Interpreting Joy

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Earlier this fall, I founded a little artist’s group. I knew from previous freelancing experience how isolating (and depressing) it can feel to sit at home all day without access to humans except via email, and I was keen to find a way around that problem this go-round. At the recommendation of a knowledgeable friend, I picked up a book called The Artist’s Way, aimed at nurturing the creative spirit. The author, Julia Cameron, suggests readers form “creative clusters” for support and community.

My creative cluster consists of Kristina, a visual/decorative artist, Kerie, a photographer, Natasha, a graphic designer, and Laura, also a photographer – all women I respect and admire not only for their artistic talents, but also for who they are as people. Although we’re all in different creative fields, when we meet, we discuss the same sorts of things – how to balance art and commerce; what to do about taxes incurred by our small (tiny!) companies and how to bar against them; where to fill our creative wells, etc.

As I was leaving our group this past Monday, Kristina and Kerie began talking about the nature of their work. Kristina’s paintings are full of color, joy and life. She uses pink paint, often. Her work is bold, with a fun flare, and beautiful. Kerie does all sorts of photography (weddings pay the bills), but enjoys her work with children the most. She loves to bring out their liveliness and innocence, captures sly, mischievous smiles and quirky personalities.

Both girls talked about their peers from art school, who were so focused on finding reflective meaning within their paintings and photographs that they seemed to discount the value of something that was simply beautiful, or dear. I remember feeling a similar tension while studying poetry in college. It seemed all “legitimate” poets were writing about fear, death, longing or depression. With varying degrees of success, my peers there followed suit. I sort of tried to walk into the shadows, but always felt I came off as a sham, and there’s nothing worse than insincere poetry.

Still, the “true artist” stereotype sometimes serves as a deterrent to my own work. I imagine that I will not achieve real success with my writing unless I addict myself to an illicit drug (or maybe just some painkillers), go crazy or become madly self-centered. Unfortunately (I mean, fortunately), I’m just not wired that way, and I kind of like my balanced life as it is. I try to remind myself that there are plenty of wonderful, “legitimate” artists out there whose work has tracings of both light and shadow, who are not destitute, and whose lives are not in shambles.

But the question remains, can art be joyful and still be considered art? I think so. If all artists were tortured souls, searching for an outlet for their grief, the world would be in a very sad state, indeed.

FYI: The painting, above, is by my friend Kristina.  It is one of my favorites.

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Everybody’s A Snob About Something

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Today, I went to Binders – an art and craft/framing store – to get a mat board for an etching Andrew and I picked up from a street artist in Florence. We found the etching’s artist in a courtyard near the Uffizi Gallery, among several other vendors selling artworks of Florence and Tuscany.

There was something I liked about this artist, beyond his work. He had an easy way about him and was less conspicuous than the others, smoking cigarette after cigarette while working on a copper etching block. He seemed content and absorbed in his work. He had a graying beard, and big, brown, deep-set eyes. He didn’t seem to care, really, if we wanted to buy his stuff or not, but he was clearly pleased when we showed more than just passing interest. His etchings were lovely – mostly panoramas of the city, with Brunnelleschi’s duomo in the forefront – and they weren’t too expensive. 35 Euros bought us a nice-sized print – half the price of what we would have paid if we’d bought it in a Florentine boutique.

Upon our return to the States, I was excited about displaying our little piece of Florence. But typically, I feel a little intimidated at art & craft stores. I like to walk the aisles and imagine myself doing something highly artistic … or, let’s face it, even just colorful … but I know my limitations. So, today I approached the custom framing counter feeling a little silly, carrying a huge “liberty blue” mat that I hoped could be cut to size by someone other than myself. (I am left handed and a disaster with scissors and most other sharp things.) I rang the bell, and in a short time a red-headed guy with a scrubby goatee and very artistic looking wire-rimmed glasses greeted me.

He seemed a little annoyed by the gigantic blue mat, my Target-brand frame and the Florentine etching. I explained I just wanted it cut to size, that I didn’t know how big to make the window for the etching to show through and that I would trust his judgment. He sighed deeply and took out a tiny, pocket-sized measuring tape. (Should I have made an appointment, I wondered?)

At about that time, someone came over the loudspeaker and made an announcement for the frame shop. My disgruntled frame guy sighed again, more deeply still, and said, to no one in particular, “It never fails. I’m here alone, the bell rings, and all of a sudden everyone needs me.” I didn’t quite see how stressful life behind the custom frame shop counter could be, but I smiled sympathetically anyway.

