The Artist's Journey
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The Artist's Journey

Kent Nerburn

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  2. English
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eBook - ePub

The Artist's Journey

Kent Nerburn

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About This Book

The creative life is not easy. From the outside it can seem romantic and exciting, but in fact it is a unique journey filled with doubts and dreams and complex challenges that most people never imagine. From the obvious issues of making a living and dealing with rejection, to more rarified questions like how to know when a work is finished and the delicate balance between inspiration and craft, the creative artist – whether writer, painter, actor, or dancer – lives in a world of profound questions and subtle choices.The Artist's Journey takes you into this world with an emotional honesty that few books offer. At once practical and spiritual, it is a rare exploration of the inner landscape of the artistic experience and an essential guidebook to the artist's journey, for creative artists in all fields, whether young or old, accomplished or just beginning.

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Year
2020
ISBN
9781838851484
THE HIDDEN SECRETS
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12
The Divine Thread
The psychic connection between artist and audience
Art is not a handicraft, it is the transmission of feeling the artist has experienced.’
Leo Tolstoy
‘A real work of art destroys, in the consciousness of the receiver, the separation between himself and the artist.’
Leo Tolstoy
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SEVERAL YEARS AGO I was having a conversation with an actor friend over a late night dinner. I was carrying on about some subject that seemed significant to me when suddenly I lost my train of thought.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘I forgot what I was saying.’
‘I know,’ he replied.
‘What do you mean?’ I asked. ‘How could you know?’
‘Because I wasn’t listening,’ he said.
In this simple statement lay a truth that every artist knows and every aspiring artist needs to learn: there is a psychic connection between the artist and the audience that must be courted, protected, and fostered. The artist who loses or abuses or denies that thread risks losing the most precious gift that an artist possesses: the capacity to touch those who encounter his or her art.
The question at heart is whether it is in the hands of the artist or the audience to create and foster this connection. I know from my own work that when I read aloud to an audience, if my mind begins to wander and I find that I am only reading words, not meanings and intentions, I am losing my connection with my audience. They may not notice, or may think that the problem is theirs, but I know in my heart that it is I who have lost them, and not the other way around. It is up to me to reach out and embrace them psychically, if I want them to be fully present to my work.
You can say what you will about creating only for yourself, but this membrane of psychic connection is real.
Consider the work that first ignited your passion to become an artist. If it was an active art form, like dance or theatre, it is very likely that the connection created was because the performance was invested with a spiritual presence that reached out and took you in its grasp.
If it was a passive art form, like a painting or a sculpture, you may safely assume that the work that touched you was fashioned by a creator who was spiritually present to the act of creation.
There are exceptions, and it is not impossible that something in you as the viewer or listener or reader was so ready for what that creation had to offer that it touched you despite a flatness or spiritual deadness in the work itself.
But this is rare. In general, the spiritual presence you feel reflects the spiritual presence invested in the work.
As a creator you must trust this truth. Do not think that artistic cunning or technical mastery is enough. Art, as best practised and understood over the centuries, is a spiritual as much as a technical pursuit.
We may have lost much of our spiritual connection in the modern world, but we must not lose it as creators. We are the caretakers of spiritual authenticity, all the more so in a time when the presence of mystery seems so distant from our ordinary lives.
People long for faith. They long for belief. Many despair of finding it in churches and mosques and synagogues, not because it is not there to be found but because the voice in which it speaks does not always reach out and touch them in the place where they live.
Art, however, does create this touch. It speaks in different voices, different rhythms, different languages. There is no place in the human heart it cannot reach.
Your art comes from a unique place inside of you. Somewhere, that same unique place is hungering for acknowledgment in the heart of another.
You owe it to yourself, you owe it to your art form, you owe it to that person hungering, unknowing, for your artistic voice, to make your art the most authentic creation of which you are capable.
If money is to come, it will. If success and recognition are to come, they will. The only thing you can control is the purity of spirit with which you create.
Remember, there is a world of people out there who long to create but do not know how. When you create, you are speaking not only to them, but for them. If you speak with anything less than the absolute fullness of your artistic spirit, you are betraying the gift that you have been given.
And it is a gift. We, as creators, are a conduit through which the great mystery of creation flows. We fashion something where before there was nothing; we give shape to the cacophony of human experience and invest it with form and beauty and clarified meaning. People who are touched by our art grasp a divine thread that flows backwards to the creative mystery from which it came.
This may sound mystical, but if you have known that moment when the creative act takes you and lifts you and carries you on the wings of something greater than yourself, you have experienced the gift of being in touch with the great mystery of creation.
Why, if you have been given this gift, and the gift to create this moment in the hearts of others, would you ever do anything less than the best of which your mind and hands and heart are capable?
13
The Hummingbird’s Heartbeat
The gossamer line between discovery and mastery
It is idle, having planted an acorn in the morning, to expect that afternoon to sit in the shade of the oak.’
Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
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LAST NIGHT I attended the staged reading of a play by a wonderful playwright. A staged reading lives on the margin between a full production and a script read-through. The actors are performing, but the blocking and the sets are minimal. In this case, the performance was strong. The script was good; the actors were excellent. But something was wrong. The production never caught fire.
