Wednesday, September 8, 2010
My earliest memories come to me in pictures. The drawings and etchings in the huge old book of German fairy tales my grandmother read to me are clearer in my mind's eye than the stories they illustrated. I can see the glitter on the colorful advent calendar hung over my crib. Too tempting, I pulled myself up to its bright, sparkling colors and promptly yanked the calendar down on the floor. Screaming out my frustration, I brought my mother running.
Like all small children, color and shape, movement and rhythm fascinated me. I wanted everything to be prettier--the dog got a ribbon, my mother a flower, my sister a song.
It's not unusual for children to be fascinated by all things arty; children are fascinated by everything. It's not until later that we become cynical and closed off, pushed perhaps, by the world's judgments of our art making as silly or insignificant or, worse yet, ugly.
But most of us, eventually, stop making art and become, well, sensible and practical.
What little we know about early humans is this: They made art. Whether it was decorating their bodies, their pottery or their darkest caves, humans adorned their surroundings. We can't know what their music sounded like, or the stories they told at life-changing events, but surely, we know that music and stories came from speech as naturally as visual art came from seeing, and dance came from movement. A child's instincts are the same.
From the purely selfish desire to make one's surroundings beautiful springs the desire to communicate--joy, status, events, concepts--to be a part of something larger, to be understood. Leo Tolstoy said it this way: "Art is a human activity consisting in this, that one man consciously, by means of certain external signs, hands on to others feelings he has lived through, and that other people are infected by these feelings and also experience them."
Art, then, is one's ability to transmit not emotion, but emotionally. To take the ordinary--sound, color, shape, thought--and make it extraordinary through its very medium: sound becomes music, color becomes picture and pattern, shape becomes living space, thought a poem.
My friend John once complained to me that art is unnecessary and artists were spoiled brats. To the contrary, I argued, art is in everything: Someone's creativity created the room where you're sitting, the chair you're sitting in, even the clothes you're wearing at this moment. (Whether you consider any of those things "artistic" is, of course, purely subjective.) I also defended the artistic temperament, though I'm afraid I didn't convince John.
If, as Picasso said, "Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up," it follows that artists retain the ability to be childlike. And children, we know, can be stunningly selfish, only concerned with their immediate needs and wants.
Yet it is through childlike eyes that we regain our awe of the simplest things. Just watch a baby discovering her toes or your nose or the first taste of something sweet to see what true wonder looks like.
I'm pretty much OK with some selfish sensitivity if the result is a Beethoven sonata, a Rilke poem or a Wright building. And if the ability to retain innocent awe requires a little indulgence, that's OK with me, too. Not everyone needs to grow up to be practical.
As I grew up, I went through several artistic "what I want to be when I grow up" phases, casting about for my perfect expression. Poetry, visual arts, dance, acting--all bit the proverbial dust for various reasons: I have no binocular vision, I'm too short and curvy, I have awful stage fright. In my late 20s, I discovered a talent for graphic design, a skill that comfortably married my love/hate affair with words and my two-dimensional sight in what may be the ultimate art of communication.
And then I left all that silliness behind to make money. For the sake of practicalities like a roof over my head and food to eat, I defaulted to a "fall back on" skill. I found that profession my father wanted me to have just in case my artistic "phase" didn't work out. Not everyone can grow up to be an artist, I repeated as I took progressively more demanding managerial jobs in marketing. If I couldn't find my inner artist, at least I could bring those sensibilities to bear in advertising.
I could direct artists and recognize art if not create it.
Remaining true to one's art can be a most arduous life path in terms of practicalities, or it can be the only path worth taking. Few working artists see practical, monetary success. But ask a working artist--painter, poet or musician--if they do it for the money. I suspect you'll get an incredulous look followed by a shake of the head. It is the wrong question.
Something about the South grows artists like it grows kudzu. Perhaps it's the humidity. Perhaps it's the sultry air and a somewhat flaccid and worn out refinement. There is, in some circles, an indulgence for the childlike. Every southern family gets at least one slightly insane relative, a friend told me when I moved to Mississippi. And perhaps, unlike the overly serious industrial cities that deal with blizzards, steel and money, a culture built on heat and agriculture nurtures its eccentrics far longer and treats them far better.
So it is that a relatively small city like Jackson boasts a veritable smorgasbord of artistic talent. Even some of our most serious residents play in bands, spit poetry on Saturday night, or get behind a camera lens now and again. Among the canvasses hanging in local restaurants and coffee houses, you're sure to find artists with "real" jobs--doctors and lawyers and advertising CEOs. And those who can't claim a single creative bone in their bodies grow things in gardens or nurture homegrown artists by becoming promoters and collectors.
For those gentle souls who have retained a sense of wonder over the years, indulging their uncomplicated desire to communicate emotionally by learning and practicing their art, I thank you. And to those of you who have become, perhaps, somewhat cynical and jaded about the world, I invite you to rediscover that spark of childlike awe through art--visual, musical, printed on a page or a tripping across a stage--maybe you'll find it in these pages.
Some of us never lost our fascination with our toes, your nose and that first taste of something sweet. And if I find some color in words and rhythm in phrases, I am blessed with a little bit of innocence in a caustic world. As for what I want to be when I grow up, I'll let you know.