Bringing It All Along
A lot of people, when they start another career, leave previous careers behind.
As an artist, I simply add to what I’m already doing.
I knew when I was in the eighth grade that I wanted to be a writer. As I planned my life at Ohio State I was interested in music, but I thought that I could be a more competitive writer than musician in the marketplace, so I chose Humanities instead of Music as the College in which I would study.
But then at around 30 I became a musician, anyway, and I probably made as much money doing music as I ever had wordsmithing… Not that that was a lot…
I never stopped writing when I became a musician. In fact, I started writing about music.
Then in my forties I started doing visual art. My interest in collage began rather casually, not too many years after I began presenting myself to the world as a folk musician, but I didn’t start consciously creating visual art until after I got my Theology degree at 42.
Studying Theology made me more conscious of Liturgical Art, which is a pretty broad interest area because it includes ritual design. I wove that into the fabric of my artistic world and added time to space as a dimension in which I pictured things.
As I developed as an artist, I began to conceptualize my relationship with The Muse in the way that I had once conceptualized my relationship with God. It seems to me that The Muse doesn’t ask me to abandon any medium in which I had once become adept. She (May Sarton said, and I agree, that The Muse is “She.”) asks me to add to, not to subtract.
May Sarton, in Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, talks about the work of women, or at least women poets, always being toward wholeness. My friend Pat once explained to me that according to Feminist principles, you make change not by tearing down but by building up anew.
Some people’s résumés draw pictures that look like series of turns onto new roads. Mine, I would say now (now that my résumé doesn’t matter, I add with no little hint of irony), draws a picture that looks more like a river with multiple tributaries adding volume and strength along the way.
When I was younger, the breadth and relative shallowness of my career history was often interpreted as a liability, and I was given a powerful message that I should be at least somewhat ashamed of it: I was advised to build a functional résumé instead of a chronological one, but I was also warned that functional résumés were red flags for flakiness.
What I didn’t know then was that I am an artist and that I was adding to my skill-set and to the realm of media in which I could navigate confidently. (What I also know now is that, as artists go, I am peculiarly un-flaky.)
Even my identity as an artist is a bit vague for nailing me down. Among the Arts you have your “Fine Arts” (painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and poetry), which exist for the sake of aesthetics; you have your “Applied Arts” (decorative arts, or artisanal practices, which some characterize more as design), which add form to function; you have your “Liberal Arts” (grammar, logic, and rhetoric), which are about thinking; you have your “Lively Arts” (drama, drawing, movement, music, modeling, painting, and speech)… and now you see that you’re getting repetitive.
On top of that, the Liberal Arts, in medieval Rome, included arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. In fact, I do use geometry a remarkable amount in creating and framing artistic works…
Tolkien famously pointed out that not all who wander are lost, and I find now, from people who have not felt courageous enough to go exploring until they believed it to be too late, that being willing to strike out in new directions is an enviable quality.
The realms of the Arts are characterized not so much by political boundaries as by geographical regions, and if you’re reading the lay of the land instead of looking at a map, you don’t always realize when you’re crossing significant borders, and you don’t always know when you’re a foreigner. So you go merrily on your way, a Happy Wanderer, adding photos to your gallery and souvenirs to your backpack, not necessarily being aware that you should have pulled out your France folder and put away your Germany folder.
My husband Grey has perhaps—perhaps—meandered a bit less on his career path than I have, but he has switched directions, or overlaid areas of interest, in his life, too. He points out that the finger-dexterity that he developed as a stylist making multiple pin-curls has served him well in being able to wield a paintbrush with precision. For that matter, his grandmother’s having taught him to braid garlic from their garden laid the groundwork for his being able to create French braids in the salon.
What I learn more and more is that no education is ever wasted. I think it’s unfortunate that people feel the need to discard toolboxes, so to speak, from previous jobs.
As artists, Grey and I do a lot of improvising not only in the studio but in the infrastructure of our house. We spend a lot of time at hardware stores because we’re continually coming up with new ways to use materials that were created with only one purpose in mind.
Being an artist (and I know that this is true for engineers and occupational therapists, just to name a couple occupations) involves adding to the usefulness of useful things. As a “scavenger artist,” as I call myself, it involves new uses for things that seem to have lost their usefulness. So artists tend to stockpile rather than discard—we save for later.
It makes for a lot of what many would see as clutter, both spatially and psychically. (It makes for long résumé, as well.) In my last studio, we kept a cupboard of what we called “natural resources.” By the time I packed it to move across the county, it was wall-to-wall with stuff, and most of it came with us… because that’s what you do when you’re an artist: you bring your past with you, because you never know when it will come in handy.