Thursday, August 7, 2014

Pulling Away The Vines

I suppose there comes a time when circumstances ask us to contemplate what we're doing and why. If creating art is a journey then perhaps these introspective moments are akin to pausing on our path to survey the surroundings and check our bearings. Sometimes we may even opt to cut a new trail entirely, forging into unknown territory altogether. Every so often, however, our journey can be about rediscovering forgotten trails, retracing erstwhile steps, or uncovering old paths tangled over by the dense overgrowth of our everyday. They wait for us to wander down their twists and turns againwiser, beleaguered and perhaps seeking solace in remembrance. Not all new trails are cut fresh!

I've returned to such a trailhead. It was around 2011 when life first introduced me to the experience called depression. Entirely new to me, it took me by surprise and laid waste to nearly two years of my life. And while I thought I'd left it behind me early last year, the subsequent backslide proved it still haunted my psyche. What to dowhat to do. But does anyone actually really know what to do with depression? We have an assortment of stopgaps, but an actual cure still seems to remain elusive. (Though modern science is certainly spearheading that effort! SCIENCE!) Nevertheless, some good has come from the ordeal much to my surprise, one of them being a stout rethinking of just what the heck I was doing in the studio.

It's often the case for artists that identity and practice, that our sense of self and purpose in life are the very same thing. One just doesn't do art, one is an artist. So it is for me: I am what I do and I do what I am. I am my art and my art is me. That means creating my art isn't just a passion, a job, a joy, a pastime, a pursuit, or even a routineit's me being alive. It's as natural and necessary to me as breathing, and so to stop is to literally stop living, to cease being me. This is both a blessing and a curse. Making a living at what reaffirms who I am is wondrous beyond words and I'm grateful every day!

The privilege of a lifetime is being who you are.
Joseph Campbell

But it also means that the very essence of my being can be vulnerable to circumstance. If life decides to get between me and my ability to create art then, I'm faced with a crisis well beyond missing work. This being so, the vacant detachment imposed by depression not only threatened what I am but who I am as wella frightening proposition. A rescue mission had to be launched post haste, to save not only my productivity but my personality too. But in deploying that salvage operation, I was stunned to excavate rediscovered treasures almost forgotten in the dark deep of myself. Bringing them up from the brooding depths, I never suspected how these bygone imaginings would breathe new life into me and conspire to save me from drowning in that abyss of ambivalence.

So in a roundabout way, that melancholy drudgery, that yawning bleakness did offer a great gift. And though wrapped in howling indifference and topped with a soulsucking bow, it was a great gift all the same. Depression may not be the best wrapper of presents, butheyit tries. And by "gift" I mean this: I realized that I'd been working almost exclusively in equine realism for about thirty–seven years. This isn't so incredulous once you realize that time, effort, dedication, and sacrifice in freakishly large quantities are necessary for this demanding art form. And I've relished every moment! The singlesubject and focus isn't a limitation in my opinion, but an enthralling challenge. To explore the possibilities and interpret variations has truly tested my mettle each time I've touched tool to clay, and has only served to intensify its appeal.

But stillthat's a long time to be singleminded about anything! When I was my typical crazy–busy self, I was probably too distracted by all the goingson to realize my creativity had developed an itch—one that would need a pretty good scratch too boot. There's nothing quite like inertia to pinpoint the deficiencies in one's trajectory. Slowly becoming aware of a restlessness in my creativity then, I diagnosed a need to be wanton again, to wallow in a kind of innocence found only in unfettered imagination. Strange that in the midst of spiritsnuffing insouciance, one last little spark would want to detonate itself into a thermonuclear bomb of emotion! 

So there I was, armed with a sizable mental library of anatomical rules accumulated over nearly four decades of intent studyand now my insides wanted to pitch it all into the wind?! What gives? Did my creativity want to expand on familiar themes because of its expanded appreciation for the subject? Hmmm…could be! Then maybe my insides pined for this kind of exploration as a way to complement and puzzle over those learned for realism? Quite possibly! And just what was this new compulsion for artistic abandon in the studio? Where the holy heck was that coming from? As I peeled back the smothering layers of depression, there in the gooey amorphic center, grinnin' back at me like a cheeky Cheshire Cat, was the repressed need for

Play. Play? YesPLAY. Whoa! How wild! OK, thenplay! Ta-da!

