2021-04-17T09:47:19-04:00

Making Art from Anger

 

I once attended a peace summit in Newark, New Jersey, in which Jody Williams, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for her campaign against land mines, shared a stage with fellow Peace Prize winner, the 14th Dalai Lama.

The Dalai Lama spoke of how destructive it can be to hold onto anger, how it screws up your face1 and gets into your body, keeping you angry, making you sick, and robbing you of happiness and health. Working for peace, he explained, requires compassion, which in turn requires meditation and working with our anger when it arises.

Williams wasn’t having it. The powerhouse activist defended anger, citing it as a valuable and driving force for her work. Without it, she argued, she would not have accomplished what she had. Plus, there were too many problems to fix. Later she listed everything she thought about while the Dalai Lama was meditating on inner peace.

While he did not agree with her, exactly, to say he disagreed doesn’t sound right either. In fact, nothing about him exuded agreement or disagreement at all. Rather, he seemed to appreciate her, to welcome her energy in a way that was open and compassionate, yet somehow not patronizing, superficial, or dismissive.

I did not get the impression that either of them changed the other’s view on anger. They came at anger and change from different tacks. Her approach to disarmament was literal, outward, action-oriented, and proudly anger-driven. His way of disarmament, it seemed, was in his personhood itself–the idea being, I think, that the outer work is most effective when we first transform anger from the inside.

Art Makes Room for Anger

I won’t presume to moderate the points. If Jody Williams and the Dalai Lama didn’t come to a satisfying conclusion on that one, I’m pretty sure my blog won’t.

But is it too self-important, too pat an answer, to suggest that art makes room for both?

Earlier I wrote about art as relief from stress, anxiety, or pain (art as escape). In this way it is life affirming, even life saving. But art has more for us than relief. Because what does it even mean to “transform” anger into art?

 

Art that Evokes or Expresses Anger

I think of Jimmy Santiago Baca’s performance of “Cry” which begins, “For the longest time, I haven’t been able to cry.”2 In the poem, the tears come as he pushes against the “men aren’t supposed to cry” rule and accounts for all there is to cry about, to feel. I think of Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam,” the piano crescendos escalating with each atrocity she sings. And of Marge Piercy’s “Barbie Doll”, Audre Lorde’s “Sewer Plant Goes in Harlem or I’m a Stranger Here Myself When Does the Next Swan Leave.”

I think of the paintings, novels, and music in which relief and comfort are not the point (though not absent either, for the viewer who shares that anger and feels the relief of being recognized, seen, and understood).

The anger here is present, alive, and vital to the art itself, here where the fire of a talented artist’s anger casts a bright light on a particular truth.

Art After (or on Break From?) Anger

Then there is art in which anger is not always overt in the art itself, but the artist must have felt it at one point, at least, for the art to exist (This is a guess on my part, since I am only an omniscient narrator in my characters’ heads!)

I wrote a short story once that a term paper writer might describe thematically as, “about the effects of relationship abuse.” I wouldn’t blame you if you ran the other way based on that description. Because if I’d actually set out to write a story with such a directive, it would have been crap. I also could not have written it in the moment of feeling anger, though I had to pass through anger to even imagine it. And, I wanted the story to go beyond the immediate trauma of abuse to strength, freedom, and recovery—not for the sake of the reader, but for me.

Also in this category I think of community art projects that provide uplift and sustenance. I think of art that while it may include trauma, does not center or identify itself as it either. I think of literary fiction. Jennine Capó Crucet’s Make Your Home Among Strangers, Jesmyn Ward’s Salvage the Bones, Abraham Verghese’s Cutting for Stone, Emuna Elon’s House on Endless Waters, the novels of Chris Bohjalian, Alice McDermott

Hold on a minute. Is all sublime literary fiction rooted in anger in some way (or is that true only if I first declare myself the arbiter of what constitutes “sublime” and then make wild assumptions about each writer’s process)?

One of the iterations of art Lewis Hyde describes in Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth, and Art, I say ties into anger too: art that tricks us by revealing beauty in something that the culture does not deem beautiful or valuable. Florida photographer Clyde Butcher does not convey anger in his work, but he does hook viewers on his gorgeous photographs of the Florida swampland on which he lives. People go out of their way to visit his gallery, where they are invited to stay in a swamp cabin. If I say “swamp” and you think “hot,” “sticky,” “mosquitoes, snakes, and alligators, oh my,” or just “sounds unpleasant,” his work may be for you! Then once you’re there, you get an education on the ecosystem he wants to preserve. He doesn’t even want to be remembered as a photographer as much as an educator.

