The past few weeks have been something of a struggle as I tried to adapt myself to the new studio space and adapt myself to a different way of working. This is not entirely new, but it’s not what I was doing for last few years while I created the Colors of Jazz series of paintings.
The new way is a combination of the painting I was most recently doing and the tissue collages I did before painting became the thing.
As I struggled with it all, I became frustrated and began to think perhaps I had lost track entirely of what I wanted to do and how to do it. I was back with big questions and half-finished work.
Then I remembered something about my days in Manhattan as an actor and then a playwright. Something important that I had forgotten about the artistic life in that city that I have not found in any city (or town or village) since.
The thing was/is that real art is the process, not the finished product.
I haven’t lived in Manhattan for many years, but I sense that it is much the same. At the time I lived there, I suggested that every person pursuing a creative life should spend at least a few months in Manhattan where the emphasis was on workshops and practice studios and classes where the physical and mental work of creating was much more important than any opening night.
And it was not just important to the artists doing the creating. There was a rich acceptance of the process by audiences as well. To be invited to a rehearsal was more important than to be invited to the finished production, and the small “let’s give a show” productions in one apartment or another were exciting indeed.
This where the real work, the heavy lifting was taking place.
E.B. White wrote about this in his lovely essay, “The Ring of Time” after watching a young bareback rider rehearse in a dusty circus ring with no audience and no applause:
“It has been ambitious and plucky of me to attempt to describe what is indescribable, and I have failed, as I knew I would. But I have discharged my duty to my society; and besides, a writer, like an acrobat, must occasionally try a stunt that is too much for him. At any rate, it is worth reporting that long before the circus comes to town, its most notable performances have already been given. Under the bright lights of the finished show, a performer need only reflect the electric candle power that is directed upon him; but in the dark and dirty old training rings and in the makeshift cages, whatever light is generated, whatever excitement, whatever beauty, must come from original sources—from internal fires of professional hunger and delight, from the exuberance and gravity of youth. It is the difference between planetary light and the combustion of stars.“
For those of us who pursue visual art, the excitement, the beauty and the fires of professional hunger and delight happen in our messy studios where we take on and try to solve the many problems of our work.
What happens in the shows and fairs and galleries is another matter altogether. Something altogether else.
When I left Manhattan and returned to the western city from whence I had come, I was surprised to note the “demand” for polished performance. I was surprised about the “big night out” aspect that seemed to be the body and soul of attending a performance which was not so much an occasion to participate in, watch and listen to the creation happening as it was an opportunity to dress up, to see and be seen.
Over time I segued from writing to painting but in both cases, I found comfort in the jazz clubs wherever I lived. Jazz and jazz improvisation are art forms continuously creating themselves. Perfection is not the order of the day. Taking chances and finding new lines is the order of the day. I quote once again from my own jazz novel, Listen…
“You play the first note, baby, and see what happens. Then you play the next note. If you know all the notes before you start, that might be something. That might be music. But it ain’t jazz.”
So tonight, I’ve been back in Manhattan spiritually. Trying things out. Willing to make different choices. Willing to take risks and show the results to the world.