October 8, 2012

So, You’re an Artist?

‘Self Portrait’ by Katarina Silva














Art is not a thing, it is a way.” ~ Elbert Hubbard

It happens during introductions. When a host or hostess aims to knit together distances between strangers and hopefully have us all hysterically feeding each other sloppy finger foods by the end of the night.

That suspenseful moment when ears perk for names you hope you can remember, and you’re spontaneously defined with a singular, most likely, inadequate word. Mine is ‘artist’. “Katarina is an artist”, they say. And yes, that enticing emphasis is almost always built into it.

So now it’s out there swirling between us and making its usual mischief: that larger-than-life, characteristically vague label that usually sends minds skipping in all kinds of revealing directions.

“Artist?” they ask. “What kind of artist?”

And in a split second I sense every set of eyes in the room land on me combing for clues that might help them squish me into manageable mental fists. And squish they must. For leaving me elusive and mysterious defeats the purpose of introductions, right? So they squeeze me for specifics, like some unfamiliar fruit whose juice they must taste. Now.

When others ask me what “kind” of an artist I am, I often feel like I am being pressed to bottle up my very essence into a compact, little sentence for easy cultural consumption and digestion.

Self portrait by author

The anticipation is so thick you can smell it over the hand-rolled incense, and hear it in that breathless pause that dangles on the edge of my next word. Now you see me making eye contact with each person, in a slow, luxurious fashion, before I pick something tangible to inject into this elusive space they have me in. Hmmm? Define the “kind” of artist you are. Quickly!

Are there kinds? You mean my preferred medium of expression? (Do I even have one?) Or the projects I am most involved in now? Or maybe you mean the one that has appeared most consistently in my life. Would you like to know if I run for my camera more often than my guitar, or if I write more poetry than prose? Maybe you want to hear my artist’s statement or snippets from my bio blurb. Or how often I’m deliciously intoxicated by unrelenting creative urges that won’t let me sleep on full moon nights.

Wasn’t it Nietzsche that said that self-induced intoxication is always the prerequisite for creating any art? 

How does one even begin to explain this kind of intoxication to another? As Carl Jung described it, it’s almost as if one is being powerfully seduced against one’s will for the sake of art:

“The artist is not a person endowed with free will who seeks his own ends, but one who allows art to realize its purpose within him.”

Yes, when making art, I am definitely overcome by a sensation of purposefulness that proclaims the very reason I was born! So how do I translate that enthusiasm into a casual introduction, where others are asking me to specify the “kind” of artist I am?

I say it’s downright dangerous: This tendency of wanting to compartmentalize the artist. But they’re all looking at me and I have to say something, right?

This is when I want to just leave it at ‘artist’ because anything else would feel like it’s falling short of everything being an artist means to us artists!

Ask me to encapsulate myself and I’ll tell you there is no container large enough to push whole galaxies into. Why do you try to draw lines around someone who colors outside of them? Attempt to organize my identity into a box of society’s choosing, or the limits of language, and you have moved even further away from knowing this artist. (sigh)

I’d like to sit down with this rude irony and challenge it to a game of strip poker. The one left with the least clothes on wins. Leave me naked of stereotypes and then I’ll let you tickle me in all those places you’d like to reach, so that touching on what it means to be an artist may sound a little like this:

An artist is an artist because being anything else would feel uncomfortably foreign to us. Disingenuous. Artificial. Doomed to disintegration…

‘Disolving’ self portrait by Katarina Silva

Yeah, it’s definitely an existential thing for me. I express myself artistically, because, well, when I don’t I feel like my existence itself begins to crumble. No drama queen here, just stating a fact.

One of the reasons I am an artist is because it just plain hurts not to be. 

This is when pain becomes a bright red flag with flashing lights that shows me how far I’ve drifted away from myself, and then whips me right back in. Way in. To those inner chambers where deviant thought is actually celebrated, and rewarded, and wildly unleashed like a tigress running out of a cage, and into the magical terrain of the imagination.

Ah! The imagination! What Victor Hugo called “intelligence with an erection”, and Einstein deemed more valuable than knowledge.

