The other night, I told a friend that, were I ever to write an autobiography, I’d title it Late Bloomer, Early Riser. (I’d try to sneak the word “secret” into the title: it’s no secret that books with that word in the title sell faster than they would without. We all want to be in the know. Secrets of a Late Bloomer and Early Riser. Not as good, except for the bottom line).
Regarding the former, it took me a long time – twenty three years – to return to making art. My life, during the midst of that period, was full, blessed, valuable; many, perhaps most of the lessons I have learned – ok, ok, hope I’ve learned – in life, both personal and artistic, are rooted in that period of time.
Regarding the latter, well, it’s 2:34 am, and oops, I’m at it again.
But back to the former, I think it’s fair to say that although there was, from time to time during that long hiatus, a yearning for my more artistic nature to find greater expression, it didn’t last too long or cut too deep, as it would were it, say, the unrequited love of someone you have to cross paths with on a daily basis. In fact, I’d say the hunger, like clockwork, stayed fairly dormant for around ten months of the year. Then, it would resurface.
It was like the humpback whale that we tracked a few weeks ago in the Strait of Georgia, as it passed back and forth along the invisible border between Canada and the US. Just when I thought it was gone for good, it finally reappeared – at least a bit of it, like the tip of a massive iceberg, exhaling a jet of pressurized air from its blowhole, leaving one to wonder just how long can such a massive creature stay submerged?
My creative yearnings resurfaced each summer, from 1988 until 2012, when art once again reappeared and vented creativity into my life in what was an initial, months-long flow.
That was the period of time when I was fortunate to be on summer staff for the Marie Walsh Sharpe Art Foundation’s Summer Seminar. The seminar was for students from across the fruited plain who were heading into their senior year of high school – the perfect age for many of them to have such an intensive, immersive art experience – something akin to the intensity they would soon be experiencing in their undergraduate years, if they majored in studio art.
My role, and that of the other Sharpe staff, was equal parts counselor, living in a dorm with the students blessed to have been chosen for the tuition-free, rather exclusive scholarship (chosen solely on the strength of their portfolios, hence, the cream of the nation’s artistic crop, and not a few household names), and studio assistant.
During the two plus decades I worked for the foundation in that capacity, often doing two or three back to back seminars, I was fortunate to rub shoulders with artists, many of whom have become lifelong friends, like Mary Heilmann, Don Coen, Luis Jimenez, Joanna Pousette-Dart, Janet Fish, Charles Parness, Chuck Forsman, Jimmy Grashow, John Hull, Robert Cottingham, Merrill Mahaffey, Joe and Joey Baker, Robert Hudson, Jim Long, Harriet Shorr, Judith Linhares, Jack and Sondra Beal, Cynthia Carlson, Richard Haas, and others, along with a staff comprised of accomplished artists as well. All of whom, along with the amazingly talented students, contributed to an internal stirring, like the reaction that occurs when two magnets come within close proximity. Some invisible force, some “deep calling to deep”, otherwise for all intents and purposes dormant, would again tug powerfully within me.
It’s a bit funny to me now, but I recall many a conversation in my 20’s through to my mid 40’s, when art came flooding back into my life, when, in conversation with some of the other Sharpe faculty and staff, I would try to defend my seriously held contention that I wasn’t an artist and that I didn’t have creative bone in my body. I’ll spare you the reasons why I felt this way, other than to say that, regarding the former statement, I maintained that in order to call oneself an artist, a person, hello, needed to create art. As for creativity, well, I think that’s a bit like someone saying carte blanche, “I’m not a runner.” That may be true in the moment. When I was young, my mom, who’d never run prior like my dad had for years, could not make it around the block without stopping to rest, the first time she accompanied him. Months, not years, later, she was averaging 3 – 5 miles each morning. Boom. Runner. As the adage goes, whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.
Creativity, like one’s heart muscle, needs to be exercised to show you the true extent of what’s possible.
Anyhow, all of that was a long preamble to what I really wanted to write about this morning.