Even Van Gogh, whose paintings of farmers also don’t suggest anger, was subversive in going against the grain in an art business that saw no beauty in his rough renderings of farmers working in the fields. He railed against the tendency to paint farmers as clean, perfectly proportioned, and poised as graceful ballerinas while easily plucking their potatoes from the ground.

What About You? Can you start from anger, and end in art?

I have no prescriptive answer, because you’re you and I’m me. But whether you are more closely aligned to Jody Williams’s or the Dalai Lama’s views on anger (if they oppose), what art might you begin that comes from anger? Would anger be present in the work itself, fueling it like a rocket into the world to encounter apathy or stoic detachment? Or would it be a celebration of some beauty as you see it (or are it), sent out to counter despair? Or, is there another “or” it can be?

If you want to, go to the page, the instrument, wherever you create. Invite imagination to join you. And try.

 

  1. I think he’s talking about the biofeedback loop, not perceived attractiveness.
  2. I could not find a video of Baca reading this poem, but he performs it in Bill Moyers’s Language of Life–which was a festival but this particular performance may only be in the audiobook.

Featured Image Photo Credit: Pixabay.com

 

2021-04-05T08:55:12-04:00

Taking a Crack at Creativity

Taking a Crack at Creativity

 

Cr: Pixabay

 

Daniel Nayeri writes in Everything Sad is Untrue (a true story), that “Making anything assumes there is a world worth making it for… [It is] a hopeful thing to do.” (He goes on to suggest that those who do so are either brave or not in their right minds at all, but one step at a time here.)

Below are a few ideas for drawing on your creativity to make something. Will it be art? I have no idea! (Insert long and heated conversation on what constitutes art, acknowledging that creativity is not exclusive to the arts, and even there, creative impulse does not always lead to art.) In this context, it doesn’t matter (yet). Art as relief is for “when despair for the world grows in me/ and I wake in the night at the least sound.” (Wendell Berry)

Later, maybe we’ll get to what Untamed author Glennon Doyle meant when she said “Perhaps imagination is not where we go to escape reality. Perhaps imagination is where we go to discover the reality that we were meant to bring into the world.”

And, craft. Because those drawn to writing by a romantic notion of “the writing life” as a floatily creative endeavor 24-7, often feel disappointed by the reality. In the day-to-day, more time is spent on editing, then editing again, then waiting before editing again, then waking up with random phrases in your head to text to yourself before you forget them, than  in transcendent creative union with the collective unconscious, Platonian world of ideas, or whatever you want to call it.

So what does that mean for you? Let’s get concrete and creative.

Last week I invited you to make a physical space for contemplating your own creative spark. A journal or sketchbook, a folder in your Notes app on a tablet, whatever works. Then, you set your intention to listen (even if you’re not sure what you’re listening for), and you wrote down any ideas that came up since then.

To analytical readers, this may sound like mushy advice indeed. Because what does that mean? How do you step into the kind of creativity Van Gogh calls “relief” in times of anxiety, grief, stress, or other emotional pain?

When the blank canvas stares at you…

Stare back. Blankly into the numbness of despair and—I mean, no. Don’t do that.

Van Gogh advised in one of his letters, “Just slap anything on when you see a blank canvas staring at you…”, because “Life itself… is forever turning an infinitely vacant, disheartening, dispiriting blank side towards man on which nothing appears…. But the [person] of faith, of energy, of warmth, who knows something, will not be put off so easily. He wades in and does something…”.

So set aside a half hour or so, even just twenty minutes if it’s all you have. Pick something you wrote in your notebook or folder. Then sit and watch what crosses your mind and/or rises from feeling.

Then, act on your idea. Experiment—even if your brain says this will be the crappiest piece of junk ever created and you’ll never show anyone. If you come up with nothing, try something from the list below that fits for you.