‘Painting Feelings’ self portrait by the author

This is where I always find myself again: my artistic core in tact, and all my creative juices flowing most luxuriously. For as George Jean Nathan said once: “Art is the sex of the imagination.”  And oh how sexy my fertile imagination can get! This is the kind of artist I am. What does this translate into on the outside?

Well, inside of this radical paradigm, one’s whole life inevitably becomes a single continuum of expressive creativity. It’s where we artists live and it includes every part of our day, (and not just what we crank out in the studio.)

Being an artist is not just what we “do”, or what we “decided” to be when we grew up. It’s not entirely our career, or occupation either. And it’s definitely not a job we just picked to pay the rent.

Being an artist just is. And it’s as inseparable from us as our own heartbeat: running deeper than our blood and broader than the combination of all our life’s experiences.

I sometimes equate pinpointing the “kind” of artist I am to defining the indefinable. It’s like asking me to paint the very substance of my being when I am not sure I own a palate that broad!

For being an artist is dynamic and deep. And it’s never finished. And it’s always in a state of gorgeous transformation, completely allergic to stagnation. And before the canvas even dries you’re wildly finger-painting yourself off the frame, and into states of being you just –mystically, magically- bumped into. And this feels soooo good! For you’ve struck the treasure in life’s mine and made the whole earth shake in the process. Trance-like. Almost as if possessed by something scrumptiously otherworldly.

In Greek mythology, the kind of art produced depended on which of the nine divine muses had impregnated you with inspiration:

‘Nearly Forgotten’ by Katarina Silva

There was Calliope of beautiful speech that planted seeds of poetry.

And Clio, who gave one the ability to narrate the glories of the past.

Urania bestowed one with the art of charting the heavenly bodies and drawing celestial maps.

Thalia caused one to blossom into a skillful comedian.

Terpsichore moved you into dance, and Polyhymia into song.

Melpomene gifted you with the tragic tales of an orator.

And Euerpe left you full of music and a gift in playing instruments.

Finally, Erato, the amorous one, injected you with godly skills at the erotic arts.

In this ancient context, the “kind” of artist you are, is simply a product of the particular muse you’ve been seduced by.

They say that most artists have been possessed by at least five of these divine troublemakers at least once in their lifetime. And oh, how invigorating that creative seduction can be!  

‘Born on Water’ by Katarina Silva

For this reason, Plato was kind of scared of us artists. He saw us as possessing an unequaled influential power over society. He called us dangerous –musicians in particular- for how effortlessly we seemed to sculpt people’s characters. So he invented the first rating system known to our species, where children were protected from all explicit versions of drama, poetry and the rest. For art was believed to either move one’s soul into harmony or discord. And God forbid we play out of tune with their political structures and rules!

And so it is that history swells with stories about how artists have their “place” in the world. How they don’t want us integrating too freely with the rest of society, lest we loosen it’s moral fabric and send humankind sliding from civilization back into to savagery. How we are masters of seduction and defiance, and are a little luni too. The whole package just frightens them.

But I think our resistance to the norm, our scandalous rebelliousness, and our deviant perspectives both frighten and lure them.

The lifestyle of the artist both threatens and enchants pawns of the status quo. 

For it’s the collapse of everything they tamed their own creativity for, and the secret hope that it may, someday, return. And maybe you, my dear artist, hold the key to doing that.

‘Magnolia’ by Katarina Silva

For you, the artist, are the one they are going to simultaneously push away from and desirously pull in. You are the maliferous flower that grows in humid and forbidden jungles, where a brush with your pretty petals could swiftly result in instant demise of the predictable life they know. And oh how they secretly ache for that death! Like a petite mort they wish would transport them into transcendent realms where you become both the devil and the angel playing with their subconscious.

I’ll tell you a little secret about being presented as an artist: it ignites dialogue faster than matches light straw, so you can toss out that hideous looking conversational piece your mother gave you, and just spill it all out, no holding back. Telling people you’re an artist fills people’s eyes with intensity and gives you generous glimpses into their sparkling soul by the way they react to that announcement. Sometimes you can even see their auras begin to shimmer.

“So you’re an artist?” They ask, with the raising of an eyebrow, the shifting of body weight, the hint of abandoned but not forgotten dreams swirling in their curious eyes. Sometimes they’re pretty dreams and sometimes they’re nightmares, for I’ve discovered that we each have a very unique relationship with the word ‘artist. Who would of thought it could be so loaded?

