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Artists and the Rest of the World
© 2001 Stuart Vail

I used to feel that the potential to create is in every child, and that the only thing missing in those that do not draw, paint, write, or play music is opportunity. Had there been a loving, nurturing household which provided the necessary instruction, materials, and encouragement, I felt that the child would have emerged an artist.

My sister and I grew up in one of the richest environments one could imagine. Both of our parents were to blame: Mom at her drafting table and easel, and Dad in the darkroom. As far back as I can remember, we were involved in any number of art activities, including oil and watercolor painting, carving, print-making, model-making, sculpting, pottery, illustration, and photography. One of my earliest recollections is standing on my little step stool at the darkroom sink watching an image magically appear in the developer. It must have been about 1955 because I clearly remember the famous Marilyn Monroe calendar on the wall.

With our dad, my sister and I were in a world of f-stops, contrast, print abrading, developer and fixative, and I thought, “Isn’t everyone?” And didn’t every household have Strathmore paper, Grumbacher oils, sable brushes, turpentine, India inks, technical pens, T-squares, Luxo-lamps, and shelf after shelf of books, books, books? Those were as much a part of our lives as were eating and breathing. They were what we knew.

We grew up in art. We were raised and nurtured in art—bottle-fed, diapered, and potty-trained in art. “Grew up on both sides of the easel,” I always used to say. Yes, we spent our formative years posing for both parents—I even posed for an oil painting while playing the violin. Sometimes I think it was a stroke of genius for my mother to have gotten me to practice for an extended amount of time. The violin, however, only lasted two years, yet the arts lived on. I drew incessantly all my life. Even though the violin didn’t take, music did. It resurfaced a few years later when I taught myself the guitar, took drum and vibes lessons, studied composition, and consequently became a composer. I’ve been in music ever since, but it was Art that has really permeated my soul. It’s a part of my DNA. I have mitochondria that need artistic nourishment on a continuing basis.

Obviously, my environment was the exception. I have friends who have never in their lives held a paint brush. There are also those people who, having never had any art in the home, became wonderfully talented artists. To me, it would seem that there was something in those that separate them from the non-artists that suggests the possibility of a genetic difference. Is there such a thing as an “art gene” in artists that others do not have? Having proposed what might seem a preposterous statement, consider this: not all children subjected to an artistic upbringing become artists, and not all artists had an artistic upbringing. There must be something that separates artists from the rest of the world, and I’m not just referring to talent. There is a very demanding, creative drive that can possess an artist. There are similar ways of “being driven” with people who invent, research, invest, climb mountains, and build empires; but an artist is driven quite differently.

An artist must follow a certain path in his connection to the world. There is no choice in developing a variety of relationships with the muses, be they of love and hate, sheer joy, or total frustration. An artist’s life can encompass the most amazingly creative and spiritual highs as well as the lowest of lows. For some it can come easily and pour forth like freely flowing water. Consider the collected works of Haydn, whose florid music seems to have poured effortlessly off the tip of his pen onto the manuscript paper. In how it looks, sounds, and plays bespeaks pure “ease.” For other composers the creative journey can be an excruciatingly slow process, wrestling with ideas and concepts that painstakingly emerge, fighting every step of the way for validation. Some contemporary music sounds as though each note was born of exasperation and self-doubt. It can also be very difficult to play.

This “art gene,” if you will, can be a powerful agent. It can possess its host like no other: sex, drugs, and money can’t even compare. As a thrice-cursed composer/artist/writer, I cannot shut off the artistic command. Sometimes I have thought of it as a curse. The creative process while composing a piece of music is ever-present, unrelenting, and can occupy my every thought until the last note is on the page. But it doesn’t stop there—it can continue through a long editing process while, like a skipping record, it plays over and over, constantly revising itself, constantly nagging at me saying “Are you sure?” until I am satisfied that it’s complete. However, “satisfied” may be the wrong word because it isn’t always the sensation I am left with. It can be more like disgust, frustration; being completely tired of the whole thing, I must have been crazy to begin this in the first place, enough is enough! A melodic line can haunt my very soul every minute of every day—even while I sleep. The creative process sometimes continues into my slumber, wringing every last drop of energy from me at a time when I should be resting, storing up new mental and physical energy, and forgetting completely about the work at hand.

There are times when my possession is so acute and all-consuming that I cannot hear what other people are saying. I seem to nod and answer in the right places, but I have no idea what they are saying because I just composed another four bars of my fugue, or I finally worked out a crucial melody-harmony relationship sequence, perfecting just the right climax of tonal richness I had been striving for, and I desperately needed to write it down before someone turned a radio on and forever obliterated what I had in my head! It is very hard to say to the world, “Don’t bother me, I’m composing.” There are bills to pay, lawns to mow, relationships to nurture, and children to love and raise.

I once composed a 45-minute Baroque cantata over a three-month period while on the way to work in my car. A commute provides a wonderful environment for creativity. The brain can work out all sorts of solutions while performing mechanical actions such as dodging cars, negotiating turns, observing traffic lights. It is rather like conversations: I see mouths moving, heads nodding, eye contact, body language, and signals, but I’m in Never-Neverland working overtime with my army of muses.

So, what separates artists from the rest of the world? Do plumbers, electricians, accountants, firemen, and carpenters have this problem? I can’t imagine a dentist going home possessed by fillings, root canals, and temporomandibular joint procedures. They have the luxury of leaving the job at work. They can turn it off. They can do things like mowing the lawn and thinking only about . . . mowing the lawn. They can go to a PTA meeting and be conscious. The much-looked-forward-to, ten paid-vacation days per year can be filled with Disney World, water-skiing at the lake, or a trip to the Grand Canyon. Were I to stand at the rim of that great Arizona chasm, I would probably wish for a canvas and paints, or start composing a piece called “Canon for Canyon” for brass band.

An artist’s work is his life, from which there are no vacations, in the normal sense. That can be a true blessing, and, as I have said before, it can be a curse. However, the artist is one of the fortunate few for whom the process is the reward. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter whether we are wildly successful or live in rat-infested garrets: we would not be artists if we didn’t love what we were doing. We are continually on vacation, for our work is our play. That’s what separates us from the rest of the world.

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