a career chronicle

in search of the artist's life

A subject on which I am frequently asked to comment (usually by patrons, students or aspiring artists) regards the preparation or preconditions for a dedicated career in fine art. Though the topic is infinitely broad and clearly subjective, my general response is that I consider the most essential requisite for artistic expression to be something not taught in art school or acquired through residence programs and internships – real life experiences.

My rationale is that if there is a dearth of diversity and dynamism in one’s life, the content and validity of the artistic expression will in turn reflect that existential deficit. Historically, artists of note always seem to have been adept at the ‘art of living’ (whether constructively or destructively) long before they began expressing themselves through their chosen art form.

A relatively safe assumption is that artists cannot accurately express passion if they do not live passionately, otherwise their art will lack passion. Artists cannot express isolation if they have never felt isolated, nor can they express love if they have never loved, etc. Without the ‘lived’ experience informing the expression, there is no truth – only speculation and assumption. The artist must simply approach life with the abandon of a rogue, the eye of a detective, the mind of a scientist and the soul of a monk.

My exposure to artistic expression and cultural diversity occurred naturally and at a very early age. My father was a jazz pianist (and jazz historian) who had seen many of the legends of jazz perform in person toward the end of WWII: Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Sarah Vaughn, and many others. Jazz and blues were constantly on the radio and turntable in our home, and there were always very accomplished professional musicians in our house jamming or rehearsing with my dad’s trios or quartets.

By age ten, I had developed the habit of putting myself to sleep at night listening to ‘clear channel’ R&B stations on the far right side of the AM radio dial, where I discovered my all-time favorite, the legendary John R Show on WLAC in Nashville. John R introduced to the world a number of future R&B stars: Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, James Brown, Marvin Gaye, Bo Diddley, Little Richard, Jackie Wilson, B.B. King and many others who would become legends of the music industry.

My dad would sometimes take us to R&B shows and revues in the Deep Ellum area of Dallas, where most of the blues and jazz clubs were located, and the fact that we were usually among the only white people in the audience never seemd to matter. Like everyone else, we were there to see great blues and jazz artists such as Muddy Waters, Mahalia Jackson, Bobby Blue Bland, Ornette Coleman and others. Of course I didn't realize it at the time, but I was getting an aesthetic and cultural education that would last a lifetime.

This early saturation of music, plus being surrounded by serious and accomplished musicians, led to the bulk of my time as an adolescent practicing the piano or mastering etudes from The Arbans Book of trumpet technique. Later, my young adulthood consisted largely of memorizing Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck guitar licks so I could perform with rock & roll and blues bands in clubs throughout Oklahoma and Texas.

During my early teens I had become aware of a very famous artist who lived one block from my grandmother, and over time learned of his international reputation and reknown. His name was Harold Stevenson, and though the local newspaper would sometimes run stories about him hosting European royalty for the weekend at his home or entertaining famous writers or actors in his studio on the outskirts of town, I did not fully comprehend the extent of his fame. However, as I grew to realize his prestige in the art world, I was privileged to become part of his social universe; not only was I regularly introduced to an array of famous and influential celebrities from around the world, most importantly I was provided a rare and exclusive glimpse of the excitement, the dynamics and the vast potential of an artist's life at the highest levels.

After studying architecture as an undergraduate at The University of Oklahoma in the 70’s, I had the good fortune of spending two years in and around one of the world’s landmark achievements in residential architecture, The Bavinger House, designed by the legendary architecture savant Bruce Goff. Frank Lloyd Wright once famously remarked, “There are only two architectural geniuses alive today, and the other one’s name is Bruce Goff.”

Built for the late Gene Bavinger, head of the OU art department and a widely exhibited artist himself, The Bavinger House and all its eclecticism was simply an inspirational environment in every way. Not only was it an incredible place to rehearse and perform music with my rock & roll comrades (including Bavinger’s son), but also the opportunity to assist a great artist in his studio and become part of his social and professional circle. There again, I was exposed to a constant stream of brilliant and accomplished individuals from the fields of art, music and literature who provided me an endless supply of rich, rare and unforgettable experiences (many of which were compliments of Bavinger's undergound wine cellar, world-class vintages and culinary genius).

Following that period, I found myself involved in a number of varied professional pursuits; illustrating architectural plans, creating engineering drawings for manned deepsea exploration vehicles, designing interiors for luxury corporate aircraft and learning to fly single-engine airplanes. In short, my early adulthood was dominated by diversity, challenge and the satisfaction of accomplishment, yet all the while my passion, devotion and focus remained resolutely fixed on art and music.

ARRIVING AT THE FUTURE

Eventually, one reaches a point in life where personal circumstance and ambition converge to shape one’s destiny; that instant when a light in the mind comes on, the future comes into focus and the path becomes clear. Perhaps everyone has their own revelation or chain of events that profoundly influenced and ultimately determined the future. Mine was a rather sudden (though well considered) decision to move to New York and enter the rigorous BFA program at Parsons School of Design, one of the country’s most respected and recognized art schools.

Falling in with a small circle of like-minded and motivated mercenaries of art and culture, we obsessively combed the streets, stages, studios, museums and galleries of Manhattan in search of the avant garde, the revolutionary, and the transcendent; an existence of equal parts isolation and despair, panic and survival, exhilaration and reward. It was living each day like there was no tomorrow to a soundtrack of Miles Davis, Philip Glass and Oingo Boingo.

Admittedly, having personal friends who were bona fide celebrities in the New York art world (namely Harold Stevenson and those in his professional orbit) was clearly an advantage for me, and those connections gave me access to unique experiences and privileged opportunities. Few cultural events can match the sheer thrill and bohemianism of working behind-the-scenes at high-profile Manhattan exhibitions; schmoozing, wining and dining with critics, collectors, dilettantes and demimondes. Finding myself thrust into this cauldron of adventure surrounded by authentic (and masquerading) personalities from the worlds of art, literature, theatre, film and fashion, I relished every second and soaked up the energy and vitality like a human sponge. It was existentialism at its most entertaining and a level of social education found in few other places.

It is beyond question that the frenetic pace and exhilaration of living, studying and working in a city like New York can be profoundly influential to the aspiring and ambitious artist. But in the larger scheme of things, total immersion in any such manic environment and constant exposure to that level of creative energy can literally disassemble and reframe one’s entire set of sensibilities and perceptions, whether aesthetic, philosophic or otherwise.

As an artist, the act of revealing one’s heart, soul and mind to the world – exposing those revelations to scrutiny, criticism, acceptance or rejection – is an extremely intimidating and unnerving thing to do. It is something most people cannot imagine doing, yet those who have chosen art as a way of life do it every day. It is how we live, how we perceive our world and what we have to say about it all.

In the final analysis, the reality is that the dedicated artist must simply be willing to experience, participate and revel in the diversity of society, stocking the emotional and intellectual reservoir for the act of expressing the essence and rhythms of our rich, dynamic and constantly changing culture.

Copyright © 2005, Ron Clark

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