Tuesday, July 28, 2009

ESSAY ELEVEN – Hoops Dreams

The plaintive cry is often heard – “I’m not good enough to be an artist.” My premise is, that it is not about being “good” but about being brave and having desire. Before you demure by pointing out that really, you are not very good, let me tell a story.

Several years ago, I volunteered to host a French high school student for a local, English immersion program at my home in Atlanta. One weekend, all of the exchange kids in the group were going to get together at the home of another host family, and then go off to a beach at a nearby lake. I brought my student to the designated home, where about thirty teen-age boys and girls were waiting for the rental bus to arrive. They were all in Speedos and bikinis, and the guys decided they were going to play a pick-up basketball game at a court that was in the yard. They leapt, they twirled and jumped, and they passed behind their back and made acrobatic moves all over the court. They looked wonderful and the girls screamed their delight. There was but one thing wrong; only about one in four passes were completed to another player, and in fifteen minutes of watching, with perhaps fifty attempts, only one basket was made.

It was obvious they had seen many NBA games on TV, and they were athletic and coordinated, but it was also obvious that they had never played basketball in their life. They had the desire, they imitated the moves, they played to great acclaim, and they had a great deal of fun. Were they playing basketball? Yes. Did they have the requisite skill? Absolutely not – they stunk! Did they care? No! There are two points I would like you to consider.

The first concerns the skill that is required to perform art well. I am not implying that skill is not necessary, but I do feel that it is often over-rated. The first few times you try something; you are usually not very good. If it is something important, and if you have the desire to do better, why then, learn the skill and practice. It is that simple.

Skill is not art; skill however, can improve the impact of the art. An author or poet does not have to know how to spell although it certainly comes in handy, because spelling can be corrected later. It is not necessary for a writer to develop a thirty thousand-word vocabulary, but if you have those words, it certainly give you more options.

If you wish to create, there are four steps that are necessary. You must convince yourself that you have something to say, you must give yourself permission to take a chance, you must bravely reveal what you keep locked up inside, and finally be courageous enough to actually complete it the deed. You can take a class and learn the skills as you go, but there is no teacher who can make you brave. Scouts for professional sports teams scour high schools and colleges all over the country. They are looking for attitude, spirit, drive and “heart”, because they know fully well, the training and skill-building can take place later.

Clearly, that group of French kids were terrible basketball players. Any fourth grade American P.E. class could have given them a run for their money, and every evaluative criterion you could bring to bear would have pointed out how inept they were. It was the worst basketball game you could imagine – they sank one basket, and almost every shot was an “air ball”. On the other hand, it was delightful to watch. It was imaginative, exciting, graceful and full of youthful joy and life, and as far as anyone of the young people involved, boys and girls, it was wonderfully successful. It was a tangible manifestation of what they wanted to achieve. Would they have been excited if some of the balls had actually gone into the basket? Sure. The point is, they knew that they didn’t have the specific skill involved in sinking baskets, but they were not inhibited by their lack of skill, the goal was the fun of the doing. If this is not one of your major justifications for being an artist, all of the skill in the world will be for naught.

The creation of art is not a battle between creation and skill; the two compliment each other. If I am excited about the prospect of being a painter, I will have more options than if I just learn some techniques of using acrylics and something about color theory. It may not be a requirement of self- expression, but it adds to my self-confidence and it also opens up new avenues and it gives me more possibilities.

Let’s talk some more about basketball in general. Watch a random group of kids at a pick-up game at the local schoolyard. The players are either shooting or blocking. It may not be good basketball, it may not be following all of the rules of the NBA, and it may not be as enjoyable to watch, but it is basketball. If the players are content to play a sloppy game, shooting at a bent and saggy rim with little form and concern for fouls, this does not alter what it is; it merely alters how well it is done. If, in the future, one of the players decided that basketball seemed like a worthwhile goal, he certainly could go through the discipline of learning the skills, just as many youngsters do, by standing on the court or in front of the garage and taking endless shots, lay-up, free throws and dunks. Do this, and you will get better - that is the nature of learning skills - improvement is a function of practice.

At this point in your quest, my argument is that it is good to minimize your concerns about how skillful you are, and whether you really have talent. You might also find yourself wondering just why you want to be “creative” in the first place. The world does not need another landscape painting or another poem about young love. Your mother didn’t send you to school because she needed pictures to stick on the refrigerator. It is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation

The need for art and artists is an intrinsic need, as opposed to an intrinsic one – it comes from within instead of being motivated by outsiders. Nobody every requested The Last Supper, Beethoven’s Fifth, or Pride and Prejudice beforehand. The artist must provide both the inspiration, and all of the other physical qualities that help the viewer or reader decide how well you presented your inspired work.