A moment later, the frame guy whisked away my big blue mat and the Florentine print and went to a back room. I heard mechanized slicing sounds and worried about our little etching, wondering if the disgruntled artist would take out his frustrations on Florence. He didn’t. Instead, he emerged with a perfectly cut liberty blue mat in just the right size, with a massive scrap of mat board left over for me to take away. I asked if they wanted to use the mat board scrap for any reason, to which he sort of rolled his eyes and said, “No. We use a better quality board than that back here.”

Oh. Sorry.

I actually thought it was kind of funny – that everyone has something about which they are inordinately snobby. For some of us – those of us who eschew Chicken Soup for the Soul type books and Dan Brown-esque novels – it’s a specific type of writing; for others of us, it’s mat boards. Go figure!

I did wonder what our street artist would think of my el cheapo frame job, but decided that he’d just shrug and light up another cig, or maybe just close up shop for the day to grab a late afternoon cup of espresso.

A date! A date! A very important date!

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Today, I did for the first time what I hope will become a habit: I took myself on a date. I did this at the urging of The Artist’s Way, a book written by a woman named Julia Cameron for people (artists and non-artists) who want to augment their artistic lives. Cameron writes, “We forget that the imagination-at-play is at the heart of all good work … in order to have a real relationship with our creativity, we must take the time and care to cultivate it.” I took her at her word.

My date was to the High’s Annie Leibovitz exhibit, something I’d been meaning to get around to, but for which I had somehow never found the time. After a bright, breezy morning with Ivy and Andrew at the park, I showered quickly (who was there to impress, after all?), threw on my flip-flops and the most comfortable dress I own, and drove to Midtown.

Immediately, I savored the freedom of all this; the bold stroke of life on my own schedule. And it’s not that anyone in my life demands so much of me that it is a burden, but there is something deliciously indulgent about not having to apologize for parking a mile from the museum (in 90 degree weather) because you are too cheap to pay for parking, of walking through an art exhibit alone without feeling the need to respond to anyone’s opinion or curiosity, without worrying whether you’re spending too much time at each photo or not enough. Add to this the fact that I have been waist-deep in Khaled Hosseini’s A Thousand Splendid Suns, and the freedom tasted that much sweeter. (I am so moved by this book, I can’t even write about it yet. If you have not read it, you must.)

My experience with myself and Annie Leibovitz’s photographs (from both her personal and private collections) was filled with both a thrilling appreciation for beauty and startling emotion. I stayed there for two hours, looking for stories in every photo.

I became fixated on one photograph of Leibovitz’s parents on their 50th wedding anniversary, on another of a pool of blood beside a fallen bicycle in Sarejevo, and another of two circus performers: a woman was strapped to a massive red and white bullseye – on her face was a look of total boredom and resignation; a man stood in front of her and took aim with a dagger. I cried at the sight of Johnny Cash, June Carter and Roseanne Cash playing music on their front porch in Kentucky. I cried again when I came to Leibovitz’s photo of bloody footprints left from the massacre at a schoolhouse in Rwanda. Again, I cried at the photos preceding Susan Sontag’s death, and the death of Leibovitz’s father. Leibovitz captured each scene, each tiny moment, with curiosity, dignity, a raw and naked tenderness.

This afternoon, while standing in the High Museum, where everything is brilliantly white and crisp (its design reminds me of what it might be like to live inside an iPod), it struck me that all art – drama, visual art, music, writing, etc. – is connected by that which is alive in all of us. The spirit of great art is the thing that moves us from hope to despair and back again. It leans in to curiosity — not just to beauty and freedom, but also into ugliness and rage. Art is always looking for answers, retribution, a kind of hope that sees clearly the pain and unfairness of the world but continues to demand more of it.

After leaving Leibovitz, I wandered into the High’s museum store and was overcome with the urge to buy something beautiful. I recognized in this a desire to bottle my experience, to bring it home with me and put it on a shelf – as if a painted porcelain bowl or a coffee table book would somehow infuse my living and work space with a better sense of purpose, or some higher plain of artistry.

But the truth is that such things can only stretch so far. Eventually, I would flip through the $75 coffee table book out of moral obligation, would, at some point, pass the beautiful serving bowl and think, with disdain, that it needed dusting. I’m all about cherishing beautiful things, but then again, we have museums for a reason. They show us what to look for and help us to see. They silence the noise in the background and force us to take notice.

To make some odd purchase – a postcard? a High Museum pencil set? a brightly painted umbrella? – would have cheapened the experience for me. As if I’d won myself a stuffed panda by playing skee ball at a country fair. So – the beauty will have to wait for my next artist’s date. Luckily, Cameron prescribes one per week.