The last few months have been wonderful for me. And simultaneously rather awful. But the awful stuff has inspired me, perhaps more than the good. That’s the nature of the creative process, isn’t it? To take the manure of life and use it to fuel new growth.
So many of my favorite artists turned adversity into raw material. Van Gogh was fueled by his isolation and mental illness into a turbo–charged creativity machine that cranked out another startling painting virtually every day. Frida Kahlo, whose body was crisscrossed with scars from polio and from being run over by a bus, turned her disabilities, her awful marriage, her abortions and miscarriages into the sources for her brilliant work. Hockney faced homophobia; Basquiat racism; Bacon, Goya, Picasso were all inspired by the terrors of war.
Suffering is not only the domain of artists, but we especially have the power to repurpose life’s lessons into healing, illuminating work that we share with the rest of the suffering world. At SketchKon in Pasadena, Vanessa Brantley Newton referred to this process as “turning pain into paint.”
My creative rebirth began with my first wife’s crippling accident — searching for its meaning led me to my sketchbook. Her death a few yers ago prompted me to write my book, A Kiss Before You Go. And throughout my creative life, I have wanted to make beauty, find insight, learn who I am, understand the world. But when I neglect my sketchbook, there is no where for me to put the pain. It will just fester within me.
A year ago, my dog Tim died in a gruesome accident. His death led me to write about and draw him in commemoration, reminding me of what he had brought to our lives, keeping him alive on the page. When his brother Joe died late last October, I was bereft but then found peace in all of the many pages I had filled with his antics, his sweet face, his lovely fur.
In early November, I had the first operation of my long life, removing a cancerous organ. It was an experience I had dreaded since I was teenager — the C Word! I discovered that the most scary part of it was fueled by my own ignorance, my denial, my fear itself cultivated over decades of refusing to looking that fear in the face. While part of me wanted to know as much about what I was going to go through as possible, I didn’t to want to sink into the horror show of YouTube videos and blogs and social media and sponsored websites that would terrify the rest of me with half-truths and irrelevancies.
I made a friend who was undergoing the same experience and we started sharing all we were learning as we navigated the medical process. As my friend’s surgery was scheduled a few weeks after mine, I decided to document it all in words and pictures so I could share it with him before he had to face the same ordeal. My hope was that if he could learn from my experience, it would be easier to go through. I ended up writing a little book to send him which I later shared with my surgeon, my doctor, and my favorite nurse. I figured that they would be able to pass it on to other people in need of a first hand account.
In the end, honestly, these drawings and words were much more for me than they were for my friend or some strangers. Getting it down on paper, controlling the narrative, putting bookends around it, gave a sense of the finite to my experience.
And it helped me understand better why Frida would paint her nurse, her hospital bed, her scars. Why Vincent painted himself with a bandaged ear. Why my favorite artists painted screaming popes, bayonetted innocents, dying horses, dead wives. Not for the shock value that intrigued me as a sniggering adolescent, but to make the incomprehensible meaningful to them — and ultimately the world.
The art we make is not just a means of gauging our talent or our progress or making pretty things to hang on the wall or sell in a gallery. Art making is the way to commemorate and honor love and suffering and all the vicissitudes of life — and share the wisdom we gain in the process.