Sometimes, when a friend invites me to go look at art somewhere local, I feel the burden of my identification as an artist. Such a foray as 'artist' often feels wearying. Usually, the evening ends up being a better experience than I thought, about friendship and empathic joyfulness for the artists exhibiting, but the story of the whole thing that proceeds such an outing - the thought and precursive feeling - is what can feel oppressive. It's a shared, social set of norms and patterns that I have been trying to lose for some time.
Something has always felt off kilter about how normal it is to 'seek' as artists, and how often quite blatantly the commerce game in the US is very stacked against the delicate skin of many a creative. Also lopsided is how gallerists and curators are lightening rods themselves, the focus of so many people's wants, and then also seeking the sales, or the grants, or the reviews. Who wants to relate to the world from that place of lack and want?
I am reminded, of a trip to New York City I took when I was still in my twenties, with a good artist friend at the time. She had a complete reverence for each work we looked at. She took her time. She was quiet, as if watching wildlife. She was just alight with the work, all kinds, all eras. The fact of its very existence filled her heart, it seemed to me. It felt like we had taken a pilgrimage.
I was brought up looking at art and going to museums. By that trip in my twenties, I was already sort of numb to its magic. I do however remember being very small, and delighting in a color, a bold assemblage, a particular type of line or mark, or some whole crazy mess or elegant, painstaking arrangement in the white square of a museum. This younger self reminds me that my heart has always been tuned to this type of song. My friend in New York showed me without meaning to, where I had gotten overly familiar with the sacred exchange of looking. Today, the decades of past association appear at moments, to have made me jaded: perhaps because an eye roll is easier than a broken heart.
Put differently, the breathtaking first love of a color and a form, overlaid with a professional career of success! rejection, utter disregard, success! deflation, disillusionment, confusion, bitterness, loss, little success! and then in many regards just turning, three quarters of the way away, can make a little jaunt to an opening, feel complicated for me.
It's similar to how I have felt as a single woman in my forties, trying to decide if I wanted to join a dating app one last time or if I was completely done. I decided I was done. And from this came a deep layer of, eventually, freedom. I could be a happy spinster! I enjoyed my own company. I loved making an X with my limbs in a bed all my own. Doing whatever the F I felt like, whenever. Having my sister's kids over was delightful.
I regard the newish and changing art scenes around me today with weary distrust. There's the Boston ones, the Detroit ones, the Michigan ones, the Maine ones. Or is there? These are stories and thoughts, based on past experience and conclusions, high and hard moments, objectifying stories, that ultimately have no more basis than me as an object among objects in the world. Stories are so compelling, but they often don't hold up upon scrutiny to have any actual reality to them. Aren't we all just waking up, getting a cup of something, brushing our teeth?
As a small and separate personality, there is always something more to get. As aliveness itself, the thing that leaves a body so remarkably when it breathes its very last breath, there is nothing ever to want. You are all of that already: all expressions, all things, all epiphanies, high points, all tragedies.
Making art is a choice to play, a choice to discover what thrills this particular vantage point I call me. What she's curious about, what fascinates and even repels.
This kind of exploration can extend too, to everything. To every moment of apparent choice, to tuning into the inside Yeses and the inside Nos as one finds the flow and eventually returns to just being flow.
Being flow won't look a certain way. It won't associate with a certain crowd. It won't follow a script. But it is joy, wealth and perfection, the way water moves in a river is that. So my aspiration, to say it out loud, is to roll through the chances of experience where they lead, calibrated as I appear to be, toward certain things. Sometimes out of a need for practical outcomes, sometimes out of a pull or an inspiration, sometimes because something is not feeling great.
In the words of 12th century poet Jelaludin Rumi,
You are the honored guest. Do not weep like a beggar for pieces of the world.
What appears to be true is that both sides of the coin, the little me with her wants and history and aspirations and hurts and prides is held in the aliveness, the situation itself, the one that hears the prayer. Sometimes there's a moment where a skin gets sloughed off, an old tight story, and for a while I have been molting on this artist one. this artist skin. This form in a sea of forms, stories and associations.
How is it for you, as an artist or in your profession? Do you sometimes feel the expanded way, and then contract into the local story of comparison and ambition? Do you see it an entirely other way? Have you found ways to stay open and tender even where there may appear be sharks (or at least sharp rocks) in the water? I would love to learn from you, how to surrender this little striver to the great open water of color, light and infinite form.
Hannah Burr is a contemporary artist and author. Originally from Boston, she lives in Ann Arbor MI.