The oblique noise…

Knowing that I’ll get to make a piece of art after I get home work is one of only a very small number of things that helps me get through the day. When a piece comes together it brings a bit of redemption to an otherwise irredeemably shitty day. When it clicks, when it flows, you feel as if anything were possible. Sometimes the hope of that experience is the only thing that gets me out of bed in the morning. But, then there are pieces like this…pieces that seemed like they had potential but,for one reason or another that potential was never realized, never came to fruition, or emerged stillborn. 

Days like this, when the art sucks, are really fucking hard. It makes a bad day seem even worse. After patiently grinding through the day, with clenched jaws, and gritted teeth, in hopeful anticipation of a possibly climactic moment, the moment arrives and falls flat, ushered in by disappointment. The entire impetus of the day has hinged upon this period of time, and when it fails to live up to the hype, when it fumbles before ever arriving, the whole day feels wasted. You begin to wonder why you even bothered, why you bothered trying, why you bothered tearing yourself from the warmth and safety of the blankets and sheets, and you begin to wonder how you’ll manage to find the strength or will do it again tomorrow?

I don’t have an answer to any of those questions, maybe I’ll figure it out tomorrow…I hope so… For now, all I know is that I’m tired, I feel like shit, and today sucked…

We fight the isolation…

we fight the isolation

I have long been an isolated and secluded person. I seem to constantly maintain a posture of distance, even with those I care about. At the risk of falling into the well-worn and, perhaps, over-played trope of referring to one’s childhood past as an explanation of today’s injuries, perhaps this poise of disconnected isolation is, in part, due to the fact that I was an only child. Most of my time was spent sequestered in solitary endeavors. To be sure, this was a blessing, as I can see the various ways in which it gave my creativity of imagination space to roam and breathe. I developed an incisive analytical vision and a keenness of expression that may have not been granted to me any other way. And yet, that alone-ness became normal and familiar, while the belonging company of others became and, in some ways has continued to be, foreign. I still struggle with what it means to truly let go, to let people in, and to let people close. I find it difficult to release myself from the reserved constriction brought about by continuously holding the pose of seclusion. This seems to be the place where the blessing becomes the curse.

My time spent in solitary reflection and in the isolated pursuits of imaginative creation is energizing and revitalizing but, it has come at a cost. One can, indeed, have too much of a good thing.

German philosopher Martin Heidegger reminds us that “Being-in-the-world” is always “Being-in-the-world-with-others”. Thus, when we severe or restrict contact with others, we simultaneously cut and constrain our Being. When we keep ourselves closed off from the connective closeness of others, even the beatific musings of the imaginative can turn to bile. When the habituated denial of belonging creeps into the creative process, the internal whirl of wonder becomes a tightening gyre. John O’ Donhue explains that when this happens “it makes us insecure”. He says that “Our confidence is shaken, and we turn in on ourselves and against ourselves.” In a word, it becomes a kind of self-sabotage. Here, speculative thought becomes cancerously critical. Our expectations wax and wane vehemently between the extremes of being unrealistically ideal and unfathomably low, and we negate opportunities for our own growth and expansion in both cases.

These are all things that I all too often fall prey to. Over the years, I have become an anchorite of penitent contrition, carefully constructing the stone walls of the cloistered cell that keeps me closed off from all others.  My self-doubt runs rampant. My confidence is always in short supply and is easily corroded. I set incredibly high expectations for the future and simultaneously believe that nothing will get better. In that regard, as John O’Donohue writes “Expectation is resentment waiting to happen”. 

