Paint Sounds: Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe

The first encounter I had with Patti Smith and Robert Mapplethorpe was nearly five years ago. I was going through an intense stage of reading every music-related memoir I could get my hands on, and that meant spending a lot of time wandering the aisles of the entertainment section in any given bookstore. I’d gone through How Music Works by David Byrne and Love Goes to Buildings on Fire by Will Hermes and 1963: The Year of the Revolution by Ariel Leve and Robin Morgan, but it was Patti and Robert’s shining faces on the cover of Just Kids that changed it all. I felt their eyes pierce my soul from their place on a shelf above my head, and I grasped the book and bought it without giving it a second thought. Something about them spoke to me, and it only took a few pages for my life to become intertwined with theirs. I’ve spent the subsequent years allowing their legacies and words and works to guide me, and they’ve never led me astray.

When I think of Patti and Robert, I see the two of them in their Brooklyn apartment, spending their nights listening to record after record, sharing their art supplies and their hearts and their work. I see them worming their way into the back room of Max’s Kansas City, fueled only by Robert’s intense desire to be accepted into Andy Warhol’s circle. I see them taking photographs with Sandy Daley in the Chelsea Hotel. I see them threading skull-shaped beads onto leather cord and exchanging the jewelry as if the necklaces were a physical representation of their connection – ‘til death do us part. I see their bodies connected by millions of thin red threads that could never be cut in two, the pair of them destined to stay with one another in life and in whatever they believed would come after. I see their desire to bare their souls to each other and to the world. I see the safe haven they created out of creativity and passion and emotion. I see their dreams as vividly as I see my own.

In many ways, it’s through Patti and Robert that I see my past and present and future. Their need to create eclipsed everything that hurt or threatened to tear them away from what mattered. They were persistent and determined. They followed their deepest urges and they spoke their own truths. They pushed through what held them back, and they released the chains on their ankles so they could dance with the visions they saw behind their eyes. They were messy and angry but they were also full of love and adoration for one another and for themselves and for the world. It is because of them that I feel like I can do the same, no matter how small my steps are or how quiet my voice is or how many steps there are left to take.

These are two people that I carry with me wherever I go. They are the background on my phone and the voices in my head and they often feel like my breath and my blood and my bones. I am always searching for ways to bring them closer to me, and the easiest way to do that is through their art. They documented their relationship and their lives in a way that allows me to sink closer to the core of their existence and to pull out the things I need to fill my soul. I’m in the midst of an intense period of revisiting their works and incorporating their whispers into my life, and I can’t help but want to share them with everyone around me. This time I’m doing it with music, too.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Self Portrait, 1985 and ‘Seven Devils’ by Florence + the Machine  

robert devil self portrait

I think Robert’s self-portraits are the most direct route to his mind. They evolved immensely over his artistic career, moving from shy and bashful to full-on and unrelenting. This one references his Catholic upbringing and obsession with religious imagery, and the black and white only heightens the sense of darkness that brims beneath the surface. His stare is defiant and challenging, but you can’t help but want to know what his world is like. Florence + the Machine’s ‘Seven Devils’ is a direct line to Mapplethorpe’s own offering. Rather than rejecting hidden desires and heavy thoughts, the lyrics embraces their power and turns them to something beautiful. I often think that Robert did the same.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Tulips, 1986 and ‘Muzzle Blast’ by The Darcys

robert-mapplethorpe-tulips-photographs-silver-print

The floral portraits stand in stark contrast to Robert’s more brutal work, but they exhibit a mastery that could only come from his hands. They are delicate and balanced, but they speak volumes. The tulips seem to be holding themselves back, waiting for the perfect moment to fall apart, and yet they remain poised and beautiful. I chose ‘Muzzle Blast’ by The Darcys for the very first lyric – We were in bloom – as well as the fact that it exhibits a lot of the same qualities as Robert’s photo. It’s subtle yet weighty, it’s quietly powerful, and it moves perfectly within the realm of Robert’s artistic vision.

Robert Mapplethorpe, Polaroid of Patti Smith, 1973 and ‘Lightning Bolt’ by Jake Bugg  

patti lightning bolt

Two years ago I took this photo into a tattoo parlour and got the same lightning bolt tattooed on my own knee. It was a way to make physical my connection to Patti, and to intensify my connection to Robert through her. The picture is beautiful, a split-second representation of their love and their art and the life they created together. Patti holds herself still, but her eyes give away the need she has to act and to set herself free. Jake Bugg’s ‘Lightning Bolt’ is an obvious choice, but I also like that the lyrics explore the idea of allowing things to fall together, of taking chances, of trying your luck. Both Patti and Robert played with fate, and and this track embodies that.

Patti Smith, Frida Kahlo’s Bed, 2012 and ‘Asleep’ by The Smiths

patti smith frida

Patti’s affinity for Frida Kahlo is just another reason why I feel so drawn to her. I’ve been dying to visit Kahlo’s house in Mexico City for ages, and I like that I’ll be following in Patti’s footsteps when I finally end up there. Her photographs celebrate the mundane and the everyday, highlighting the magic of a place where an artist spends most of her time or the monumentality of being in a space that was once occupied by someone you admire. ‘Asleep’ by The Smiths is haunting and sad, but I think that embodies Frida’s ethos as well as Patti’s life. There is beauty even in the darkest feelings, and I like the artists that attempt to chase that.

