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Reply To: The Quest of Creative-Being Itself, with Mythologist Norland Tellez:


Such a rich conversation, and so much I’d love to respond to everyone – but rather than just tossing out a stream-of-consciousness word salad (my default setting – Gemini, you know), I’ve been letting my thoughts simmer in the back of my brain.

What keeps coming to the surface for me, Mary, is something you said that sparks a personal memory:


This is the reminder that while sometimes an idea comes from outside of the artist, a lot of the process nonetheless has to come from within as one does the actual work and that sometimes it is a deep and difficult process. If it is not a quick poem that writes itself, then some of the continuing work that we have to do on a larger work (can you imagine writing a Finnegan’s Wake of your own or a War and Peace?) has to be dredged up from inside ourselves. The sediment we bring to the surface can be residue from yesterday or from a thousand yesterdays ago. It can be an ancient pain as much as an ancient joy or yesterday’s sorrow as well as yesterday’s joy.

“The sediment we bring to the surface” takes me back almost three decades, to a year when I roomed in a house owned by a local artist (we’ll call him Chris, just in case someone on COHO is from my hometown). Chris painted primarily in pastels, but also oils, created prints, etc. At the time I was staying there Chris hadn’t made the leap to full time artist; he was running a company his father had left him, but every waking moment not spent on taking care of business (and many waking moments that should have spent on that), he was sketching, drawing, painting. Every bit of wall space in Chris’ home was covered with his paintings – some 50 of them – and he had an inventory of hundreds of pieces..

I often helped hang and re-arrange those paintings, which is when I noticed something intriguing. All of his paintings connected visually – not in terms of subject matter, but when I would place two or more paintings next to each other (or above and below), if I slid the paintings slightly one way or another, the bands of color at the edge of the frame would eventually connect, as if planned. This worked regardless of content (whether the image of a teakettle boiling on the stove, or cats asleep on a couch on a covered porch, or a train speeding through the night) or medium (oils, pastels, prints); they all flowed one into the other, the way dream images do.

At the time I was deep into Jung and company and doing a lot of dreamwork (that hasn’t changed); I found myself thinking of Chris’ images as archetypal expressions of the collective unconscious filtered through his subjective experience of psyche – or, more simplistically, as pictures of his insides.

This perception was reinforced after I moved out, as Chris faced a deep and traumatic psychological crisis (one that mirrored my own experience a few years earlier). As executor of his father’s estate, Chris was not only running the family business, but administering the family trust, which quarterly dispensed significant sums to multiple extended family members (aunts, uncles, cousins, as well as siblings), neither of which was Chris’ bliss (in the Campbellian sense of following your passion). Life would have flowed so much better if he had handed those responsibilities off to others and focused on his art – a step he wasn’t willing to take. Eventually, the business failed and the trust fund dried up.

This triggered a dramatic break with reality. I’m not sure what the eventual diagnosis was; over time he made less and less sense as he fell into psychosis – a slow, gradual process that took many many months to fully manifest.

When I would visit Christ during that long, slow descent into madness, not once did I find him working on new art (which had been his constant mode for years). Instead, he would take paintings off his walls and re-work them, then re-work them again, and again. It wasn’t unusual for Chris to touch-up his some of his paintings before then, but now the process trended toward oblivion: bright red colors would deepen into a cherry red, then gradually morph into a mahogany, then brown, until many of his best canvases finally faded to black.

Chris’ art wasn’t therapy – quite the opposite. Once he had slipped all the way into the abyss, all intentional creativity ceased (including the “touch-ups” that covered entire canvasses in black). It was as if the collective unconscious had swallowed up all his artistic expressions.

Much more to the story involving lots of drama – restraining orders, police actions, court-enforced therapy, and such – that isn’t really relevant to this post. It took a few years for Chris to return to any semblance of “normality.” Over time he became involved with NAMI (National Association of Mental Illness), and served as an advocate for those suffering from mental illness – but even then, it took another couple years of doing the inner work before he started painting again. Today, he is a versatile artist who is widely recognized in our local community; he is far from wealthy, but makes a living doing what he loves (I’ve purchased several of his pieces).

I wouldn’t describe Chris as a “tortured artist” – he suffered the way we all suffer when out of sync with psyche. What fascinates me, though, is how his art seems to mirror unconscious dynamics – that which is “dredged up from inside.” Today in his artistic expressions he is more aware of and in sync with those stirrings within – an ongoing process.

Thanks, Mary – I appreciate the way your own reflections triggered this chain of associations. Do they strike you as relevant, or have I wandered down my own personal rabbit hole?