As I left, I pondered over where that flatness, that lack of life, had come from. Was it from me? Had I failed to be fully present to the work unfolding before me? Was it from the work itself? Was there something subtly inauthentic, something I had failed to notice, in the words that the playwright had crafted? Was it in the spareness of the staging – the absence of a meaningful visual component to what was essentially an extended reading?
All of these were possible, but none of them seemed right.
After a night of reflection, I realised that the problem was in the delivery. It was in the spaces, the pauses between words, the imperceptible beat between passages of dialogue. It was in the moment where the actors were unsure of their lines and had to resort to thought to find them because they did not yet own them as their own.
None of the rest of us could catch this consciously. In real time it was little more than a hummingbird’s heartbeat. But we could feel it, just as you feel the coldness in someone you meet who takes a dislike to you but does not show it, or the lack of attention in someone whose mind is elsewhere when you are having a conversation. They may be masterful in their subterfuge, but, somehow, something reveals itself that cannot be hidden. It is there in a thousand microscopic cues that lie far beneath the level of the observable or measurable. It has to do with confidence and certitude and quality of presence.
T.S. Eliot gave voice to this, though perhaps with different intention, in his haunting poem ‘The Hollow Men’:
Between the conception
And the creation
Between the emotion
And the response
Falls the Shadow.
It was the shadow that was keeping that reading from coming alive, and it is the shadow that keeps our art from coming alive when we are not in full ownership of the act of creation.
We need certainty when we deliver a line or place a stroke upon the canvas. Hesitation, lack of conviction, may indeed last only a hummingbird’s heartbeat, but it is felt like a drummer’s lead beat that does not carry in it the presence of anticipation, even though it strikes exactly on the measure.
This certainty comes only with experience and maturity. It cannot be forced. It comes from a thousand failures and a thousand successes and a thousand moments of getting things exactly right. It comes from an understanding deeper than knowledge.
I once showed a sculpture of mine – perhaps the best I had ever done – to the chief curator of a major museum, hoping he would see the power in my work and give me the imprimatur that would advance my career in the way I so desperately sought. But he did not see what I saw, or, if he did, he saw something at once more and less. He saw lack of maturity and lack of resolved certainty.
He saw a work that, though it might be brilliant in the moment (which I felt it was), was brilliant by accident, not by awareness and mastery. Perhaps it pointed to a future of vast potential, but that is all it did: point. The realisation of that vast potential, if it was to take place, was in the future, when ownership of that potential was confident and assured, able to be expressed over and over in a hundred ways and a hundred forms.
When we are early in the practice of our art, when we feel we have done excellent work and feel frustrated that others don’t recognise it, we need to remember that true mastery lies in a relaxed control that lives beneath and beyond analysis, and that this cannot be rushed or forced. It is like a wine that must be aged so that the brilliance is in the complexity and the undertones, not only in the brightness and singular beauty.
Yes, there is genius that sometimes overrides the need for patience and resolution, but it is possessed by only the blessed few, no matter how much we wish to claim it for ourselves. And even genius gains a patina of nuance and complexity as it ages, so that in retrospect even the Mozarts and Michelangelos and Martha Grahams of the world show a deepening and enriching as their work matures throughout the course of their lives.
But those of us who are not possessed of genius, or only have flashes of brilliance in our work, must be patient in our creation, for the character in our art reveals itself only as character is revealed in the human face – by the passage of time.
In the strange way that the mind glides through associations and analogies, that staged reading made me think of the sculptures of Donatello, one of my favourite artists. Donatello was not the most technically gifted sculptor of the human figure. His knowledge of anatomy was rudimentary; his capacity for gesture still heavily laden with the iconic stiffness of the medieval. But his figures had the magical characteristic of seeming not as if they were expressing an emotion but as if they had arrived at their emotion. They somehow seemed to have an inner past.
This is what was lacking in the production that I saw. The actors did not seem to have arrived at their dialogue, they merely knew it. The history was lacking; the intentionality was lacking; the idea of an inner life that extended far beyond what they were saying was lacking.
This is what artists new to their craft necessarily lack. Their work may have a presence, even a brilliant presence, but it does not seem to come forth from the fullness of a resolved artistic life. It speaks of the brilliance of discovery, not the resolved awareness of conscious choice.
When we are young in our art, this lack of complete ownership of our work is what keeps it from having fullness and resolution. It has the power and excitement of fresh discovery, but it does not have the settled sense that it was the outgrowth of a fuller knowledge. It does not express a past because it does not have a past. And without a past it does not imply a future.
You need make no apology for being young or new in your work. There is magic in the youthful freshness that exists on the edge of risk and discovery. There will come a time when you will look back upon that freshness and long to reclaim it in your work. But while you are in this stage the impatience can be overwhelming.
You want to be recognised for what you know is inside you. You create what you think is excellent work and wonder why others don’t see it. Perhaps they are seeing it. But they are seeing it as promise, not as mastery.
You should cherish this time and be wary of those who would exploit it by putting you forth as a finished and polished creation. You are a chrysalis, still in the process of becoming.
Remember the actors at that staged reading: they, too, were in a process of becoming. Their work was wonderful but not fully owned. They were chasing their creation, not finding it in the fullness of their stored knowledge. That finding will happen with practice, and it will happen as subtly as the change of morning to afternoon. They may not even know when it occurs.
And just as those actors will one day speak the words of the script as if they flow forth from their own u...

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