Ideas:

  • Sketch your child’s form, or your pet, or your view out the window, or whatever you were thinking about this week. What kind of form might it take?
  • Write a character in scene, someone you can see in your mind and create in words.
  • If you are able, move your body. Put on music that matches your mood, and dance. If you’re worried your family or roommates will mock you, go into the bathroom, close the door, put on your headphones and find your music. Then let your body communicate your idea or emotion, through dance. Try a pattern. Can you shift from freeform to choreography?
  • Challenge: Take 4 or 5 pieces of music or excerpts without lyrics. To make it easier, choose something that elicits an emotionally strong reaction rather than something more subtle. Pick pieces that present clear musical contrasts when considered together. For example: 1) Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto #2.” 2) Melba Liston’s “Insomnia.” 3) Nine Inch Nails’ “Erasure”. 4) Louis Armstrong’s “Skokiaan” (instrumental portion). Or choose your own. After each one, try to create in writing the same experience for a reader that you experienced as a listener. Avoid analyzing, or any reference to the song at all (e.g. “This song evokes…” or “This song must be about…”). Rather, pretend your reader has not heard the musical piece. All they have are your words to experience the same feeling. I know. It’s tough. If it helps, start by creating an image or scene in words that “matches” the music.
  • Try the above exercise with another art form, such as painting. Buy some cheap 10” x 10” canvases, paints, and brushes. If you have children, invite them to join you?
  • If you have access to a musical instrument, set aside time to wander around in notes and melodies for a while. Try learning a new song. If you are more advanced, create something that emerges from the thought or feeling you wrote about in your notes/journal.

So get absorbed. Feel or think what has been on your heart or mind, and make something of it. If you feel foolish, take heart. Maybe it is brave to put a part of yourself down in front of you, even if it’s just for yourself right now. But I’m rooting for you, Creative Human, full of ideas and experiences. You are alive and you have something to give the page, canvas, musical instrument, dance floor, wherever the art leads you.

Thank you for reading.

2021-03-26T11:18:53-04:00

The Creative Spark – Art as Relief

Quick note:

Thank you to Creative Pinellas and everyone who works here, for all you are doing to support the arts in Pinellas County. I am honored to be part of this active online community of artists from various disciplines. Especially now that I’ve seen some of what goes into evaluating portfolios for this grant, I salute you and your tired eyeballs for the Zoom hours alone!

 

The Creative Spark – Art as Relief

Most of us paying attention to the state of our psyches in the last year won’t be surprised on any one day to find that all is not well. Even for those who weren’t living with a diagnosed mental health condition, the pandemic and recent events seem to be asking us all to become buff surfers riding the waves of anxiety that are flooding the world right now. Children have been thrown into the water before they know how to swim, and the American Academy of Pediatrics identifies “mental health as one of the most pressing child health concerns we face.” The AP also describes a rising global and massive level of stress and anxiety related behaviors among children.

Recently I read Ronald de Leeuw’s The Letters of Vincent van Gogh. I confess that having put him firmly in the “painter” box, I had no idea what a good writer he was. In his letters he connected reflections on literature, music, painting, and life, his own life having been changed by the mental illness that intensified as he got older. Though he sometimes chafed against the limitations of his craft and the Paris art business, he described painting as a “relief,” his reprieve from suffering.

After reading Shakespeare’s historical plays, which riled up the painter, “he had always to ‘contemplate a blade of grass, a branch of pine, an ear of corn […] to calm myself down again […].” And of course, to paint those blades of grass, sunflowers, orchards, almond branches, and vast skies full of stars and sunrise from his hospital window.

In all, he left more than 900 paintings, only one of them sold before his death (perhaps helpful for striving artists to remember when your work is declined).

What might this mean for you?

Skip ahead 120 years, to wherever you find yourself right now. Might the same thing be true for us? Even if you think you haven’t the slightest flame of creativity glowing inside you, even if you insist that your smoldering flame fuels only weariness and anxiety, keep your eyeballs here while I make a suggestion.

Earlier this month in the New York Times, artist Kyohei Sakaguchi spoke of art as self-care, life saving and necessary after he’d become depressed and suicidal following the Fukushima Disaster. “I think art is a technique for life,” he said. “I do what I do in order to keep living.”

The current Creative Pinellas “You Good” campaign reflects this idea, focusing on mental health and well being in Pinellas County through life giving art.

My thesis (Yes I know this is a blog): You are a Creative Human who can psychologically benefit from your creativity.

Don’t believe me? The whole field of art therapy and the research backing it suggests that the benefits are real and quantifiable. According to Harvard Women’s Health Watch, “Studies have shown that expressing themselves through art can help people with depression, anxiety, or cancer,” and, importantly, the “benefits aren’t dependent on a person’s talents” and to receive cognitive benefits where there is decline, “doing creative activities may be more effective than merely appreciating creative works.” (italics mine)

If you already know and revel in this knowledge, great. I hope you’ll have some fun in that space via this blog and those of other grantees in the coming months.