Patti Smith, Hermann Hesse’s Typewriter, 2003 and ‘Oxford Comma’ by Vampire Weekend

patti smith typewriter

Not long ago I was deeply moved after reading Hesse’s Siddhartha, and finding this image felt like another tiny way to intertwine myself with Patti. I like knowing that we read and see and chase the same things, and this only added another thing to the list. I am also desperately missing my own typewriter, which is sitting in Canada while I attempt to get the same magic out of a laptop in Leeds. Stumbling upon this photo instantly made my hands ache for the clack of the keys and the act of throwing all my digital technology to the side just to focus on the act of writing, and I am relishing in the feeling of being filled with desire, even if it’s a simple craving. ‘Oxford Comma’ is not necessarily an ode to the act of writing, but instead an unpacking of the English language, and I like that it holds the same curiosity as Patti does.

Patti Smith, Robert’s Slippers, 2002, and ‘Terrible Love’ by The National  

patti smith robert's slippers

This photo moves me in ways that I can’t always wrap my head around. Taken thirteen years after Robert’s death, the image fossilizes a love that endures even past the physical realm of existence. The slippers make me thing of the journeys they took together, of the discussions they had about the future, of the tensions between the two of them that still left room for love. In ‘Terrible Love,’ The National encapsulates the difficulties of love and devotion, while also reinforcing the need for partnership. Much of the song is punctuated by the lyric It’s a terrible love and I’m walking with spiders, and that single line perfectly describes how difficult it must be for Patti to continue living on without her partner in crime and the man who helped her believe she could be an artist.

Patti and Robert gave the world to themselves instead of asking politely for it. They created their own reality instead of allowing their narratives to be inserted into a story they didn’t like. They found the best in each other, and they acknowledged that their best also included their struggles and fears and doubts. I like that I wear them across my heart. I like that I hold them up like a torch in the darkness. I like that I can’t shake their presence. They’re in my orbit and I’m in theirs, and the least I can do is honour them in every way possible.

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The One Where I Realized That Fear Is A Catalyst for Art

I am a fearful person. It’s not something I hide, but it’s also something I hesitate to talk about. I exist in a world and a creative realm where confidence and boldness and risk-taking are valued, and sometimes it feels like too much to admit that I feel unsure or scared. I have always taken my own fear as something I need to free myself from, but as I work through my artistic pursuits, I’m learning that the case is often the opposite. Fear, when used properly, can become a breeding ground for fantastic art, and that’s what I’m attempting to harness it for.

My fear exhibits itself in a multitude of ways. I’m scared of being disliked or unaccepted, and that often leads to hiding my voice or shrinking the amount of space I allow my body to take up or withholding my thoughts during a discussion. My mind is constantly racing with ideas, but I sometimes come across as quiet and reserved before I let myself warm up to the people around me. I’m scared of messing things up or saying the wrong thing or making one wrong movement that leads to a multitude of missteps, and this particular fear tends to hold me back from even trying something new. I’m scared of seeming too eager or too emotional or too involved, and that means I don’t really say what’s on my mind or on my heart unless it’s in writing or the heat of the moment.

Creatively, my fear runs in a similar vein. It took me months to start this blog, mostly because I was terrified of what the response would be. I didn’t want to fail, and that withheld me from putting myself out there in the first place. It’s the same with posting my poetry on Instagram, which still scares me every time I do it. It’s easy to talk myself into thinking that I’ll look like a Rupi Kaur impersonator or an inauthentic writer, and that’s what stopped me from doing it for so long. Fear can feel like a brick wall or a barbed wire fence in front of all the things I really want, but in reality, I think it’s also a gateway to something much bigger.

While fear is what holds me back, I’m learning that it’s also what drives me forward. I create constantly and feverishly because I’m afraid of what will happen if I don’t. If I stop and sit on an idea instead of writing it down or fleshing it out, will it hang around or will it dissipate? If I don’t get up in the middle of the night to write a meaningful yet undecipherable note on my phone, will that thought be lost forever? If I refuse to take the time to document the life I’m leading, will I lose my opportunity to leave a legacy behind? There’s a thread of fearfulness that runs through all those thoughts, and what scares me the most is allowing fear to hold me back until I have nothing to prove that I lived this difficult, beautiful, unfathomable life.

Because of all this, art has become my way to deal with fear. I write out my fears. I paint them in hues of black and blue. I say them out loud in the quiet of my own bedroom when I’m trying to perfect a verse of a new poem. Art is my way to face my worries, to bring them out of my chest rather than allowing them to settle in my stomach like bricks. Art is a step forward, a vision of the future, an attempt to transfigure the things that plague me into the things that aid me. It’s an indescribable process, but in no way is it linear. It’s not something I remember to do every time I feel scared. It slips my mind and loses prominence in my day to day life, but it always comes back to me, and I think that counts for something.

Some of my best work was born out of fear. Poetry hastily written in unconventional spaces, the goal being to capture a moment or emotion exactly as it was. Film photos taken with snap-happy fingers, longing to document life in an authentic way. Words spoken boldly, too caught up in emotion to wait to say what was lying on my heart. Fear forces me to find ways to be creative, because art is the best way I know how to hold onto life and express the beauty of every sunny day or thoughtful act or perfect morning.

When I think about the people I admire, they are all individuals who turned fear into something that mattered in a big way. Basquiat experimented with every medium and thought and technique because he knew his time was limited. Patti Smith was riddled with self-consciousness and plagued by doubt, but she used art as a way to step into courage. Edvard Munch lived an intensely emotional life, but he turned those heavy feelings into masterpieces that have been viewed and adored by millions. These artists aren’t inspiring because they were fearless, but because they acknowledged their fear and moved forward regardless.

