A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 198: Until Death It is All Life

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Until Death It Is All Life, Ronald Kok, Craft foam mosaic, 2017

“Hasta la muerta es toda la vida.” These words are spoken by Sancho Panza, faithful squire to the noble knight Don Quixote.

Miquel de Cervantes Saavedra wrote the incomparable and influential The Ingenious Nobleman Mister Quixote of La Mancha (or more commonly know as Don Quixote) in the early part of the 17th century. It was published in two parts between 1605 and 1615. The tale is equal parts comedy and tragedy, full of madness and imagination, and making commentary on so many things that the book is constantly reinterpreted with each passing age. It is the Great Spanish novel and has gained a well deserved place as one of the best works of fiction in the world.

I’m not sure how Don Quixote took center stage in my latest mosaic. There is something so mysterious about that inspiration that befits the tale of the nobleman who imagines himself a knight, tilting at windmills that he believes are squatting giants all over the Spanish countryside. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that Quixote was supposed to be about my age when he lost his grip on reality. Perhaps it has to do with that fine line between realism and imagination in the story that is so often my own fine line. Perhaps it is the influence Spain has had on me, having spent four months there at the formative age of 21.  Perhaps it is the specter of mortality that has been following me like my own shadow, daring me to embrace life. Or perhaps it is none of these at all.

Whatever it was that first gave me the push to create this artwork, I know that there were also some very straightforward choices on my part: First, I chose to include a reference to the Spanish flag in this work (the red, yellow, red of the background); Second, I chose to reference the brilliantly organic and colorful mosaics of Antonio Gaudi, the great Spanish artist; and Third, I chose to include the quote as an affirmation of life in the face of inevitable death.

So there you have it.

This artwork took much effort in both conceptualization of the idea and in execution of it (i.e., a helluva lot of hours cutting up craft foam and gluing it on). I started with what I call “WalMart Art”, a factory-produced piece of art bought at a second-hand store which I painted black; then I sketched out the idea, started with the figure of Don Quixote on Rocinante and built the artwork from there.

“Until death it is all life” – May this inspire you to embrace your life and live it out brightly and colorfully.

Below are some photos of the process.

 

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 192: Part-Part-Time Art

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For the first time in a long, long time I was lost in art for a long, long time.

I am an artist and I love making art (maybe goes without saying) but something obnoxious and relentless keeps me from creating for long stretches at a time: Life.  I have to go to work, I have a family, I have responsibilities.

Ugh.

Yet this weekend I found myself with a full day where nothing was scheduled or expected. That kind of day, for me, is about as rare as finding a four-leaf clover. The temptation was to go all couch potato, binge-watch something, become more vegetable than animal for a day. Really, what I was tempted to do with my day was anything that took little effort, both physically and mentally.

But there was an artwork waiting for me, patiently; biding its time until I would pick it up and continue working on it. I am almost constantly aware of an artwork waiting around for me. It is there in the back of my mind, somewhere behind my to-do list, behind the worry-center of my brain, behind the file of random song lyrics: that artwork waits with the patience of Job.

This weekend, that patience paid off. I pushed aside my desire for utter laziness, pulled together the materials I was going to need, made a spot where I could go at it, and I worked that artwork! I started sometime in the morning, after coffee and breakfast, and didn’t stop until I absolutely had to, that is, until that obnoxious and relentless presence interfered as it always seems to: Life will have its due. I had to quit so I could make a lunch for work, take a shower and get some sleep (ridiculous reasons to quit but there they are).

Precious few are the artists who do art for a living, who get up and work as I did that day. I found myself extremely jealous of those precious few. But also, ironically, very happy for them too. The world needs more artists completely dedicated to their art. This planet is being overrun by banality and brutality – Artists are called to step into the breach and meet that challenge head-on. For those of you who can do this full-time, fight on my brothers and sisters. For those of you who can do this part-time (or, like me, part-part-time) your role is equally valuable, so continue your fight; carve out those times, for your own sake and for the sake of others.

