I found the artist in her usual afternoon setting. Silently, I sat beside her on the bare earth. Partially framed by the edge of the sombre forest, there was a peculiar light to her eyes that might not have been all sky. Though it was true that a most magnificent display of hues animated the clouds tarrying above. Not for the first time, I wondered at this curious feeling that overcame me every time I dwelt in the company of the artist.
An aura of inspiration, a subtle permission to allow innate sensitivities their say about the world. To take the time. The way a child’s eyes broaden to the wonders of the world after a visit to the museum. The way the inspired state lingers. Perhaps, there is an answer there. That an artist’s wisdom lies in, not only not forsaking states of childlike wonder, but cultivating them until they mature into their next creative stage.
It is not that we simply do not take the time, there is some agency necessary there. Some foresight, incongruous with how the young devour life. It is common knowledge, I think, that ideas mould the world, that ideas are a force for change. But, how can a child come to know that there is such value in inspiration? Especially when inspiration is a force that leads one to be different, misunderstood, outcast? It takes a specific type of character, I think. A stubbornness, to be sure. To maintain our uniqueness elastic, supple, malleable. To willingly give the many forces of this world something to play with, to push and pull, hither and thither, to corrupt.
‘A depth of soul is an aching thing.’
The words lingered between us. Something in the artist’s tone told me she did not speak them entirely for my benefit. Her speaking them aloud, perhaps, was for my benefit, but the words themselves seemed of a different conversation the artist must have been having with her corner of the world before I arrived. Seeing as I, myself, had been lost in other thoughts, my receptivity was not exactly equal to the profundity of the idea she was expressing.
‘An… an aching thing?’ I asked, trying to make up for lost time. But my words never reached her.
The edge of the woods. The edge of night. The edge of a thought. There was something… other, something palpably… other, to the atmosphere of our encounter. Not an urgency. A gravity, perhaps? An anticipation? As though the moment or perhaps the proposition she was about to make, was oblong, somehow. Maintained upright by a most precarious equilibrium. Perhaps about to tip, never to be the same again. Though I could not be entirely sure.
Perplexity, in a way, could be said to be my status quo. At times, granting me the uncanny ability to marinate for hours in puzzled contemplation of intricate matters, without ever transcending into the world of truth or opinion. A dubious superpower, as far as superpowers go. To allow bewilderment to be a state, and not a vessel towards understanding. Perplexity, perhaps, could explain why I so frequently sought the artist’s company. To bathe in actualised curiosity. That is to say, the state of art. ‘Perplexity, perhaps’, was most likely destined to be the extent of my artistic journey. Ever budding, destined never to bloom.
A cool wind rustled the leaves on the edge of the woods, revealing their pale underside. Here and there, the shyest hints of autumn had begun colouring the palm of the leaves, around the veins. The cool wind also rattled the dry flowers on the edge of the barren field. And we, in the middle. A storm was brewing, perhaps. Perhaps merely a change of wind.
‘A depth of soul is an aching thing to be left unexpressed,’ the artist declared into the disappearing day, a hint of apology in her voice. This time, the artist seemed to have found the right angle with which to approach her oblong theme without tipping it over. ‘An artist is a hollow, a yawning expanse, wherein the world echoes richly. There is such beauty to the resulting alchemy, such novelty, like a murmuration of starlings…’ The artist paused, and for the first time acknowledged my presence. She gazed into my eyes and, in a theatrical voice, said, ‘Am I the only one seeing this? I can’t believe it. Waaah!’
It took me a millisecond to grasp her sudden exclamation. With a smile, I glanced thoughtfully into the distance, perhaps thinking to see one such cloud of shape-shifting starlings, migrating over the fields. A powerful spectacle, common around these parts. But none manifested.
‘I can still remember the need to communicate such a feeling, too vast to contain. A tremendous feeling of both… of both awe and helplessness. And… solitude. Don’t widows invariably declare that the hardest part of loss, is having so much to share and no longer someone to share it with?’
The artist took in a huge breath and sighed. I nodded, finding just enough purchase around the edges of her convoluted associations, to keep abreast of her greater point. Although, my faith in the unique workings of her mind, alone, was perfectly enough for me to willingly embark upon the wayward journey of her correlations.
