On being an artist

What does it take to be an artist?

I think there are lots of answers. Passion. Desire. Love. A yearning for understanding. Storytelling. An appreciation for the beauty we find in our everyday lives. An appreciation for the magic we experience every day. Life itself is a simple answer, we make art to celebrate life. Yes, even death, because we are mortal and we have to cherish each moment we are alive. It means that we are all born to tell our version of the stories that we witness, it's just what we do. From that first day in the stone age when we likely uttered our first word, to today and beyond. We are all hard-wired to be artists because at its core, art is about the wonder of speaking that first word, expressing ourselves.

Humanity's Inherent Contradictions

Humans have to win the award for being the most ruinous animals that have ever walked this planet, what with our practices of war mongering on a mind-numbing scale, and laying waste to nearly our entire home planet. Greed is another of our great downfalls. Billionaires and millionaires exist while millions of other people starve. This is not brilliance, this is stupid, and all of these combined may be our undoing, but I hope not. Humans also get to win the award for being the most sensitive and caring animals who are capable of profound giving. We are one of the few animals that sacrifices their own lives for others on a regular basis, and we have done it all through our existence. By definition, this deep-seated set of characteristics makes us walking, talking, breathing contradictions.

Our yearning for understanding humanity's inherent contradictions

In my opinion, all of the above is why humans have a natural propensity and yearning for understanding our own inherent contradictions. I'm sure that most of us humans sense all of the above somewhere deep within ourselves and are able to express it in various ways, often in a very poetic manner. Poetic in the sense that it is not really what was said, but how the idea was conveyed; often with insight, irony, spirit, compassionate beauty, or frame of mind, or audacious attitude. Sometimes this yearning for understanding humanity's elemental contradictions are attempted to be clarified in an intellectual manner, where people have dedicated their lives to studying various aspects of it as a scholar. Sometimes we are able to express it via the art making process, where we use various medias to tell a story about ourselves. Sometimes this art making is done from a very intuitive place, where the artist can't always quite intellectualize their ideas, but have a different kind of "knowing" that they're only able to express via the making of images, sculptures, stories, musical compositions, or whatever.

It's been my experience that a lot of artists have a highly sensitized sense of intuition, whatever that means. I think it may mean that they may be in tune with who we really are, and try to make work about what it may mean. What makes this entire process interesting is that this sense of questioning "who we are" is in a constant state of flux, because the nature of humanity is so contradictory and sometimes it is the heroic part of our identity what comes forth, and sometimes it is the "demon part" that takes over for a while. We sure as heck have heroes walking the Earth right this moment. As well as the demon, darker part of our humanity; it seems that they're always out there running wild.

Down to the nitty gritty stuff about making it as an artist

Sometimes I have students asking what it takes to succeed as an artist. Sure, I have a set of academic classes that includes syllabi materials, technical instruction about craft, critical feedback about work made on a regular basis, and so on. But what it really takes is never giving up on yourself when things get tough. I notice that a lot of my friends are artists simply because they love it and it is what they would be doing even if they were not paid any money for it. They do it because it becomes an obsession and it fulfills them in a manner that even money can't compete with. As a young man I had a lot of survival jobs which did not include art, like driving a cab on the night shift, selling auto parts, taking commercial inventory, helping build the Alaska Pipeline, etc. There were lots of survival jobs, even with an educational degree in art and photography. It means that it is not easy to make art your profession, but it certainly may be done. Just look at me, I'm a brown-skinned minority from a little Podunk town in the middle of nowhere in Alaska, and I make a living as an artist for my family.

Through all those tough times, I never gave up my photography. I still have a decades-old postcard from one of my friends who was laughing about my near-empty fridge. There wasn't any food in it, but there sure were a couple rolls of film in there, which was fine for a young bachelor. It meant that I continued being a photographer even when nobody paid me for it. This is the crux of the matter; every artist I know who has been able to make a living as an artist would still make art even if nobody paid them to do it. All of the art I've made in my life was made for the love of it, money was not the driving force. However, we cannot ignore the fact that our cultural system forces artists to consider money, because after all, we need shelter, food and a reliable system for raising a family. The stereotype of a starving artist will simply not work in the real world, and we artists are in fact able to move beyond that, but it is not easy in this culture.

I like to tell the story of John Coltrane and how he took jazz to an entirely new rarefied place that hardly anyone could have ever imagined, up where the air is thin and few other people soar. His wife was reflecting about what made him unique in the world. She said that she didn't know of any other musicians who played with his level of intensity and passion, and that it was common for him to practice late into the night and into the early morning light. She said it was common to find him asleep on the couch the next morning, clutching his horn with the mouthpiece still in his mouth. The average person may view this as being overly obsessive; I think that John likely viewed it as simply doing what he was born to do, and that it most certainly was not obsessive, it was completely normal.

At any rate, I think that being an artist is somewhere in the midst of all this, and it essentially comes down to whether a person has the will, desire and passion to do it regardless of what other people say. It's who we are, we were all born to express ourselves, especially when things are tough and not easy. It means that being an artist has to do with being forthright about telling the story of all aspects of humanity; that other people are interested in learning from what we've collectively experienced, because when you get right down to the essence of everything, we're really all in this small boat together, and as social animals, we improve our chances of survival by expressing ourselves about what we've experienced.

Story and Photo Copyright Larry McNeil, 2012

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