What follows is so deeply personal that even as I write this, part of me is hesitant. Some of you will discount it in one way or another. That’s fine. Others will wonder if this is my normal mode of existence. It is not.
The other night, while talking about it with my wife and a friend on our porch, I had to stop for a while until I could get my emotions under control. Crying in public is a rare occurrence for me. What I recounted to them and to you now is even rarer. I’ve only experienced it perhaps a handful of times.
The first three or four times I felt something wash over me all occurred just prior to my return to art. They all happened while I was working in the Colorado College sculpture facility that I supervised by day. I was using it on my own time to rehabilitate a number of sculptures of an art professor and climbing partner of mine, in advance of his posthumous retrospective at one of the two University of Colorado at Colorado Springs’ Galleries of Contemporary Art.
As I plugged away at the task I had gratefully volunteered for, feeling honored to have been asked, whoosh – out of nowhere, I would get a wash of an intimation that something good was on its way.
I don’t recall putting the drill or the Bondo down and trying to figure out what it was I had just experienced, and frankly, I didn’t really spend much time mulling it at all. There didn’t seem to be any crystal clear context. It was something akin to the sun coming out from behind the clouds on a cool, autumn day. It feels good. You don’t stop what you’re doing and ask what this sudden warmth portends. You just enjoy the feeling.
All I recall thinking was, “Hmm, that’s interesting,” shrugging, and going about my business.
However, along with the good feeling, I somehow got the message, “Something’s coming. Something related to your connection with Louis, and what you’re doing for him and Millie now. Something good. Just you wait and see…” Not in so many words. Not in words at all. They were just intimations.
Shortly thereafter, an equally personal, equally difficult to articulate (and hence, I’m sure, equally unbelievable) event occurred, which I have written extensively about, signaling to me that a return to art was to occur. Didn’t know when – and thought it would yet be years down the road – but it was clearly going to happen.
About three days later, as simple and as night-and-day as flicking on a light switch, I began making art again.
The few times I’ve talked about these intimations – and I just did a search on both my current live and over three hundred hibernated blog posts sitting in Blogger limbo, and didn’t find anything related to this – I’ve tried to be careful not to embellish. Hindsight’s 20/20, but it’s clear to me as I sit and type this out at 4:26 am on Monday, October 7, 2019 that when I got those intimations, I didn’t know what, if anything, to make of them. Hence, the only real response I recall giving, each time, was something on the order of, “Huh. That’s cool.” Then I’d pick up the paint brush again, mix some acrylic colors on the palette, and resume my art conservation work.
From that period of time in late 2011/early 2012 until quite recently, I haven’t felt anything quite like them.
Then, this past summer, just days before I was to fly out of state to stand in front of a public art project’s selection committee, it happened again.
This time, it was mid day, and I was sitting where I am this morning, at my dining table, sitting where I usually do. My wife, Nan, was seated at the table as well. I don’t recall what we were talking about. Probably something unrelated, though I know that just below the surface, the upcoming trip was on my mind. Despite being one of only three finalists, I had no assurance my proposal would be chosen. In fact, despite putting a lot of time, effort, and money into developing my proposal, I was feeling less and less sure. I felt out of my league in comparison with the scope of the project. Despite having relative success in one category of the fine art enterprise, public art seemed like a locked vault – in fact, until quite recently I’d justified my inability to crack that nut and toyed with the idea of closing it off for good. No more RFP’s or Q’s.
Again, I don’t want to leave the wrong impression. I wasn’t feeling despondent, or like I had no chance whatsoever. I was being realistic, and as we all know, sometimes just facing ourselves in the mirror is enough to give pause.
And then, it happened again. Quite out of the blue. Another intimation.
It was just like before. Only, this time – again, not in words – I struggle to explain how I knew that this is what was being imparted to me but for the life of me, I can’t – I “heard” the “message” that I won. My proposal for the public art project would be chosen. I felt the assurance flood over me.