It is the friendship and belonging brought to us by those who reciprocally care for us that creates a breach of liberation. These people recognize the forgotten places within ourselves that we have banished to bearing the iron masks of injurious seclusion. O’Donohue makes clear that they do not come to us “with a battering ram to demolish the prison” in which they find us living within. Instead, with gentle mercies and tender grace they “attempt something very modest, namely, to remove one pebble from the wall.” In doing so, a pin prick of light pierces the cold grey veil our confinement just enough to illuminate the claustrophobic dark we have become far too accustomed to. This gleaming razor of luminescence cuts deeply and exacting. The sting of unexpectedness brings with it the awareness that we have mistaken the isolating restraint of the cage for “comfort”. We have named our pain as normal. We have accepted the confinement as something we cannot change. And now we are faced with two uncomfortable choices; remain constrained with the realized awareness of our shackles, or begin to chip away at the rock and rubble of separation in the hopes of discovering a sculpture of unknown possibility…

The Absent-Presence…

Grief is a kind of breach within time. Loss is a metered distance in the measures of our days, marking the ending of one passage or phrase, and holding the tension in the expectant tempo of the next.

Grief enforces a pause. Loss enlists a lingering. And so, we wait…

Some of us wait with an almost zen-like serenity of stoic acceptance, and others of us writhe in anticipatory uncertainty and tension, perched upon the edge of a seat, helpless and angst-ridden, knuckles white, jaws sore from unconscious clenching, nails chewed to the quick, as we search for something solid to bite down on. On a good day I find myself somewhere between the two. Like a Buddha of existential dread, sitting on the edge of my seat, holding a half-lotus posture, writhing in my attempt to accept the uncertain helplessness, conscious of the clenching, meditating with and on the dark anxiety of the Koan called depression; a zen monk of pessimism in training, studying the middle-way of melancholia.

There is almost an inherent musicality to the movement of the absence brought about by grief, a rhythmic structuring in the rupturous arrival and the absent-presence of loss. 

John O’ Donohue assures us that “Grief…has a sure structure”, and it is “Only by listening to the burden that has come” to us that we will “be able to discover its secret structure.”

To be clear, I am not writing as one who has arrived at grief’s grand finale, but rather as one only a few bars into the morose melodies of a suffering serenade, and still firmly clutched by the fermata of loss. But, already I’ve noticed the seemingly patterned fluctuations within this grieving orchestration; the rising anguish of the allegro and the falling forfeiture of the Adagio.

Though we long for the dissonance to resolve back into a more accordant harmony, there is an art here amidst the pausing tension of grief, absence, and loss; a carefully-crafted composition, a delicate design.

John Dewey writes that “Since the artist cares in a peculiar way for the phase of experience in which union is achieved, he does not shun moments of resistance and tension.” Instead, the artist “cultivates them, not for their own sake but because of their potentialities, bringing to living consciousness an experience that is unified and total.” 

Instinctively we may push back against such sentiments. We feel so discordant, so inharmonious, so ill-composed, perhaps even so de-composed, that we question how there could be any beauty, any art, to be found here.

Indeed, as Dewey explains “There is no art without the composure that corresponds to design and composition…But”, as Dewey goes on to say there is also no art “without resistance, tension, and excitement; otherwise the calm induced is not one of fulfillment.” Perhaps, for there to be any kind of fulfilling resolve there must first be a resistant tension.

The tension is the trickster that moves the story along,and creates an opening where a way had become blocked.

John O’ Donohue writes that “In the rhythm of grieving, you learn to gather your given heart back to yourself again.” But, O’ Donohue importantly points out that “This sore gathering takes time.” We are often so eager to return to normalcy, so anxious to move past this place that confronts us with the unavoidably presence of absence that, in the hurry, we further scatter the pieces. O’ Donohue advises us that we “need great patience with [our] slow heart[s].” He says that “It takes the heart a long time to unlearn and transfer its old affections” and that “This is a time when you have to swim against the tide of your life.” It seems for a while that you are advancing, then the desolation and confusion pull you down, and when you surface again, you seem to be even further from the shore.”

I can personally attest to this almost nonsensical cyclicality, this ebb and flow, the waxing and waning of stability and despair, contentment and anguish. Some days start with a sense of self-assured sturdiness. Others begin with a bluster of confusion and sadness. And some days, like a pendulum swinging wide, I move along the spectrum of the two. This is simply the rhythm of the tide, the pulse of the metronome; back and forth, the tick, then the tock, low then high and back again, the push and the pull. The shore line expands and contracts. Like music rises, falls, and resolves; this is simply the structure of the song. 

