Zen and the Art of Being an Artist

Brian J. Sullivan

I was on my way to an appointment. It was one of those dreary New England late fall days with near freezing temperatures and hard driving rain. A streaked windshield partially obscured my view. Water-logged leaves matted the once lush grass. Stick-like trees were silhouetted against the grey sky.

I have been seeing a therapist for quite some time. Chilled and rain soaked, I hung my wet coat on the coat rack and took a seat in the waiting area. I was fifteen minutes early. Sessions started on the hour and lasted for 50 minutes. This was pretty standard practice. Cost per session varied from one therapist to another.

The therapist's door opens and out walks a teary eyed woman with a balled up Kleenex tissue in her hand. I avoid direct eye contact with her out of respect for her pain but also as a way of secretly sheltering myself from catching whatever she had!

I am invited into the inner office of James, my therapist for the past nine months. The door is closed and I sit down. I have been through this routine hundreds of times before. We exchange pleasantries, and like sparring partners, we each wait for the other to make the first move. Long silence ensues, finally broken with a probing question to illicit a response or touch off a raw nerve.

"Why do you do it?" James asked.

"Do what?" I ask back.

"Create. Why do you continue to create and to make art? Why do you continue to create and make art when you continually lose money and rarely sell anything?"

Like a Harley motorcycle enthusiast, I shot back with the classic line, "If I have to explain it, then you simply don't get it." I paused briefly then continued, "Creating art is about more than monetary gains. Art is who I am; it's how I think about life. Everything I do is done with an art thought. A Zen mind. When I look at a building, I look at the art of the building, not art in the building, but the art of it. It is the same if I'm looking at an automobile. I look at the art of the automobile. When I am making dinner and putting all the different ingredients together, I am not simply doing a chore so I have something to eat. Rather, I am enjoying the art of the process. It's an appreciation for all things. It's looking at things with a child-like wonderment, an awe, an appreciation, a curiosity. It's being excited about learning new things, trying to figure out how things work.

"I cannot help it. I cannot turn the artist-being on or off at will. It is how I think about everything, how I relate to the world. It is who I am. If I worked in a department store selling luggage, I would still be an artist. I would think about the art of the luggage."

I continued, "Creating for me is also a form of expression, how I communicate. It is a highly developed skill. In creating art, I not only express my inner feelings and thoughts but also reflect those around me in hopes to affect change through awareness. Someone once said that a picture is worth a thousand words. When I create a picture of child abuse or a mangled soldier, I believe I have created greater awareness of social and political issues than if I would have 'talked' about it. I like to make people think. For me, being an artist is a noble profession whereby I can create visually challenging images which hopefully can simulate different responses in different viewers. I believe I can make a difference."

"I also derive a great deal of self-satisfaction from the creative process and using my talents. Should I not create art because I don't make any money at it?" I asked the therapist. "Should I be more like the thousands of other people who go to a job they hate everyday just for the money?" I looked the therapist in the eyes. "I feel sorry for the person whose life energy has been slowly drained from him in an effort to just earn money."  

"I am enthusiastic and passionate about creating art. Art is my life; it is an innate part of me. I have…"

"Sorry but our time is up," James says, making the obligatory glance at the wall clock in a not so subtle gesture to end our session. See you in two weeks?" he asked.

I rose slowly from my chair and in parting asked him one question. "James, have you even understood one word of what I was saying?"

His blank stare said it all. It was the same stare I have encountered from the countless masses at most of the art fairs.

As I closed his office door I thought, "If I have to explain it, then you simply don't get it."