Over the years I’ve noticed that the reactions to being introduced as an artist come in extremes. There’s delicate intrigue alongside sharp incredulity. A little feigned apathy waltzes in, hand in hand, with the dangerous dip into fascination.

When people find out you’re an artist, you might instantaneously become someone’s kindred spirit, or represent a myth they were once talked out of believing in.

Suddenly, your unicorn-like existence defies the warnings they heeded from parents or formers teachers who once discouraged them from designing a life around their own creativity.

‘Dying Young’ by Katarina Silva

Usually, if congratulatory praise doesn’t enter here, or a disinterested denial, it’s often jealously with a tiny tinge of unconscious resentment, which accessorizes their trailing questions like flashy bling.

  “So, is that how you earn a living then?” And they ask because maybe their career was a sensible compromise over what they really wanted to do with their lives.

Because maybe they gave away their ballet shoes, or dug a grave for their violin, or left the theatre for a more responsible, lucrative occupation. And sometimes they just need to hear the comforting reassurance that you’re broke.

“Aha! I knew it!”  Yes, there will always be those who insist on defining us by how we make money. Or the simply curious, or the ones who once had an uncle who went broke trying to sell his abstract oil paintings at outdoor farmer’s markets, so they understand, how “challenging” it is to be an artist. Though I don’t remember asking for their sympathy. Awkward.

Then there are those who think: “Ah! An artist” and flirtatiously watch you move from across the room as you take a sip from your glass, and they steal a whiff of your perfume, utterly convinced you are a maker of warm and sweet life elixirs they can wait to chug. Connecting the word ‘artist’ with liberal sensuality, and kinky experimentation, and an indiscriminate taste for endless playmates, perfect strangers wrap their arm around my waist so I am forced to wiggle out of stereotypes of promiscuity, at the most random of times. Embarrassing.

Just because there are no bounds to the imagination of the artist, doesn’t mean we also lack boundaries in other areas!

Still, human beings seem to be programmed to see beauty in the artist. It’s not an aesthetic beauty, per say, but an electric one that sings, siren-like, of an alternative lifestyle.

The word art is derived from the Latin “ars”, indicating beauty that naturally emanates from those who have mastered artistic skills…

‘Caressing Light’ by Katarina Silva

The act of mastering such skills results from reinventing the way artists approach life itself.

We do life differently than most, they say, because we don’t use the masses as the measure for how anything is done.

We are the innovators, the eccentrics, the old lady in Manhattan wearing a polka-dot coat, red hat, and charming Indian slippers that jingle as she walks, the shamans, the witches, the one’s in dialogue with all that’s beyond.

The artist then takes that ‘beyond’ and transmits it to the world. Jung called this realm of the collective unconscious, and observed in the artist the role of mediating between the two. And this filled the artist with beauty that was both human and more than human.

Philosophers of antiquity believed that the mystical and magnetic energy field surrounding us artists turns others into mesmerized moths before our light. For, we are seen as instruments in the hands of spirits, and gods, and fabulous forces of nature that both surpass us and simultaneously originate in us. When people connect with artists, it is said that we remind them of all this: the junction at which we all intersect.

And it is into this very intersection that I hope to invite others during introductions, when the hostess or host announces me as ‘an artist’, and people want to know which “kind”, and at that very second my thoughts are sent spinning at zooming speeds through all I’ve shared in this blog and much, much more, and I turn to the curious faces and say:

“What kind of an artist am I?

Well, you’ll each have to find out now, won’t you?”

And pretty soon we’re sharing whispery confessions about artist stereotypes over exotic beverages, and erecting flags to a nation of iconoclasts that refuses to squish any artist into a thimble sized label. Instead, peel us open, a little at a time. I promise you that you won’t be disappointed.

(This article was originally published by ‘Rebelle Society- Creatively Maladjusted’on September 25, 2012)

~KATARINA SILVA’S self portraits are on display this month in “Id- The Object of Self” exhibit at DARKROOM GALLERY in Essex Junction, Vermont. All are welcome!~ 

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