One of the best things Barry Gealt – my primary professor at Indiana University (I got my MFA in Painting there in ’05) – ever convinced me of was the fundamental need for artists (and people in general) to develop and project what he called “a generosity of spirit”. It was one of those obvious things we so often need to be told to see as obvious.
But what did it really mean? I think Barry meant it in a few different ways… at least I interpreted it in a couple key ways and continue to refine my understanding of it. At the time, I thought of generosity of spirit in two main ways:
First, I thought of it as consciously extending basic good will toward other artists. When an artist is in the studio, when they work hard, when they spend time with ideas and words and thoughts and images, they deserve some true consideration, some assumption that they’re not just pulling the wool over an audience’s eyes. People who really dedicate years of their life to art-making aren’t doing it just to craft a lame inside joke; they’re doing it because they love it, they believe in it, and have made huge sacrifices to do it. That sacrifice deserves respect – it deserves the generosity of believing the best about them.
Secondly, Barry stimulated me to think of generosity of spirit as a kind of networking principle. This wasn’t the crass, dog-eat-dog networking of just using people to get a leg up on the competition. Yet it went beyond the quid pro quo angle as well. It wasn’t just doing one thing to get another, it was taking initiative to actively create opportunities for others. It went beyond doing something nice in the hopes that you’d get something nice in return later on. It was a lifestyle choice, a way to create a culture of support and encouragement for artists in general. If enough people got on board we’d all be giving and receiving something far beyond “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours” – we’d get a sea change of the human equation. Generosity of spirit was Barry’s “pay it forward” concept.
In this sense, generosity of spirit sort of rests on a rhetorical question stemming from the bible: “what do I have that I haven’t received?” Obviously I’ve received everything – life, breath, language, mental capacity – and could do NOTHING to obtain them in the first place. While I am responsible for fostering and developing them over my lifetime, recognizing that I did nothing to get them and couldn’t replace them if they were taken from me instills (or should instill) a deep perspective of gratitude and hopefulness in the finite contingency of my life. This perspective should cause me, in appreciation and good will, to seek the best for others, to hold others up, to be a friend, to be compassionate, to be joyful and proactive in what I do. Why? Because I know that I am not what I am because I “deserve” it, but because I have received a great treasure in the form of being-ness and consciousness, and a great fundamental dignity in the form of being human. In the light of these things I must recognize the essential value and significance of others. They too received what they could not manufacture for themselves; we’re all in the same boat. Knowing that I couldn’t even live – or continue to live – without what I’ve been given causes me to value giving in itself. When I value giving, I do it for its own sake and work to create opportunities and possibilities for others. We should give because we have received.
At this point I tend to think about generosity of spirit as just this: grace. Grace: unmerited favor. Giving and extending goodness and honor to others without considering their “worthiness”. Grace: purposely working to be thoughtful, honest, loving, and considerate to everyone, regardless of what they can do or can’t do for me. They are human – Imago Dei – and so am I, so I must recognize, value, and uphold their dignity through true appreciation, encouragement, and good will. I fail at this all the time – I am so easily swayed into favoritism or laziness – but it’s what I try for.
Anyway, over the last couple of months as I’ve worked to finalize artworks and frame them for the shows I have coming up this year, these ideas of generosity of spirit and grace have been coming up again and again. People have been endlessly helpful to me. People like my wife giving me time to work long hours, allowing me to take over the entire house as my own personal workshop, and editing/proofreading my writing. People like Matt Moyer, David Spear, and the Larsons providing me with vehicles for collecting materials and shipping artworks. People like Shannon (a former student of mine) giving my current student Danielle detailed information about their areas of interest just because I asked. People like Brooke and Danielle hanging out with my wife to encourage her during this time of intense work. People like Jake and Aarik building me up, supporting me with IPAs, pizzas grilled outside in the snow, good talks, good music, and a vision for the future. People like Natalie creating such a beautiful arena for ideas (and for getting engaged to the Kilngod). People like Ian and Bruce selflessly working with me on upcoming shows.
There are so many more. I could write dozens more names, reflect on hundreds of blessings from people near and far. And I could write and write, finding more ways to define generosity of spirit. The ways of understanding the reality that we have nothing that we have not been given are endless, and they’re an endlessly worthy engagement.
Be generous, friends.