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…

Testing the point of care…

For me, life seems to exist in an elongated middle, a never-ending in-between, resting precariously between the bitter and the sweet.

For almost as long as I can remember I’ve waltzed through my days with depression as my dance partner. Even in the best of times she remains, silently swaying next to me. And, perhaps nearly all of my endeavors have been an attempt to come to terms with her ever-present being. I’ve thrown myself into careers. Devoted myself deeply to academic pursuits. I’ve seen a counselor, tried meditation, all in a vain effort to make her go away. She ebbs, she flows, and yet still she sways. Art, music, poetry, and literature have been and continue to be the best ways I’ve found to find some comfort and enjoyment in the darkened dance; the only ways I know in which to try to make her my friend.

In his novel, High Fidelity, Nick Hornby poses the question: “What came first, the music or the misery? Did I listen to music because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I listened to music?” In the same way, I could ask: did I get into art because I was depressed? Or was I depressed because I got into art? It’s hard to say really. The shadow of this woeful dancing queen called depression stretches far, but so too does the memory of creative drive.

I’ve been rather relentless in my pursuit of a remedy but, the one thing I haven’t done is medicate. I have no moral opposition against antidepressants, and I certainly don’t fault anyone for taking them. If we are honest we all exist in that elongated middle-distance. As Eric G. Wilson says “all creatures are a melding of grandeur and gloom” and “our task is somehow”, to the best of our abilities find our own ways “to stay strong in the middle”.  If medication has granted you access to some strength for the daily in-between-ness of your existence, then by all means, please, please continue to take it. Take what measures of necessary support you are afforded and dance on, fuck anyone who judges you.

I have only one reason for not taking a medicinal approach to my disproportionate and discordant disco with depression; I’m afraid. I’m afraid that the medicine might actually work. 

Eric Wilson describes melancholia not as “a sickness” but, instead as “a sign of intellectual grace” that allows the “sorrowful thinkers” to “delve into the crepuscular continuum between clarity and clarity”, to explore the “edges, circumferences, and fringes” where things “reveal their deepest mysteries: their blurred identities, their relationships to opposites, their tortured duplicities.” Simialrly, John O’ Donohue writes that “There is an inner depth and texture to darkness that we never notice until we have to negotiate the absence of light.” This darkness has, indeed, provided me with a counter-intuitive degree of intellectual clarity. This oppressive shroud, the weight of which keeps me bent low, has provided me with a vantage to better see the connections and juxtapositions between the cracks and jagged edges of things that appear unrelated. I fear what would happen if I became fully unburdened by the weight of the black bile, and if the dark was scorched away by the piercing luminosity of the light.

My mind’s eye has adjusted to the brooding haze of melancholy with such exacting and incisive precision that I’m afraid my creative senses would be rendered dull, useless and ineffective without it. I’m afraid that I would be more blinded by the shimmering brightness of the day than by the cavernous void of the night.

I worry that I have become chemically dependent on the imbalanced and disordered chemicals of my neurology. And, I wonder if the calamitous pitch and shadow of this lingering and obtrusive sadness is so deeply embedded and intertwined with my artistry that it has actually become my creative catalyst, without which I could create nothing. When the pill dissolves, and the misery fades, will the music fade away too?

Joni Mitchell said that if you “chase away the demons, they will take the angels with them”. I fear that somewhere in this dance, depression became my muse, and if she goes, the work goes too. Or, could it be that they have always been one and the same? I don’t know for sure, but there does seem to be an unmistakable symmetry. 

Over the past six months I have found myself at my lowest and darkest, and yet my creative work has never been more focused. My output is consistent and almost unprecedented. I can see exponential improvements in skill and quality, as my techniques, tools, and abilities become increasing refined and fine-tuned. To put it it simply, I am happy with my art, which is really saying a lot for me. 

At the same time, I have never been more lonely, more isolated, more closed off, more cold, more incapable of human interaction and human connection. I have never been more hopeless and despondent. Nothing in me wants to go on. Tomorrow feels like a fate worse than death and taxes combined. Where once I was able to say that my present circumstances were “just how it is right now”, I now think “this is how it is always going to be”. Not only do I no longer see any hope on the horizon, I no longer see the horizon at all. 

Perhaps, a new and more pernicious question is emerging: is the misery simply the cost of the music?

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…

Devoted to Something Difficult..

