WHAT WILL SURVIVE OF US IS LOVE…

I wrote this post for the Fine Art Views marketing blog. Check out their beautiful website hosting services and other artist resources here.

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. Luann also writes a column (“Craft Matters”) for The Crafts Report magazine (a monthly business resource for the crafts professional) where she explores the funnier side of her life in craft. She’s a double-juried member of the prestigious League of New Hampshire Craftsmen (fiber and art jewelry). Her work has appeared in books, magazines and newspapers across the country and she is a published writer. She’s blogged since 2002 about the business side–and the spiritual inside–of art. She says, “I share my experiences so you won’t have to make ALL the same mistakes I did….”

I used to think there was something wrong with me, for all the thinking I do about death. Now I’m learning this is actually common. No, not even common—it’s part of the human condition.

In fact, one professor of psychiatry posits that fear and anxiety about death are at the foundation of ALL our fears and anxieties. What we know and experience intellectually is very different than what we know emotionally. As we say in hospice, “Everyone knows they’re going to die. But nobody wants to die today.”

I’ve been reading STARING AT THE SUN: Overcoming the Terror of Death by Irvin D. Yalom. A reviewer says, “…Once we confront our own mortality, Dr. Yalom writes, we are inspired to rearrange our priorities, communicate more deeply with those we love, appreciate more keenly the beauty of life, and increase our willingness to take the risks necessary for personal fulfillment.”

These aspects speak directly to being an artist in today’s modern world.

We’ve rearranged our priorities. We strive to communicate, deeply. We appreciate the beauty of the world around us, and inside us. We are willing to take the risks necessary to be the artist we dream of, and to get our work out into the world.

I’ve talked before about creating a legacy. I believe this drives all our actions to create our work, exhibit it, market it, and perhaps even sell it. If you have a FASO website, then you are already committed to finding an audience and a market for your work.

I once mistakenly stated that Emily Dickinson never published any of her poetry, and therefore she didn’t care, and kept writing anyway. “Oh, she cared desperately,” a more learned acquaintance corrected me. “She wasn’t published, but she really, really wanted to be!”

So in an age where someone halfway around the world can see, and like, and even buy your work…

In an age where someone halfway around the world can see, like and even copy your work…

In an age where, no matter how many artists there are, there is no one who works exactly like you…

In an age where you are one artist among tens, hundreds, thousands of thousands of other creative types with a website…

In an age where Bieber fever reigns (he started on Youtube) and videos of silly cat tricks garner a million views…

In an age where the most popular television shows cater to the dreams of people who want to be stars, and said people enter contests to achieve their goals…

What does it mean to create a body of work? What does it mean to be successful? What does it mean to “make it big”? What does it mean to create a legacy?

Sorry, no answers today! Just some questions to get you thinking about what these goals would mean to you.

What will survive of us? The only way we know anything about the people who lived in the dawn of prehistory is through the art they left behind.

But if you study archeology, you know that garbage is just as revealing. (Most archeology finds are found in ‘midden heaps’, which is a nice way of saying ‘trash pit’. The ancient Mayans had to move their entire cities when too much garbage made life in the area unsustainable.) Will future civilizations (or aliens) learn about us through our artwork? And will they judge us by the work of Thomas Kincade? Or perhaps from the plastic clamshell packaging that everything we buy is packaged in?

And whose work will survive? Whose art will define our times? One of my favorite stories from the art history textbook Janson’s History of Art told of a mediocre Victorian painter who was the most popular painter of his day. But the artists whose work now defines the age? Monet. Renoir. Cezanne. Even one who died in relative obscurity (then)—Vincent Van Gogh.

So how do we proceed? How should we live our lives? How do we approach our art? How do we shape our legacy?

I believe there’s no way to anticipate what we will leave behind. There’s certainly very little we can do to control what that will be, for more than a few decades, anyway.

All we can do is let ourselves be guided by the strongest intuition we have:

What is it you love?

Do you love to paint landscapes? Still lifes? Clowns? Paint them!

Do you love to sell your work? Sell with all your heart.

Do you love to see your name in print? Submit your work to every publication/exhibition/website you can.

Do you love to teach? Teach!

Do you love to write about art? Write!

Do you love to support yourself with your art? Be the professional you want to be, learn the skills you need, and sit in the driver’s seat of your art automobile.

Do you resent trying to make your art a business? Do the work you love to earn a living, and focus on keeping your art making open-ended and fun.

Trying to set a balance between all this? Set the balance that’s right for you.

What matters, in the end, is the kind of life you strive to lead. The ripple effect of your actions in the world—the kindnesses, love, energy, opportunities you were given, and in turn gave to others, create wavelets that move far past our own seeing. We have to simply trust they carry our best intentions, wherever they go.