‘If you have the depth of soul to experience beauty, to truly experience it, the feeling can only be described as a vast endless ache. It’s unfortunate, really, how we are birthed into this world, so incredibly inept in the nuances of expression. Hungry, we cry. Scared, we cry. Lonely, we cry. Hurting, we cry…’ The artist smiled, gesturing to the beautiful sunset landscape. ‘And yet, we are surrounded by such a spectacular, mysterious universe, that even our most insightful artists fall short of truly expressing… As far as I can tell, humankind possesses only two inexplicable characteristics. The ability to experience a virtually infinite range of sensory input, to the point of excruciating pain, as well as the ability to experience a virtually infinite array of emotions. What possible evolutionary advantage is there in either of these two extremes?
A depth of soul is an aching thing to be left unexpressed. And yet, to express it…’ she sighed, the weight of many struggles brought to mind, then dispelled. ‘To express it is to toil. Such a contradictory act, creation. The beauty of that which you try to express is so… diminished, cheapened, by its expression.’
We share a silence.
‘A bit like a dream, no?’ I asked, at length, perhaps wanting to prove to her that I was following. Perhaps merely to remind her of my presence. Remind myself?
She pointed a finger at me and winked knowingly.
‘So, what do artists do? Why, we obsess over method, of course. If only we can truly arrive at the essence, we think.’
‘Never doubt the vision. Doubt the skill.’ I quoted, unsure of the quote’s provenance. Hers? Mine?
‘That’s right. Ponder the irony.’ she said, showing me her hands, palms up. Her artist’s fingers all uniquely crooked. ‘The substance we so yearn to convey is the exact anti-matter of expression. It is invested with value, precisely because of its being unexpressed and inexpressible. From being tangled up with a whole mess of emotions, circumstances, memories, experience, etc. So, artists have to reverse engineer the source of the inspiration. And to do so, we must use the tools and skills at our disposal. Must use method, must use ritual, must use trance, and the like. Must weaponise emotions, our senses. Must invariably capture the bird, whose freedom inspires us so, whose freedom we seek to express. And an artist’s unique inability to express the inexpressible, becomes that artist’s touch. The artist’s quarrel with this powerful irony, becomes that artist’s journey.’ the artist concluded, pensively, a small smile surfacing on the edge of her lips. Her eyes, pale with age, pale in the twilight; moved in circles to encompass the world around her.
‘Shall we?’ I asked, anticipating her need, despite my own yearning not to sever the string of this rare and insightful conversation.
‘Yes, I think so. No, no, I’m fine.’ she said, refusing my hand, making my point for me about the unique strength of character, not to say stubbornness, of artists.
‘Of course,’ I answered, rising to my feet. And together we set off towards the house whose glowing lanterns flickered in the distance. The ground was uneven, and I was not ungrateful at the prospect that our progress would be slow.
‘Where was I, then? I’ve talked myself into a circle, haven’t I?’
‘An oval, I believe.’ I proposed with a smile.
‘It’s been so long since I’ve felt so moved to speak. Must be that my time is not far off. Oh, don’t be dramatic,’ she added promptly, with a wave of her hand, though I could not entirely tell whether it was I whom she scolded. ‘The only times I’ve ever feared death, and with a passion,’ she said brandishing her fist, I could only imagine, in case the reaper was within earshot, ‘was when a truly unique, life-altering idea struck me. An epiphany.’ She laughed at the recollection of such moments of youthful fancies. ‘Of course, when I would find the note, later on, or the sketch, there was rarely anything there to justify such frantic paranoia! But, at that moment… oh,’ she sighed, ‘there was always such a sense that nothing in the world could ever be more important than to capture the inspiration before it faded. A motherly instinct, almost. And I would think, as soon as I captured it, ‘Ok, now I can die.’’
I shared in her laughter, recollecting the many notes I, myself, had hurriedly written down in my own personal moments of epiphanies. Notes which—when read in a less excitable state—could make grocery lists seem clever and imaginative.
‘Every artist seeks to create something that will transcend the meaninglessness of life. To create something that will transcend the artist’s own life. Oh, it is perhaps a banal truth… But how can you credit such a visceral reaction? A fear that death should come before I had the chance to express an idea? That, afterwards, I was at peace with dying? Like… like carrying the secret of fire. There is something profoundly revelatory there, is there not? That evolution should favour such a behaviour?’
