Sometimes detail can detract from our art. Sometimes the best part of our art is found between the words or strokes or pixels. The honesty of art is not found in the busy life, but in the still life.
Honesty in art is not the same as truth in art. Facts are not honesty. The honesty I’m talking about comes from an authentic source, and that source is seldom found in the busy-ness of our noisy lives.
Eric Taylor is one of my favorite song writers. In the December 2011 issue of Buddy Magazine, Tom Geddie calls him a master of silence. That may not sound like a compliment for a song writer, but he’s about the silence between the notes and words. What Taylor leaves unsaid is where his stories live, and where the authentic parts of us live.
In “Texas Texas,” from Taylor’s Live at the Red Shack album, Eric sings, “Man there was a night so hot… that I’d tell you if I could … how the moon set fire to the cottonwood… and how the horses called … from the river bank… and how the water boiled … and how they would not drink”. Although not factual, the song contains the honesty of a day so hot that all living things are miserable. Even river water can’t bring relief.
In another verse, Taylor describes a painfully long night where he’s left with too much time to think. In the still life, the singer wonders what he “might have done with her turquoise ring, and about the note she hung by the front door screen, and about what went wrong with her love for me”. Speaking of silence, the song has only a single-line chorus, but one line is exactly enough. Eric Taylor knows when to lift his brush from the canvas and put it away.
That’s why Eric Taylor’s songs hit home for me. Those thoughts we try to drown out by creating a busy and noisy existence don’t go away in the chaos. They are alive. They wait for us in stillness. The spaces in Taylor’s songs show me the importance of silence between positive and negative events in my own life.
When the busy-ness of our lives is removed, our hiding places are also removed. We’re exposed. What’s left may be uncomfortable because it’s a place of vulnerability, but it’s where the source of transcendent art has a pulse.
The still life is an uncomfortable space to visit, but it’s the source of some of our best art – best as in honest. It’s where our grief, loss, anger and bitterness live, but also where some of our best traits, like trust and forgiveness, are found. Our truest loves are there, as are our weaknesses and shortcomings we struggle to hide.
Don’t get me wrong. The still life is not a magical pot of gold at the end of a rainbow where a finished fine art series is waiting on a shelf. Any exploration into the still life begins with exploring that person in the mirror. That’s seldom a bad place to start.
I’m trying to learn the art of visiting the silent spaces of my life more often. Creating from the still life is not easy. Recently, I’ve made myself very busy – probably too busy to make honest fine art. If I looked deeply enough, I’d may even find that I created the too-busy life on purpose. I’m a full-time job as engineer and I’m teaching three college courses that I’ve never taught before.
Creative ideas are still plentiful, but that’s never been a problem. Ideas are the easiest part of the creative process. I believe that artist’s block is a myth. I won’t listen unless the voice it telling me to be still. Be still and know. That’s the hard part.
My engineering profession is all about data and detail and high-resolution precision that leads to a repeatable and predictable (and from the artist’s perspective, boring and uninspired) conclusion. In engineering, that space and stillness is often called stability or equilibrium or symmetry. We call it an elegant engineering design.
The space and stillness I’m talking about in art can lead to some elegant, honest asymmetry…
At least that’s what I find in the still life.