Apparently I'd been creating "by the book" for so long, my creativity simply wanted an opportunity to concoct new rules, or even play with existing ones in new ways. But this would be risky! I took pride in pushing my skills in the accuracy department, in duplicating real life as closely as possible, and my work was known for this careful attention to technical detail. And now my guts wanted to just make stuff up?! What?! My production schedule was in total chaos, too, no thanks to the apathy induced by depression. So the wad of existing work that was waiting for my attention was obviously far more pressing, right? Only now my creativity wanted to switch gears tofrom this perspectivewaste time?! Perish the thoughtNO! Absolutely NOT—no no NO! Shut up little spark! Was it out of its mind?! (Don't answer that!)

But…butperhaps there was method to this madness, a lunatic wisdom. Hmm. See, those two gremlinsrisk and backlog—were highly skilled at spinning a pointed and powerful guilttrip each and every time the urge to focus on something different sprung up. So "play" just didn't seem justifiedso it wasn't and I didn't. And I'm a working artist too, darn it! It's unacceptable that my drive could be so capricious and easily compromised. I should just get down to work, efficiently and effectively, right? Buck up, Mink! Geez.

Yet I had to admit that the more I forced the "real" work, the more frustrated I became. Few things turned out as desired, and what was once effortless and joyful was now browbeaten toil. I found myself uncharacteristically rationalizing more and more, and so the studio sat empty and Minkless more and more each week. Bit by bit then, that natural impulse to continue creating simply evaporated. Depression had made creating art hard enough, but then having to battle these selfinflicted guilttrips of "I shoulds" made for a kind of emotional agony. It's so true that only we know how to most cruelly torture ourselves.

Smoosh that whole seething mess together and what have we got? Yepa terrible negative feedback loop. One that was becoming ever more entrenched and powerful every day, too, and that's bad bad juju for a working artist. And if that wasn't enough, being attached to my identity and sense of purpose also meant that I faced some rather unwelcome and unsettling deeply personal implications. I became desperate. Frantic, really. The life I saw before me was without art—was without me being me—and it was unfathomable. How do you deal with a future so unwanted and unlike you, but with you still stuck inside it? I didn't want to be a prisoner in my own life! And I certainly didn't want to be that kind of broken person for my family and friends either!

Things eventually reached critical mass, a kind of fork in the road. Going absolutely nowhere, I was stalled out with real work on one road and preventative guilttrips rallied a gauntlet on the other. Wounded, frightened, despairing and bewildered, another meltdown was imminent. Then outta nowhere some forgotten advice popped into my head, neatly summed up thusly

Action is the antidote to despair. 
Joan Baez

When stuck, moving in any direction isby definition—being unstuck. If my insides simply refused to create real work then it was the guilttrips that had to crumble. So I began to wonder…what was my psyche trying to tell me all this time? And why had I deafened myself to it? Had I become so accustomed to internal mental combat that I simply forgot how to stop fighting? Rather than swallow play as frivolous excess perhaps I should see it instead as the storied "spoonful of sugar"? As therapy? So would indulging play prime my parched creative pump? If play really was rehabilitation, would it regenerate and release that torrential, unstoppable gush of possessed creativity so typical of my drive before depression? Or would it backfire catastrophically to sink me forever in an endless ocean of hopeless despair? Would it finally and totally break me? How the heck did I get to this point?! How did I become so afraid?! Why did I doubt myself, and so blithely? And when did I become so distrustful of the one thing I'd always been most certain about—making art?! BAH! That's not me whatsoever! Even so, I had to move

So I gathered myself up, took a deep breath, riled the maniac minkie moxie that served me so well in life…then looking it square in the eyes, I steeled myself and gave that smug, disapproving, overbearing conscience The Bird. Take that you putz! GET OUT! And clean the dirt behind you! So I metaphorically tossed my red curls, spun around and sauntered back to creativity's waiting, warm arms, feverishly and rebelliously embracing the whole crazy idea of play. Play play PLAY!