‘I… I admit, I had never thought of it that way.’
‘To try and capture something true and beautiful, is invariably to corrupt it. Like plucking a flower. Or caressing a baby bird. But what else is there? The hollow is there. The ache is there. It’s a brooding energy. An angst. It will always spill out. Boil over. It will seek expression through the path of least resistance.’ The artist frowned. ‘We are effortlessly destructive, humans. Of course. But it’s not a matter of good or bad. It’s simply the way of least resistance. It’s the easiest avenue for our excess turmoil. For the repressed emotions that fester beneath our awareness. Yes, we are effortlessly destructive, and… and that is why some of us have such an inborn desire, a need, to create. To channel, to wield, this most restless energy, into a direction of our choosing. It is inherently counter to our nature. Goes against the very grain of existence. And here’s me, babbling on. Am I making any sense?’
‘Idle hands do the devil’s work?’ I offered. A shot in the dark, I must admit.
‘Have you ever met a worse human being than a frustrated artist? It’s not easy going against humanity’s destructive nature. No. If creation is not one of the more noble pursuits of our kind, it is certainly one of our most trying.’
‘You can’t be suggesting that creation is just a wielding of our inherently destructive nature in a constructive direction?’
The artist paused a moment. Perhaps I should not have pressed the matter…
‘See, let me ask you this. When I say: a depth of soul is an aching thing, do you understand what I mean by depth of soul?’
I made as though to think about it. Though, in all candour, I had been waiting for the artist to get around to elucidating this point for me.
‘What is the deepest emotion you can feel?’ she asked, seeing that I was diving too deep into what she considered a simple matter.
I thought about this a moment, too.
‘Is that a question?’
‘Well, I am the same.’ the artist answered, eyeing me curiously, as though she had anticipated this to be the case and felt sorry for it. ‘Maybe it is programmed into us, maybe it is learned. But it is the worm that dives the deepest, that reaches the most profound depth of emotion. A depth of soul. It is the murky, fertile undergrowth that harbours all that flourishes, all that festers. Not everyone possesses it. Ignore your thinking brain long enough, and there, between needs, between rationale, you’ll find brief windows of opportunity to be… more. Not that it is there for the taking. No. There is a formidable personal cost, both emotional and mental to exploring these depths. But what of the opposite cost? Unsounded and unexpressed, there is no telling what may brew and breed in the darkness. A greater evil, to be sure. To be sure… but not by much. The soul is capacious. Perhaps there is no end to it. I don’t know. Explore carelessly, unsettle too many unresolved thoughts and emotions, and you will only succeed in carving deeper recesses into that hollow place. And that is not necessarily a desirable thing.’
A darkness fell upon the artist’s eyes as she dove ever deeper into the subject, as she spoke ever more from personal experience.
‘Some monsters that dwell there in the depths, will not sleep again once stirred. You should never wilfully further the vastness. Only fools seek tragedy or trauma to enhance their genius. That way lies only madness. Only madness,’ she repeated, stopping in her walk to emphasise her point. We had reached the halo of the house by then, and with its glow, she studied my eyes. Once she was sure of my heeding her advice, her face softened into age and fatigue.
‘Enough with the grimness!’ she declared, suddenly and with more vigour than I thought she possessed. ‘The point of the matter is this. Sadness is your gateway emotion. It reaches depths of meaning no other emotion you possess can reach. But that doesn’t mean that you are limited to its expression alone. Do you understand? Make your worm work,’ she said, miming a worm with her little finger. ‘Use the advantage of profound feeling to explore laterally into other emotional states.’
Having arrived at the country house, we climbed the few steps and settled onto rocking chairs on the veranda. For a while, we remained content with observing the tempest of insects tempting oblivion by way of the lantern. There was a peaceful quality to the night, with the cricket chirping and the pre-storm breeze. When the artist spoke again, it was after much reflection. Perhaps with the intention of finally tipping the oblong, she so elegantly danced around. There was something to the theme that would not release her mind.