Amber & Orange at the edge…

The day you were born it’s as if a match was struck, one that would light a fire that ignites your being but also one that burns through your days.

Sometimes the fires at our center smother to a lowly smolder yet, regardless of whether they burn vehemently or not, in the dawning light of each new day we will only ever find smoke and dust, cinders and ash, in place of where yesterday once stood.

We often say of things we don’t particularly enjoy that its time we’ll never get back, but truth be told, even if we did enjoy them, its still time we won’t get back. Time is something we don’t ever get back.

Perhaps, that’s what truly makes the loss of someone we once loved so deeply felt. In some precarious way, all the years spent in the devoted service of keeping the flame of the home fire burning become sulfurous. And, like a phoenix consumed and stillborn, there is no getting them back.

The fire of our lives can so quickly and unexpectedly turn in upon itself, becoming wild, unruly, untamed, and ravaging. It flickers and sways in the most unpredictable of ways and it doesn’t take much of an accelerant for the blaze to become uncontrollable.

And yet somehow there is a sweetness to the flames; a sugary taste only arising from the exposure to intense temperatures, when all our stored energy and volatility turns honeyed and golden – the candied kindness of the fire. 

A fellow artist on Instagram sent me a passage from a book by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor titled The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives in Your Home. One line in particular stood out to me: “there’s beauty in black ash quivering around bright orange edges. It’s art.”

Maybe, then, the true test of creative courage is to find the beauty and the art in the pyre. Though it seems the most unlikely of places, it is there, within the tenebrous soot of what once was.

The inferno that scorches the earth of who we are releases nutrient rich minerals into the exposed soil of ourselves.  Inhabiting the boreal forests of our being there are serotinous seeds that can only burst into maturation following the blasting intensity of a blaze. Once the fire has shed the shields of these seeds, only then can they begin to germinate. It is the fire ecology of our human condition.

Clad in rain…

Sometimes it’s hard to tell when a piece is finished. Sometimes I instinctively know when it’s done, and sometimes all I can do is trust that what I’ve done is enough.

Every piece emerges from a place of uncertainty. I unlock my iPad with no broader plan than to make something. I open a new document without an idea. The blankness of the screen mirrors and parallels the barren terrain of my “artistic vision”. I come to the blank canvas as a blank canvas myself. I think I’m beginning to more deeply realize John Green is right when he says that “You think you’re the painter but”, really, “you’re the canvas”.
For the first few moments I am mesmerized, perhaps almost paralyzed by the whiteness of the page. Perhaps, this what Herman Melville was describing when he said that

“not yet have we solved the incantation of this whiteness, and learned why it appeals with such power to the soul; and more strange and far more portentous – why…it is at once the most meaning symbol of spiritual things”

Melville, himself, didn’t have an answer to the puzzling blizzard of blank whiteness, only more ruminating theories and questions:

“Is it that by its indefiniteness it shadows forth the heartless voids and immensities of the universe, and thus stabs us from behind with the thought of annihilation, when beholding the white depths of the milky way? Or is it, that as in essence whiteness is not so much a color as the visible absence of color; and at the same time the concrete of all colors; is it for these reasons that there is such a dumb blankness, full of meaning, in a wide landscape of snows- a colorless, all-color of atheism from which we shrink?” 

Amidst the abundant absence of the snow-tinted emptiness, I fidget and fiddle with nothing more than an anxious and expectant hope; a hope that somewhere within that heartless void of the page, inside the blank, colorless, concrete of all colors, something strange and meaningful will become visible. I wrestle deep within the sheets of something fleeting, feeling around in this bright-dark for a tenuous hold on the ambiguous vagaries of the portentous white.