When it happened to me the first time, it took weeks, if not longer, before I told Nan or anyone else. This time, after hesitating for a moment, I told her right away. I qualified it, though. I said I knew I could be wrong. If you asked her, she would attest that, though there have been some quite curious moments in the past that have given us pause, I’ve never, since that earlier period, claimed to have felt an intimation like this. Nothing this direct.
And this time, having more of a historical context with which to frame the intimation, I did spend some time mulling. This was very definitely specific to the public art project. It was definitely announcing that I would win. That is all. Because there was not context to the first set of intimations I received back to back to back, I didn’t think about them much. “Hey,” I might have responded, “if this is supposed to be some sort of solvable riddle, I could use another clue or two.”
And truth be told, this time, I doubted it. How easy it is for me to believe that the future’s so bright, I gotta wear shades. No doubt I was just trying to ratchet back my mounting fears just as I was heading into the room where eighteen people sat, waiting to hear my proposal.
My fears were confirmed and heightened just before I entered the selection committee room a few days later. The previous finalist, exiting the room, warmly introduced himself, exchanged cards with me, and left. Having another half an hour before giving my talk, I took a gander at his website. Oy vey. Stiff competition. Commissions throughout the world. Excellent work.
Maybe, this time, the intimation was just wishful thinking. In fact, I don’t recall it even entering my mind as I prepared my Powerpoint notes, highlighting phrases I wanted to accent and drawing smiley faces as a reminder to “watch my face”.
But, what do you know, I got a confirmation that the intimation was accurate about a week later, this time, via an email from a representative of the steering committee and the city of Tulsa, beginning with, “We are pleased to share…”
And that’s just about all I wanted to say this morning. I don’t know why, per se. It wasn’t in mind until the moment I placed my fingers on the keyboard.
I’ve tried to be completely honest with you here today. I’ll continue to try to be honest.
Maybe someone out there has felt, like I did for many years, like a part of you you’ve held in reserve is somehow responding to the words you’re reading. Maybe deep is calling to deep within you.
Caveat: I don’t think my story is necessarily “for” everyone. Perhaps it’s only meant for those of you who still sit there, glued to every word I write. Maybe not even all of you. Maybe some of you might be studying pathologies in your psych class and think you’ve found a suitable subject for your next paper, “Powerful Self Delusions of the Manically Creative Type.”
If I’ve ever heard anyone with similar experiences to the four or five intimations that I have experienced and attempted to relate to you, I can’t recall them. Again, this is not an everyday occurrence to me. I don’t “expect” to experience another one, or, as with the “broken Strand” moment, base my entire creative drive on the need for such moments. No, that drive is based, most days, on the same ordinary effort it takes to mentally switch from, “I just want to sit here and watch another YouTube cat vs cucumber video,” to “I’m getting up and heading into the studio.”
(By the way, yesterday I stood on a mound of dirt in the middle of what will, in a few short months’ time, be my new art studio, doing a 360 degree pan with my iPhone while masons were nearly finished constructing a CMU block foundation on all sides. #excited #itshappening #itsmanifesting #thankyoulord @artstudiobuild on Instagram for regular updates on that.)
However much you or I might wish for one, I don’t think we necessarily need such “messages” to respond to a deep yearning for our creative natures to find fuller expression.
One need not be as curiously wired as I am, with the ability, at times, to wake up, morning after morning, at three, two, one am, or earlier, in order to create words on a screen for a few hours before my “day shift” begins. Thank goodness there’s only one of me in the world.
I think it’s like running. It’s not whether you’re currently a runner or not. Me, as I get back into the swing of it: I’m more of a plodder, these days, though I desire to see my times decrease nearly as much as I want the same around my waist line.
I have one final “intimation” to share – that it’s well within the capacity of everyone still with me, to, metaphorically speaking, simply wake up one day, as I probably will after closing my laptop, slipping back into bed, and trying to get a bit more shut-eye,
and then, upon reawakening, simply decide,
“Why, I think I’ll go for a run.”