We are the dreamers, the jesters, the fools, the secret super heroes. Artists inspire artists, art begets art. Keep the color and motion and shape and line and song and word and beauty alive, even in bits and pieces of your life, if you can.  We are the ones who can breathe Real Life into Life and keep it from becoming obnoxious and relentless.

So get your Art on!

ron a

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 163: Rage, Rage…

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“Rage, Rage…” Mosaic on canvas, Craft foam and coloured burlap , 2017

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Dylan Thomas and one of my favorite poems inspired my latest artwork. I have been into the mosaic form of late, trying out some new things, experimenting a bit. I had purchased what I like to call “Wal-Mart Art” from a second-hand store in order to use it for artwork but didn’t really know what I was going to use it for. By “Wal-Mart Art” I mean those factory-produced pieces you can purchase at a store for home decorating. I know that sounds demeaning but, honestly, if you’re going to spend money on art, buy some made by a local artist, not a your local Ikea or whatever. That being said, I appreciate that someone originally bought that so that, eventually, I could buy it and turn it into something else!

Ah, life is full of ironies…

I recently came home with a book of poetry (also purchased second-hand… I sense a theme here) in which I’ve been discovering or re-discovering some amazing works. The Thomas poem “Do Not Go Gentle Into that Good Night” resonated with me strongly, probably more so now that I am into my 50’s, dealing with some physical and mental strains, than back in my 20’s when I first studied the poem in college. As I thought of those powerful words of the poem, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” and my work in mosaic of late, I decided to combine the two.

First, I painted the entire “Wal-Mart Art” piece black (start humming the Rolling Stones tune… now!). I then did some sketching out of how I wanted to space the words. I cut out some templates for the bigger words to make sure everything fit and drew some light outlines of them on the canvas. Then I chose what colors and what shapes I wanted to use, sliced and diced my craft foam and colored burlap, got out the Modge Podge and went for it.

I didn’t do a great job of photo-journaling the process, but below are a few pics to help you see the start-to-finish of this work. First, I’ve printed the Dylan Thomas poem again:

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

 

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A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 151: Silence the Voice

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“If you hear a voice within you say ‘you cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.”

I came across this quote by Vincent van Gogh today. For so many of us, especially those with that drive to create, there is that voice within. It is not a kind voice. It is judgmental. It is negative. It is cynical. And it is always spoken with our tone, our inflections, because it is always our voice.  It is very rarely the people around us who discourage and deflate; almost always it is us, snidely dismissing our own desires to paint, draw, dance, sing, act, write… create.

Of course, we will exercise confirmation bias when it comes to the feedback of others. If we don’t receive the enthusiastic response we were hoping for, or we get critique, or we get very little input at all, the voice chimes in immediately, “You can’t do this. You’re not good enough. Give it up. You’re just fooling yourself.” Artists crave a response partly because we create to share with others but also because we are so desperately insecure about our art.

I’m sure Vincent felt this way. In fact, I’m convinced of it. He received very little in the way of support for his art in his lifetime. No one bought his stuff, as hard as that is to believe today. His style was seen as undisciplined, manic, childish, messy, unskilled. Yet today we venerate Vincent, as we should, as the genius he was. Thank God he would not let the inner voice or those outer voices stop him. Thank God he picked up the brush and attacked those canvases in order to silence those voices.

If you are a creative, it is almost a guarantee that you know exactly what your inner voice sounds like. I certainly do. You and I need to heed Vincent’s advice. What am I telling myself I can’t do? What are you telling yourself you can’t do? We’ve just got to go do it, and prove ourselves wrong!

I came across this quote among 25 quotes from artists about art on mymodernmet.com. Here is the link below. Keep creatin’, y’all.

http://mymodernmet.com/art-quotes/

 

 

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 118: Self-Portrait on the Cheap

Self portrait in craft foam 2017

Self-Portrait in Craft Foam, 2017

Happy Friday, everybody! True to form (or foam), whenever I’m trying out something new, I often try it out on a self-portrait.