Sometimes I know when I’ve done it. Sometimes I know when the task is, at least temporarily, complete. And other times…I’m not so sure. I simply have to know when to stop because it’s time to go. In such instances, I can only hope that I haven’t cut the conversation short. But, perhaps, the uncertainties, the lingering doubts, the questions still hanging thick in the air, is why I’ll do it again tomorrow…

Beauty in the Pyre…

beauty in the pyre

This piece was inspired by something I wrote in a previous blog post. In the concluding remarks of that post I wrote the following:

I relish the thought of something beautiful being wonderfully made from the burning debris of our letdowns and failures; as if the fires of our fatal wounds were a forge in which the hurt can be hammered into something meaningful, where we can somehow, someway, be wrought back to life. But, I struggle to see it.  The crash is so visceral; the burning so incendiary, the shrapnel so serrated, that I grapple to find the beauty in it.

Sometimes one piece of work leads to another piece of work. At least, that seems to happen quite often for me. Perhaps, its partly because my work emerges from a visceral emotionality that I find myself in the thick of, and each additional piece of work can’t help but continue the commute of the previous piece. It comes from the same place as the work that preceded, aided by the distance it’s predecessor managed to travel. I think it’s a kind of creative iteration and reiteration. In that way, its almost a way to continue the conversation. Maybe because there’s something more to say, or maybe it’s a continual giving of the last word which yields itself to the next last word. Maybe both. In either case, I think, perhaps, its that “distance” that offers the insight.

No creative work can ever be exhaustive or exhausted. There is always something left unsaid, something overlooked, something missed, something that went unconsidered, something that could be seen in a different light, something that couldn’t be squeezed in, and thus, there is, indeed, always something more to be said and something more to be learned. In that regard, sometimes when I’m stuck, lost, or I just don’t know what to make, I think about something I’ve previously made, and I try to use it as a launch pad. Maybe I’ll unearth something hidden and unseen that got covered over, or maybe I’ll find something totally new.

In my mind, everything I make is the rough draft of the next thing I make. Maybe that’s one of the few healthy perspectives I have in my arsenal of obsessive and angst-ridden points of view.  Adam Savage says that “if you expect to nail it the first go-round every time you build something new – or worse, you demand it of yourself and you punish yourself when you come up short – you will never be happy with what you make and making will never make you happy.” Don’t get me wrong I’m still pretty guilty of demanding far too much of myself and my work, and certainly guilty of punishing myself for inevitably failing to meet those perilously high demands but…the fact that making still makes me happy tells me that I’m doing something at least moderately right.

A beautiful failure…

a beautiful failure by Duane Toops

I know that its not the artists job to interpret the work, or to answer the questions left hanging in the air by the presentation of the work. But, somehow I feel like some kind of addendum is in order for this piece. I started writing this unsure of what to say about it, and I as write I’m still not sure. I hope that by typing something closely akin to a stream of consciousness on this blank screen maybe something will occur to me….it hasn’t yet.

Maybe its not so much that I don’t know what to say in regards to this piece, so much as there’s so much to say, and I just don’t know how to say it or where to start.

The first thing I thought about after I made the poem was a song written by Jon Foreman from a band called Switchfoot:

It was a beautiful letdown
When I crashed and burned
When I found myself alone, unknown and hurt 

The deep seated letdown of finding oneself lonely, anonymous, and brutally damaged is a feeling I’m all too familiar with, even more so now that my life has seemingly plummeted into the ground in an explosive blaze.

This, too, reminds of a few lines in a poem by Philippe Jaccottet that I cam across recently:

Love, like fire, can only reveal its brightness

on the failure and the beauty of burnt wood.

And yet, another poem still. This one by Antonio Machado:

Last night I dreamed—blessed illusion—

that I had a beehive here

in my heart

and that

the golden bees were making

white combs and sweet honey

from my old failures.

I relish the thought of something beautiful being wonderfully made from the burning debris of our letdowns and failures; as if the fires of our fatal wounds were a forge in which the hurt can be hammered into something meaningful, where we can somehow, someway, be wrought back to life. But, I struggle to see it.  The crash is so visceral; the burning so incendiary, the shrapnel so serrated, that I grapple to find the beauty in it.

Maybe that’s why I continue to turn to the practice of making art. If I cannot find the beauty in the pyre, perhaps I can make it myself.