Earlier last week I started rereading Austin Kleon’s book Keep Going. I first read it towards the end of last year when I was in a deep creative slump. Creatively speaking, I was really struggling to find and maintain the energy and motivation to “keep going” and the book was helpful. This year, I feel like I’ve gained some ground artistically. I still wrestle amidst the endeavor to make art and to keep my creative practice alive, but that fight never really ends. 

In fact, Kleon is sure to point out that “No matter how successful you get, no matter what level of achievement you reach, you will never really ‘arrive'”.

I’m still trying to find my way but, even more so, now I find myself struggling to simply “keep going”. I am emotionally, psychologically, and physically exhausted. It seemed as good a time as any to revisit Kleon’s book.

In the opening pages of the book he writes that after “writing and making art” for years “it didn’t seem to be getting any easier” and he asks himself “Isn’t it supposed to get easier?” I’ve been asking myself that same question, not only in terms of art but, also in terms of coping with the dramatic changes my life has undergone this year.

Everyday I find myself wondering when the words will simply flow, when the art will become second nature, and when I’ll start to feel…better.

I’ve been working on one creative endeavor or another for almost as long as I can remember and it’s never gotten easier. It’s almost been six months now since my ex-wife and I separated and started working towards divorce, and that too, has certainly not gotten any easier. In fact, it feels like its gotten and continues to get, harder. I am suffuse with questions, and more and more I am asking “Isn’t it supposed to get easier?”

John O’Donohue says that “Suffering always brings a myriad of questions we cannot answer: Why me? What did I do to deserve this? Why was what was so precious in my life so abruptly taken from me? Will I be able to survive this at all? How will I live from now on? When you are standing in the place of pain, none of these questions can be answered.”  I am searching for the comfort of coherence and understanding, the consolation of an explanation, but, as the writer of Ecclesiastes says, it is a “grasping for the wind”.

Buddhist thought suggests that part of the reason for why we suffer is because of three defilements: greed, hatred, and delusion. We desperately clutch at what we crave, we kick against what we desire to avoid, and we delude ourselves into thinking both are possible. Maybe the Buddhists are right, I want to make art without obstruction or constraint. I want to be mended without difficulty or pain. And, the fact that I am “suffering” seems to be proof that I am too delusional to accept that it just doesn’t work that way. Perhaps, the struggle lies not in the making of art, nor in the pursuit of healing, but in the struggle to accept that both are hard.

Kleon explains that, for him, “Everything got better…when [he] made peace with the fact that it might not ever get easier”. Even as I type out his words I can feel myself struggling to accept their veracity. I am so not as peace with the thought of perpetual difficulty, and maybe that’s the problem.

O’Donohue writes that “When lonely suffering is courageously embraced and integrated, it brings new light and shelter to our world and to the human family.” But,”embracing and integrating” that lonely suffering is a real motherfucker. I’m not sure I know how to do it yet.

I’m honest enough to admit that I don’t yet have the serenity to accept the things I cannot change. I don’t know if I have the courage to change the things I can, and I’m not sure I have the wisdom to know the difference.

Perhaps, for now at least, the best I can do is to be a conversation devoted to something difficult….

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.

The tension began to leave…

When I started working on this, it came from a place of sheer creative desperation to find something, to make something. I’ve said more than once that the muses are capricious. The night I was making this, they were exponentially so.

I had first attempted to record a podcast, a process that is, under normal conditions, relatively easy. I usually record in one sitting, and in one take with minimal, if any, edits. But, I also live next door to a house that functions as an Air B &B. From time to time there are guests that are rowdy and boisterous. On this particular night, the Air B & B guests were also exponentially so.

I’m not sure if the noise actually came through in the recording or not but, it was certainly distracting. And, truth be told, I probably wasn’t in the best frame of mind to record anyway.

Needless to say the recording process didn’t go well, and it became abundantly clear that it just wasn’t going to happen.  I set that project to one side (a seemingly healthy response) but, the frustration remained and lingered. I NEEDED to make something (perhaps, a not so healthy response).

I began experimenting with this piece after coming across a video on the Adobe blog. I decided to try my hand at do something similar. It didn’t go so well…

I suppose my drive to make something overtook my aspirations to throw my phone across the room, punch a hole in the computer screen, and give up making art forever. However, I should say that so far this year, I’ve only quit art forever a couple times a month. My therapist, if I was still seeing her, would surely this is as progress…I should probably give her a call.

After several hours, this piece made it to a place that I was happy with. 

To a greater or lesser extent, the tension began to leave. For now…