I decided to create some kind of mosaic with craft foam we had hanging around at work. Not knowing what I would make, I chose my fall-back subject matter: Me. This is truly a self-portrait on the cheap as the foam and school glue used to affix it to paper were all purchased at a dollar store. I was very limited in my color choices but that just made the whole thing more challenging and fun.

The mosaic style has always fascinated me: How our brains take shapes and colors, laid out on a flat surface in some pattern, and turns them into something that looks like something we can recognize! On one level, it is just rough, geometric shapes sitting close to each other on a piece of paper; on another level, it’s a portrait of a dude with a beard that kind of looks like me, even if there is quite literally no color in the image that corresponds directly to the colors you would see when looking at me in real life.

Art and its ways of lying to get at the truth never ceases to fascinate me.

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 110: the Creative Personality

creative personality pic

In lieu of my own thoughts on the subject, in today’s post I’ve simply given you a link to a great Psychology Today article about the Creative Personality. It is a fairly lengthy article but illuminating. Among other things, it reminds us that the Creative Personality is by no means limited to the Arts. And if you are a creative person, you may discover some explanation of your quirks and idiosyncrasies!

https://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/199607/the-creative-personality

 

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 79: I’m a Clueless Creative

Part of creating dangerously, I’ve discovered, is going public even when you have no idea what you’re doing. It is the shameless act of being the Clueless Creative.

I am a creative person, I freely admit that. Acknowledging that fact has helped me better understand myself in many ways. But I also admit that I do not always have a clue about what I am creating or how I am expressing myself as an artist. Like so many creative types, I am drawn to many forms of art. By that I don’t mean I just appreciate different forms of art; No – by that I mean that I try to do many different forms of art. I’m not just talking visual art; for me it has also been music and acting and writing and poetry and photography.

The irony? I don’t really know what I’m doing when I’m doing them. Take playing the guitar, for example. When people say to me, “Oh, I didn’t know you knew how to play guitar!” I often respond by saying, “I don’t!” I am friggin’ clueless about the guitar, really. Whatever I do on it is based on a combination of the most rudimentary knowledge of the instrument plus a heaping helping of making-it-up-as-I-go-along! You may think I’m just being humble, but whenever I get in a conversation with a real guitarist, or they ask me to play along with them, it becomes abundantly clear that I have no idea what I’m doing.

But I do it anyway! What is wrong with me? Why do I do this? There are many people who hide in their basements, strumming guitars, who will never, ever play in public, who are far, far more skilled on the instrument than I. Yet here I am, “playing” the thing in front of people: Chopping away at the twelve chords or so I know, moving that capo up and down, following no discernible strum patterns, having not the foggiest clue about music. I can’t even change the strings on my guitar. Really, if there was a law, they would never give me a license for the thing.

What is this strange impulse to create even when clueless? How to explain it? The same is true in other artistic endeavors I’ve pursued. I also “play” the drums but I often feel like one of those wind-up monkey toy percussionists. My style is so primitive I make Meg White look like Neil Peart (I may not know the drums but I know my drummers!). And acting? I have taken the stage without any knowledge of the craft; actually gone on stage in front of lots of people and pretended I could do this thing (and on more than one occasion, done so in drag)! And writing poetry? I’m sure a poetry professor would skewer me for how I’ve mangled that art form.

I have training in the visual arts. My Bachelor of Fine Arts degree must be good for something, I suppose. But I went about twenty-five years between my art school days and a recent resurgence in creating more art. I feel like a beginner again, in many ways. But when I got back into it, the drive to show others what I’ve done, to make art for others, to be public even with my sketches and works-in-progress, returned with a vengeance. What makes me do this?  And to you other creative types reading this blog, nodding along, also feeling clueless but creating anyway, I ask: Why are YOU doing this?