Perhaps, in the flaming face of my failures, there is a place where even my smallness can reach deeply into where destiny still swings…

The whole world sank…

the whole world sank

I feel like I’m a bit of a mess, and I think this work, and perhaps, especially this poem, reflects that. 

I suppose my work is always kind of messy, but it seems like its becoming increasingly so. Perhaps, it is what Ellen Ullman describes as “the outward manifestation of the messiness of human thought”.

Even in the best of times my mind is a mishmash of cluttered quandaries, but these days…its a joyless tangle of disorder and chaos, and it’s not pretty.

Maybe that’s ok. 

Austin Kleon writes that “Art is not only made from things that ‘spark joy’. Art is also made of what is ugly and repulsive to us.” He says that “Part of the artist’s job is to help tidy up the place, to make order out of the chaos, to turn trash into treasure, to show us beauty where we can’t see it”.

I think what I struggle to see most are the “Gifts and possibilities” that John O’Donohue says “unexpectedly arrive on the tables of those in despair and torment.” Maybe we all do, and maybe that’s why we need art.

In his book, Blessed are the Weird, Jacob Nordby writes that “the highest-value currency is not money or faster machines; it is the ability to see and see and keep seeing the world through different eyes—and then do something with the unique way you see it.”

In a similar way, Artist Abraham Cruzvillegas says that artists “create nothing…We just rearrange things in different ways, in different manners”. We simply “make different organizations of matter and energy”.

There’s something so pragmatically poetic about that recognition. It’s a hopeful realization of the hopelessness of some kind of ultimate “transformation”.

Most things that are broken will continue to be broken. We can’t always sweep away the contents of the mess. Sometimes we can’t squelch the chaos but, we can rearrange it until we can begin to see it differently.

And in that way, maybe seeing is believing…

John O’Donohue writes that “There is no one—regardless of how beautiful, sure, competent, or powerful—who is not damaged internally in some way.” He says that “We are particularly adept at covering our inner wounds, but no wound is ever silent” and “Every inner wound has its own particular voice.” 

Perhaps art is the unique ways in which we begin to rearrange the organizations of our damaged disarray and the structures of our internal suffering, giving voice to the particular wounds that refuse to be silent in the hopes that we will begin to see the sound of our sufferings as a song.

Austin Kleon explains that “Creativity is about connections, and connections are not made by siloing everything off into its own space. New ideas are formed by interesting juxtapositions, and interesting juxtapositions happen when things are out of place.”

Perhaps that’s why collage is such an apt medium of expression for me. Collage is all about things out of place, rearranged, and juxtaposed.

Perhaps, I, myself, am a collage. Maybe we all are.
I feel so out of sorts, so out of whack, so out of order, so out of place, and I make art as a means of making the mess of myself meaningful. It’s a mess that I can move around until it resembles something beautiful. I rearrange and reorder the shattered fragments and jagged pieces of myself into different organizations, with the expectant aspiration of what a new arrangement might reveal. 

And so I scream, often without hope, in the hopes that as my world seems to sink I may be able to see, find, and maybe even make some beauty in it…

Houses of discovery…

houses of discovery

From the start of this piece it didn’t feel very “inspired”, and I’m not sure I really found the “spark” at any point in the process of making it. But, I finished it, and I’d like to think that counts for something.

I believe in showing up and doing the work regardless of how I feel, irregardless of “it” feels, regardless of whether or not inspiration ever shows up, and irregardless of whether or not anything “inspired” comes out of it.  For me, its about being more “religious” than “spiritual”. It’s about placing one’s dependence upon the discipline, the routine, the practice, the ritual, welcoming the magical moments of spiritual transcendence and inspiration when they serendipitiously arrive, but faithfully working with observant persistence in the gap of inspiration’s inevitable absence. The Psalmist says to “be of good courage, take heart and wait…” I think we take heart in the courage of continuing to work in the waiting.

Christopher Niemann says that “Relying on craft and routine is a lot less sexy than being an artistic genius. But it is an excellent strategy for not going insane”. 