As artists, we need to take the same risks those young French students did. If we are fearful of expressing something important because we don’t feel we have the requisite skill, or something valid to say, we miss out on the enjoyment of the doing. Many years ago, in his “Dune” series, author Frank Herbert incorporated a mantra, oft repeated, “Fear is the Mind Killer.”

Creativity is our source, and our access to this font of ideas, inspiration, and wonder is easily blocked. While the skill may be easy to recognize (which is probably why we make the mistake of believing that the observable skill is the actual art product), the underlying idea and its source are invisible. To the non-artist, ideas seem to arise out of thin air, and this concept of nothing becoming something illustrates one of the dualities of art.

When looking at someone’s completed work, it is easy to see the subject matter, the skill (or lack), and all of the other physical attributes. What we don’t see is the inspiration and reason the piece of art exists. Remember, it is the hole, that mysterious opening that pierces the heart of the pastry, which defines the doughnut.

Our next few essays will deal with where our own personal inspiration is hidden, and offer some suggestions as to how we can access it. As always, I encourage you to leave comments (either on the blog or by e-mail), and questions are welcomed.


Monday, July 27, 2009


For the mystic what is how. For the craftsman how is what. For the artist what and how are one. ~William McElcheran

I am for an art that is political-erotical-mystical, that does something other than sit on its ass in a museum. ~Claes Oldenburg

An artist never really finishes his work; he merely abandons it. ~Paul Valéry

Sunday, July 19, 2009


It is daunting to become an artist, be it writer, actor, dancer, visual artist or any other expressive field. Perhaps one of the more frightening obstacles we face is the fear that we will be discovered. No, not by American Idol, the Museum Of Modern Art or Random House, we try to convince ourselves that we would welcome that. No, it is the everyday folks that we are afraid of – we fear they will discover that we are a sham, and that we have feet of clay. Don’t believe me? OK, try this if you dare.

In the next few weeks, every time you strike up a conversation with someone, work into the conversation: “Oh, I’m an Author (Artist, Singer, Poet. Actor – you get the idea). I’m not talking about a line that implies that you’ve always dreamed of being an artist (along with a fireman, an astronaut and a millionaire), but one that states: I AM, or I am seriously working on it. Pretty hard, isn’t it?

We don’t acknowledge that label, because we know for a certainty that they won’t believe it. They will discover that we are a faker, a fraud, and a charlatan! It’s sort of like proclaiming yourself a beauty queen – as soon as people take one look, they will double over with laughter, and then it is “hiding under the rock” time.

The flaw here is in equating our need and desire to produce art with some exterior, objectively quantifying physical attribute. Please remember, being a dancer means that you will move, relate to, and express yourself through movement, usually in accompaniment to music. That may not make you a GOOD dancer, but it does make you a dancer. Good comes through practice.

We are fearful of owning our desire, because we are afraid that the measure of art is quality and exterior, objective standards, but in that area, we are wrong. Certainly, the public proclaims beauty queens, and the public grants fame. The chosen are voted upon, by judges, box office receipts, or fan club postings and are anointed. None of us is quite sure what Paris Hilton and her ilk do to be worthy of fame, but they have won the ballot, they have been elevated. Even if she has no quantifying observable skill or talent, she has become famous for just being famous.

The good news is, an artist does not have to be voted into the club, you don’t have to know anybody, nor can you be blackballed. All you really need to do is to be willing to self-proclaim “I am.” It is the singular act of bravery of “coming out!”

In future essays, a theme that will arise several times is the difference between desire and skill. You may want to be a writer, painter etc, but are you good enough? Classes, schools and personal instructors, who offer instruction in the arts, concentrate upon skill and technique. They offer proficiency and expertise, but those traits by themselves do not aid or encourage the act of spontaneous creativity that is the starting point of artistic expression. They can assist in making your creation more satisfying, but they are not a pathway but a follow-up. They come later.

The next essay will perhaps make this clearer and develop a framework for understanding. Please comment.


Thursday, July 02, 2009


For many of us, there is a real turmoil between wanting to be an artist and feeling that we have nothing of any import to say to the world. We look around us and see paintings that that are filled with mystery and importance, and we read novels or poems that show an awareness of the rich and nuanced tapestry of life. Even our photographs seem flat and uninspired when we compare them to photographers who reveal truths that lie beneath the obvious subject matter.

Perhaps that last line may hold a key. “Truths that lie beneath the obvious subject matter.” How do they do that, what does that mean, and perhaps, most importantly, how do I access that ability?

First a word of assurance – very few artists, whether they be musicians, painters, writers, sculptors or poets have a life of wild abandon, surrounded by bizarre and outlandish people, while living in a yurt or among banditos on the Argentine Pampas. As a matter of fact, if you passed by one of those artists in the mall, at Starbucks or filling up at the gas station, you would probably never notice them, for, on the surface, they are probably every bit as ordinary (and boring) as the rest of us.

