Tuesday, November 12, 2013

On Artistic Inspiration, H. R. Giger, and Dr. Seuss

For most of my life, I've intermittently asked myself the question: how can I make it as an artist? The answer always comes back quickly: I can't.

But before you string me up by my toes for being "negative," hear me out. I do NOT believe it's impossible to "make it" as an artist. As the eternal idealist, I feel quite quite the opposite - I believe that if I work hard enough, I actually COULD make it as an artist - and by "make it," I mean, generate enough income to be self-sufficient.

Unfortunately, defining success this way and making it a goal is self-defeating in a field as subjective as visual art (except in rare cases like that of Andy Warhol). For many artists, including me, expression comes from within and rarely serves the masses (again, with the exception of rare cases such as Michelangelo or Jacques-Louis David who produced incredible inspired commissioned work). And feel free to debate "what IS art?" for the rest of your years, but when it comes to creating art, let me simply quote Albert Pinkham Ryder: "The artist needs but a roof, a crust of bread, and his easel, and all the rest God gives him in abundance. He must live to paint and not paint to live."

Mind you, few artists have the ability to live according to Pinkham Ryder's ideal. My personal artistic inspiration is a very powerful feeling. It can make me deliriously happy. But sometimes I think it will drive me insane. If I deny it, I will start to feel sick. I won't be able to sleep. Or eat. Or focus on anything else. But then, it comes and goes. And when it goes, it leaves me with gobs of unfinished work, curled up in a heap on the floor, depressed, hating myself, crying, and confused. It's quite a vicious thing. Especially because I'm not even trying to make a living with my art.

Recently, I've been riding a new wave of inspiration - both to draw and to explore various printmaking techniques - notably, intaglio with plastic (acrylic) plates. I'll write about that in a subsequent blog. But what I really wanted to write about is my latest drawing and the story from which it came - involving a long-ago search for elusive inspiration.

It was back when I was in college - studying engineering. I was a die-hard sci-fi buff, and I saw a contest in a magazine to create an image for something called "the supreme intelligence" from the upcoming remake of "Invaders from Mars." Until that day (and well after, I might add), all of my art fit into the category of realism. But part of me longed to draw something mind-bogglingly creative. Something that had very little resemblance to earth or human or animal. You know, something like H. R. Giger's Alien... yes, that's it, I wanted to design something totally unique, yet horrific, and I was haunted by this one thought for many days.

Drawing a mental blank, I had almost completely given up hope while mulling it over before bed one night. That night, I had my scariest nightmare to this day. I was in a cave, and something terrifying crawled out of a hole in the ground in front of me. Something completely unreal and unearthly. And within a matter of seconds, this unfathomable horror was out of the ground and racing toward me at breakneck speed. It had no legs and I couldn't figure out how it moved forward, it just did. Unable to get away, I woke myself up instead - with a scream on my lips. I didn't sleep the rest of the night. And I chose never to draw it. I was too frightened.

Until this year.

My first attempt has already been posted (without explanation) in one of my drawing-a-day blogs, but here it is again. It was way too cartoony and almost comical - nothing like the horror in my dream. My physical therapist would describe it "like something from Dr. Seuss." (He says most of my drawings look like scary Dr. Seuss.)

This weekend, I tried to draw it for the second time. This one is a much more accurate depiction of it. I'm still baffled as to how it moved in the dream.. maybe I'll figure that out in another drawing:

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Seven Weeks, Running is Go

Finishing (and winning) the
Sylvania Tri in 2010 may be the last
time I wasn't in pain running
It's been seven weeks since my PRP injection. During this time, the thing I've longed for most is the feeling I get when I'm out on the pavement with only my heartbeat, my running shoes, and my thoughts. I solve problems when I'm running. It's the only time I can let go of the damaging self-critic. It's the only time I can be myself without being terrified of what everyone else thinks. I need to run.

Unlike before, this time off from running has been one of inner reflection and fighting demons. Because I wasn't sure I would be able to run again. That fear was always there. What will I do if I can't run? I turned to introspective stream-of-consciousness drawing - the only other thing that gives me similar peace. But the fear continued. What will I do if I can't run? My physical therapist quoted the medical report ".. you have SEVERE tendinosis .. seriously NOT good" (as though I didn't fully grasp the severity of the injury). He said my hamstring tendon was "breaking down" - made it sound like it was actually disolving. The fear grew. Seriously. What. will. I. do. if. I. can't. run?