I have thought about this a lot and there is only one answer I can come up with: Because I have to. No other answer fully satisfies. “Because I can” – well, not really, not all of it; not in any accomplished, fine-arteest way, that is. “Because it’s fun” – that’s close but there are many not-so-fun moments in the act of creating that they would seem to keep me from continually trying. “Because I make a living at it” – Well… BWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!

Ok, get a hold of yerself, Ron…

I have to create. I have to create whether I think I’m really great at it or not. And I have to share it with other people. I think that is a very important part of the equation. In fact, it may be that part that separates the person dabbling in an art form and the person driven to create. You feel that it is a necessity to make your art for public consumption, for public enjoyment, for public rejection, for public shaming (okay, maybe it isn’t that bad).

This is the dangerous part for most creatives, the riskiness of it all: Being willing to be vulnerable, to be naked with your emotions (or another’s emotions) hanging out in front of the crowd. The funny thing about this fact? You really want to. It freaks you out but, dammit, you really want to share your excellent, mediocre or half-baked gifts with other people. Why? Because you realize that this is one reason why you do it in the first place. And, ultimately, it is why you are here on this little greenish blue globe spinning through space.

The people sharing the globe with you need you to keep creating, even when you don’t feel like you have a clue. That’s the beauty of it. The contributions of Creatives are so necessary to creating empathy, to building bridges, to speaking the unspoken, to wrestling with monsters, to giving channels for laughter and tears and anger and sadness and joy to flow unhindered across borders and barriers and over walls.

It truly would be a hell on earth here without creativity, be it masterful or be it clueless, be it professional or be it child-like. I’m okay with being a small part of making it more of a place called home, instead.

 

 

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 73: The Art and Artist Drowned Out by “The Scream”

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The Scream, Edvard Munch, 1893

When does iconic become too iconic?

“The Scream” is much more than the masterpiece of Norwegian painter Edvard Munch (1863-1944). It is so familiar to us in Western culture that it has gained a status beyond artwork. Like the Mona Lisa or “Starry Night”, it has taken on a life of its own and gained its own fame seemingly apart from the person whose hands crafted it in the first place. The sign that this is true is the thousands of parodies and allusions to “The Scream” in our popular culture. We may not be able to name the painter, but we all know that painting. It has become part of the visual lingua franca of our times.

Its too bad, really, because Edvard Munch was a wonderful painter in his own right. He painted hundreds of works in his lifetime and most of them were donated to the Norwegian government after his death. “The Scream” is so important as one of the most powerful examples of Symbolism in art. Symbolists painted the inner workings of their subject matter and were unconcerned with an exact representation of the outward appearance. As Munch himself put it, “Nature is not only all that is visible to the eye… it also includes the inner pictures of the soul.” To that end, Munch created some of the most visceral images in art history. As his own story includes the death of his mother when he was just a boy and his father’s own battle with mental illness, much of Munch’s work is disturbing. But his portrayals are eerily accurate of the state of mind, the anxiety of the heart, fear and loathing, and general angst of the human condition.

“The Scream”, however, is his painting that has become iconic. So iconic, in fact, that much of his other genius is forgotten. Even at school in my art history classes, it was “The Scream” we talked about and maybe one or two of his other works. It makes sense as that was his great contribution to the history of art and culture. It is profound and therefore should be studied and remembered. However, sometimes a work of art takes on such significance that the very significance of its creator seems secondary.

On a recent visit to the National Gallery here in Ottawa, Canada, I saw a work of Munch in the Contemporary gallery that is part of their collection. It was a simple scene of a farm house that looked a lot like something Vincent Van Gogh or Henri Matisse would have done: bold shapes and colors, inviting and accessible, warm and alive with motion. It made me desire to find out what else Munch had painted besides “The Scream”. What else defined the man and his art besides the “inner pictures of the soul”?

