This weekend I went out to DC to visit some friends. It’s true that travelling a bit can really recharge you creatively. We went to several museums, and even though I was wearing the worst shoes for the occasion and the weather was kind of gross, it didn’t take too much from the experience.
I’m beginning to notice a pattern. I don’t really enjoy the museum experience until long after I’ve left it. I enjoyed looking at the photos I took of the artworks we saw more than looking at the artworks themselves. It’s not just the aesthetics of the photo, but something about enjoying the piece in private, really having the opportunity to savor it than to consider oh, I’m blocking this person behind me, or oh, this person is speaking much too loud about the piece and disturbing my own interpretation of it. Not to mention, oh my goodness I have to get out of these shoes. While I do not benefit from having a 360° view of the piece, it is almost more satisfying to look at a picture instead.
One piece in particular really grabbed me. It was a lovely marble statue of a mirthful young girl playfully holding a shell to her head. The piece was by Jean-Baptiste Carpeaux. I saw the piece and suddenly I wanted to do still-life pieces again. I started sketching it out in my book on the bus ride back. I got frustrated easily, but it motivated me to experiment with simpler poses that are made remarkable by a small detail as a curved hand or a smile. What I love about the piece is that it captures the essence of youth in a way that is so true to life though it is carved into cold, hard stone. Though the girl’s size suggests she is probably on the verge of puberty, her innocence remains intact. There is a whimsy and playfulness to her smile, a warmth in her eyes.
Jean-Baptiste’s piece “Girl with A Shell” in marble at the National Gallery in DC.
But it occurred to me that I live in one of the greatest cities in the world for museums. While many of them do not allow you to take photos of the works, many of them are virtually free. There are a lot of resources here in New York to further enrich my creative palette. I just have to seek them out more frequently. Staying indoors too often is bad for my physical and mental health.
It’s Black History Month, a time to celebrate the contributions of African Americans throughout American history. It was originally founded as Negro History Week by Carter G. Woodson, created with the understanding, the hope, that one day it would be rendered unnecessary because blacks would enjoy equal representation in American historical media. Some might argue that dream has been fulfilled. But when I look back on history classes, I would say that isn’t the case. Even when I attended predominately black elementary and middle schools, there were still fundamental pieces missing from the narratives of black history. Apart from the usual heroes, from Harriet Tubman to Malcolm X, countless stories went untold.
It is said that to know where you’re going, you must know where you came from. So what are we to make of our futures if history tells us a fragmented story? I recognize that there are many atrocities which lead to the fragmentation of our stories, but history in general has an underlying agenda to speak only on the positive parts of our collective pasts. How can we learn from only half of the story? Just how positive is that light, anyhow? What legacies have formed from what may have originated with good intentions?
During a lunch break last week, I had the pleasure to watch the Dance Theater of Harlem perform showcase of the African diaspora in America. It was exciting to see young people from all over the world representing the diversity of our community in dance. As we came to the black power movement, I felt a mixed range of emotions, from joy, to sadness and everywhere in between. Corporate America has made me very conscious of racial relations. There are so many politics to contend with, on top of all the bureaucracy which attempts to disguise it.
What does it mean for me to raise a fist in the air and exclaim, “I’m Black and I’m proud?” Does it make people that do not share my heritage uncomfortable? Should I care? It’s always bothered me that as a people, so much of our efforts have been a response, a reaction rather than a choice independent of the constraints placed on us. I dislike the idea of existing in opposition instead of at peace. I dislike that blackness is so explicit. When the opposition dies down, what becomes of us? How do we define ourselves? Why are we proud of a pre-existing condition, of blackness? I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. But now in this mythical post-racial society, what legs do we have to stand on? Indeed, we stand on the shoulders of giants. But what are we to make of a diaspora divided? Who is there to stand on for the generations to come?
I don’t remember what it’s like to really write a story. The last time I really tried was in high school. I spent a lot of time by myself, forming this entire world on paper, borrowing freely from my favorite elements of popular culture (mostly Sailor Moon and Greco-Roman mythology). I don’t remember what it feels like being so absorbed in a story that the world disappears. But it must have been awesome.
I recently reorganized my entire book collection, which includes my old sketchbooks. There was so much freedom in those pages. I placed all of my innermost feelings and thoughts on those pages. There was a lot of sadness, but lots of depth. Drawing was not merely an escape from emotion, but a working through it. That rarely makes it into the few drawings I make now. Maybe that’s why when I’m feeling down I immediately gravitate toward creative outlets to get through it.
Or at least I used to. Now I feel like I’m either talking through them or distancing them with video games. Fandom is such a potent creative source for many people, but I’ve always shied away from it. I feel like creativity is derivative enough; why do it intentionally? Maybe that’s part of the problem though. I’m so afraid to make a mistake, to reshape something that was formed by someone else’s hand.
But creativity is inherently fearless. It’s about not about what came before you or after; sure, you might use your work to celebrate the past or imagine the future, but it’s just about you and the empty canvas, whether it is to be filled with words or images.
I’m afraid of the empty written page. To write a story is to imagine another life, to step into another identity. When I try to write a story, I feel like I’m at the threshold of insanity. I make faces. I say things aloud to myself. I act things out in my head. Sometimes my mood shifts. How can this not be scary? How can I enjoy the awesome power of playing god with a world all my own?
Apparently, it’s going to take practice. I’m going to have to step out of the fascinating worlds people have created for me, be they on television or in a video game. Writing came out of nothing to do. But I want is to get back to that state when it was everything to do.