Post from July, 2014

Chop Wood Carry Water

Sunday, 27. July 2014 22:45

There is a Zen saying, “Before Enlightenment chop wood, carry water; after enlightenment chop wood, carry water.” And, as with any Zen saying, there are multiple interpretations. I have always interpreted it to mean, “You must do the daily work, regardless of any attainments.” Sell your most expensive and most complicated piece, do the daily work; reach another level in overall sales, do daily the work; win a nationally-recognized award, do the daily work; have a piece accessioned into a major permanent collection, do the daily work. Artists do the daily work.

This was reinforced recently by two posts that appeared on Brain Pickings, one about the creative ideas of Ray Bradbury, and one about the creative ideas of Leonard Cohen. These are two radically different artists, but no one can deny that they are/were complex, prolific, and worthy of respect both for their work and for their influence on other artists. In these posts, they both discuss failure; neither man seems to regard failure as a negative thing.

But what—to me—is more interesting is what they have to say about work. In discussing his training in the Montreal School of Poetry Cohen says, “There were no prizes, as I said, no rewards other than the work itself.” Chopping wood and carrying water is its own reward.

Much has been written on the Buddhist notion of work, but it seems to come down to losing oneself in the work and working with “a spirit of joy and magnanimity.” It is considered a significant part of life, so regardless of age or station or the level of enlightenment, attainment, or fame, the real engagement is in the process of work, which is, in the case of the artist, the creative process. Cohen talks about the difficulty of this work; Bradbury talks about the differences between “made work…to keep from being bored,” working for money, and meaningful work, which he calls “true creativity.” He even suggests that we redefine the word work—meaningful work—as love.

Without that love of creative process, very few artists could continue; the work is too demanding and never-ending and informs the entire life of the artist. Cohen says, “We would read each other[‘s] poems. We were passionately involved with poems and our lives were involved with this occupation…” And that involvement has continued. Even though he talks about “hard labor,” Cohen continues with that labor. “So I always had the sense of being in this for keeps, if your health lasts you. And you’re fortunate enough to have the days at your disposal so you can keep on doing this. I never had the sense that there was an end. That there was a retirement or that there was a jackpot.”

If you really love the work you’re doing and you are capable of doing it and that work is meaningful, why would you even consider retiring? Most artists are far more interested in the current project or planning the next one than in taking it easy, no matter what age they might be. Remember Stephen King’s retirement? Even the rumor was short-lived.

And so, artists, real artists, do the work. They may garner applause, money, awards, fame, but they do the work and they continue to do the work until they are no longer mentally or physically capable. There is, after all, meaningfulness and renewal in the process of chopping wood and carrying water.

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Thinking Like an Artist

Sunday, 13. July 2014 23:44

For a number of years now, one of the least-well-known arts which I have practiced has been pyrotechnics, both the stage kind and the display kind. Some would say this is not an art at all, and in some cases, that is true enough. But some of us who shoot, know that there is indeed artistry involved. There are design choices in terms of product, color and size, patterns of shooting, and, of course, timing. So a pyrotechnician can make a show into a piece of ephemeral art—or not, depending on his/her skill, imagination, and temperament.

This July Fourth found me on the grounds of a country club working as part of a crew on a pretty sizable show, functioning as second shooter (it was a show requiring four hands firing), and mentoring the primary shooter. She was a young woman who had worked on several shows and who had been licensed for some time, but this was the first show of which she had been in charge. (Her day job is art teacher, which becomes important later.) The show was designed to be shot according to a firing track, which is a copy of the music being played for the audience with a voice telling the operator when to fire.

Most of the day had gone well, but as we started wiring the mortars to the control boxes, we became aware of serious weather headed our way, so our time was split between wiring and watching radar. (What did we do before smart phones?) To summarize: we slowed down because of the weather; then we let an unreasonable client push us into shooting before we had had an opportunity to fully check out everything. The primary shooter was nervous, and made more nervous by the situation.

About 30 seconds into an eighteen-minute show, it became apparent that we had some seriously defective equipment. On top of that, we were having unpredictable electrical problems, and it had begun to rain. It didn’t get to the point of unsafe, but it was certainly unsure. If you need help understanding the situation, this was the equivalent of being on stage in front of a full house with three other actors who have suddenly forgotten 30% of the show, but each a different 30%.

At 45 seconds, I realized that she had mentally thrown away the firing track. Later I learned that as soon as she had understood that the start times were mismatched (ours and the audience’s) and that there were equipment problems, she decided the track was worthless; a person less presence of mind would have followed instructions slavishly. Instead, she decided to wing it.

Somehow she managed with (we later determined) only two-thirds of the equipment working properly to keep the sky lit up for 18 minutes, 3 seconds with no significant lapses. The whoops and applause at the end of the finale said that she had succeeded.

In talking with her long after clean-up, she said that as soon as she pressed the first button, a calm overcame her and she lost all nervousness. I praised her ability to throw away the firing track and do a very respectable show of the proper length anyway, something even some seasoned pyrotechnicians would have trouble doing.

She said, “You know, people give you rules, and then you do what you have to, to do the job. That’s what artists do, right?” Right.

It was one of the clearest statements of the way an artist’s mind should work that I have heard, particularly coming from a person of her age and experience. The thought was very similar to one expressed by the far more experienced designer, typographer, and art director Neville Brody who said in an interview with Lee McCormack, “I started to realize quite clearly that…design rules were irrelevant….It led me to thinking that anything was fair game, anything was challengeable.”

We learn the rules, the techniques; we develop a knowledge of our medium. We absorb the principles. And using all of that in the background, as it were, we create. Sometimes that act of creation requires that we bend, break, or just ignore the rules. Rules don’t matter when you’re making art. Process matters; flow matters; artifact matters; performance matters. Sometimes—perhaps more often than not—that means that we have to color outside the lines.

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