It will rip me to pieces every time if I don’t find an outlet for it. It screams to be heard.
It keeps me up at night, like a high fever, and injects me with expressive urges. It’s emotional pain and it demands to be experienced! There is no alternative. There is no secretly ditching it, or hanging up on it. It is here, inside of me, and it wants out. So I grab my camera and turn my pain into art.
The human experience, by definition, includes pain. Not a single one of us is immune to it. For this reason, I have deep respect for pain: it seems to be an inescapable part of what shapes us. Pain is part of life. And everything that is part of life, is also an inevitable part of art. For us artists, the process of purging pain from our beings nearly always involves creative expression. These artistic expressions are deeply personal, at times scary, and definitely inevitable!
One of the most powerful lures art had over me as a child was its brutal honesty. It did not try to conceal or deny pain and suffering. Instead, within photographs and paintings, musical compositions and dances, film and theatre: within the many forms of art through which human being express themselves, I perceived a raw exhibition of pain. And I loved this rebellious freedom to express pain through art! It seemed terribly constructive to me; certainly much healthier than keeping all the pain inside.
There are so many different varieties of pain! What would each one look like as a work of art? For each person pain would look differently, for how each of us experiences and expresses pain is as unique as our own original, artistic creations. To me, each such creation, even when birthed out of pain, is an extremely valuable one.
Art that expresses pain isn’t always visually pretty, but it is real, and I deeply appreciate it’s straightforwardness.
It’s a language that not many people in our polite society speak outside of an artistic context. Perhaps, this is why I have been the most artistically productive in my life when I’ve been hurting the most. Because art is always receptive to pain. There is never a breakdown of communication in art. Art has the power to communicate all kinds of deep pains that may otherwise burden or overwhelm people.
Pain seems to act like a war cry within me, challenging me to rise to the occasion and make something beautiful out of it. Not necessarily aesthetically beautiful, but beautiful in the sense that when expressing my pain artistically, I seem to engage that pain as a vehicle that eventually transports me beyond it.
Pain turned into art then becomes a transformative tool that reconnects me with my own inner peace. It is a process, but, eventually, my pain is no longer in me. It is in my art. And the process of expunging it from me, heals me every time.
When I pour my pain into my art I am instantly comforted and calmed. Ironically, art that perceivably expresses deep hurt doesn’t have the same effect on the audience experiencing that art. Quite to the contrary! The observer may become uncomfortable. Most of the art I produced as an adolescent had this unpleasant effect on others, for my artwork was an honest reflection of my pain. Sometimes it was terrifyingly violent, sometimes it was dark, sometimes it was ugly, sometimes it was chaotic.
Some viewers, however, were drawn in by it, while others are repulsed. Nevertheless, I chose to continue to express my pain in this way, as art seemed to help me process and understand my pain. Splashed all over a canvass, or captured in a photographic self-portrait I could see my pain and dissect it, visually break it apart and directly address it.
Through releasing my hurts into artwork, I explored taboo emotions the way astronomers explore the stars, and found the journey a very valuable part of my own self development. The world of my art allowed me to act out painful fantasies I would never duplicate in real life. It helped me know myself better. And become conscious of the fleeting quality of pain. Carl Jung once wrote that “there is no coming to consciousness without pain.” In surrendering my pain to my art, it was almost as if I was letting it wake me up, and simultaneously laying it to rest.
Expressing pain through art requires that one become vulnerable and open.
It also engages trust and courage. Giving voices to our pain is never easy, even when done through a painting or a photograph. One feels exposed. One feels naked. But it is also liberating: that brutally honest exposure of our own humanity. And, I’ve found that it often inspires others to do the same, for there is less room for judgement in art. It is art, so people accept it. They interact with it. They may even enter into a healing dialogue with their own repressed pain through seeing mine.
Today, I honor periods of pain in my life the same way I treated them when I was younger: I give them a voice in my art, in my photographs. Why should I silence my pain and pretend it does not exist? Instead, I echo William Faulkner’s sentiments when he writes: “Given the choice between the experience of pain and nothing, I would choose pain.” At least when we hurt we know we are alive. It is definitely much healthier than numbness or denial.
The poet Lord Byron appreciated all feelings in the wide range of human emotion: “The great art of life is sensation, to feel that we exist, even in pain.”
Since pain is indeed such an unmistakably unavoidable sensation in life, why not extract value from it?
Throughout history, pain has already proven itself valuable as fuel for many of the world’s greatest works of art. As I experience it, pain holds a beautiful value when married to artistic expression. So I continue to turn my pain into artwork, and have the process shape me, and hopefully others, in ways we never imagined possible.
“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.
And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life,
your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;
And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even
as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields.
And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.
Much of your pain is self chosen.
It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self.
Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquility:
For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by the tender hand of the Unseen,
And the cup he brings, though it burn your lips,
has been fashioned of the clay which the Potter has moistened with His own sacred tears.”