Things changed for me when I started using art as a way of facing my fears. Fear became something to sink into, to unpack and understand. When I use it as a creative force, it is no longer a feeling that I want to rid myself of or erase from my vocabulary. It is a reason for doing what I do. A reason to share my thoughts, even if they’re not yet coherent. A reason to write the first couple lines of a short story, even if the idea never flourishes into anything bigger than that. A reason to open my sketchbook and paint what I see in my head, even if it comes out as something completely different. When I view fear as a constructive feeling, it’s not something to shy away from, but to relish in.

Fear is a contradictory thing. For some, it is a safety blanket. It pins feet in place and roots bodies into the ground. It’s a good excuse for holding yourself back from the electricity that exists under your skin, an easy word to slip off your tongue in order to explain a multitude of reasons for staying where things feel comfortable and riskless. But fear is also the opposite. It pushes you forward and away from what’s familiar. It pulls you out of the everyday and forces you to think about what you really want. Fear can hold you back or it can pave the way into the future, but it’s up to us to decide which one wins. And I’m always going to choose the latter.

 

 

 

 

 

Art is Where We Open Up (Or: There is Connection in Art and I Am Determined to Find All of It)

Real, deep, true connection is something I avoided for a long time. I wanted to be untouchable, unattached. Independent and stable and fine on my own. I didn’t want to put all my faith in a few people, because I didn’t want to see them leave and watch all that faith follow them out the door. I stayed away from any relationship that felt like it could be more than surface deep, because that felt like the only way to make sure I’d never get hurt, never have to go through all the things I was so afraid of. Rejection and grief and loneliness.

And then I did go through that. Someone who really mattered left, and I felt the pain and the loss, but my faith stuck around, and it’s been with me ever since. I learned, rather quickly, that connection isn’t just something we crave, but something we need, and that life seems hollow if we choose to go without it. If we continually choose comfort over vulnerability, if we continually choose solid ground over taking risks, we lose that potential for connection. And sometimes, even though it’s an attempt to protect ourselves, sticking to what we know hurts more than letting the familiar go for a few seconds just to see what could happen if we let others see us for who we truly are.

In a lot of ways, moving to Leeds for five months has been an exercise in opening myself up all over again. Walking into every situation with my chest pried a little wider than usual, a bit more of my heart on show for everyone to see. It’s terrifying, doing this over and over again every time I’m greeted by someone or something new. But it’s necessary, and it’s been beautiful spending the past eight weeks finding people who reflect parts of myself back to me. I keep reminding myself how wonderful it is to connect with the world around me, and I also keep remembering all the moments when I felt that kind of connection in a really, deep way.

Concerts always feel like connection. Three years ago I watched Broken Social Scene play a surprise set at WayHome. It was dusk, and the sky was turning purple around the crowd, and the band started playing ‘Anthems for a Seventeen Year-Old Girl.’ Everyone began singing along, as if it was second nature, and the entire world seemed to thrum from the force of our voices. There were friends’ arms around my shoulders and a smile on my face and unknown bodies too close to my own, but the moment was perfect, and it’s something I’ll never forget.

There’s The National, who I have seen twice, and who end their sets with ‘Vanderlyle Crybaby Geeks.’ They play it so slow and soft that you can barely hear the band, but the audience fills in, and everything outside of that moment quiets down, and all that exists is what’s right in front of you. There’s the dance parties I’ve had when members of Local Natives jumped in the crowd. There’s holding onto Florence Welch’s hand, dozens of people swarming her slight figure, all of us singing ‘Raise it Up’ at the top of our lungs. There’s Abby and I spending drives together belting out MUNA and Dua Lipa and Taylor Swift. There’s walking back to my apartment after seeing Wolf Alice, Charlotte and I still in a daze, our voices filling the quiet city as we yelled the lyrics to ‘Beautifully Unconventional.’ Music is a thread that connects so many of my most important experiences.

Then, there are the times when visual art – painting and drawing and sculpting – have been the basis for connection. When I wandered through MoMA and found Frida Kahlo’s Fulang-Chang and I, a portrait of the artist with a pet monkey, a mirror hung next to it, both pieces featuring the same frame. I remember walking up to it, staring at myself in the mirror and at Frida beside me, marvelling at how close I felt to her presence. Part of her being in me, and part of my being in her. When Laura and I saw Anthony McCall’s Solid Light Works last week, the two of us standing in beams of light and contemplating our place in the world and looking at each other in awe. When I saw Basquiat’s notebooks at the Brooklyn Museum, pages and pages of his internal thoughts spread across gallery walls, taking in his words and wondering if mine will ever be displayed like that, too.

There’s connection in novels and film and clothing. Connection in how I spent most of high school superglued into a pair of black skinny jeans and a band shirt and a flannel and a denim jacket, creating a uniform that would bring me closer to the people I admired and further from the people I didn’t want to be around. Connection in passing around my copy of Just Kids, loaning it to Charlotte and Katie and my mum and wondering what each one of them found in the pages I hold so close to my heart. Connection in Amy and I seeing Call Me By Your Name together three times, sneaking cupcakes into the movie theatre when she and Katie and I celebrated my twenty-first birthday.