But if you come to the arts as an observer alone, this is my invitation to you. Think of some things you’d really like to just fall away from your wrangled mind for a while (You can go back to them later, I promise!). If you think I’m full of #$%@, consider suspending your disbelief for a few blogs to dip the tip of your toe into the notion that you are a Creative Human, and there can be relief in this.

It doesn’t matter if you think you suck at it. I used to teach writing to high school students and adult learners (which we all are). And if there is one thing common to every single class it was the trepidation that can come with being asked to challenge a firmed up belief about oneself: in this case, that we aren’t “good enough” at something to try it—which if you think about it for half a second, makes no sense.

It goes something like this: “BAH, humbug! I’m an accounting major, what do you want from me?” “I didn’t get the creative gene.” “I’m bad at that.” “Please don’t laugh when you read this. I know it’s bad.” Or even from those in other creative fields: “I draw/sing/paint/dance. I can’t write.” Granted, there are real obstacles to writing for some, rooted in the brain and causing significant anxiety for people who have to write for school or work.

Rest assured, this is not a writing assignment. Ok maybe a tiny bit, but only in a scribble-ly way and you won’t have to show anyone. I mostly promise.

Even within the arts, does your spark end with your particular discipline? Or might there be something in exploring other forms of creativity that we aren’t supposed to be “good at?” Especially if you’ve had trouble concentrating and producing work in the pandemic, stepping cleanly outside your discipline creatively can be a good way to keep things moving, because there is no associated pressure to live up to the label on your web page.

For example, this year I started playing the piano again, more than twenty years after my high school piano teacher gave up on me after a few years because I had stopped practicing. Today I am more grateful that my parents were able to provide lessons and my mother insisted that I try. Because while “pianist” will never show up on my resume, there is relief here. When I become frustrated or brain-boggled by writing or life, I can learn to play a new song.

This is hard because I am a painfully slow sight-reader, especially when notes wander too far from the staff where letters are neatly corralled for easy reading (EGBDF! FACE!…), or if too many chords try to squish on there at once. It takes so much focus for me to play the correct notes that it becomes a meditation, my concentration becoming the bouncer who doesn’t let a single stressful thought into the dance party of drunken colliding bodies that is my mind on some days. Eventually, I learn the song and get to enjoy the music, which I can play in my own style.

So, Creative Human, what might creativity as relief look like for you? I invite you to spend some time contemplating that creative spark through this blog with me. On Fridays, you will find me here along with nine other grantees, and I hope you will find something here to light your creative spark and ease you into the weekend, where you may find reprieve.

This week:

If you live in a space that respects your contemplative time, maybe just let a few new thoughts about your creativity bonk around inside your head for the next week, jotting it down if you want and staying open to seeing where it takes you. If you live in a crowded space with to-do lists coming out your ears and little time to think, maybe you rip off a corner of that list and scribble a few ideas that sound appealingly creative. Or, maybe you are stress free and just want to do something fun.

Whatever your situation, find a notebook, journal, sketchbook, or a Notes folder on your tablet or phone. Name it “Creativity” or “Brain Fun” or “Imagination,” or something else that marks it as separate from your “official” work or duties.

Next, and this is very simple, just tap into the collective unconscious ether that is creative energy and—

Just kidding! Or rather, not yet. I want to include those of you who balk at the idea of yourself as a Creative Human, and those who know you are but put creativity in an “extra” or “luxury” box instead of a necessary one.

Last step: Mentally or verbally send the thought out there (just, out—into the air around you, or wherever you want) that you’re listening. Then listen. And don’t ask me what I mean by that because it’s different for everyone and I don’t know your answer.

But I can say, definitively and absolutely, that if you stay with me here for a bit, you’ll have some kind of mostly but not always satisfying answer by the time we’re done (How’s that for knowing the litigious society in which I write?). Or at least you’ll know what I think, so there.

That’s it. Easy peasy. Thank you for reading, and for contemplating your creativity this week. Whether you are a professional artist, creative tinkerer, or an “I’m not creative” humbug-ger who denies you have a creative spark at all, I’m glad you’re here. More next Friday.

 

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