Thanks to the Interwebs I could easily discover the answer to my question. I am happy to present a small gallery of works by Edvard Munch that are beautiful, poetic, inviting, peaceful and full of real emotion. He was a lover of the works of Claude Monet and Vincent Van Gogh, this you will clearly see. And he was a true artist who drew inspiration from all of life and all that was around him. Enjoy…

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View Over the Rover at St. Cloud, 1890

 

spring-day-on-karl-johan-street 1891

Spring Day on Karl Johan Street, 1891

moonlight-on-the-shore-1892

Moonlight on the Shore 1892

moon-light-1895

Moonlight, 1895

young-woman-on-the-beach 1896

Young Woman on the Beach, 1896

girls-on-the-bridge 1899

Girls on the Bridge, 1899

the forest 1903

The Forest 1903

from thuringewald 1905 (1)

From Thuringewald, 1905

the sun 1909

The Sun, 1909

the-yellow-log 1911

The Yellow Log, 1911

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Winter Kragero, 1912

the-haymaker-1916

The Haymaker, 1916

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 44: To Be Nobody but Yourself

As I was looking over my blog posts from the past, I came across this article which seems so apropos for my 2017 goal of posting some daily creativity. I wrote this almost three years ago and am happy to report that I am still on this path… and still winning this fight.  

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My wife bought a piece of artwork with this quote on it for me many years ago. She knows me very well. She understood then and she understands now that the “hardest battle” of my life has been the fight to be truly myself. She loves who I am and wants me to experience that and, more so, wants other people to experience who I am. Yet there are times I’ve felt crushed by the weight of other people’s expectations. And times when I’ve felt that who I am was slowly disappearing.

A friend of mine recently commented to me that it seems I’m going through a “mid-life revival”. I really liked that sentiment. He was referring to the fact that I have been delving back into artwork, posting my creations on Facebook and also writing the very blog you happen to be reading right now (thanks for that, by the way).  Edging closer to 50, I am putting myself out there more than ever and expressing myself in these ways more than I have for many years.

I am an artist. And like so many artists, I’m not content to stick to one area of creative expression but tend to dabble in multiple areas when I get the chance. I have always felt most fully alive when I am making visual art or making music or acting on stage or writing prose. I made the decision to enter the blogosphere because I wanted the impetus to get back into writing for the shear creative joy of it.

For many artists, the act of creating is almost as natural as breathing. But it has not always been so for me. I have had long stretches in life where I felt I was becoming someone else and that artist side of me was fading, fading away. There are a number of factors that contributed to this but most of it had to do with a Twofold set of realities in my life: (1) I am a Christian; and (2) I am a Pastor.

The evangelical Christian world is not always the most welcoming and accommodating world for the artist. Artists, when they are remaining true to their creative impulse, like to push the boundaries, ask the tough questions, challenge themselves and others to view their world from different angles and in different tones and hues. This impulse is not generally encouraged or fostered in the evangelical Christian setting. The mysterious, the mystical, the grey areas, the fringes – these are not places where the Evangelical mind and spirit tend to go. Yet they are precisely where the Artistic mind and spirit go on a regular basis. The Artist doesn’t mind ambiguity, uncertainty. The Evangelical minds it a great deal and much prefers clarity and certainty.

I am generalizing, of course. But I stand by these generalizations because they are so often the way things play out. And so often the Artist feels very much a stranger in a strange land when he or she dares dwell among the Evangelicals. I have dwelt in that place and felt strange indeed. I have sensed the tension. When I did have the Jones to create, I’d find myself self-editing, concerned that I might offend someone. Or I’d have to defend myself for acting in a play in which the character I was playing said “Oh my God.” Or I would get the less than enthusiastic responses that spoke quiet volumes of displeasure about something I had created. And often I found myself tucking the artist in me deep down somewhere where it would not rock any feathers or ruffle and boats.

