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Taking Risks

Cherish your own emotions and never under value them.
We are not here to do what has already been done.

~ Robert Henri

There is a famous essay by Robert Henri in the collection of his essays and letters, "The Art Spirit," which begins with the words Age need not destroy beauty.
Henri, a painter, was speaking of the spirit within people that makes them engaging subjects, as well as addressing the importance of freeing art from the cliche, the facile elements of likability or familiarity. Henri then explains to his students,

There are people who grow more beautiful as they grow older. If age means to them an expansion and development of character this mental and spiritual state will have its affect on the physical. A face which in the early days was only pretty or even dull, will be transformed. The eyes will attain mysterious depths, there will be a gesture in the whole face of greater sensibility... About the portrait of Whistler painted of his mother I have always had a great feeling of beauty. She is old. But there is something in her face and gesture that tells of the integrity of her life... There she sits, and in her poise one reads the history of a splendid personality. She is at once so gentle, so experienced, and so womanly strong."

He ends by saying, Beauty is an intangible thing.

The reason for the inclusion of this excerpt is not to launch a beauty campaign in celebration of the aged, but to highlight within Henri's words the exquisite inviolable nature of what is fundamental. For example, besides the intangibility of beauty, how about the qualities of integrity, courage, wisdom, embracing risk? For the artist, a great deal of process is taking the intangible and making of it something present, material on the page, depicted on canvas, conveyed in song, movement or stone. I think it is incredibly important to respect the emotional and intuitive side of work, to know our muses and our process, to let the permeable elements of character and the patina of experience soak through us. To invite in the transient, that we might filter the firmament for inspiration and then make something marvelous of it.

I wrote about creative blocks last week, and have been fortunate (Hallelujah!) to have had a good week of creative work in the wake of that self-exposed essay. I think a word about "risk" is important here as I go on exploring creative blocks and address elements of process that work for me. And I do mean good old-fashioned risk: uncertainty, openness to failure, likelihood of setback, unprecedented, undetermined, ideas or work as yet un- or undervalued. Those in the arts risk every day they commit to be original. Originality is the hardest and most time-consuming and risky of any impetus toward creativity. Another print of a successful painting is not a risk. A year or three spent in a studio working with a fragile medium toward an original goal, is.

So why risk? Because in the fateful moments following a personal commitment to be original, risk floods in: immediately the powerful ebb of doubt sucks us back toward uncertainty. But if we stop flailing around and accept the powerful fear we feel in the surge, we become instantly unblocked. The worst creative block anyone can face is the fear of taking a risk. This is the dreaded fear of the second-time author, the painter who wants to try something entirely new, the dancer without a mentor or description, the story that cannot be indexed. We curl inside, quaking. What if my time ends up wasted, I never publish, I'm thought a fool, my work is loathed, I can't get it done? What if it doesn't sell? We believe that art, like beauty, rests in consensus. Not true. Genuine beauty and talent lie in the unique. No two of us see or appreciate wonder alike.

The thing is, we succeed by taking the risk. As if risk were a mirage that dissolves when confronted with commitment.

Making a decision has launched a thousand pieces of work for me. I imagine this, I want to do this, I will. I try and disconnect any expectation for the project other than beginning and committing to a natural follow through. I am accepting, if not thrilled, if the work dies on the vine. Sometimes you can only experiment with an idea to know if it will work. Failure is a draft, nothing more. And, sometimes originality is not good, it's just...original. I think of those outcomes as practice of craft, honing the creative vision. Now and then everything about the work is right, but its place in the world is not now. Whereas once I used to deplore the post-mortem success, now I view it as a kind of bow from the grave. Good one world, you finally got it.

The point is, just begin. Decide to begin. Before you'll know it, you will have something beautiful, tangible...and yours.
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