Nothing happens until something moves.
Albert Einstein

Then a curious thing happened: the moment I allowed myself to embrace this idea, to give myself permission to play, something shifted, clicked on and loudly sputtered to life—rusty, smoking, grinding and clanking at first thenFLASH! BANG! Clink clink clink *POP* WHHHHRRRRRRRRRmy creativity and enthusiasm snapped into synch and in one mad instant, catalyzed an explosion of superheated liberation, generating a massive, supersonic shockwave of eager, joyful, shining fervor that instantly leveled and vaporized the diseased, gnarled landscape of depression. For a moment I was blinded. I actually physically felt a cool, calming wash in my brain (???) then all of a sudden, clear as day, I opened my eyes and knew exactly what to play with

As a girl I spent hours filling my sketchbooks with horses and ponies, painstakingly drawn with as much technical accuracy I could muster in those tender years—which waswell, pretty darned lousy, to be honest. But we all gotta start somewhere! Created alongside these spirited steeds, however, were teeming herds of imagined animalsfantastical creatures of all kinds. Scales, horns, feathers, claws, antlers, finsthese beasts evolved within a creative landscape governed only by my boundless, youthful imagination.

So now that I was finally listening to my creativity, I realized that these bizarre creatures tickled and amused different parts of my creativity, exercising bits that were equally and uniquely important for my creative wellbeing. It dawned on me then that these wild things could represent different aspects of my creative drive, different totems in a way, and they needed attention, too. In a sense, they were spawned in my depths whereas my equine art was about diving into the depths of another

But somehow and quite unintentionally, I'd forgotten to feed this extraordinary menagerie so they'd simply wandered off, in a manner of speaking. Out of sight, out of mind. After all these years though, this pressure point became exposed like a shrieking nerve, laid bare by depression. Along with truth and reality then, my insides yearned for its dreams and delusions, too. And that's no small matter, mind you, because the difference between duplicating biological rules versus simply making stuff up is like night to day. One is like a vocation and the other like a vacation! 

Now I suppose I should have figured all this out earlier, and had I actually been paying attention to my creativity, I would have. The zeal I relished when sculpting Mr. Pony

The cheer in spawning the little clay critters for BOYCC

The glee spurring my spirit when creating the Chemo Critters

And the winesoaked revelry in painting Godzilla

All the clues where there. With these projects came no strings, no rules, no expectations, and all adventure. Had I been honest with myself I would've accepted that more of this mayhem was needed in my art life. Had I been respectful of my insides, I could've admitted that other inspirations weren't to be dismissed, but were instead equally rewarding and equally necessary for keeping my creativity stoked and burning white hot. Had I been attentive to all the parts of me, it wouldn't have taken the emotional silencing of depression for my guts to finally get it through my thick skull that what was real and what was unreal were two sides of the same coin. That each would inform the other to combine into a luscious, piping hot artistic plasma of higher energies and greater purity than either one by itself. Who knew?! Just whip into stiff peaks and serve! Sweet synthesis!

Now granted, the (ongoing) rigorous workout with all the anatomical rules is obviously essential for equine realism, by definition. One must master the rules first before gaining the authority to bend or break them. And these aren't complaints! I keenly remember those frustrating early days when I lacked this kind of insight and was forced to clumsily fudge and muddle my way through ideas. I can't tell you how much I disliked this. And when my efforts would predictably fall short of my soaring ambitions as a result—well, I still feel that sting despite the interim years. Oh, how I bitterly resented my childmind's inability to grasp for the rings I so desperately wanted to pocket becauseyes, I admit it freelyeven at that tender, wee age I expected a great deal of myself. So when equine realism introduced me to serious anatomical study later in life, it was like being handed an actual treasure map promising a wealth of structural credibility just waiting for plunder! I threw myself into it, of course, with all the wild abandon of a starving dog at an unattended picnic. I gorged! The potato salad didn't stand a chance.

But it seems now that the tables have turned. My current predicament can be described as the very same frustration but only in the opposite direction. In other words, since my creativity now has a firmer grasp on the rules, it wanted to jettison them! Bah! Seriously?! So no longer having to fudge things out of ignorance meant it wanted to just make stuff up again?! Really?! I swear, the art life can be so goofy. So many quirky drives to feed! How ironic though that the fantasy and frivolity born of my youth would come back full circle to sound the rescue, to add balance to an adult life weighted so heavily on facts and reality. Maybe our craziest visions really are our most loyal minions who, like gargoyles, can chase away pesky demons prowling our inner landscape.

