THE BROKEN COLUMN
How does one muster the wherewithal to work in the midst of great adversity?
Years ago when my wife had cancer, one very caring professor (I was in college at the time) told me I should do some pieces thusly based, but I never could garner the enthusiasm. I wondered how Frida Kahlo could do it–work within her great adversity–enduring severe back pain in her case. The agony she experienced from her broken back (and other bones), the result of a bus accident, stayed with her long after the body cast was removed. But she did, in fact, produce work during these times and her pain (pain being physical and mental) was the impetus for many pieces. She painted in the eye of the storm, as it were, and she painted about the storm.
I admire Kahlo for that; it’s something I have trouble doing—working/focusing during life’s storms. I know that these events surely mold who I am and stay with me long after they physically or emotionally subside. I know because I recognize their influence in the abstract and representational aspects of my work. But execution during and specifically about an ongoing malady is tough for me. Depression inevitably comes and hinders my concentration so that I can’t seem to get out of my worry and into understanding, at least not until afterwards. Later, when the threat has subsided, then I can focus on producing work and that work is, of course, affected by my experience. So, for me, it’s not misery or suffering themselves as blind leaders that produce art, but their learning curve. This should be no great surprise as it is the same in all of life experiences–however they manifest, they are the proverbial “greatest teacher”. But, having said that, there is something special about experience with adversity versus one without.
One major contributor to our reactions to pain may have to do with it’s nature–there is the acute but also the chronic–and so what I learn from a single hard-fought battle is one master, but also ongoing pathologies mold and, I dare say with confidence, are the impetus to work in general. The feeling of wanting to get something off one’s chest never goes away. So should I conclude that pain is synonomous with artistic “voice”? Is this what is meant by the “suffering” artist? My admiration for the German Expressionists proves to me that there is, deep inside of me, some angst that wants to be expressed and I do see this chronic “pain” (for lack of a better word) in my work. But life is not so simple for me to assume that we all have the same motivations within. And maybe, as Victoria Ford points out in her post Great Art Comes Only from Those Willing to be Vulnerable, the word “pain” has different meaning(s) when it comes to art.
I’ve lately begun titling some of my paintings after people from my life. I usually think about meanings later but I know they’re somewhere in the recesses of my brain while I’m working. Some pieces are named after grandparents I miss, or come from feelings about people who themselves are going through trials. My recent painting The Journey Of Phyllis Jean, pays homage to my mother-in-law’s plight with Alzheimer’s. Interestingly, in contrast to me trying to find inspiration or expression from something (like my wife’s illness), I find I work better responding to feelings, intuitively, that want to bubble up on their own. I can’t force it.