Monday, July 15, 2013

world-making and exploring

For the past few weeks I've been reading a book recommended and sold to me by my friend Allen, who runs Books and Other Found Things in Leesburg, VA. Allen always finds the best reads for me, and this one, titled "The Everyday Work of Art" by Eric Booth was a pleasant surprise, since I wasn't familiar with both the book or the writer, and it's turning out to be one of the best creativity/self-help books I've read in a long time. Writer and creativity guru Todd Henry does a fine job talking about it at his blog HERE.

It's a lengthy read - not one to be devoured and digested in a few days, or weeks even, but worth every page. One chapter that stood out in particular for me is chapter nine, titled "World-Exploring". At the beginning of the chapter, Booth urges us to "get into the good stuff others have made" and in turn our own lives will be rewarded and enriched on a multitude of levels. This makes me think back to college when I had some drawing, painting and sculpture classes that required some intense focus, not to mention time. I recall how I would drop by the campus art galleries to see what students and faculty were up to, and to get some inspiration before heading to these classes. Sometimes it would be a quick pass through, while other times I'd get so immersed in the work on display, I'd almost run late. Either way, it gave me the fuel and the urge to create some art of my own, whether that involved working for three hours straight on drawing from life in charcoal, or creating imaginative three-dimensional forms from clay molds and liquid plaster. Seeing other people's work made me want to produce some of my own, even though it wasn't always successful, the act of creating art, or as Booth puts it, "world-making" was satisfying in and of itself. I recall, after an intense few hours spent drawing, or sculpting, or painting,  how I'd walk out of that studio with a greatly heightened level of awareness - forms, shapes and colors from everyday objects and things were all the more special to me, as if my eyes were seeing them for the first time, or in a whole new light. This was how it felt to be in the moment, in the present - to be truly alive.  But to get to this rewarding "state", it took work, and lots of it. There were no shortcuts whatsoever.

Unfortunately, I got out of it for a good while, focusing on getting a job as a teacher, spending much of my time and energy on things other than art. Sometimes it seemed as if I was passing through life in a sort of zombie-like state. I look back at this time and it was a somewhat unfulfilling time in my life, and while I did the occasional drawing in a neglected sketchbook, I spent more time watching lots of TV and going to the bar, as well as eating poorly.  I did enjoy a brief period, probably for about a year or so, where I made and recorded my own musical compositions with a keyboard and a hand-held tape recorder. Mostly though, I went to other people's concerts or art shows, always coming back home with the urge to create something of my own - to make my own mark and say something with my own voice. The problem was I didn't know how. It seemed like I had forgotten how. I'm dating myself when saying this, but back then there weren't a zillion self-help books for the creatively frustrated, nor was there the type of internet with the hundreds of inspiring creative/artist community sites that are available to people now. I honestly didn't really know how or where to begin again, though I gradually added more to the sketchbook at the urging of some friends. Perhaps I was afraid I wouldn't have reached the same level of quality I had in college, or maybe I feared not being able to go beyond what I had learned. Or, could I have simply gotten lazy?

One night, while hanging out and playing pool at the bar down the street, I ran into an old classmate named Alan from middle school. He recognized me and I recognized him, though we both had put on some more weight and lost a bit more hair at this point. It was about fourteen years ago and Alan heartily greeted me, and the first thing he asked me was if I was still drawing. In a loud, brash voice, most likely fueled by a few beers, Alan slapped me on the back and looked at his friends, telling them how I was the best drawer in class. I was flattered that he remembered this, and remembered me, but I couldn't help but feel kind of bothered by the "was" part.  That's when I knew that whatever I was doing at that point, or wasn't doing, wasn't working.

As a result of this little revelation , I decided to at least get out more and take advantage of the great outdoor parks not far from where I lived. I bought a bike and hit the trails, as well as hiked a lot more. I also started lifting some weights and eating more vegetables and fruits. This might not seem to have anything to do with getting back into making art again, but it was the beginning of something good, or at least better than where I was. Also, while I still wasn't making much art at all, I got out to the local exhibits and museums more, as well as to concerts and music events, if not to fill myself up with good things - things that make me think, feel, imagine and wonder, which brings me back to the concept mentioned earlier of "world-exploring".  I was building an inner database of inspiration that would later be applied to my life in very slow, gradual doses.

In chapter nine of the book, Eric talks about the importance of developing a yearning for reaching beyond what you already know, when exploring worlds, whether it be in every day living situations, or when listening to music or looking at art.  When we quit yearning and act as if we know everything there is to know, we quit living. It's this urge to get out of that safe, cozy comfort zone that depletes a zest for life, and the more world-exploring we practice, the more alive we become, resulting only in positive changes.

Perhaps my favorite portion of the chapter deals with the act of finding our own masters (makers of masterpieces) rather than simply subscribe to an institution or authority that has already decided who gets the top honors. There is no doubt that Vincent van Gogh was great, and today he is considered by many to be a true master. Sadly, there weren't enough folks during his time who had the courage, foresight and the vision that Vincent had, and too many had simply accepted the status quo, blind to the otherwise obvious brilliance and beauty of his work. I've always kept this in mind early on whenever I see art or hear music that blows me away but doesn't seem to pick up steam with the masses. I never let the masses make decisions about the things that have moved me beyond words. What a cowardly way to go about life anyhow. It is interesting to note how many of the well known and celebrated artists alive during van Gogh's days are all but forgotten.

Anyhow, it's been pretty busy around my way these days, with getting ready to move and all, so the next post will be saved for my personal list of "masters" who are alive today. In the meantime, whose worlds have you been exploring lately? Whose works of art, be it in the realm of the audio or visual, have enhanced your life and moved you to a heightened level of being? What artist or musician or writer, alive today, would you take the time to thank or express gratitude towards for bringing their work to the world?