earlier in the day. When it was released, I was in high school, and had eclectic taste even then. But though I respected Idol’s presence and abilities as a songwriter and singer, it didn’t seem particularly special.
Now, through a lens of 35 more years of listening to music, it’s scintillating. There are beautiful tones and colors on guitar and guitar synthesizer both. The song is very dynamic, rolling from the sneering shouts of the chorus, to the soft whispers of verses. It’s not characteristic of much music then or now, when so much production isn’t allowed to breathe and rest, it’s balls-to-the-wall sound and—if you’re lucky—silence.
An advantage of age often mentioned but not appreciated, maybe, is wisdom. Along with that is a sense of perspective. Things look different through a lens of decades. Art of all kinds can be reassessed like this. Sometimes things you thought were great turn out to be paper thin. And—if you’re lucky—some things turn out to have great depth.
By the above, I mean profit creatively, not financially. One reason to keep old work around is that it not only gives you benchmarks for where you’ve been, it also informs your present work. Sometimes it’s inspiration, a kind of creation recycling that sparks new ideas from old. Some of the time, it steers you away from habitual mistakes. These things are worth experiencing and knowing.
Sketchbooks are the main thing artists keep. But as much as you have room for isn’t a bad thing to hang onto. Dominic Cretara, my main life painting professor, used to say we shouldn’t throw out anything for at least three years. By that time, you’ve progressed—if you’ve kept working, of course—and gained perspective and new skill.
Don’t look too soon at the bottom of the pile, but do look.
For a huge portion of those online—and in my experience, many outside of it—the notion of getting together to do something is often usurped by claims of being too busy. And far be it from me to call out anyone using that as an excuse for not exposing one’s social anxiety to crowds. That’s valid, and I do that.
Having kids used to be a reason people gave for not being able to do things beyond basic work and home activities. But fewer people (at least in the West) are having kids, and even endless new tools of tech simplifying creativity seemingly aren’t enough. Many of us are feeling overwhelmed. A never-ending string of stuff we gotta do is hovering over us at all times, demanding we pay attention.
Have we agreed to do too much? Or are we just indulging the feeling? The world expects more from artists, from a robust social media presence to constantly evolving work. Or at least constant churning.
I’m trying to give myself permission to step aside, now and then. To let the stream scroll on when I’m searching for something new to say. It’s all right to be quiet and watch, the world will always be moving.
If it’s never too late to start, it’s never too late to restart.
There are times when I don’t feel like working, and times when I don’t feel like what I make is working. It’s important to remember that you aren’t necessarily the best judge of what’s “good” in your work while you’re making it. Often it takes time to be objective. We can’t often see clearly right away. We can be too attached or too dismissive.
Your scintillating prose, deft brushwork, catchy melody can look amazing or awful in the moment, and the opposite later. Or vice versa: things you thought were coming out so-so can be brilliant on re-examination.
What matters is doing things, creating art, on a regular, or better yet, daily basis. Once you have a pile of things is when you can be judgy. Don’t bother as you make it up.
There’s one thing especially aesthetically appealing about the rooftop superheroes—Batman, Spider-Man, Daredevil, The Tick—to me: it’s a different perspective to see the world from.
This is valuable for your work, especially because it’s so easy to get stuck in routines and forget to keep trying to find new ways to look. It’s easy when you’re a kid: it’s all new and different. Once you’ve seen a bunch of the world, your internal imagery is mostly settled.
Getting on the rooftops, though, is weird and scary and strange, looking every direction. The sky seems close, the ground is all strange angles and squashed perspective, the other buildings are flattened. It’s new imagery, and that means a chance to see things in a while new way for a while. Maybe the rooftop superheroes aren’t just trying to look for criminals. Maybe they’re onto something.
About the Author
Marcus is a maker of things and thoughts. He currently resides in Portland, Oregon.