‘A depth of soul is an aching thing to be left unexpressed.’ she reiterated her oblong proposition, softly. ‘And yet… —and I’m aware this might sound foolish—but I’ve come to suspect that to experience it and leave it unexpressed is the ultimate goal. Ache it will always be. But that is life.’
The artist seemed enlivened by this new angle with which to approach the precarious equilibrium of her theme. Perhaps, she even considered tipping it in that direction. But, for now, she seemed content with merely expanding upon this new concept.
‘To be artist,’ she continued, ‘is a sensitivity, a vulnerability. To be artist is a frequency that, through a state of heightened concentration, or flow, allows the unknown to filter in, to take the shape it desires. Artists develop a sensitive lens through which they contemplate and absorb the world around them. Inspiration is a point of view, a take, a vision, an angle, an intuition, about the world. And the cycle of the artist is such that at first, we discover our sensitivity. Then, we become acquainted with the irony of creation. We develop our craft by channelling our dissatisfaction with the dissonance between vision, expression and form. Only the truly dogged artist will transcend this phase and be rewarded with those moments of effortless perfection. Not objective perfection, but the utmost expression subjective to the artist. True art arises from this most ephemeral alchemy. Subjectively true art. The truth unique to every artist.’
A certain restlessness left the artist when she spoke these last words. So great was her relief, that I began to fear that she would not share with me her final realisation. That she would be content to simply experience it. It seemed to me as though the artist had finally found the angle which would allow her to finally tip the oblong. At last, she spoke.
‘We are so often sold that this is the ultimate achievement an artist can achieve. I don’t believe, for a moment, that I’m the only artist to have glimpsed something… more, something beyond, in those moments of effortless perfection. A feeling that whatever the resulting art, the resulting expression; however it is perceived by the public, or even by the artist with a degree of perspective; in the end, it is all completely immaterial. Inconsequential.’
The artist paused.
‘So, making great art is not an artist’s ultimate pursuit?’ I asked, confused.
‘What comes after?’
‘I… I’m not sure.’
Having unconsciously moved to the edge of my chair, I now sat back and began rocking again. So the oblong would not tip, after all… The artist and I shared in much silence following our exchange. At length, the artist retired to her room. The night was getting on, and the storm was not far on the horizon. Now it was I who was left to ponder, unable to let the precarious oblong alone.
If making great art is not the utmost expression of an artist, what is? What is the artist’s equivalent of enlightenment? There lay the true conundrum. Or just another irony. For true enlightenment teaches to withdraw, to observe; teaches detachment from desires, from possession, from greed…
There is, undeniably, a feverish greed to the act of making art. It is a state of play, of struggle; it is a flirtation, a doggedness. In short, it could not be more opposite to enlightenment. Artists voluntarily enslave themselves to art’s whims, thinking, perhaps arrogantly, to reverse the roles somewhere down the road.
I have often wondered whether one can, or indeed, should separate art and artist. But, after listening to the artist, I can’t help wonder whether this is perhaps not a consequential question, after all. True art according to the artist, is merely the vessel artists use to reach the other side, to become, to transcend into… into what? Art? A state where art can speak itself freely through the artist, like music through a perfectly tuned instrument? Being one with the art in all things? And yet leave it unexpressed? The artist becoming the lens itself?
It was certainly a beautiful vision. And it made some sense to me, inasmuch as I agree that, for all our elevation of the archetypal artist over history, nothing can be more quintessentially human than an artist. Nothing could be less artistic than someone who corrupts the pure essence of the art which so naturally occurs in this world, in order to feed it back to humanity. As long as the chief concern of an artist remains the act of creation, in this sense, the artist is mostly not an artist, but a creator. One who takes and makes. One who mishears and prefers the result. One who imagines a different ending. One who dives into bad art and seeks to understand. One who witnesses greatness and comes away devastated, depressed. One who glorifies mistakes.
The artist is one who is obsessed with the lens with which they observe the world. It is essentially a need to share.
So perhaps the artist was right in believing that there was something other. Something more… transcendental, more noble, less human; to being an artist.
