Things I learned: On Artistry and Art Life

Writer and storyteller, Rebecca Mabanglo-Mayor, shared a link on her blog to a speech given by Ursula K. Le Guin upon accepting the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters. In this speech, Le Guin speaks not only of the need for visionary writers, but she also speaks of the need to discern between the production of a market commodity and the practice of an art.

At the end of her speech, Le Guin says that the name of our reward is not profit, it is freedom.

I think of freedom as I reflect and go through the notes and the memories that I have from New York and Janis Ian’s masterclass in artistry. Le Guin’s words resonate with the lessons learned from my time with Janis.

In New York, Laura and I talked about Janis’s commitment not only to her art, but also to taking hold of the business aspect of her art practice.  It was an aspect that she brought up a number of times and listening to Le Guin talk of freedom, serves as a reminder that whatever proceeds come from the exercise of one’s art–they all go back towards the artist being able to keep on practicing that art.

The practical truth of it is that we cannot exercise or develop our art when our energy is gone, when we are too tired or worn out, or when we our head is filled with worry.  I think of how I would never have finished or published the stories I have if not for being given space and time to practice my art free from the stresses and the tensions of daily life. I am grateful to my fellow practitioners–to the artists and writers who have opened their homes to me and who have so generously given me flights of freedom.

Freedom.

To be able to practice our art in a space and time when we are free from thinking of anything else but that practice is a vital and precious good. The writer cannot live without writing, and practicing art means we must be able to center ourselves on the work most of all.

Which then leads me to a question Janis Ian asked repeatedly in various sessions:

“Who among you wants to be famous?”

In thinking on that question, we are forced to recognize that fame does not equate into freedom, fame is not the same as success.  Indeed the boundary between fame and notoriety is so thin that it’s easy to cross over without realizing it. Rather than fame,  I value more the freedom to practice my art, and the knowledge that I have remained true to my vision.

Because, as Janis Ian reminded us, no one else has the vision that we have; and while there are many things in this life that can be faked, talent and art can never be faked.

Even as she said these things, she reminded us too that talent is not enough. The artist must do the work–must master their craft. If talent is a spirited horse, craft is what will ensure that your talent will not run away with you. In the course of the week, Janis continued to emphasize the need for artists to grow and add to their skillset (what we also call our toolkit). As artists,  we need to be constantly developing ourselves.  Being equipped with a wide range of skills makes us capable of answering to the call of opportunity.

I think of these things and I think to myself–the sky is unlimited.

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One of the interesting features of our week was what Janis called the Museum Wall. At the end of the week, we were asked to answer the question: What does all great art have in common? I’m sharing the image of the wall here. You answer the question.

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Things I learned: New York and Janis Ian’s Masterclass in Artistry

 

This time’s visit to America was started off by me singing lines from “Seventeen” to the customs officer at the entry point to New York.

“So, what do you intend to do in New York?” he asked me.

And because I had been bottling up my excitement for so long, I did a fistpump, smiled wide and said: “I’m here to meet Janis Ian.

When the border officer shook his head and failed to recognize her name, I decided to give him a song sample. ( I also said: You’re an American, how come you don’t know that this woman is one of the best American Folk Singers ever?)

Imagine me: standing in JFK, a row of tired and grumpy people standing behind me, and there I was, bursting into song.

The guy behind the counter shook his head (he didn’t recognize the song!). Still, he laughed (he’d been quite solemn), wished me a wonderful visit, and stamped my entry ticket.

As I walked away, I heard the lady who had been standing behind me give the officer a loud and cheerful greeting. I hope the officer was smiling still.

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One of the things Janis Ian taught us during the week in New York, was that fear is a construct. Except for atavistic fear, every other kind of fear is something that we’ve learned and what can be learned can be unlearned.

When I was standing in that line, I thought of my first visit to the US when I could hardly say a word to the officer behind the counter and ended up getting detained and interrogated for about an hour. I felt the familiar tickle of stress and the teary urge to break down.

Then, I realized that I’d traveled a long way. Friends had offered me this chance, and I couldn’t possibly spoil it by giving way to stress and anxiety. So, instead of mumbling through the interview, I squared my shoulders, spoke up and followed through with the song routine because…well, the worst thing that could happen was that they would send me back home again. (Also, who cares what people in line thought of me. The likelihood of them seeing me again was so small.)

The week with Janis Ian was marked with so many instances where I had to face up to the constructed fears that stood in the way of me doing things.

Coming out of JFK, I felt a huge burst of confidence. I was in New York, standing on the edge of change.

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To the artist, change is a constant. If we’re lucky, change means growth and development–a deepening of the work, a deepening in insight, growth in perception and understanding. Maturity not just in the work but in ourselves as human beings.

The following statement is in The Stella Adler Studio of Acting’s preamble:

Growth as an actor and growth as a human being are synonymous. 

I would dare to exchange actor with artist and say: Growth as an artist and growth as a human being are synonymous. If we remain stagnant, if there is no growth, what does this say about our art? What does this say about us? What does this say about our practice?

Regardless of what field of discipline we occupy,  our exercise of our art, our commitment to our work is what differentiates us and binds us together in a global community.

On twitter, I posted a question Janis Ian asked that I felt is very key to all of us who are engaged in the practice of art: “Whose bones are you standing on?”  

There’s so much to unpack about that question. So much that can be said about ancestors, about the litany of names that have brought us here and continue to carry us through. We are one in a chain and I am grateful for the bones I’m standing on.

Check out the board below and think on these things.

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