 When I stop to think about it, art was the first form of connection I ever truly understood, the first thing I ever revealed my true self for. I’ve formed connections with songs and books and paintings themselves, and all those things have also been in the background when I’ve made real, physical, human connections. Art is the soundtrack to my form of connection, and it’s what I remember when I think about past relationships and stand-out moments and transformative years.

Art feels like the basis for everything. It’s my favourite way to open up to someone, my favourite way to speak to someone’s soul and have them speak to mine. To have someone you admire or care about put on a song they know you love, or play a band they think you’ll like. To drag someone to an art exhibit, even if they’re reluctant, because you know they’ll get something out of it. To swap books and share articles and copy and paste poems and photos and quotes, using all those forms of expression to communicate secrets and meaning. All of that feels special.

I like forming connections with art and over art because it means you’re talking about or contemplating or experiencing something meaningful. You’re not feeding energy into the bad, venting about awful days or tiny annoyances. The connection is based on things you adore or appreciate, and you can tell by the way eyes light up and voices move faster and bodies seem to spring into action, ready to gesticulate and add emphasis when needed.  I want to hear about what people love, what makes them tick, what they’ll take to the grave, and so often art fits itself into all of those boxes.

I’m writing this because I want to push myself to form connections like this more often than I already do. I want to compliment someone’s band tee or comment on the book they’re carrying around. I want to get wrapped up in conversations about what my friends and acquaintances are inspired by. I want to recognize the art that exists in their bones, whether they’re the one making it or simply appreciating it. I don’t want to subsist on conversations that barely skim the surface of what our lives are about. Art is where the walls come down, where the mind opens up, where the heart starts speaking instead of being stopped by the brain. And it’s at that intersection that I want to get to know all the people who I want to keep close to me for a long time.

The One Where Creativity Got Really Hard

For a long time, creativity came really easy to me. My mind goes about a thousand miles a minute, and I’m used to spending my free time painting and writing and taking on DIY projects that pile up on bookshelves. I have stacks of full notebooks that I can’t bear to throw away, a whole cart full of art supplies, and an awful lot of wall-hangings and painted jackets and embroidered patches that I have put blood, sweat, and tears into. I have always defined myself by my creativity. It’s something that makes me feel powerful and expressive and authentic, and I hang onto it with a vice-like grip for fear of losing it.

Despite that grip, though, sometimes creativity fades away. Before coming to England, I had an idealized vision of the artist I’d be while I’m here. In my mind, I was ready to become someone who writes constantly and carries a sketchbook everywhere and sits down in the middle of random locations just because an idea is weighing on me. And that’s not what happened. In a lot of ways, I’m expanding my horizons and inhaling inspiration with every breath, but that doesn’t mean it’s translating into actual work. I’ve spent a couple weeks feeling pretty stuck, like my words are caught in my throat and nothing will ever bring them out into the world and I’ll exist like this forever, never being able to say what I want to say or do what I want to do.

Because I couldn’t just not do anything about losing this integral part of how I self-identify, I became incredibly committed to examining the creative processes of people I admire. I racked up lists of YouTube videos and podcasts and essays and interviews, all of them somehow connected to the topic of artistic expression. I find it helpful to listen to people I’m influenced by speak truthfully about their own creativity, and with every listen or read-through, I pulled myself a little more out of this hole of negativity. My mantra stopped being “I’m never going to feel creative again,” and started being “Creativity is cyclical and it’ll come back to me when it’s ready.” I stopped leaving my notebooks tucked in the furthest corner of my desk, and I started pulling them open and uncapping a pen and writing just to see what would come out. I feel good again, and even though I know that feeling awful about my artistic abilities is inevitable, at least I have tools in my belt that will help me get over it all over again.

Emma Gannon in Conversation with Greta Gerwig

I adore Greta Gerwig. She is a visionary who speaks into the heart of every girl who has ever felt misplaced or misunderstood, who has ever had the courage to dream of something bigger than what they were handed, who has ever believed in themselves enough to get to that place. As a guest on Emma Gannon’s podcast, Gerwig gets real about her creative process, and I found her honesty refreshing and reassuring. She discusses wasting time and being lazy, affirming that bouts of non-work are part of any creative pursuit and that the long-perpetuated myth of artists that don’t stop working and never feel lost is false with a capital F. She talks boring work and allowing yourself to create something mediocre as long as you’re still working hard and seeing it through. Her perspective is one that is not communicated enough, and it is incredibly empowering to know that someone as talented as she is goes through the same things that I do.

Albert Camus, Create Dangerously

Penguin has just released a series of tiny books containing poems and essays and speeches. They’re packaged into tiny robin’s egg blue tomes, and each one only costs a pound. The last time I was in Waterstones, they had a few dozen spread out across a table, and it took everything in me not to buy every single one of them. I let myself pick out Andy Warhol’s Fame, but I was also drawn to Camus’ Create Dangerously. The guy at the counter told me I had chosen some good ones, and I raced back home so I could get stuck between their pages.

Camus has a lot of ideas about art, most of them centred around the fact that every artist has a duty to challenge the world and to speak up for those who can’t. He says that the artist “is the perpetual advocate of the living creature.” He reminds us that “all greatness, after all, is rooted in risk.” He closes with the powerful idea that “each and every man, on the foundation of his own sufferings and joys, builds for all.” The essay made me look at creativity differently, seeing it as a privilege and a duty rather than something that comes easily to me. It reminded me that art is a conduit for change, a constant risk, but also something that makes life worth living. I need to come back to my creativity over and over and over again, simply because it is my job to do so.

