During a good summer storm, if I’m lucky, a heavy dose of lightning will steal away the house electricity. As an interruption to an activity that was relying on that electricity, this is a nuisance. But my first sensation in a suddenly darkened house is not a reaction to the absence of light or the cessation of electronics but towards the delicious quiet. Even though the sounds of the storm will carry on outside there is a revelation of how noisy the house was before the surge. All the little devices that secretly sip at the grid or the refrigerator’s are pieces of the sound mosaic that can go unnoticed until it is undone. It feels for a moment that being released from all the modern accoutrements might let me find a more remote sense of privacy, but then I’m left to the thunder of my own thought. I am my greatest distraction.
It is a true battle to quiet the mind. Our inner monologue can be so full of didactic chatter that we can’t think for the sake of our thinking. To make art it is important to be close to your thoughts but not overwhelmed by them. When I settle into the studio and adjust to the cozy bubble of quiet, I have to defend against a brigade of noisy thought. These thoughts seem poised to compensate for the quiet by echoing snips of conversation, quips from movies, or shreds of songs. Ear-worms, as they are called, are the remnants of public life; the yearning to be back in social form. That inner rambling is like a pilot light for the public self to be at the ready when it is called. Beneath that blithering babble I know there is more sincere thought lurking around. To settle into a session of concentrated creative thought there is a process of skimming the witless noisy thoughts from the surface so that I can peer below to the good stuff.
Most of my artist friends listen to music while they work and a few even admit to having the television on in the studio. One friend once said, “I keep wanting it to be more quiet so I can again hear my own little tiny voice squeaking at me over the drone of the TV.” I always found that funny because she didn’t suggest that the TV needed to be turned off but that other distractions needed to be removed. The use of music or television seems to be helpful for some folks to cancel out that inner blather. A controlled distraction can do the superficial work so that those brooding thoughts can get down to business.
Making and appreciating artwork is a fascinating way to celebrate the private moment. The act of painting, for the most part, is a private conversation. While the subject and the reception of the work may include the public, the actual art making is the singular experience of a singular author. As such, the artist will often seek out and covet his/her own solitude for the act of creation.
It is interesting to consider the evolution of the public and private life. Never before has mankind had such opportunity to communicate with one another given the panoply of modern devices and services. But, I imagine, humans have never yearned for or felt entitled to privacy as much we do today either. As we give ourselves up to the growing social network we need to escape to our private minds even more to balance the equation of selfhood. Artists tend to be greedier than most when it comes to hording silence and privacy.
I have found that the silence, concentration and privacy I allow for my painting is reimbursed by the artwork. The canvas becomes a bank for the silence I’ve deposited and repays it with interest. The artwork of Capsar David Friedrich seems to make this silent concentration not only a virtue, but the subject of his paintings. His sublime vistas and the people that stare off into them are homages to silent reflection. Yet even in paintings that seem visually “loud” there is usually an innate quality of quiet to the surface. Perhaps it is the appearance of thought disentangled from its distractions by paint.
Philip Guston’s daughter Musa Meyer once related something composer John Cage had said to her father, “When you start working, everybody is in your studio – the past, your friends, enemies, the art world, and above all, your own ideas – all are there. But as you continue, they start leaving one by one, and you are left completely alone. Then, if you’re lucky, even you leave.”
I enjoy those words as I face the rising tide of distractions and head of to the studio to find my peace anew.