Creativity and the Artist

a-guest-post-by-serafia-alhoNote to Readers from Paul Sunstone: 

Serafia Alho is an amazing Finnish author and blogger who I have for some time wished would do a guest post for Café Philos.  Today, she has made my wish come true.  I am excited to post here a piece she’s written exclusively for this blog, and which explores in moving, almost poetic prose both the creative process as experienced by an artist, and the challenge to that creativity posed by the darkening clouds of our times. Please welcome her!

What does it mean to create?

To create is to experience pain: it’s a deep discontent with the world in its current state. To the artist, the only way to relieve that pain is to put everything aside and to focus all their skill and energy on mending it, either succeeding in their task or continuing to try until the magnitude of the task kills them. This is why many artists drink.

To them, every day is another wrestling match against the giant known as imperfection, and they’re constantly troubled by their inability to realize their vision — tormented by the feeling of muteness that comes with seeing something, but being unable to translate it to any other living being. Sometimes what they’re trying to achieve presents itself to them like a mirage in the middle of a desert — possibly attainable, but so intangible that only the foolhardy set out to seek it. Yet they do, because they have no other choice than to do so.

Art is fueled by emotion, and a member of the audience can catch a glimpse of that, however fleetingly, when being faced by an artwork. It is what we look forward to in art, and though the receiver only rarely gets to experience the full force of what the artist had to endure for the work to get completed, we always wait for it and when it happens, we call it Great Art and celebrate it long after the artist is already dead — often consequentially marring it in the process of doing so. True art does not rely on historians or tour guides to explain itself to us: it imposes itself on you, grabs hold of you, and speaks for itself. That ability to bypass our defenses is exactly where some of the struggle of the artist stems from. How can a single human expel all that emotion? What sort of exorcism is required to drive the artist’s passion into a form that fittingly represents the thing itself, in a similar fashion an idol represents the divine manifestation of a being — not becoming the spirit, but being of the spirit, inextricably linked yet completely separate?

Some artists are born with the genius of being able to capture the essence of a thing simply by looking at it. However, most artists are forced to spend years training their hands, their eyes, their mind to bend to the task of shaping the unwilling materials they work with: partly reality itself, partly the human psyche, partly their chosen mediums like clay and paper. One single brush stroke holds within a thousand hours; one book carries a lifetime. The craft allows no cutting corners: there is no deity handing down ready-made artworks, and the effortlessness we associate with inspiration is nothing but a lie, designed to cloak the ugly mundanity of the time the artist spent unskilled, unnoticed, and mocked. We prefer to see the divinity, and take joy in perceiving the artist as something of a mystic: not quite human — and somehow not quite deserving of being one.

We think of art as cheap, perhaps because emotion is a renewable resource, and so are artists. We’ve become so desensitized to the thought of creation as an act of destruction that we think nothing of it when an artist breaks. Neither does the act of creation have any inherent value to us — only a completed artwork has meaning. The artist him- or herself naturally never thinks like this, nor would it be possible for him or her to. They know that most of the emotion, the underlying value of experiencing art, the emotion that elevates great art to true art, is burned up in the very kiln that makes the artist. The audience only ever sees what comes out from the oven, and they have no interest in the shards and pieces making up the bulk of what’s needed to create single artwork.

What then is an artist to do when their source of creative fuel is suddenly overtaken by an even greater emotion, one that chokes or even cripples them with such a force that even creation itself suddenly loses all its meaning? It does happen — it has happened — it’s currently happening all over the world when millions of people have had to face the looming sense of doom that is the US presidential election.

Best-selling authors have had to ask their publishers to move their deadlines. Projects are stalled, professional creators drink themselves to sleep. All their motivations suddenly in ashes, the small insignificancies in life they’ve set out to express suddenly uprooted by the very real, and very visible, wrongs going on right under all our noses. To some, it’s felt like the destruction of the world as they’ve known it.

Art grows best at the edges of life, not in the rocky ugliness of unbending realism, and so it’s no wonder so many creators are grinding to a standstill. The conventional advice given to artists in times of hardship is to integrate it into their creation: to ingest it, stem and all, and to keep creating whatever happens. In that sense, artists are the shamans of the modern day: they take upon themselves the poison that others are unable or unwilling to face, and through doing so they bring order out of chaos, good out of evil, and share it with the world.

But it’s a risky business, being a shaman. Although they alone are said to have the skills to travel to the Underworld, not all of them come back from there. It is a terrifying feeling when your work suddenly loses its meaning, especially if that work is only half complete. The feeling of importance is not a voluntary act, and it leaves us artists with only one of two options: to toss out the artwork out completely, or to change, to drink the poison despite knowing some of us are never coming back. Time and again the birth of new art movements have been in parallel with the turning points of history, and maybe this time will later be remembered as the starting point of a yet to be explored form of human expression, one that better reflects the sense of alarming immediacy now coursing through our social media.

Pain will always flow with and from creation. May some day, when time has passed, only the beauty be remembered.