Florence Welch, Monster

About a month ago I read Rookie on Love, the newest collection of work put out by Tavi Gevinson and the team at Rookie Magazine. Ninety-five percent of the draw was the fact that Florence Welch had contributed a piece about creativity, and I knew I needed to own it, whatever it was. The passage is short, a poem with a dozen lines that walks through the monster that is created by our artistic need. Creativity is not a solitary act. We take pieces of ourselves, pieces of others, pieces of experiences, and we use those things to feed our work. And that may seem selfish, but once those moments are shared with us, they become part of who we are.

I think this is especially applicable when it comes to difficult or tender subjects. For a long time I didn’t write about the things that hurt, because I was afraid that the people who hurt me would see it or share it or comment on it. But those are my experiences, and if I want to be authentic, I need to write from reality. One of my favourite quotes is by Anne Lammott, and she says “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.” Both Welch and Lammott inspire me to be truthful in my art, because that is really the only place we can ever start.

Patti Smith

Patti feels like my compass. Everything I do stems from her and goes back to her, an endless loop of learning and creating and giving back to the woman who gave me so much. She is the source of my intense desire to create something that impacts the world. She is the one who pushes me, over and over again, to believe in who I am and what I can do. She is a voice of change, someone who makes me want to do better and be better, and it is only natural that I turn to her when I feel a lull in my creativity. She has all the answers.

With so many years of artistic experience, it’s not surprising that Smith has a lot to say about creativity. In conversation at the Louisiana Literature Festival in 2012, she shares her firm belief that every one of us has a creative impulse, and every one of us has the right to exercise that impulse. Creativity takes different forms, and some of us feel the need to commit our lives to our artistic practices, but no matter what, we all have the capacity to create. Even when I’m not writing, I can find my artistic self in decorating the space around me, or walking through the world, or making a cup of tea. Existence is an act of creation all on its own.

In another interview, filmed at Cannes Lions in 2011, Smith discusses art as a movement for the people, an act of freedom. We all have the right to participate, to use our voices, to teach ourselves how to play guitar or wield a paintbrush. Creativity is energy, and it exists across the world. It is a practice, something we must work on, something that has to be present in our daily lives if we want it to be of any significant value. Inspiration can be found in anything. Creativity can be sparked by the sea, by a poem, by a film. Our artistic impulses are inextricable from life itself, and it is our job to find them and use them. She ends the clip by saying “Don’t be ashamed, don’t be self-conscious, believe in yourself, and work hard,” which might as well be the golden rule of any act of self-expression.

Finally, Patti’s words are an endless source of comfort and reassurance. Her most recent release, Devotion, is an essay on her own creative process. She discusses how her writing meanders, the long journeys it takes, the ideas and thoughts and inspiration go into it. One of my favourite lines is when she asks: “Why do we write? Of course, the answer writes itself: ‘Because we cannot simply live.’” Creativity makes life worthwhile. It enriches every day. It causes us to notice changes in the colour of the sky, to carry words in our chests until we find the right way to express them, to buy trinkets that we are inexplicably drawn to, only to have them influence a new piece of work. It is simple, daily magic.

What I’ve learned throughout this process of rediscovery is that we could all use a little help. It’s amazing to turn to the people we admire, the ones who have years and years worth of experience, but it’s also good to turn within and see what we can dig up. I’ve taken to physically throwing my phone across the room in order to prevent myself from picking it up whenever something gets hard. I’ve realized that the best way to fix myself is to turn a song up terribly loud and dance until I can feel my blood rushing through me again (If you’re going to do this, I’d recommend ‘Shake It Out’ by Florence + the Machine or ‘I Can’t Quit’ by The Vaccines). I’ve figured out that putting something down on the page, even if it’s awful, is better than leaving it blank. Creativity is cyclical. It changes as I change, and it never looks the same from one day to the next. I’m learning how to ride the waves of it all, to be okay with the highs and the lows. I am physically incapable of letting go of my artistic practice, so I might as well embrace the process and get the heck on with it.

Art Imitates Life: A Little Life

Things get broken, and sometimes they get repaired, and in most cases, you realize that no matter what gets damaged, life rearranges itself to compensate for your loss, sometimes wonderfully. –Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life

Packing five months of my life into a couple suitcases was a daunting task. I spent a long time distilling who I am into my favourite band shirts and the pair of jeans that I wear as if they’re glued to my body and the notebooks that I carry around at all times. Worse than all that, though, was deciding which books to bring. I have shelves packed with novels and autobiographies, coffee table books and art history texts. I turn to them for companionship and inspiration and encouragement, and the idea of choosing only a few was a hard one to wrap my head around.

When it came down to it, I knew which ones I needed to have with me. I got the Patti Smith box checked off easily – Just Kids and Devotion and a copy of her 1978 poetry anthology titled Babel, which is something I still can’t believe I own. I piled on You Are a Badass by Jen Sincero, a book that everyone who wants to live their best life needs to read. I was missing a novel, though, and although I could have brought my favourite Harry Potter book or Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch or The Secret History, I eventually decided on A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara.

This is not an easy book. It’s over 700 pages long. It’s dense and heavy and it sits inside your stomach once you’ve finished it. The first time I read it, I put it down multiple times because the passages were too heartbreaking and the emotions were too strong. The author has said that she wanted to write a novel like ombré cloth, something that starts out light and is pitch black by the end, and that’s what she did.

