by Jacquelyn Gleisner
Life is very weird, no matter how it ends,
very filled with dreams.
“Vita Nova” by Louise Glück
“The essence of all beautiful art, all great art, is gratitude” – Nietzsche
After thirty years together, it is time to get serious. Perhaps you don’t think I’m ready, and for a long time I wasn’t, but I want to move forward.
The past five years have seemed to pass in reverse. In 2010, I got my Master of Fine Arts degree. I thought this academic feat would strengthen my foothold as a professional artist, though what resulted was the gradual erosion of any grounding I had before school. In a recent interview with Jarrett Earnest in The Brooklyn Rail, artist Robert Gober, said “the one thing that an art school never tells you is that they cannot teach you how to be an artist...That really is up to you to figure out.” After grad school, I had morphed into an artist who did not make too much art. Said differently, I was trying to figure things out.
I may have even been trying a little too hard at times. Last year, I used to spend my morning commutes from Brooklyn to midtown Manhattan wondering where I was going. During business hours, I was entrenched in the tedium of my administrative day job. From an outsider’s perspective, I was progressing. I had a white-collar job and was living in a posh neighborhood of Brooklyn. We should have been quite comfortable, Life, but we weren’t.
Over time, I began to realize that entering and exiting this alien territory each day was pushing me further and further away from myself. I had stopped trying to make art, as I searched for vocations more “rational” than being an artist. Some of my relationships with friends and loved ones withered. Some died. Slowly, I became unanchored.
Life, because we had drifted apart, I could see all your ugly parts from a safe distance. Because I am stubborn, I wanted to prize my ability to tolerate your most unattractive and incongruous bits. I thought I could withstand the small but constant assault of the contradictions that surrounded me. I was an artist who didn’t make art. And I was bored.
Beyond bored, I was wrong. In The Pale King, David Foster Wallace wrote that the whole world is a mind-melting maze of bureaucracy. My day job was not an exception, nor an excuse. Wallace argued that in order to succeed, one must find a way “to find the other side of the rote, the picayune, the meaningless, the repetitive, the pointlessly complex. To be, in a word, unborable.” In other words, feeling bored was no one’s fault except mine.
So, I made some changes. The giant backwards leap we had taken together was followed by slow steps forward. One year ago, I bought a new sketchbook. From these sketches I drafted much larger plans. I quit my job and I moved away from New York City.
I learned that there are no small moves, only movements backwards or forwards. I traded a cushy paycheck and the comfort of being close to people I love for the hope of a freer, more mobile life. I don’t know where I am going, but I feel confident that we are not going backwards anymore.
All those years we were gliding in reverse served a purpose, too. We made many mistakes. I tried to know other people before I knew myself. I attempted to love another person above myself. One snowy day in the wake of these failures, I took a detour and found myself at Walden Pond. From the same spot where I stood, Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.” Being lost begets being found.
Being lost led me to that frozen lake, where I picked up a hitchhiker. Natasha was cold and miles from her car. She was also lost, but unlike me, she had lost her way on purpose. On the drive back to her car, Natasha explained that she was taking a writing class and her assignment was to get lost. She was going to write about this experience. Now, many months later, I am, too.
From every action, there is a constellation of consequences. All points connect. There can be no separation between the different parts of me. Artist Teresita Fernández said, “being an artist is not just about what happens when you are in the studio. The way you live, the people you choose to love and the way you love them, the way you vote, the words that come out of your mouth…will also become the raw material for the art you make.” It is both scary and liberating to think that everything I do or say can find its way back into the art I make. I try to communicate more consciously, so that I might also become more conscious of what my artwork will say.
I don’t know yet how to make art above the banalities of an ordinary life. Some days I will admit that I feel tempted by magical and ancient thoughts. Plato claimed that Zeus cut the first humans in half. It is true that I sometimes feel incomplete or besought with longing. The quest for my missing half is the desire for love. Somewhere in this world, that sad half is my soul mate. In parallel, art is a question that should be answered.
I want to believe that there is no answer, but answers. In The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, T.S. Eliot wrote, “In a minute there is time / For decisions and revisions which a minute will reverse.” Maybe there are no real choices, except one unending decision to commit. To be an artist is only the choice to be an artist. Endurance, which I’ve learned is infinitely more complicated when it is sincere, will eventually beget a greater meaning.
Life, I don’t pretend to know your meaning. Many people disagree on your flavor—chocolate or peach—and on your essence—are you a highway, a bitch, or a beach? Most agree you’re short, but you have a tendency, like this letter, to go on. As I try to close this, I think I should have written a thank you note instead.