What’s Wrong With Nudity? (NSFW)

a pretty girl who is naked
is worth a million statues
– e. e. cummings

I haven’t been feeling my best lately.  For the past couple weeks, the weather has been trying to settle into a winter’s cold; my sleep has been restless, short, and disturbed; a sore throat took hold yesterday; I’ve been feeling a lot of minor aches and pains; I’ve not been getting outside enough for fresh air; there are no naked ladies in my apartment at the moment; and although I’m not yet to the point of actually feeling sorry for myself, I’m thinking I should at least buy the tickets to feeling sorry.

So, given what a dull day it’s been, I was more than a little cheered when, out of the blue, my generous online friend, Eolake Stobblehouse sent to me an email full of beautiful nudes.  Like most people, I think, there is almost nothing in this universe that can cause me to feel more alive than beauty.  His timing was coincidental, but Eolake could not have sent a more appreciated gift.

Eolake, by the way, is the founder of the “Simple Nudes Movement”.  If you are curious, I’ve blogged about Eolake and the Movement here.

I’ve been told that I don’t get or understand what’s wrong with nudity.  But I’m not sure that is,  strictly speaking, true.  I’m pretty confident I get that people raised to think of nudity as wrong or immoral will most likely spend their lives thinking of nudity as wrong or immoral.

That’s to say, I can see no rational reason to oppose nudity on moral grounds.  I certainly don’t believe it causes anyone harm to either view nudity or to go nude.

Some scientific studies have been done on nudity and those studies have never found that nudity is harmful to anyone.  On the contrary, it turns out going nude can be psychologically good for you — especially if you are a woman.

So, bring it on!  What’s wrong with nudity?  What am I missing here?

The beautiful woman above goes by the name of Edita and her photo here is reproduced from Eolake’s huge collection of simple nudes.  You can see a few of the nudes in his collection here.

And, if you want access to Eolake’s full collection — there’s something like 60,000 tasteful nudes on his website — You can sign up for full access here.

He has a free weekly newsletter he will email to you that’s very much worth subscribing to here.

He doesn’t pay me anything to promote him, but I’ve long been a believer in his exceptional aesthetic standards, and so I hope even more people will discover his already very popular service.

“The Sun is Also a Star” by Hugh Schneider

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The Sun is Also a Star by Hugh Schneider

From the artist’s commets:

This is part of a nature reserve which has been allowed to regain the original look and feel of an ancient forest. The entire area is completely covered with spongy moss (great for walking on).

The only sound to be heard is the rustling of the wind through the towering pines …and of course the occasional bird call.

The Paint Mines

About a forty minute drive from where I live in Colorado is a relatively small patch of land that for years has been called the “Paint Mines”.  I don’t know what the land was called before it was called the Paint Mines, but Native American artifacts dating as far back as 9,000 years have been found near the site, and so the land must have had other names once.  Likely, hundreds of names.

In some sense, the land is most noticeable for its colorful clays capped by soft sandstones.  Native Americans used the clays to make ceremonial paints and pottery.  Until a couple generations ago, European Settlers mined the same clays to make bricks and paint pigments.  Those economic uses of the land have been important to both Natives and Settlers in identifying and defining the Paint Mines.  But perhaps other things define the land, too.  Things just as important in their own ways as the uses to which we have at times put it.

I’ve noticed during my visits to the Paint Mines that there the wind and sky dominate the land as much as do the clays.  The Paint Mines are located on the High Plains and, as you might expect, the sky is huge and the wind is nearly relentless.  But what you might not expect, if you have never been on the Plains before, is how astonishingly quiet the land is.

I have sometimes thought the wind stole the sounds you would hear anywhere else.  But I really don’t know why the Plains are so quiet.  The quiet, however, is often great enough to drive your thoughts back on themselves so that they seem amplified.

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I once startled a friend of mine — an native of Colorado — when I suggested that standing on the High Plains gave me an overwhelming feeling of being in a masculine landscape, while being up among the mountains gave me quite another feeling — one of femininity.  She looked at me taken aback, and then protested the mountains seemed very masculine to her.

We weren’t arguing, of course.   We were just sharing our differing emotions.  And she understood where I was coming from as soon as I explained it to her.  The closer you are to a mountain, the more it seems to enclose you.  To be in some valleys between mountains is doubly enclosing.  I’ve found the experience at times to feel protective, even womb-like, and secretive.  But the open  Plains are another story.

When I have stood out on the High Plains beneath a huge sky, I have felt naked to the constant wind, openly revealed by the land and the vast horizon — even stripped of all the secrets of my self.   Although the Paint Mines are gullies or miniature canyons carved down below the level of the surrounding Plains, they have always given me that same sense of masculine openness that seems at times to be as much a part of the Plains as the yellow grasses.  So, for me, the Paint Mines are defined as much by their relationship to the Plains as by their clays and sandstones.

But would you feel the same sense of masculinity as I have?  Of course, I don’t know, and neither do you, unless you’ve been to the Mines.  These Mines have had hundreds of names, have been identified and defined in so many ways — perhaps in the end, each of us is responsible to define them for ourselves.

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The clays and sandstones were laid down over 55 million years ago.

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Some of the formations are surreal.  The land here is very soft and fragile.  It erodes quickly.

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In places, the colors are so intense, the clay itself seems to be bleeding.

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All the photos in this post were recently taken by my friend Don.  Don’s religion is nature.  He prefers the smell of leather to most other religions, and a good hike better than the rest.