THE MERTON PHILOSOPHY
A letter to a friend in which Merton, rather spontaneously describes his philosophy as a creative person, musician, artist and teacher.
Hey there, R,
Well, what an interesting letter. I am lying here, very sad and confused about what the heck I am doing here all alone in my new studio, without doggie, hubby, and the art hermit life I loved so. I am feeling rather like life is a strange dream that I am inhabiting, one which I am experiencing but in which I do not quite fit. Maybe life right now is just a dream and not quite real, I sort of feel. Everything is so strange and unfamiliar right now, because everything (and I mean everything) has changed for me, all of a sudden.
Sad old thing here! But, I still think I know what I am about as a creative person, musician, artist and teacher. And maybe if I hang in there, 2013 will bring a new life, new creations, new students, new elders to perform music for, and maybe even a new love and soulmate. We will see. I am very confused as to how I landed here in this strange dream that is passing for my life, but maybe it will lead to something good. Meanwhile, I will respond to your letter and in the process, sort of give you my philosophy as a creative person, musician, artist and teacher.
I was glad to read your letter with your entreaties about how to embark upon some new artistic endeavors and use some new art tools. Your questions and trepidation has rather made me think about my own philosophy about art, artistic endeavor, trying new genres and tools, and general philosophy about learning and creating. How interesting is Ms. S with her very traditional views about creating and the "dangers" of too loose an approach. Hmmmm... I do think there is a place for all that you describe, Ms. S with her strict representational style, you with your very careful branching out and trying of things, and I, Merton, with my "Splish Splash, jump in the bath" trying of all sorts of things, whether I have formal training or not.
I have had the blessing of training in many arts oriented endeavors. There were painting lessons by a couple teachers when I was young, all sorts of music lessons in my youth, a very active high school experience with all sorts of music and drama, my undergrad university music degree, and masters work, too, with coursework in music, art, drama and lit. I enjoyed it all and was fortunate to have it.
But mostly, I think I do just jump in the pool and try things, often seeing what I can do. For example, with knitting, weaving, needle work and sculpting, I really do not have much training at all... I might glance at a few books, but mostly I just look around figure out what tools one needs, really do not research how to use the tools. I just gather them, then dive in and see what I can do! Then, I look at the result, see how I think I did, and maybe go back and read about some techniques, or simply look at things I like (on DA, or in books or art/craft work, on the net) and get ideas how to improve.
I really think when you said "You do not just sit down cold turkey and draw an elaborate ink drawing on a 15 x 20 surface" that that is exactly what I do. I just jump in the pool and do it. Then, I experiment, try some new technique that I see or that just comes to me... not really, often, by reading about it, but just by looking at something that I think is neat, imagining what tools I will need, or looking at what tools I already have. And I think, "How could I do that?" or wonder "How could I do something like that combined with this other idea I have, or with these two other things I see?"
I am just really experimental, and I am not Mozart, but I have a certain modicum of ability. Or maybe I just radically trust and am not afraid that it will suck. Lol. Sometimes it does suck, and when I look at my work (especially looking back) I see... "Oh, wow, that is all out of proportion, or that hand or that eye is not right."
But though I sometimes do representational work (and you are right, there is that aspect to my work, it is not totally abstract), I really am not after something that represents what I see with my eye. I am after what I see with my spirit or heart or imagination.
I have just enough technique for things to be discerned as reasonably realistic and representational. My stuff is not so distorted as Picasso in some of his phases. But, it is not completely realistic, either, and there are faults with it technically.
I do enjoy drawing or painting representationally. It is very satisfying to put a statue or a pine cone or anything, really, in front of one and draw it... and I have done a lot of that over the years. And that, complete with capturing texture and shadows and perspective is very good for one, just as scales, and sight-reading music just as it is, in all sorts of keys, in all sorts of difficulty levels is very good for one musically. Before one knows it, one is fluent and reads music well (although I still play better from chord symbols... by lead sheet as they say).
I think that this, extended to art, would be very good for you. Just draw anything, with shadow, and light and perspective and shading, etc., every day... then ink it, then you will be ready to colorize it, attempting to do the same thing with color... put in the shading, shadow, texture, etc. Just jump in the pool and do it, every day, even just a little at a time. Don't overwhelm yourself, but do this everyday, just as you would with sight-reading music. I think S would approve of this.
But, with my art, I made a decision to have technique (just as I do with music), yet to put my main focus on imagination and the art coming from the heart, with a certain pure creativity. Just as when I play music by lead sheet, I have the melody and chords in front of me, I may have a poem, quote or idea in my mind when I make my art these days. But I want my art to come from my heart and imagination, just as my lead sheet music does. With both my from the imagination art and my from the lead sheet music, I want to let what I create flow. I want to just trust the Universe and my soul that what flows out of me will capture what is inside of me.
And it is a great mystery and requires trust, because when you do this, you are trusting that what comes out will not "suck," but will be beautiful or at least interesting or honest or fun. I think that this is a kind of trusting, creative, artistic and spiritual skill that kinda requires practice, this jumping in the pool and just playing an instrument or just drawing/painting/sculpting even knitting from the imagination.
Can you trust that the scarf will come out neat and wonderful if you just decide as you go along what colors you will select and change to next in the stripes of your scarf? Sometimes it is good to plan it out, but often it is satisfying to just put some balls of yarn in front of you that sorta work together and just let the Muse tell you which strands to combine, or what stripe of color will look good next.
It does not really matter, I do not think what part of the arts it is (fine art, craft, music...), for me it is always the same approach: jump in the pool and pour forth!