I sit down at this desk everyday, partly because I want to be productive and make good work, but mostly to avoid going insane, or to at least slow the progression of the ever-encroaching madness. The routinized ritual of creating near daily helps me deal with life and helps me make it through the day. It provides me with at least a semblance of saneness and stability. For a few moments I can find my way to some normalcy. I can temporarily fain the feeling of being “ok”, and feeling “ok”, even for a short time, when your whole life has become a deep fried cluster fuck tossed in a shit storm glaze is a damn near supernatural event.

Art and life run parallel together on the same continuum. In many ways, they are one and the same. What is true for one, is then, more often than not, true for the other. As Austin Kleon reminds me, “There will be good days and bad days. Days when you feel inspired and days when you want to walk off a bridge. (And some days when you can’t tell the difference.)” He points out that “Not everyday is going to turn out the way we want it to” but, “The important thing is to make it to the end of the day, no matter what”. He says that “No matter how bad it gets, see it through to the end so you can get to tomorrow”.

Often there is no rhyme or reason to the volatility that separates the good days from the bad, the inspired from the uninspired, the marvelous from the mediocre. Charles Bukowski said that the greatest literary teaching he was ever taught was “the meaning of pain. Pain without reason.”

Some times the absurdity of it all is a profound discovery. Sometimes the meaninglessness of it all is deeply meaningful. 

And so I keep showing up. I try my best to see it through, even, and especially, when it sucks, and I share it, because no matter how closed off I keep myself, no matter how lonely and isolated I seem to be, in some tucked away corner of my mind I know this is a shared journey.

I’ve lived it…

Stylistically, this is super experimental, and, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure how I feel about it. As experiments go, I don’t think this one was necessarily a success. I like the composition. I like the overall layout and design but, it’s definitely…different.

It’s got a strong graphic novel kind of vibe, which I dig but, with that being said, that’s not a style that’s really appeared in my work before…or maybe it has and in this piece it’s just much more pronounced and noticeable.

I suppose in a way that “style” has always been in the background of my “artistic” development. 

Although I don’t really draw anymore, I spent an inordinate amount of my time drawing as a kid and on into my early teens. More often than not, what I was drawing were comic book characters. I never cared much for trying to achieve photo-realism. That’s probably due in part to a lack of talent and ability (that’s probably why I don’t continue to draw much) but, also the photo-realism approach to art has never quite interested me. The “style” of drawing I saw in my favorite comic books was just so much more intriguing and fascinating to me.

Even now, I follow a few graphic novel/comic book illustrators on Instagram. In fact, one of my favorites is artist named Stefano Cardoselli. I highly recommend you check out his work. Take one look and I’m sure you’ll be able to tell why I like it and why I’m so “drawn” to it (pun most definitely intended).

Also, I will openly admit that when I’m a bit stuck, when I feel like I’m in a creative rut, when I feel like my work is getting a little too predictable, or when I’m just getting a little bored with what I’m making, I’ll unashamedly scroll through Pinterest looking for something new that I can try to incorporate into my own work. 

One of the artists I stumbled across in my Pinterest spelunking is an illustrator named  Adams Carvalho. His work has become something of a glorious rabbit hole for me recently. I’ve been pinning it like crazy, and, needless to say I now also for his instagram account.

Incidentally, a few weeks ago I took my kids to Barnes & Noble, and while I was there I snapped some photos of a few book covers that I really liked the design of and that kind of inspired me. As it turns out one of the book covers was illustrated by none other than Adams Carvalho. Is it still considered stalking if its done subconsciously? Asking for a friend…

Maybe since I’ve been digesting so much of his work recently I’m finally beginning to regurgitate it.

After all, Picasso has been widely credited with saying “good artists copy, great artists steal”. Who the fuck am I to argue with Picasso?

I wouldn’t dare say I’m a “great” artist. I’m hesitant to say I’m a “good” artist. Hell, I’m not even entirely sure I’m comfortable calling myself an “artist”. But, I’m pretty good at riding that trepidatious line between copying and theft. And if there’s a name for that…I’d still probably feel I wasn’t up to brandishing it as moniker in reference to myself and my work.