All considered then, my depression revealed a curious idea: it wasn't enough to simply create more work, I needed to work more creativelyAfter following Nature's rules for so long, my insides had made it quite clear that it needed balance, an expressive conduit where anything goes, just from time to time. When I was a child, I wanted to create as an adult, but now that I'm an adult, my insides wanted to create as a child again! So there ya gomy gut instincts speaking loudly and clearly. Where does this put me now though? 

Right back at those old sketchbooks, that's where! Musty, dogeared, spiralbound sheets stuffed with dragons, pegasi, unicorns, seahorses, hybrids, monsters and all manner of incredulous critter dreamed up by the quirky imagination and naiveté of one very enthusiastic child. It was time to go back and find that Sarah again, for that healing infusion of her raw, unpasteurized, primordial energy. And how better to grab her innocent, wideeyed attention than with a customtargeted version of the Batsignal? A Unicorn signal! Ah HA! Gotcha girlie!

I've long been fascinated with Unicorns. Drawings, paintings, illustrations, sculptures, architectural flourishes, books, Coat of Arms, logos, movies (remember Legend?)…everything "Unicorn" fed my enchantment. Besides their beauty and strangeness, their cultural appeal charmed me, too. Like the Dragon, the Unicorn holds a unique position of deep mythological significance across a wide variety of cultures, each interpretation customfitted for its parent belief system. From this perspective, understanding the nature of the Unicorn in any given culture is to better understand that culture—and that's cool! This phenomenon also caused the Unicorn to morph into countless variations, each one stranger than the last—and that's even cooler! Not many other fabled creatures can boast this kind of universality and influence, except perhaps the Dragon. All this meant, of course, that huge swaths of people throughout history believed this creature was real, adding another layer of intrigue to the mystique—and that's super–duper cool!

Yet from the very beginning, the Unicorn wasn't simply a white horse with a horn. Nope. To me the Unicorn was a most exotic being with a variety of characteristics such as cloven hooves, twisty lion tails, antelopelike ears, bizarre eyes, or any manner of oddity I fancied. I thought if people could be alternately charmed and alarmed by this beast then it was probably quite extraordinary, right? Almost alien. Even evolutionary traits derived from specific ecological niches were fair game, and got me studying real animals in similar habitats for inspiration.

The Unicorn has walked beside me as guide, muse, guardian and totem. Looking back though, perhaps most curious was how I imagined his nature. While childhood peers interpreted this animal as innocent, gentle, sweet and benign, that cloying image never resonated with me. To me the Unicorn was fierce, free, strange, wise, ancient, and ethereal, with a tad of menace and danger. These were immortal, otherworldly, magical beings with abilities, senses, and priorities wholly unlike anything familiar to us. They walked between dimensions at will, observing, viewing time in eons, tuned in to energies and presences beyond our coping mechanisms. Coming from a primeval world homo sapien became dumb to long before memory, the Unicorn is a sacred harbinger, herald, bearer and keeper, a sentinel waiting for us to wake from our collective fog to see them again. Being so full of potency, mysticism and indescribable power then, would it really end well for us if we encountered one? I suspect not.

Yet at the same time, the Unicorn is closely associated with comforting memories from my childhood. The feel and smell of a new sketchbook and eraser. A sharp pencil. The aroma of brush cleaner and oil paints. The rich, warm musk of a freshly cleaned bridle and saddle. The sound of birds and squirrels squabbling over the buffet growing on the apricot tree in the backyard. The sweet sanctuary of my bedroom and soft cushion of my twin bed, with the wall pressed against my back as I thumbed through my "Horse Of Course" magazines. Daydreaming. My pet rattie bruxing on my shoulder, his warm, fuzzy body pressed against my neck. I could feel him breathing. Sharing my cookie with him, watching crumbs bounce down my arm. The look of my riding boots shined up in the corner of my room. The eyes of my Breyer® horses peering at me from my bedroom shelves. The aroma of Mom cooking dinner. The sound of my brother softly playing guitar or playing the Atari®. Our Budgie bird chirpin' and warblin' contently. The creaking of Pop's chair as he sat outside for his evening cigar. Yesthis elusive, rare beast has tread quietly throughout my life, bearing deep symbolism for me each step. 