I brought A Little Life with me because it feels human. It lives and breathes, the lives of Jude and Willem and JB and Malcom intertwining with your own. The lows are really, really low, and the highs, although somewhat mundane, shine through the darkness like jewels. It puts your own hardships into perspective while simultaneously making you realize the value of the tiny, shimmery moments, even when they’re as normal as making eye contact with your best friend across a crowded room or going out for dinner at the same place with the same group of people every week.

The world that this book lives in seems attached to so many other things, and that’s why I’m writing this. There are no other books like it – and believe me, I’ve searched – but it comes up in art pieces and movies and songs. I like when one form of art bleeds into a million other forms of art, and A Little Life does that beautifully.

Visual Art

What drew me to this book in the first place was the cover. It’s a black and white photo by Peter Hujar, and when you relate it to the novel itself, it displays so much pain, reflecting the content of the book back at the reader.  It reminds me a lot of a photography series by Maud Fernhout called What Real Men Cry Like, which is a really beautiful depiction of boys being vulnerable and transparent about their emotions. Another similar piece is Robert Tait Mackenzie’s Four Masks of Facial Expressions, which are plaster casts depicting violent effort, breathlessness, fatigue, and exhaustion. It’s another work of art that depicts emotion exceptionally, just as the cover of the book does.

Film

This connection may be because the film is fresh in my mind or because I am mildly obsessed with it, but I think Call Me By Your Name mirrors A Little Life in more ways than one. Both show the nuances and breadth of human emotion. Both are about connection and vulnerability and how hard it is to put your guard down. Both are not frivolous, but real, when it comes to describing relationships. It’s the last scene of Call Me By Your Name that reminds me of this book. Elio cries in front of the fireplace for nearly four minutes, letting the dam break and his sadness run through him. It’s glorious, and the parallels that can be drawn between he and Jude are numerous.

Music

The very first song that reminded me of A Little Life was ‘All The Sad Young Men’ by Spector. The band does a really good job of communicating both connection and disconnection, and we see a lot of that in Yanagihara’s masterpiece. I eventually added ‘St. Jude’ by Florence + the Machine to the list. In the novel, Jude is named after the patron saint of lost causes, and that is exactly what Florence sings about in the track. Another notable one is ‘I’ll Still Destroy You’ by The National, as Jude spends much of the book distancing himself from others because he believes this will keep them safe. The tracks I’ve included in this playlist are overflowing and emotive and they hold nothing back, much like A Little Life.

Reading this book all over again is proving to be difficult. I pick it up each morning and feel a bit of my heart fall out of my chest and into its pages. I feel for every single character, I understand some of the hardships (though definitely not the biggest ones), and I am so drawn to the lives of these friends that I feel as though I am one of them. Although it’s painful and heart wrenching, it also feels hopeful, and a tiny glimmer of hope is really all that we can ever ask for. That’s what keeps me going.

Side note: I checked my Goodreads page, and I was reading A Little Life at exactly the same time last year as I am this year. Life is cyclical and amazing and I love that my life now is connected to my life then, even in such a small way.

Paint Sounds: Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz

Visual art and music are numbers one and two on the list of things I love most in the world. The order changes depending on the day, but the power of a trip to an art gallery or a dance party to my favourite record is undeniable, and both can lift my mood or turn my day around in the blink of an eye. I’m lucky to be able to study both things, and although I deeply understand how they fit together, it is sometimes difficult to put that connection into words that make sense to others. I always want to bring art and music as close together as possible, so I’m drawing parallels between some of my favourite artworks and my favourite songs.

I have been enamoured by creative partnership since the very moment I picked Patti Smith’s Just Kids off a shelf in Indigo, obsessed with her relationship with Robert Mappelthorpe. That duo will certainly be featured in this series, but I’m starting off with Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. The Art Gallery of Ontario staged an O’Keeffe exhibit last summer, and I visited it multiple times, always captivated by the mirror images that can be picked out of her work and his. Their relationship was symbiotic but also spacious, and the pieces created over the course of two distinct careers are magnificent. I’ve narrowed it down to a few of my favourite works, and there’s a song to go along with each one, all of them wrapped up in a playlist called Paint Sounds, which is my feeble attempt at referencing The Beach Boys. As far as I’m concerned, music and art are inextricably intertwined, and I will explore that bond until the day I die.

Alfred Stieglitz, Snapshot – From My Window, New York, 1902 and ‘Step’ by Vampire Weekend

Alfred Stieglitz - Snapshot, From My Window, New York, 1902

While Vampire Weekend is taking a million years to release new music, I’ve resorted to listening to their previous albums quite often. ‘Step’ is one of my favourite tracks, and my brain seems to associate it with grey days spent tucked away in an apartment overlooking the city, much like Stieglitz depicts in this photo. Both are moody and nostalgic, straightforward yet layered, and they complement one another well.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Music: Pink and Blue No. 2, 1918 and ‘Dreams Tonite’ by Alvvays

Georgia O'Keefe - Music- Pink and Blue No. 2, 1918

I adored this song from the very first second I heard it, enchanted by the floaty tempo and the way the instruments seem to swirl around the lyrics. Everything about Alvvays is vivid, and O’Keeffe’s billowing forms match the colour palette evoked by this track. O’Keeffe was intrigued by the idea of transforming aural sensations into visual ones, and although I doubt she was listening to Alvvays when this piece was created, they make a good pair nonetheless.