I do believe in technique, and artistry, and going for beautiful color combinations and beautiful chords and notes. I do like to study technique and artistry in both music and art. And there have been times (and there still are times) when I sit down and try to work on note reading and fingering etc. in music, or how to do stitches better, or how to have consistent looseness of yarn, nicer knots in craft. There are times when I do work on better, more realistic bodies in drawing or sculpting. There are times when I work on more neat intricate, straight, more in perspective lines in a more architectural drawing (Gosh that's a challenge!). But more and more, I want to be spontaneous and just draw what the Muse says to draw... just trust... It is "your first thought," that is the best thought, as the beat poets would say.
So, I think I am a combination of what you have described in your letter. I have tried to work on technique and representational art, as would please Ms. S. And there are times when I like to look at my art books, read about technique, fill in the holes in my knowledge, as R is apt, I think, to want to do, very carefully. But mostly, I long to be very purely creative, just jump in the pool, and let what is inside my heart, mind, soul and psyche plop out on the page (as I think one of my idols, Jung the psychologist and artist, I think, would advocate).
I am a combination. I should work on my technique more, both in art and music, and I have a great deal. But mostly, I long to jump in the pool in all sorts of artistic and musical endeavors and see what flows out. I think I recommend this with my students, too, for I think both technique and letting what is inside flow out is good and beneficial. I think I tend to jump in the pool first, often, (relying on some natural talent, which I have a bit of) and then, after we see what plops out, go back and add technique and fill in holes.
"Let us look at the whole first, "my soul and mind seems to want to say. "Let us look at the whole first," I often say to my students. What do we have? What can we do right now? Let us just see where we are. What can we play now? What does it sound like when we sing right now? What sort of lyric or melody can we write, naturally, right now... what plops out?
Let's see. Then we can take stock, dissect a bit where we are now... then see where we need to and would like to go. Do we already have something musical or artistic flowing out of us? Is there a germ or kernel of something that is us, that is original? Are we primarily emulating others, right now? It's ok if we are... but let's see what plops out if we jump in the pool and sing, play, or compose. Let's just do it and see what plops out. Let's not be scared.
I think this works well for some students, and is probably scarier for others. But I do think it is a good approach, and is sort of... "Let's see what is in there; let's just get the paint on our fingers and put them on the page and see what naturally comes out." Then we can take stock, see what needs to be worked on or what can be honed. Then, let's go back and see what plops out, and hone some more.
There is a place for the very academic measured, little by little approach (where one is only allowed to very gradually get to the goal) and the very experimental jump in the pool approach. I think I sort of try to do both with myself and with others.
I teach my students to play exactly what is on the page, but also to learn their chords and jump in the pool and work on playing by chord symbols/lead sheet. And, if they want to write and perform their own songs, I suggest they jump right in the pool, find their composing process, and just do it... right now... let's see what ya got, right now. Don't be scared. Let's see what flows out you. If it sucks, it sucks. It won't always. But how will you know what it is in there till you pop out the cork and pour forth?!
A writer writes, a painter paints, a sculptor sculpts. "Just do it!" as a famous shoe ad says. Just try to write a lyric, make a melody, devise a chord progression. See what comes out if you try to write a song. In the process, you will find your process!
What comes first with you? We need to know. Is it the lyrics, the chords, the melody... all at once? Try to write a song, and you will find out! What sort of drawing or painting comes right out of your imagination? What is your voice as a poet, composer, artist? What do you create that says, "You!?"
Try to write a song, draw something or paint something or sculpt something from imagination and you will find out. You will find your process. You will find your voice. Not by what some book says is step one, two, three and four, but by jumping in the pool and seeing what flows out of you!
It might "suck" at first. It might. It might not. It is ok, whatever comes out. Yes, it might just "suck." Or, you might have a little kernel of you, of something that is your voice, your style, your special melodies, chord patterns, subjects, themes that is there, if you look under all the "Woe is me, my first song sucked!" Wink. A little something will probably be there, no matter what, in your first song, painting, drawing, or scarf from imagination. And, if you keep jumping in the pool and pouring forth, you will find your voice, style, subjects, themes, big time! You will. Trust, trust, trust. There will be, if you keep pouring forth, something special that someone will see or hear, when they behold your from imagination performance or creation of any kind. The listener or viewer will say, "Hey, that's got something special. I hear or see something special and unique (or cool, or moving, or fun) there.
But you will not find it if you wait to be shown step one, two, three, four. You must jump in the pool. Trying a method, working on technique, playing and singing scales, working on drawing with realism, perspective, shading and intricacy... these are all good and important. I believe in them. But it is jumping in the pool, trusting our Muse, and just letting what is within us flow out from imagination, with authenticity, that will really help us to find our style and voice.
And it is this, for a creator of any kind, that is really the most important and vital thing. It is this above all else that is to be sought. We music create and pour forth from that voice that is within us, that unique voice that is only ours. We can always work on more technique in music and art. That is always good. But, it is, in my opinion, the jumping in the pool and just pouring forth, letting what is inside of us flow out, that is most important.
And there is not a right time to do it. We must not wait until we are ready, have jumped through certain hoops in a certain order. We must do it from the very beginning, consistently and always. Jumping in the pool and pouring forth is what it is all about. We must not worry if it will "suck" or wait for certain hoops. We must be like that baby bird wobbling about, flapping our wings uncertainly but flapping about nonetheless.
If we wait to really give it a go, with our singing, playing, composing, drawing, painting, whatever it is... if we are always waiting to really let go and try to perform and create, we will always be uncertain and scared to "sing out Louise!" We will always be worried that we do not have enough skill or the right stuff. Put voice to song, pencil to page, hands in the clay, knitting needles to yarn... jump in the pool and pour forth, pour forth, pour forth... lets see what we "got" inside... trust, trust, trust. It will not suck. It will be beautiful.
I think this is kind of my philosophy as a creative person, musician, artist and teacher.