Who better then to guide me out of this darkness? Heckthat horn points the way! So I snatched the Unicorn armature that sat here for the better part of two years and with a blind madness flowing directly from childhood, I threw myself into the clay. This was playserious play, of course—but play nonetheless. 

And it's felt great. Indescribably great! Fantastic!

The creative flowwhich until now had to be meticulously rationedall of a sudden burst forth in a deluge, flooding my insides with the lunatic enthusiasm my soul devours. To say I was astonished would be an understatement. Here I was hoping for a mere glimmer, but what I got was a psychological HypernovaFor the first time since depression blew apart my spirit, I felt whole again. Truly happy. Content. Joyful! That cursed negative feedback loop evaporated too, replaced by a positive loop now ramped up to speeds that would make the LHC blush! 

In the depths of winter I finally learned there was in me an invincible summer.
Albert Camus

I really shouldn't be so surprised that this Unicorn has materialized so easily and naturally—but I am! Heck—my hands can barely keep up! I'm so thrilled, in fact, that I've actually missed sleep some nights, and not because of anxiety or dread, but because of delirium and devotion. My soul sparks and buzzes with hightension creativity, and to my thankful delight, that hypnotizing, euphoric Zen my essence craves is back full throttle, with time zipping by unnoticed just like before my mental implosion. I couldn't ask for a better outcome. I'm not just as good as new—I'm better than before!

And here's the weird, cool thing about all this: I'm more than me now! A synergy of Sarahs, I'm like Sarah3: the childSarah + the pre–depression–Sarah + the now–Sarah = Sarah.2. We three are fused into a kind of creative chimera with each informing, embracing and advocating for the other. A sisterhood made up of three phases of my being, I'm recharging, reshaping and reinventing myself right along with my art. 

All the struggle and angst that plagued my guts are now totally gone, replaced by a bristling of exhilarationjust as it should be. I can't wait to wake up in the morning to get into the studio, a feeling I thought was gone forever. Two years of being the droning living dead can suck itI'm alive again. Rejuvenated and renewed, the Unicorn has healed my wounded soul. Even if this creature exists only in my dreamsI believe. And I intend to continue accepting the hallowed medicine this uncanny creature delivers.

So this Unicorn heralds the beginning of a new series, one that draws from the youthful happygolucky zeal of my childhood to enlighten my ambitious and determined adult future. Each Unicorn will also serve as a retrospection, a culmination and a declaration, reclaimed every year.

As regularly scheduled playtime then, each new Unicorn will explore a different physique, each accompanied by a little Moth friend. I love Moths with their big beady eyes, plumed antennae, array of unusual wings and big, fat, fuzzy bodieswhat's not to love? But don't be surprised if a Dragonfly or Butterfly show up from time to time too! Symbolic accoutrements for each Unicorn will also be available (as separate purchases) such as ornate collars, special wreaths, other companions, or whatever floats my boat at the time. It's playtime, remember—I can do whatever I want! That said, I do hope to keep the scale of the series more or less the same for everything to be interchangeable to some degree. I think that would add to the narrative fun for all of us—you get to play, too!

Joy is but the sign that creative emotion
is fulfilling its purpose.
Charles du Bois

So here I am, reflecting on the past couple of years and I see now that the whole mess wasn't such a waste of time. Truth be told, in some ways it was even beneficial. I may be bloodied and still blinking in the radiance of glorious new potentialbut clawing out from the bottomless pit of depression entailed an act of will that reclaimed my life with renewed affirmation. As only hardship can beget, a fresh perspective now permeates the studio to imbue my efforts with more reverent substance. Bright days are ahead, made even brighter by this brush with darkness. 

Today is my birthday as I write thisJuly 31st. I'm 46. Curious how all this good stuff oozed to the surface just in time for this day of reminiscence. Perhaps I have two Birthdays now—one for my birth and another for my rebirth. In honor of this new occasion then, I've decided to give myself a longoverdue gift: the permission to playSo stay tuned for the debut of Unicorn I and steady yourself for the madcap onslaught of Sarah.2!

And serving as rich symbology for me, the Unicorn does so again…fearless, impassioned and truly free.

"Whoever wants to understand much must play much." ~ Gottfried Benn

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