What comes after us…
Whatever is made of our efforts when we are gone,
Whatever it will mean to those others who remain, what they will understand,
There is only one thing we know for sure….

It will be what serves their need, not ours.

I love the last stanza in Philip Larkin’s haunting poem, An Arundel Tomb. As he looks upon the figures carved in stone, he realizes that, whether those who lie there meant to be remembered this way or not, this is, truly, how we will remember them:

“…Time has transfigured them into
Untruth. The stone fidelity
They hardly meant has come to be
Their final blazon, and to prove
Our almost-instinct almost true:
What will survive of us is love.

An Arundel Tomb by Philip Larkin

Their story may not be our story.

STARING AT THE SUN: Thoughts on What Makes a Rich Life

I made these earrings (one of two sets) when I grew past fearing what anyone would say about them, and they are my favorite ones to wear! (A professional classical violinist bought the other pair.)

I’ve been doing a little digging on death lately.

Maybe I should backtrack and explain.

I always thought I was the only person obsessed with death and dying. I think about it all the time. Partly because I’ve had a few brushes with it, partly because I’m anxious in general.

I worry about what I’m supposed to be doing with my life. Whether I’ll achieve any of my goals or not. Whether I should just be happy with the goals and blessings I already have. Whether anything of me will last (beyond the world’s largest and most interesting garage sale). Whether I’ve done right by my kids, my family, my husband, my art, my writing.

Becoming a hospice volunteer was part of my exploration about death. I’ve learned so much, grown in so many ways. Still learning. Still growing, with every single client.

Many people think people who do hospice work are “better”, or “braver” or “more noble” than your average person-on-the-street, that we have a better, more evolved understanding of death. We’re not, and we don’t. When our own loved ones are in danger, or dying, we are just as much at sea as everyone else.

We’ve simply learned a little bit more about being as opposed to doing, or even worse, fixing. (Though, as my incredibly grounded volunteer supervisor Lorraine would say, “Hospice is full of recovering fixers…!”)

I’ve been reading an odd book called STARING AT THE SUN by Irvin Yalom, a therapist who deals with death anxiety. Working on the assumption that our fear of death is at the heart of most of our anxieties, he works to assure us that understanding this can lead to a richer LIFE. He talks often about the basic needs we humans have, and how even the best therapy–a sharing of healthier ideas–is enormously improved when the therapist deeply connects with his patient. Because ideas-plus-connection is an incredibly power force for healing and reconciliation.

Connection. Such a simple word, and one whose strength we can easily overlook.

But everything we do, everything we yearn for, is to garner for ourselves love, and meaningful connection.

When I’m fighting with my husband, what I am pushing down deep inside me is how much I yearn for his good opinion, for his love and respect. When he accidentally breaks the connection between us with a clumsy comment or a snitty response, I am devastated. But I cover up for that devastation with anger.

Vice versa, too.

Why am I yammering on about death, and connection?

Because this is why I make my art. And this is where the power of my images, the power of my story, the power of the cave that inspires me, comes into play.

I try to shine a little light on the wonderful, and frightening, and sad, and awful things that make us human. I try to figure out what holds us all together, while still allowing each of us to dance to our own unique music.

I’m reading another book about prehistoric art called THE CREATIVE ICE AGE BRAIN: Cave Art in the Light of Neuroscience Written by an art historian who is also an artist, it celebrates the unique nature of this human thing called art. The things Ms. Alperts says about ancient art could be said about almost any art being made today: It is unique to the maker as it simultaneously reflects the culture the maker lives in.

I’ve always felt that these artists of the distant past had something to say, something so powerful it reaches across eons of time to touch us today. Creating “…echoes in our modern hearts”, it is something that has lasted far, far beyond the original intentions of its makers. It is the ultimate connection that arcs across 30,000 years, perhaps more.

Don’t we all wish we could leave such a legacy?

At the same time, the message (not being written to us) will forever remain lost, an enigma.

And someday, the knowledge of these paintings, this works of art, these carvings, and our study of them, will be lost forever, too. Because nothing lasts forever.

Such is the mystery of life. Such is the mystery of death.

Oddly, the most moving comment I read in Dr. Yalom’s book was the idea that “ceasing to be” in death is remarkably like “not being yet” before we are born. In both spaces, we will have no consciousness, no sense of being. Why is one frightening, but not the other? Because now we know what we’re missing! (A little death humor here….)

I don’t have a great wrap-up for you today, or even a great thought. It’s just what I’ve been thinking about the last few days, as I stumble my way through this amazing, challenging, beautiful, sad, tragic, happy, confusing, astonishing life.

I’m also starting to de-clutter my studio. That always makes me think of death, too. (See the remark about the world’s biggest garage sale above.) I promise you a lighter piece tomorrow!