October 21, 2012

Such Grandiose and Convoluted Fantasies

It has been three weeks since I wrote anything substantial for Outside the Lines. Peggy's Progress, the Jason Kelly interview, and Linda Waldon's second installment of the Kate Burridge interview have nicely occupied most of the real estate in our past three emails, so apart from a small topic here and there, I have been taking a little break. I don't often get this much time off from the writing. But here I am finally, and I've built up a head of steam.

Since I haven't been writing much lately, there has been time for introspection, reflection, and hanging out in contemplative moods, absorbing the amazing beauty and stillness of nature around Windhook. We have had 100 degree weather, gusty October Santa Ana winds, our first winter pattern rain storm, and lots and lots of mild, still, calm days—and as many clear, starry wonderful nights. We are 8 miles from the small town of Cambria, which is the nearest light pollution source, so the stars tend to be spectacular.

Extended periods of this sort of tranquility are amazing generators for creativity and insight. This is, in fact, why we moved out here and began working on the Windhook dream in the first place. It is why we love to share it with other like minded creative people whenever we can. So if you get a chance, drop us a line and arrange to come and see us sometime. The invitation is open, we just need to know when you are coming so we can be sure to be here when you do. But I'm rambling now, so I should get back to this pent up insight and inspiration that I mentioned above. It's kind of a personal story, but it has applications that I think you will see as it unfolds.

I have been wrestling with my own purpose. Why am I here? What does it matter? I have talked at length with Peggy about this, and in doing so, have uncovered a fact that is surprising to me. Lots of people don't really worry much about these questions. Not like I do, anyway. I grew up in a Southern Baptist home, before evangelicals were so political. My mom instilled in me a powerful message that I could do anything I set my mind to. Roughly paraphrased, her words were, "You are a very talented and gifted person. You are very intelligent, and whatever you set your mind to, you can do. I expect great things for you, and can hardly wait to see what you will do." This was something she said to me often, and it settled deep into my image of who I was.

When I was in high school, my artistic talents emerged full blown and very quickly. I had not been spectacularly artistic prior to high school, but by the time I graduated, I was some sort of superstar in my small circle. My teachers and friends and acquaintances thought of me as a prodigy of sorts. It seems that my artistic gifts woke up in full bloom over the course of those four years, and the response and enthusiasm of my mentors and peers helped to shape my image of who I was and what I could accomplish. My favorite art teacher in high school, the late Jim McGee, was instrumental in shaping my image of myself as an artist during those early and impressionable years. Another teacher from that period told my mother, and she repeated to me, that he thought I had more talent in my pinky finger than most of the art students he had encountered during his career, and that it would be a tragedy if I didn't do anything with it.

Statements like that, however well meant, tend to be toxic. Too much ego, too early, without consideration for the work that is required for even the purest genius to manifest its potential. Statements like that tend to short circuit the focus and drive and dedication that are necessary to make a mark. And I took the bait.

One day I told Jim McGee that there were an infinite number of potential sculptural forms within a block of wood or stone, and that my job was to remove all but one of them. His eyes lit up, and he asked if I knew much about Michelangelo. I knew that he was an important Renaissance sculptor and painter, but that was about all I knew. Jim said, "Well, you have just stated his sculptural philosophy perfectly. Go get a copy of The Agony and the Ecstasy and read it. So I did. Soon I had formed a secret fantasy that I was the reincarnation of Michelagnolo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni. All of this seems silly and a bit crazy 40+ years later, but I was 17, had a big head, and thought I was God's gift to the art world.

Oddly, I did nothing really productive to make the mark I was sure that I would make in the world. There were several reasons for this. It was 1970 when I got out of high school and I was heavily into the anti-establishment mindset of the day. If "the man" said I should go to college, screw the man. Of course, an art degree would have been a really good idea, but it would have involved listening to the man. Concurrently, I was transitioning from my Baptist roots into the Jesus Movement, and there was some confusion in my mind about how to Reconcile Jesus with my propensity for carving naked ladies. For a while, Jesus wouldn't let me carve. I was a bit confused, to say the least.

In addition to that, we need to talk a bit more about the messages that I absorbed during my childhood. My mother's extremely enthusiastic encouragement was a very powerful influence, and a gift that still works for me today. But it was not the only message that was coming into my psyche from my family. Both of my parents were church workers. My dad ran the Sunday School program and lead the congregational and choir music. My mom was the church organist, and we were present every time the church doors were open. My parents were paid modestly for their work in the church, but both had to hold down full time jobs elsewhere to make ends meet. Even at that, finances were very tight, and I rarely got to practice the creativity that my mom saw in me because there was never any money to spare. There were several variations to this austerity message, which I read at the time as meaning that while I had great potential, money was not going to support me.

There is a lot of truth to the notion that we shape our own opportunities and actions by what we expect and what we believe possible or impossible. I personally have a long and consistent history of creative and innovative projects that died for lack of funds. I have spent my entire life in creative endeavors that were admired and enthusiastically supported by others, but that have simply not generated the financial rewards that would make them sustainable. And over the past few weeks, I have used my time off to look at this pattern and to see how my unexamined belief structure sabotages my best efforts. More times than I can count, I have taken some project to the brink of success, only to sabotage it to fulfill my expectation that the money would not follow.

But there is another insight that came to me these past couple of weeks. It goes back to where we started—my concept of my purpose. As I said above, I always have had a clear and strong sense of why I am on the planet: to blow the doors off creatively, and do something that would really profoundly mark the art world; Something that would change everything.

My sixty-first birthday is coming up in about a week, and as I contemplate that, I have a nagging sense that I might have been mistaken about the Michelangelo thing. In fact, these past few weeks have been a good time not to have to write something inspiring, because quite frankly, I was pretty depressed for most of it. My sense of purpose, so strongly held, was looking like a pipe dream, and I was freaking out just a bit.

Growing up among Baptists, I was exposed to the concept that God creates each of us uniquely, with gifts and a purpose. How many times did I hear the statement, "God has a wonderful plan for your life!" And people in my life were always being "called to the ministry," or "lead by the spirit" to do one thing or another. Somewhere deep down, I had absorbed the message that I had a perfect destiny, ordained by God. I don't think in such theological terms these days, but a strong sense of my own manifest destiny has always been an undercurrent for me.

Over the past few weeks this weird conflicted mix that I've been describing to you has become unbearable. I have come to the stark realization that I've lived my life in a strange dysfunctional fantasy. At first this realization was horrific. My entire purpose for existence was dubious at best. But I stayed with it and let the grim reality work in me: I was not the second coming of Michelangelo, and the art-buying public might just turn out to be quite content to ignore my gifts for the rest of my life. And at the same time, I began to see more clearly how my dark expectations about money were self fulfilling.

As I move forward from this place, it seems that the best course is to lay these beliefs bare, and to avoid the temptation to replace or fix them. The light of day has a way of clearing up a lot of things. It seems to me now that the best course is to simply interact with my world as I find it today, and let the art, and the response of others to it, flow from that. I have not become fabulously wealthy and famous from my art, but it is my art. I am living comfortably, and my life is by no means marked by poverty. Being present, doing my work because it's important to me is what matters. All that other stuff will land where it may.

I hope that none of you have spent your lives laboring under such grandiose and convoluted fantasies. It isn't likely that anyone else has this exact same mix of unexamined and peculiar notions in their heads. But I'm pretty sure that most of us have our own personal variations, and they really do make a difference in how our lives and our creative careers unfold. I can only hope that reading about mine might trigger some careful thought and reflection about how you have been influenced, and either aided or hindered by the beliefs that you carry around just beneath the covers of your everyday activity.

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