This month I experienced a great, wide disconnection from my creative self. I have felt acutely aware of death and war and genocide, I have been under that deadened sense of facing something horrific, when everything in me says, do something! and the rest of me says, like what?
I keep asking myself the same questions:
What is the role of an artist in times of atrocity? What does it mean to be a creative person who faces the facts and then spends my day on brush marks and wet shapes? How do the small stories of my singular life hold up alongside our big collective ones? Why would someone paint when a massacre is happening, now? and now?
Natalie Goldberg offers this to writers: “We are important and our lives are important, magnificent really, and their details are worthy to be recorded. This is how writers must think, this is how we must sit down with pen in hand. We were here; we are human beings; this is how we lived. Let it be known, the earth passed before us. Our details are important. Otherwise, if they are not, we can drop a bomb and it doesn't matter. Recording the details of our lives is a stance against bombs with their mass ability to kill, against too much speed and efficiency. A writer must say yes to life, to all of life.”
Perhaps it’s that. Perhaps images make it possible to understand each other, or a good sentence can help us soften to the hardest truth. I don’t know.
I do know: Hope does not belong only to the optimists.
We are not uncomplicated – the world is beautiful while grief drips everywhere. And if we look closely enough, we will see how much is not yet decided; a tender sapling is growing in my yard now, even in October. Things are not done.
For me, holding both — what is and what is possible — is the practice of a sturdy hope, the kind that makes us able to act towards peace and mutual care without losing ourselves to magical thinking or despair.
At this month's EDI Live, I shared about this experience, and about my idea to make a piece about being present concurrently to both what is and what is possible. I wanted to express my sense that our role as artists is to see, see, see and at last, tell about it. If we as artists aren't looking carefully at the world and turning that over into something new, then what are we doing?
Sometimes "art block" is a kind of inability to make anything, but more often I think it is an inability to appreciate anything you make, and then avoiding this by not making it in the first place. This is where I was: I made marks most days, but it was dry, seemed distant and voiceless. I kept making anyway.
(this is why I haven't written to you in the last few weeks - every idea I would start in with felt empty.)
I made at least a dozen versions of this piece. These are the ones I painted live with you all a couple of Saturdays ago.
At last I came to this, a composition that was actually my wife Danielle's idea.
What is possible has two feet squarely set in what is; it will not come in like magic, a free-floating future suddenly in our laps. It will be made of the pieces we have in front of us. Another world will be the next moment, and the next, of this one.
Which is the same for art I suppose. There is no trick to leap from this self to a fully developed artist, who connects their brush marks to their voice, turning over their wisdom into questions everyone can be a part of. It is instead a committed presence to what is here, now: these paints (yes, these ones, not new ones or better ones), this sketchbook (wrinkled, thick), these hands (with the scab on my thumb, and two hangnails), and these 15 minutes (which could be spent returning that call, or scrolling a bit, or sitting outside taking in the air). The artists we are becoming will be the next moment, and the next, of the artist we are right now, in this specific world, that is buckling under the weight and still full of brush marks that feel good.