Alfred Stieglitz, Georgia O’Keeffe – Hands, 1919 and ‘Dancing Barefoot’ by Patti Smith

Georgia O'Keefe - Hands, Alfred Stieglitz

I had to pull Patti in here somehow, didn’t I? This track gives power to a female force, but also discusses her roots in a male equivalent in a way that represents the connection between O’Keeffe and Stieglitz extremely well. Throughout their partnership they both retained their individual identities, but Stieglitz was let into a part of O’Keeffe not often seen by the rest of the world. He captured photos of her at her most vulnerable, hinting at the intimate entanglement of the two artists. O’Keeffe’s hands were her most important tool, and I love how they are depicted here. On a side note, Patti has also written a poem about O’Keeffe, which can be read here.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Ladder to the Moon, 1958 and ‘Gravity Don’t Pull Me’ By Rostam

Georgia O'Keefe - Ladder to the Moon, 1958

O’Keeffe’s pieces retain elements of the natural world while also opening portals to the mystical, and this painting is a beautiful representation of that. Rostam’s track evokes the weightlessness of O’Keeffe’s work, his use of sound transporting the listener into another realm. Listening to the song while viewing the painting causes them to form a single entity, two different forms of expression merging in time and space.

Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalent, 1930 and ‘Sky Musings’ by Wolf Alice  

Alfred Stieglitz - Equivalent, 1930

This photo is one in a series of works in which Stieglitz focused on the sky, freeing the viewer from defined meaning and creating a sense of abstraction. ‘Sky Musings’ stands in contrast to it, and the hurried, claustrophobic track initially seems to be the antithesis of an expansive sky, although the two are perhaps connected by more than what is seen on the surface. Gazing up at the atmosphere can sometimes evoke feelings of smallness and overwhelm, and Wolf Alice’s lyrics discuss these exact sensations, as well as a desire to disappear into the ether. Stieglitz’s photos are transporting, providing a momentary escape from the bombarding thoughts that come along with life.

Georgia O’Keeffe, Horse’s Skull with White Rose, 1931 and ‘White Light/White Heat’ by The Velvet Underground

Georgia O'Keefe - Horse's Skull with White Rose, 1931

What strikes me about this piece is the duality of its components and the delicate balance that O’Keeffe has managed to strike. The skull, a sure sign of death and decay, is juxtaposed by the roses at its peak, and the white of the main subject contrasts the deep black background. The only song that felt appropriate to pair with it was The Velvet Underground’s ‘White Light/White Heat,’ and although the subject matter doesn’t match, the feelings are there. The track is chaotic but measured, the lyrics demanding deep thought and unwavering attention, just as O’Keeffe’s painting does.

It doesn’t take much to realize how intertwined we are with the world and the life that exists within it. Both art and music are products of a human need to express emotion and experience, as well as a deep desire to leave a mark that will remain long after our physical bodies have gone. O’Keefe and Stieglitz have clearly achieved both those things, as have many of the musicians mentioned. Products of human creation are eternal and often unmissable, but it is sometimes worth training our eyes on them for as long as we can, just to see what secret connections we can find.

 

Consume Like an Artist

A while ago I read a quote about how a prerequisite to being an artist is the ability to consume. Artists collect things. Fragments of movies, the way the lighting looks in a specific shot, how the sun falls on an actors’ jawline. Corners of paintings or a specific line of graphite in a sketch. The soaring bridge of a song, the bass beat in the melody, the way the singer changes notes. We fall in love with how poets describe city streets and winter mornings, with the aesthetic our heroes project, with intelligent advertising campaigns and album artwork and book covers. All of it is important.

I keep notes of things that really interest me, always carrying around a notebook where I can jot down snippets of overheard conversation or a really good line in a movie. It’s something I refer back to often, and the things that can’t really be held in there are kept in my mind or on my heart. When we come in contact with things that affect us, there really isn’t a choice whether or not you keep it with you. Some of them find ways of burrowing themselves under your skin, stuck to you forever. It’s a nice feeling. All of that collecting means something, and a lot of the best art is made when people combine what they know and what they love and what they can do.

I had a moment at the beginning of the year when I saw La La Land three times in theatres and maybe downloaded it so that I could watch it on a daily basis. I read interviews with the cast, I bought the soundtrack on vinyl, I memorized the lines and tried – and then failed – to insert them into everyday conversation. (For the record, replying “It’s wool” to a comment about your outfit isn’t actually funny and most people don’t get that you’re trying to imitate Ryan Gosling. I wouldn’t recommend it.)

La La Land infiltrated everything I was doing at the time, influencing the art I was making and the things I was writing and the discussions I was having. I hadn’t been so inspired by something in a long time, and it was a nice change to feel so consumed by a form of art that I don’t always connect with so deeply. I eventually settled myself and went on to find inspiration in other forms, but I still like the idea of what we consume in turn being influential to what we make for others to consume. I thought I’d compile a list of things I’ve been loving lately, partly because I think I should share their glory, but also because it’s just nice to talk about what you’re excited by. It’s something I think we should all do more of.