The fear made me ok with taking seven weeks off without a single step in a running gait. Sure, I was an emotional wreck (further compounded by a car accident). I became religious about my physical therapy. Heck, I became religious. I prayed. But I never stopped worrying. I frantically searched the internet for hamstring PRP success stories. Six weeks went by with not much improvement. And I had pretty much given up hope.

Then, in what seemed like an overnight miracle, this week the familiar always-there pain faded. And today I got the go-ahead. To run. It's been a rough year so I'm not celebrating just yet. But I will run. And it will not be far. It will not be fast. But there is running in my future. And unfinished business - with a finish line.

All I can do to explain is offer this (and stifle the tears):

Sunday, November 3, 2013

The Rain is not Forever (Saved Again by Music)

Singer/songwriter Mark Dignam
at the Barking Spider Tavern
Once again, I shift gears to write about music. And once again, where I usually discuss running, swimming, biking, and less frequently, visual art and technology, writing about music will be very uncomfortable. It's not necessarily something want to do, but today, it's something I am inspired to do.

You may already know through social media that I've been muddling through a really bad year. A hamstring injury continues to threaten (and potentially end) my ability to train and compete in a sport that I not only love but one to which I've dedicated many many years. And in disaster-magnet fashion, a few weeks ago I was in a car accident. I was rear-ended by another driver, my 14-year-old car was totaled, I suffered additional injuries, and my emotional well-being, already hanging by a thread, was further pushed to the limit by being given only three days of a rental vehicle by the other driver's insurance company. Stressed out with new aches and pains, frantically searching for a new (or used) car or come up with alternate work transportation, I found myself crying a lot and drawing for mental relief (having lost the stress-reducing factor of running that I've so relied on in the past).

So what does this have to do with music, you ask? Well, although it shouldn't happen this way, last night I had to be reminded of one of the great uplifting, anxiety-relieving things in this world - something I can get lost in that gives me hope and makes me want to get up the next day - something that gives me an appreciation of beauty and good in the world. That thing is music.

The musician is Dublin-born, Pittsburg-based Mark Dignam. The first time I heard him was in 2010 supporting the Swell Season at The House of Blues in Cleveland. He has a storied history having grown up busking on the streets of Dublin with the likes of Glen Hansard. And like Hansard, he truly embodies the spirit of the singer-songwriter. If you want to know more, Google him like I did the first time I heard his music. I watched every video I could find... the more I found, the more I wanted to kick myself for not having heard of him earlier than 2010 (seriously, it was embarrassing). But the most amazing thing about Mark Dignam is that he IS his music. When he performs, it seems like every molecule of his body is belting out the song. (Note: I stole this description from my friend Andy - an artist and occasional musician - who seems to have made it his mission to turn me onto good music. In the past, he's described some of his favorite musicians in this way - they "are their music.")

Mark Dignam is one of those musicians. Watching and listening to him, I can't imagine he could ever have done anything else with his life. It's an all-incompassing talent that I would proverbially give an arm and a leg to have (especially in my art). It's a talent that rarely sees the light of day in this world - a world in which we have American Idols crammed down our throats and are force-fed monotonous pop "music" via uninspired corporate-owned radio stations.

The only thing about it that makes me sad is that Jim and I were two of only about ten people there to witness Mark's performance in Cleveland, a city that claims to have great cultural institutions. It would have been easy to pack the place - a small bar called the Barking Spider - because it was a free gig right smack in the middle of a big university (Case Western Reserve). Unfortunately (in fact, it was a damn shame) only a few people were there to see it. A very lucky few, but in the end, only a few.

I am sure Mark Dignam made fans out of everyone sitting in the audience last night. One customer - engaged in conversation with him when we arrived - had no idea he spent the better half of his time at the bar talking to the performer. Having to leave half way through the set, the still-shocked new fan walked up mid-gig and asked to buy Mark's one CD. (Note that upon finding out he brought only one CD to Cleveland, this was the one I had set my heart on leaving with.) My point is, it's hard not to be blown away seeing Mark Dignam live. And if you didn't already know about it, he will introduce you to the catharsis of the sing-along. I don't know about you, but it's hugely fun (and stress-busting) singing out loud with (not quite) a roomful of people.

As we did last night. And hopefully will again. And again.

So, because I sometimes make it my mission to turn people on to good music, I have to share some of it. The title of this post is a line from this, one of his more well-known songs, "Stormy Summer" (since I had a pretty bad summer, hearing this live was my personal catharsis). Here's the video I took of it (with his permission):

And here's another song from last night - this one is called "Build":