Yet, ironically, I ended up in Christian ministry, a Pastor. I won’t get into how that all happened because, frankly, after almost 20 years I am still bemused by it. Imagine, if you will, already feeling on the margins of Christian life and then ending up as someone who people look to for leadership in that Christian life. My artistic sensibilities took a beating from my own sense of responsibility to “the Call” and from the expectations of the Flock. When these things conspired together the Artist in me became almost undetectable and I no longer felt the natural impulse to create. I would continue to be creative, of course, and find avenues to do so, but it became a sidebar to my life, not a main part of the story.

I was doing good things for people and trying my best to remain faithful to what I felt God was asking me to do. But my wife could see that who I am and what made me feel most fully alive were not being given adequate expression. So when she came across the quote above, she thought of me.

I do not blame my Christianity or my role as a pastor in the Church for this fight to be myself. If anything, I have found over the years that I have no one to blame but myself. It was my choice to hide things away, to bury the Artist deep within; no one forced me to do these things. If anything, this Mid-Life Revival is showing me my own responsibility in all of that and also challenging me to no longer allow that to happen in my life. And it is my faith, and the belief in a God who created me exactly the way I am supposed to be, that gives me the motivation to be nobody but myself. In fact, I have begun to see that it was the Artist in me, the part of me that liked to push the boundaries, ask the tough questions, not be content with simplistic answers, and continually embrace challenges, that has made me most effective in my years of Christian ministry. I look at the Bible and my faith from odd angles, as an artist would, and that has given a distinctiveness to what I do as a pastor.

To any of you out there who also exist in this tension-land of Art and Faith, I would ask you to take heart. You do belong. You do have a role to play. People will not always understand you. You may offend some. You may confuse others. And there may be times others question your faith or you yourself do the questioning. But as artists we’re here to give expression to alternate realities, to be on a continual quest for compassion, to make people feel a bit uneasy in order for them to see God where they hadn’t seem him before.  That is a scary but fabulous calling.

The Great Artist made you an artist for a reason. So be that artist.

To those of you who are not artists, know that we will sometimes freak you out, whether you are a Christian or not. We will sometimes offend you. We will certainly confuse you. But if you let us speak, sing, act, write, draw, paint, sculpt, dance – create – you will be opening yourself up to a much bigger world. And that expanse in your spirit and mind and heart will make it that much easier to embrace all of Creation. You, too, are unique and uniquely gifted. And you, too, help people see God.

From now on until I die, I want to be unashamedly myself. I still have a lot of work to do but I feel I’m on the right track. I have steeled myself for the fight. Bring it on!

A Year of Creating Dangerously, Day 31: No Boundaries, No Walls

asghar-farhadi“Art removes boundaries and makes the world brighter. It is the common language for people all over the world. But politics are the opposite completely. Politicians, their very meaning is based on the lines they draw.”

Asghar Farhadi is an Oscar-winning film director (“The Separation”, 2012). His movie “The Salesman” has been nominated for an Oscar at this year’s Academy Awards. But he will not be attending. Asghar Farhadi is living in Iran and he has been banned from coming into America. Despite his U.S. Green Card, despite his reputation and regard as one of the most influential and creative people in the world; despite his work to promote empathy and compassion and commonality across cultural, religious and political lines – Asghar Farhadi is not welcome.

Artists must stand with artists. We are all about removing boundaries and making the world a brighter place. And we will continue this fight. Not walls, not bans, not prejudice, not deportation, not torture, not intimidation, not hatred, not fear – We will still be standing when all of that and the evil behind it is ancient history.

Art endures. It endures because it challenges convention, promotes empathy, confronts injustice, gives dignity, invites dialogue, welcomes collaboration, destroys barriers and builds bridges. Art is the antithesis of division and tribalism.

Artists – we need you now more than ever. Keep doing what you’re doing. Go public. Don’t be afraid. The beauty and ugliness and joy and pain and wonder and sorrow you present in your art reminds us of our shared humanity, our common planet, our unity of spirit.

Go and create!