Music

Rostam’s debut album Half-Light is a TRIUMPH. Charlotte and I were driving back from seeing Patti Smith on the day it was released, and I put it on Spotify and we sat listening to it in silence as she drove us home. I remember rock formations and quiet highways and wearing my concert t-shirt from the night before, exhausted but still in disbelief. The album mirrored my own joy, but it also mirrored the bittersweet feeling that came with the fact that the show, the road trip, the forgetting of daily life was over.  When I listen to it I still think about that day and the freedom I felt and the way the songs washed over my skin. I adore every single track, but standouts are “Bike Dream,” “Don’t Let It Get To You,” and “Gwan.” The third one opens with the lyric “Don’t listen to me I only believe in myself,” and the first listen felt life changing.

I’ve also been listening to a lot of solo Beatles albums, which I think came out of a desire to attempt to educate myself. The Plastic Ono Band’s Live Peace in Toronto 1969 is a bit of a hot mess, but I like how chaotic it is. Also, one listen to “Give Peace a Chance” makes me feel like a revolution, and sometimes music should inspire you to do important things like use your voice. RAM is the only Paul McCartney album that’s also attributed to Linda McCartney, and I started listening to this one after I bought a massive book of her photography and became enamored by their relationship. My favourites include “Ram On” and “Heart of the Country.” Last but not least, George Harrison’s All Things Must Past is really required listening at this point. “My Sweet Lord” has been one of my favourite tracks for a long time, but I also love “Wah-Wah” and “What is Life” – and the whole thing, really.

Film

I am fascinated by creative process. It’s intimate to look in on how someone gets from Point A to Point B, how they write a song or take a photo or make it through a months-long retrospective of their work. I’m nosy and I like getting under the surface of things and that means music and art documentaries are right up my street. I’ve watched an awful lot of them, but these are some I keep coming back to.

1. Harry Styles: Behind the Album

I realize I waffle on about him a bit too much, but I watch this at least twice a month and it doesn’t get old. Watching Harry create his first solo album is enthralling, and it was smart to juxtapose the creative process of each track with a performance of the finished song. I tear up watching him happily lip sync the words to “Sign of the Times,” and I get serious outfit envy every time he shows up in another vintage t-shirt or a billowy blouse. It’s also reassuring to hear him talk about the fear he felt when releasing the record, which makes me feel a lot better about my own hesitation when it comes to sharing my work while also motivating me to do it anyway.

2. Marina Abramovic : The Artist is Present

This follows Abramovic as she goes through the steps of her own retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. It’s poignant and emotionally charged and I love watching a female artist in a position of power. The woman is impressive as heck, and this documentary is and incredibly meaningful way to document such a monumental occasion.

3. The Vaccines – I Don’t Even Know You

This is only twenty-four minutes long so I’m not entirely sure whether or not it counts as a film, but they’re my favourite band and I had to include it. The video documents the highs and lows of the band, cutting together short clips of life on the road with past footage of early shows and recording sessions. I think part of me likes it so much because The Vaccines feel so close to me, but I forced Charlotte to watch it and she seemed to enjoy it, too, so it can’t be all bad. If you like scruffy indie band members and a healthy dose of angst interspersed with some nostalgia and milestone-reaching, this one’s for you.

Visual Art

I first set foot into Sandra Meigs’ Room for Mystics a few weeks ago, and I’ve returned twice since then to immerse myself in the environment she’s created on the top floor of the AGO. It is a celebration of joy and of pushing through pain to get to the brighter side of things. The pieces are striking, the accompanying score is trance-inducing and vibration-raising, and the entire thing leaves me in good spirits every time I visit.

Amalia Pica’s ears to speak of is currently being presented at The Power Plant, and it’s another notable exhibit. Touching on the failures of technology and communication, the exhibit raises questions and almost forces visitors to think about what we choose to listen to and how well we communicate with the people who matter to us. It also brings up the acts of listening and communicating as a privilege rather than a birthright, and I think that’s an important topic to consider. We can all be doing better.

Aside from the physical exhibits, I’ve also become completely enamored by Henri Matisse and Egon Schiele. Matisse’s cut-outs and nudes are vibrant and colourful, the kind of thing that confronts your senses in a good way. Schiele’s forms are spidery and romantic, and I like how they feel almost gothic. I can’t get enough.

Words

I’ve plowed through a couple Bukowski anthologies over the past few months, mostly because what he wrote is the complete opposite of what I write. I often find it challenging to wrap my head around his poems, and I like how gritty and ordinary his subjects are. I finished Love Is a Dog From Hell a little while ago, and I’m currently working through Last Night of the Earth Poems. I’d recommend both of them.

I nearly cried when I bought a signed copy of Patti Smith’s newest book, Devotion, at her concert in Central Park. I spend a lot of time pressing my thumb to the indentations left by her pen, and I have definitely considered getting the signature tattooed near my heart. The book itself is a masterpiece, like everything Patti creates, and it sits on my bedside table, reminding me of the allegiance I have to Patti herself and the devotion I have to my own writing.

A bit of an odd one is Jean Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles, which like many French novels, is kind of weird and off-putting. I enjoyed it nonetheless, soaking up its quirks and relishing in the fast pace and the short amount of time it took me to finish it. Another quick read is Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha, which made me ask a lot of questions and consider a lot of aspects of my life and ultimately changed the way I view the path I’m on and the person I am.

I could definitely talk about more, but I feel like I’m pouring my lifeblood out onto the Internet and I’m scared that my veins might shrivel up. It’s also probably a good idea to save some of my favourite things for another blogpost in a couple months’ time. I hope you enjoy the things I love as much as I do – or at least pretend you do. (Just kidding. If you don’t, tell me about all the things that are better than the stuff I mentioned. I’d love to hear about them.)