You shall no longer take things at second or third hand, nor
look through the eyes of the dead, nor feed on the
spectres in books,
You shall not look through my eyes either, nor take things
You shall listen to all sides and filter them from your self.
–Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
Those who know of Joanna Field’s fascinating book “On Not Being Able to Paint” will recognize the hat-tip in this post’s title. Her book includes poignantly honest descriptions of the act of seeing. Not thinking about seeing, or seeing what she’d been told was there, or looking “through the eyes of the dead.” Not anything but what happened when, for instance, one object seemed to meet another as she looked out her own two eyes. Seeing for oneself.
I’ve been on an elusive quest to, as they say, find my voice as an artist. The great jazz musician Miles Davis once said, You have to play for a long time to play like yourself. I believe that is true, though I have not “played” long enough yet as an artist or even as just a person. The elusive nature of the quest is compounded by the whole “self” idea. What is myself? The more closely I look, the more slippery the whole concept becomes, what with the different selves I display in different settings, and all the habits, opinions, emotions I’ve borrowed–knowingly or unknowingly–from others. And don’t even get me started on being a particle of the infinite Universe. I contain multitudes, as Walt would say. It all brings to mind the joke about the physicist Werner Heisenberg: Heisenberg got pulled over by a cop who told him he’d been going 73 miles per hour. Really? Exactly 73 mph? Well then, Heisenberg mused, I’m lost.
[Technical note: The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle says that speed (momentum really) and position are coupled variables. Such that the more precisely one of those quantities is known, the less precisely the other can be known. So if Heisenberg knew exactly how fast he was going, then…Okay laugh now.]
The uncertainty principle is presumed due to the inherent properties of quantum systems. Although I am quite a bit bigger than a hydrogen atom, the principle seems to fit me pretty well. The closer I look to pin down “who I really am” the more the whole thing just goes up in smoke. As best I can tell, I’m not exactly me, with a sharply delineated boundary–I’m a cloud of probabilities. Which, by the way, could be related to card-reading, magic, and weather prediction, among other endeavors.
So as a working plan to find out Who-I-Am-As-An-Artist (WIAAAA), lately I’m just noticing which forms, styles, colors, media attract me and which don’t. There’s not absolute consistency–some days I am fascinated with neon-colored gummy worms, other days nothing but a giant Buddha statue will suffice–but there are at least recurring trends. I do gravitate to the Buddha more often than to the gummy worms. Of course, the other piece of WIAAAA is my own physicality, and meta-physicality–how I make marks as an expression of my life-force. That’s doubtless the bigger piece, but the one I can see least clearly in myself.
I’ve yet to produce a piece “like myself”per Miles’ definition. I suspect the end of the road–when you start playing like yourself–is when you’ve tried everything to the point where you give up the whole trying thing altogether. But as the Zen Ten Oxherding Pictures (or the Christian story of the prodigal son) point out, you have to go away in order to come back. I’m still journeying.
On the road I inevitably wind up “trying on for size” the techniques, subject matter, and styles of various artists, trying to stick to those I suspect are in the ballpark of my nascent self. Lately I’ve been absorbing the teaching of an amazing artist and drawing instructor, Gillian Lee Smith. Happily, her style is one I am glad to try on and she’s a great teacher too, so it’s been a pleasure. I’m sort of pleased with my 20-minute sketch of Walt Whitman. I like the contrast between the intensity around his eyes (his eyebrows seem to have calmed down as he aged, but they really were that crazy in the photo I used) and the delicacy of his collar line and necklace. My sketch isn’t really in Gillian’s style, though I used her instruction and her specified materials. In some way, I’m playing like myself, without even realizing it. Where do my marks come from? From looking out of my own eyes, from using my life-force.
How can I find my true voice as an artist?
Le Pape-Royne de Bastons-La Lune
The Queen of Batons–the inner truth of the work–sits in the center. She’s turned away from Le Pape. The kindly old Pope looks as if he’s about to speak–he’d like to get her attention, so she’ll turn toward him. He looks a bit surprised, concerned for her. As well he should be. She’s not looking for the Pope’s guidance, she will no longer “take things at second or third hand.” She is looking elsewhere, away from the mediated experience he offers and toward beings that are inchoate, yet themselves. The dogs look up to the Moon as the acolytes look up to the Pope, but where the young disciples are silent, the beasts make themselves heard! And there’s more–a whole subterranean level, with a primitive sea creature holding up the whole earth as it floats on a watery core.
Here is where to look, to find your true voice.
Cards: Jean Noblet Tarot as reconstructed by Joseph H. Peterson, © 2016.
Blog contents and artwork © by the author, 2016.