Where they may well differ, is in their vision. Not what they LOOK like, but what the SEE. Artists are people who have developed the skill and ability to see beyond the simple and superficial, and extract detail, meaning and incongruencies in their world – the world of the physical (what they see and hear) as well as the world of their mind (what they think about and their reactions to the stimulus. An artist has the ability (or willingness) to see more than the obvious and to put her own stamp upon it.

I don't paint things. I only paint the difference between things. ~Henri Matisse

The artist's world is limitless. It can be found anywhere, far from where he lives or a few feet away. It is always on his doorstep. ~Paul Strand

The artist does not see things as they are, but as he is. ~Alfred Tonnelle

I would like to give you an example of what I mean. For many of us, a family trip to visit Grandmother was not an unusual thing, and if we felt moved to describe the occasion, we would rely upon remembered details: how long was the drive, how many people were there, and perhaps whether or not you enjoyed yourself. In other words, the account would be factual, or at least as factual as memory allowed. The details we supply are those of location, quantity and time. They are small newsp[aper accounts.

For the artist, however, the critical aspect of the narrative would be not be whether the house was painted blue or green, and not whether grandmother had chocolate chip cookies, but impressions, feelings, incongruencies and most importantly, how it all affected her. Let me quote a short narrative, written by a friend who lives in Texas:

Fairy Tales

Grandmother's old, two-story farmhouse in the Rio Grande Valley was a magical place. The black Ford my parents owned rattled down the solitary road lined with exotic palms curving in lazy loops, swaying against the sky like green nets in shallow water. We were kicking up dust, leaving civilization in our wake and so made our way down the winding path to the porch entrance. I waited, as befitted a miniature adult in the back seat, fighting back the impulse to embrace adventure, breath held in.

Oblivious to the buzzing in my head, I behaved.

When the formalities of familial greetings passed shortly thereafter, I endured the obligatory remarks from the adults about my more positive attributes and made my way outside their field of vision as quickly as practicable, bypassing the back yard of Grandmother's farmhouse, a place of dread for me and avoided if at possible, as it was patrolled by a singularly unpleasant feline with smokey gray fur named Sylvia. Her pink tongue showed as if it would like to have rolled out of her mouth like a snake's fang, when she hissed hello. Her entourage of roosters and hens with mean bead-like eyes scratched the earth mercilessly.

The hollow sounds of tractors echoed and was heard along with the field workers shouting to each other in this solitary setting with its yellow land and sky. The Sisters (my mother and aunts) communed with each other amid ornate furnishings in the parlor leaving some personal space for me to escape past them to the second floor, away from Grandmother's oriental rugs and the small soldier, a French Renaissance figure who dominated the marble side table, standing vigil there. He held a saber with his sword arm thrust upward.

The few men like my father, who had managed to stay in the good graces (or not) of the Adams girls vanished noiselessly. It wasn't hard to imagine them suspended in time until an alarm sounded by the soldier broke the spell and allowed the hands of the clock to move forward again.

It was a world that set up residence in my mind, unlike any other place I could imagine, isolated in memory, an era, a culture and the eccentricities of its guardians, the Sisters. So, while the women talked among themselves, I indulged my curiosity, investigating each room, one after the other until I opened a door and having opened it was compelled to step inside. In its interior pinpoints of bright light drifted in the air currents, muting the visual impact of an odd collection of objects stacked randomly on the floor. I picked my way thru the odds and ends to a rocker and looked out the windows facing cultivated rows of dry earth from two of the room's four walls, finally letting my eyes settle on the less harsh vision of the floor and roam there thru the assortment of mysterious goods. That is when I saw a miniature still life of a field of bluebonnets. The carved frame was gold. The little painting became my frame of reference for the magic I experienced that day. Maybe the bright, wet looking colors made such an impression because of the contrast to the bleak unpromisingly sight of the world outside stretching forth to an empty horizon.

The women told me there was no such room, as I tried to share with them in their magic circle, under the umbrella of evening's darkness, where it seemed appropriate to talk about such matters. This host of beautiful women, who made up my world, lost their bigger than life aura, once I understood that their power could not see into my world or know my secret and not knowing, they could not possess it. The knowing was my treasure.

SARAHLAH Life On the Blue Planet


Notice, while there certainly is detail, it is internally anchored into the perspective of the young girl telling the story. The descriptions are evocative, personal and subjective, and by the time we finish reading, we realize that the information presented has told us a great deal about Sarah, and virtually nothing about the house, Grandma, or its location. While we may not be able to ever discover the whereabouts of the property, Sarah has allowed us a very intimate and compelling visit with her.

Artists look beyond the obvious subject matter, and allow us to see more than what is there, and most importantly of all, they are willing to put their own personal stamp upon it.

Artists don’t point to interesting things they may encounter, but rather allow us to experience those interesting things through their eyes.