Maybe you can relate. The externals – the time, the place, my age, etc. – may or may not bear any similarities to anything you have experienced, but I’m not talking about externals today. I’m talking about how it often takes having it all to make one realize there’s something yet missing.
There’s a curious overlay to where I am today, though an inverse in others. It was a moment just proceeding leaving one life and beginning another. One where I felt, in some ways, I was abandoning my duties. And yet I just had to go.
It was 1990, and I, yes even I, was smack dab in the center of the art world, if waiting in the wings. I had a job working as a studio assistant for an amazing artist whose work I’d known of since high school. The work I did for him was necessary. It allowed him to get where he needed to go. To get back to creating art after an incomprehensible “accident” that had rendered him physically compromised.
As such, you might say my vocation married form and function. It was creative and fulfilling. I was swimming in waters I’d only dreamed of swimming in, rubbing shoulders and on a first name basis with artists, gallery owners, and museum directors whose names were, and some still are, a veritable who’s who of the New York art scene. Of the international stage. Yeah, Andy, some of you are saying, rolling your eyes, we know.
What you may not know is that despite that privileged position, and despite being graciously afforded the time, income, and space to make my own art, I was spinning my wheels, artistically, while internally, if truth be told, I was absolutely miserable.
Oh, it wasn’t pure misery 24/7 – on a surface level, despite the difficulties inherent in assisting and witnessing the slow and often painful partial recovery of someone who only months earlier was lying in a hospital bed, unable to move his body, most days were quite enjoyable, in fact. My first hand witnessing and partaking of the life of someone at that high yet still rising water mark of success – and in many ways, I was able to enjoy the trappings of that success in greater measure than he could – was both fulfilling and fun. It was both easy and difficult. Easy in the sense that I felt I’d been made for this work in some ways. I was strong enough to tackle the more physically demanding aspects of the job. I was built, mentally, to rise to the challenge, and just keen enough to know when to speak and when not to, times when I was allowed to sit in on important meetings and such. If memory serves.
But difficulty sometimes arises, incongruously, in the midst of the land of plenty.
When lumped with the whole of humanity, relatively few will be given such an opportunity as I had, with the art world gesturing for me to enter more fully. And yet, as I said, deep within, I was dissatisfied. Even I, who often couldn’t see past the end of my nose, knew I was on the wrong track.
By the end of my stay, I was spending more and more time with my employer and his family, both in the city and out in their country home. Weekdays and weekends increasingly began to meld. My life and theirs, too, followed suit.
In my mind’s eye, it was in the middle of the day, so it was probably one of the somewhat uncommon weekends when I was alone in my employer’s studio/my rent-free “studio apartment” in Little Italy. Crosby and Spring. 5th floor.
Yes, I’m pretty certain it was both light and sunny out, contrasting nicely with my internal disposition.
Finally, at long, long last, I got out a piece of note paper and wrote myself a half page letter in blue ink. It was all I could muster.
I have since lost the letter, unfortunately, just as I have that black and white photo of the artist and his young assistant, taken in MoMA during the lead up to the show he guest curated. But I recall the gist of what I wrote.
I wrote that I didn’t know what I was doing there. Oh, I knew I was playing a meaningful, appreciated, and compensated role in my employer’s road to recovery. But I also knew that deep down, I had an ulterior motive for being there. I’d wanted some semblance of this life since I’d been told, back in high school, that that’s where I’d be shortly after college. New York. City of my ill-conceived dreams.
Now I’d been given a large slice. Take and eat, Andy. Have your fill.
Would you like some more? There’s plenty more.
But as with gorging oneself, even and perhaps especially when every dish is perfectly prepared and plated, to the point where you just have to throw in the towel and say no mas, por favor, no mas, here I sat, a younger version of myself, and yet still this body, these hands resting on the table in front of me, this mind – a much more clouded and mystified mind, yet just able to comprehend that I was lost.
I was in a fog, and yet I knew I was not where I wanted to be, after all was said and done. I was not heading in a direction I wanted to go anymore.
This was all on me, I want to add. I may have been a spring chicken in some regards, but I was astute enough to know what I was doing. Not that I’d created the life I was living, but once I’d been given the opportunity, I was making the most of it.
I was about to write that trouble appeared the times I was alone with myself and my thoughts, but that’s not true. The inverse is true. Times I was by myself, and more able to honestly look myself in the mirror, if barely, the person staring back at me was dead.
Yet somehow I could still write. Here’s the essence of the old testament:
What am I doing here? What am I doing with my life? I feel like my art is meaningless. This world doesn’t need another voice, another clanging cymbal, that ultimately isn’t saying anything. I have no idea what I’m making art for. Why I’m traveling down this path. It’s meaningless. I’m done.
I feel like I should be doing something altruistic with my life. But what? How do I get from here to there? How do I extricate myself from this life I’ve constructed? And where should I go? What should I do?
Who knows? Who cares?
Who cared? Many cared. Many had made me feel as welcome as I allowed them to in this initially alien world, this world I had seemingly been given full access to. I’ve always maintained that you can make just about any inhospitable corner of the globe home if you find but one person to truly connect with, and despite what some might say about its hard as nails exterior, New York City isn’t inhospitable. In the city I found many caring people. Plenty of people who, like me, had come to this place to test their mettle. To create their lives. Write their stories. Yes, even in the dog eat dog art world of the late ’80’s.
I was deeply cared for, and I knew it, then and now.
But it wasn’t enough. In some ways an overlay of where I’ve been internally for some time now – only now, and for many years now, I know I’ve been exactly where I ought to be, on the right path – there was a growing conviction at that time that there was something more out there. Something existing outside of the self-defined boundaries of the life I had thought I wanted. The life I was constructing.
It’s as if I were sitting down not at a table in an art studio in Manhattan but on the edge of a work site, viewing the foundation of a house I had intended to build for myself.
But I don’t like it, I was saying to myself, looking at the blueprints I had drawn up. I don’t like who I’m becoming. The foundation’s all wrong. Whose idea was it to build such a house, anyway?
I don’t ever want to live in such a house.
Again I underline that it wasn’t about externals. About the age old question of whether or not one should move to New York. Even about whether or not I belonged in New York, as so many had told me I did and even now, as I wrestled with my thoughts, were parroting. Andy, you belong here. It’s obvious. You were made for this place.
But here, there, wherever you go, there you are. That was the crux of the issue. The plane that had carried me out of one life and into another had done just that – carried me. I hadn’t left myself back in Colorado, or Chicago, or San Diego. The same doubts and struggles, as well as the “better angels of my nature”; all of it, the whole enchilada – it accompanied me even as I gained higher and higher ground. Attained greater and greater access to the life I’d thought I wanted.
Not many months after writing the letter, out of the literally smoking ruins of a poorly executed construct I drove. Back to Colorado. Go west, young man. Back to your home town. Back to square one.
But it’s not about the place. It’s not about externals.
Dear reader, there are internal realities that no amount of my writing can convince you of. That no following of my travels in the moment or in the future will allow you access to. Be that as it may,
More real than the quarter century distant yet scout’s honor photorealistic picture of a thin slice of my history I have painted,
More real than the reality of pain and suffering, of the deep desire for a life of meaning and purpose,
Yes, much deeper than I often reveal,
At the heart of the matter,
At the absolute, undisguised core of me,
I know that I know that my Redeemer liveth, and that my life, both heretofore and henceforth, all of it, despite my messiness and lack of reciprocity, shall stand as a testament to His faithfulness. To His kindness. To His goodness.
Let this post stand as a witness.