I’ve had a number of what could be termed crises of faith over the last few years. Given that my life isn’t particularly compartmentalized, arenas slide over and influence one another. This can be for good or ill: A car needing to get fixed shows up on my choice of palette. The sickly child informs my lesson plans. A poorly executed drawing demonstration syncs up with indigestion.
One of the difficulties I have found in teaching the fundamentals of drawing and painting (something I’ve been doing for nearly a decade) is that I have become more and more detached from the epic expansiveness of potential meaning I once saw so easily in everything.
If that seems counter-intuitive, you’re right. On the one hand, I’m opening up this huge world for students and advocating for its meaning-making properties. Sometimes I do a good job at this; sometimes it clicks. On the other hand, however, often I have to break things down so far that they become divested of their mystery. This is probably because I’m not the best teacher – nor the best student – I could be.
But it is also that, amidst the urgency of schedules and diapers and curricula and learning goals and policy committees and trying to eat right and falling off ladders and mowing the lawn and hoping I’m a good dad, the horizon of my universe has shrunk. I can no longer connect to the mysteries. When I look in their direction they seem blank – I seem blank. I look at pictures that used to inspire me and fire me up… I can feel the echoes of what I felt 10 or 20 years ago, yet they seem vague, hollow, incomplete, impotent, and affected attempts. I painfully sense the depths to which I once could swim, but realize I no longer try those fathoms. The shallows, it seems, are the extent of my aesthetic, spiritual, and intellectual submersion these days.
All of the hard-fought attempts I’ve made as an artist and writer seem to, generally, make little or no connection to others. This is not a statement meant to engender pity toward me. I’m not begging for praise. I simply recognize that the average viewer/reader receives perhaps 10% of the passion, reflection, or depth I intended. I am thankful for that 10% of understanding. I’m thankful for every picture I’ve had the honor to show or sell and grateful for every piece of writing I’ve had the privilege to publish into the world. Yet I feel that I can no longer put so much time or energy into these things. It’s not that I don’t want to do it, it’s that I don’t have the depth anymore. Those corridors are closed off. I have shrunk. The extent of my vision has stalled. The infinite chiaroscuro of the universe has fled from me.
I’m not writing this to garner sympathy. I’m just trying to be honest. I think this is part of the life of an artist. Perhaps this too shall pass. I only know that my ability to believe in the value of plumbing the depths is all but gone, and I’m almost not even sad about it. What happens when you no longer feel tethered to what used to be your deepest motivation?
So much of what happened in the best work I’ve made over the last 20 years can be chalked up to faith. I can see passages of paintings and drawings where I had faith, where I had belief in the work. What happened in them was beyond technique and ability, beyond solid ideas or philosophical underpinning. The best ones went far beyond my knowing how to make them. When you lose that faith, how can you ever see or do those things again?
I know I am lucky. I get to teach, get to make paintings and drawings and prints. I get to show my work. But in doing all of that I can see how things atrophy and become stilted. The raging river stagnates. Will I be making tame pictures of flowers in 20 years? I hope not. Yet I feel a domestication growing. When one has a creative itch to scratch but no longer has emotional, spiritual, or intellectual access to the deep things of life the result is often the height of banality.
So artists, pundits, and mass-shooters proliferate. Another day, another war, another hundred thousand more orphans. Google knows what Star Trek-themed trinket I’m most likely to buy (and I actually consider buying it). I remember less and less of the awkward dreams of the 20-year-old me while the 40-year-old me who can no longer run with his kids comes more and more into focus. Perhaps it’s all an episode that would pass with a couple more hours of sleep each night, or with actually cutting red meat out of my diet. Or perhaps it’s just how things are, and I’ll have to figure out how to reach those old depths again after another decade and a second wind.