Once the inspiration reaches its utmost expression, or rather, once the artist is fashioned, through making art, into the best instrument for the expression of inspiration, then… then the artist can slowly let go of craft, of expression, and simply bask in the inspiration of all things. The artist is free to forgo the reductionist and flawed act of expression. Once the artist reaches the wisdom that experience is more fully achieved without having to be corrupted by the various processes that lead to expression, then all that is left is the act of experiencing. Which can only be the reason why we were made with such acute senses and no great ability to express ourselves. Which can only be why we possess the ability to experience such a depth of sensory input, of pain. Such an array of emotions.
And there comes a time where the artist becomes detached from greed, possession, desires… and finds satisfaction in simply dwelling in the inspiration, and feels no urge to take action upon it. The experience no longer needing an expression to be whole.
Contemplating this return to the origin, this cycle from experience to expression back to experience, I was suddenly put in mind of the oblong once more. Or more specifically how the oblong is perhaps an appropriate analogy for the artist. It takes a specific mind to conceive of an oblong shape. A creative one to allow the shape to play in the imagination. A visionary one to think that an oblong might be best expressed standing on one of its ends. A stubborn one to attempt such a quasi-futile enterprise. A dedicated one to fail time and time again in taking it where it does not want to go. A masterful one to maintain it there, at last. And a wise one to let it topple once more, knowing the oblong in all its form without having to interfere. Without having to project onto it the petty needs of an artist.
It felt right that it should be a cycle; curious that it should never have felt incomplete without this last phase. It only stands to reason that a pursuit, defined by struggle and stubbornness, must possess some kind of resolution. Some state of equanimity.
Only later, with the benefit of retrospection, was I able to grasp that this meeting with the artist on the edge of the woods, had, indeed, been a pivotal moment. From that night on, the artist never once created again. And it was such a beautiful thing to behold. As much as one could embody the essence of art, the artist, from that night on, did. Something shifted inside me, that day, too. A shift that made me wonder whether the oblong had not, rather, been inside of me all along.
A depth of soul is an aching thing. I think I do understand, now, why her words had had such a confessional, apologetic tone. Why she might have made reference to her time being almost up, as a possible motivation for her to speak her heart. Had I not so often wondered at the curious contagion of inspiration that overcame me in the artist’s company, I might never have found the answer. My answer.
For the artist, in truth, is my mother. She was my museum, broadening my eyes to the wonders of the world. She was my reminder the take the time. To allow innate sensitivities their say about the world. Breathing into me the wisdom not to forsake these states of childlike wonder, but rather, to cultivate them. My depth of soul was a gift, born of my mother.
But, she was also the agency. The foresight so incongruous with how the young devour life. The wisdom—which I only now begin to understand—that ideas mould the world, that ideas are a force for change, was hers. And in teaching me to value such inspiration, she was the force that lead me to be different, misunderstood and outcast.
And if it takes a specific type of character, a stubbornness, to be an artist; my mother could not be sure that I possessed it, before setting me upon that path. Being artist possesses its own natural selection. And so, however well-intentioned, she had cast me to the wolves, never certain whether I would, in fact, transcend. My depth of soul was a curse, born of my mother. And it could have, could still, destroy my life.
And so, it had been a confession. Both a repentance and a last guidance. She had been forever uncertain whether it had been a condemnation. For only I held the power to prove her agency a curse or a gift.
It had been a pivotal moment for me too. For, on that day, I understood better the idea behind who I am. And from that day on I transcended my perplexity. Began creating. Which, for me, took the shape of writing. For, understanding where I came from allowed me to understand better where I could go. Allowed me to, for the first time, be in control of my journey.
Today I am grateful for my mother’s risky belief. Otherwise, I don’t believe the artist in me would exist. I am too easily influenced, too eager to please. I would have had my edges sanded down before long, but for her reminder that I was special, and that I should value those things that make me special. At first I did so unconsciously. And now, I can proudly say, I do so purposefully.
Now that I better grasp the source of my perplexity, perhaps, now I can be so bold as to offer an answer to the question: Can art truly be separated from the artist? For I am my mother’s art, and so, I believe the answer is no.
I will not deny that art can often benefit from the audience’s perplexity. But true art, I believe, achieves truth through being purposeful. And I believe that to be purposeful, one must first come to grasp one’s roots.
Can art truly be separated from the artist? For I am my mother’s art, I believe the answer is no.
© 2022 Etienne Robert. All rights reserved.