Updated: May 4, 2020
I keep a small "7" sign near my easel. When I get stuck it reminds me to be seven years old.
You might have all kinds of skills and technique, but when you're seven with a crayon you're thinking,”What’s the coolest thing I can make!” No concerns for end results, no critics, no collectors. As you go you are enacting the thing by drawing it! It's got cowboy boots or a motorcycle, maybe swans on the lake or it's got you in a hat with snow falling.
So in the studio, just like that, I realize I can paint anything. "What would be the coolest thing here?" is better for me than, "what does it need here?" A huge part of the Modernist movement was shaped by our desire to create like a child. Klee, Kandinsky, Picasso, almost all of them at some point copied the look of children's art. But it's the child's unabashed engagement that we want.
One time, when I was ten, I was fooling around down in the basement (in Pennsylvania we’d say, “I was down the cellar.”) There was always a lot of stuff down there which never could get organized. In the corner was a barrel filled with odd ends of lumber - lengths of 1 X 2, quarter rounds, dowels, garden stakes.
A stick came to hand and I thwacked a big cardboard box. Incredibly satisfying! Then I had two sticks going takit takit takit on the rim of a bucket. I tried out the sound of shelves, a plastic basin, shoe boxes. Chang don tumtumtum! … I played different combinations, dragged some new things over. Rearranged them a little. Bang...chikka doom…tuka doom tuka doom. I developed new combination licks. I tried to make fast riffles in just the right place. The audience was enthralled, carried along on the crashing wavefronts of my playing. Repeating the same pattern several times, throwing in another, then back to the main theme. Suddenly, from the top of the stairs came, “BILLY!”
In an instant, sticks in midair, I came to. Guilty. I realized that the whole world had been lost to me! “Get up here!” An inner voice said, “You're not allowed lose yourself.”
Some thirty-five years later I was telling this story in my Mom’s presence and she laughed, “But I was always afraid you would hurt yourself.”
The admonition to maintain my grip didn’t take, of course. As an adult, I actually became a drummer, studying and performing Middle Eastern frame drums as well as Ghanaian drum and dance. I went on to learn how to teach group music improvisation - a five-year training. I facilitated drumming circles. I found myself leading large audiences in three part singing improvised on the spot.
As artists, we “lose ourselves” in our work every day, and it’s in the work where we are most integrated and whole. We’re down the cellar in the language-orchestra.
Make a warm grey shape next to a pale yellow. More grey. A pattern. For some reason you add a touch of mint green, then the green develops a crimson edge. We look up to see that three hours have passed.
We all know the stern voice at the top of the stairs, but our studios need to be just out of earshot. These greys with the yellow and the flare of crimson have rigor and syntax. They have nothing to do with safety. Nor is this the place for business. The training of the artist means lots of practice in this space and, oddly, it also means we must remove the guilt from that bright kid inside who is just seriously fooling around.