There was a point in my travels, I think it was in Portugual, when I picked up a sketchbook. At first I drew whatever images came into my mind, usually inspired from what I saw around me. Then I started to documenting little imprints of the people I met, snip bits of conversation that left an impression on me.
A Russian woman I shared a hostel room with in Granada, Spain. She was over on a seminar, she was a language teacher if I remember correctly. I told her that I planned on visiting Russia, and she eagerly offered to show me around when I got there, but making it clear that she was not inviting me to stay at her place. She had an abrupt manner about her, maybe it was the language barrier or the eastern European way, but without there being any lead up in our conversation she began telling me about how life is in Russia, and in case I was under any illusion, “life isn’t beautiful.”
While in Paris I found a family to couchsurf with you were on the outskirts of the city. I was the girl’s first couchsurfer, she was about 18 or 19, and her English wasn’t very good, and instead of using say a phone when we came at an impasse with a word, she would consult a massive tome of an English-French dictionary. Therefore, I spent most of the time talking to her parents, actually her father, who’s English was the best. I learned that discussing travel plans was the safest topic after a few of our discussions about politics and other world affairs led to butting heads.
I met this man while eating in a Moroccan restaurant in the Belleville neighborhood in Paris. I had some bread left over on my plant and he inquired as to whether I was going to finish it, I informed him I was. We started talking and he offered to show me around the arsty parts of the area. He was from Armenia, if I remember correctly and now lived in Paris with his partner. He was an artist, his work was predominantly text based, notebooks filled with scrawled words and symbols, he also dabbled in found art, such as a plastic hand making a peace sign, with a potato peeler between the fingers, he had displayed this in a gallery.
I arrived in Porto, Portugual, unbeknownst to me, on St. John’s Day. This festival is celebrated in different ways across the world, it usually involves jumping over a fire. In Porto, it starts off during the day, with everyone out on the streets grilling sardines and vegetables. You’re walking down these narrow steps, through the town, weaving through tables precariously set up on ledges, billows of smoke filling the air with the smell of charcoaled fish, it’s like the whole city is partaking in one big family meal. In the evening the streets are intensely packed as everyone heads to the river to catch the fireworks. The hammers also emerge, the plastic hammers that you’d win at the carnival, the ones that toddler’s harass their pets with. And for no explicable reason, people are bopping each other on the head with these hammers. Everywhere you go, bop, bop, bop, actually, squeak, squeak, squeak, as these hammers aren’t of the silent variety. There were also the more traditional head boppers of garlic flowers, you were well advised to avoid this as they gave off a pugnent smell. After the initial perplexity and annoyance (I was sure I was becoming a target because of my mop of curly hair), I joined in the bopping festivities myself, although I did have to be restrained when I attempted to dispel a fight with some ‘comic relief.’
The hostel I stayed in Porto, Portugaul, was owned by two brothers. It was in this old factory I believe, with high ceiling and big windows, a beautiful building, as many of the buildings in Porto are. The elder brother was friendly and chatty, he could go on at length about the history of the city, the politics of the country, whereas the younger brother came off as the the partier type. The younger one had a tick and at first it was hard to not get distracted by it and feel pity at his condition, but after talking with him for a little while it began to develop a rhythm to his speech. He was quite small, covered in tattoos and with a pony tail. He took us out a few nights to some concerts and we got to talking about life, sharing about his daughter and ex-wife.
I was sitting beside a group of young girls at the skate park in Barcelona (MACBA). I gathered they were journalism students, as they were discussing the best way to approach the skater’s and what kind of questions to ask (not to be judge, but they could have done with a bit of research beforehand). After drawing straws about who would go, a few minutes later the girl returned a little bewildered by the lack of enthusiasm on her subjects part, at least she was able to apply the age old journalistic technique, making something out of nothing.
Javi was my landlord during my two month stay in Barcelona. It wasn’t always easy to follow what he said, he called it his alien tongue. He had a message he wanted to share and a community he wanted to create of like minded people. He had such expressive eyes, sometimes he would just look into your eyes and you had to look away, not just because it was uncomfortable, but it was as if he was seeing things in you that you were trying to hide, other times his eyes had a deep sadness, his eyebrow’s would raise in the middle, almost cartoon like, as he’d talk about rejection and killing the ego, and when he was in high spirits he had a simple giddy humour, jumping around, excitable as a child. There were times where I would patiently sit with him, trying to understand, decipher his code, hug him and feel his love. Other times I had to get away, I couldn’t listen anymore, he was beyond help and was bringing me down too. He had a perception of things that were sometimes so right, that it could be hard to hear. Javi died a few months after I left of heart failure.
Many artists are famously known to have suffered from depression, mental illness, or have led impoverished lifestyles, sometimes the torment is obvious in the work they create, perhaps it’s what draws us to it, a connection to a similar inner darkness we may hold. And when artists die tragically at a young age it creates a certain mystique around them and their body of work, as if they had a deeper understanding of pain. Although we would never wish suffering on anyone, how different would the art world be without it?
There are often complaints about government cutting funding to the arts, and although it is great for a country to support and foster their culture, isn’t it partially the struggle that produces passionate art. Dickens surely wouldn’t have been as popular if he wrote Comfortable Times instead of Hard Times, Orwell purposely chose to work menial jobs in order to experience the working man’s life, chronicaling his experiences in Down and Out in Paris and London, Keroac went between living at his aunts and crashing on peoples couches, Henry Miller worked as a mail clerk, the list goes on, and of course the myriads of artists who were only discovered after their death and lived their entire lives in poverty. It’s the struggle that makes it easy to relate too, it’s comforting to realize there are others who have it as bad as you, or worse, someone who can understands and can conceptualize your pain. There are plenty of affluent artists too, but the more popular ones tend to comment on the ridiculousness of the posh lifestyle, with all it’s silly formalities and mannerisms.
I recently tried an anti psychotic drug that was given to me to help me sleep on a long plane flight. My friend had told me about a similar one she had taken and how she stopped taking it because of its affects, it caused her loose her more reflective thoughts, and although they were perhaps painful thoughts, it was better to have them than not. I experienced a similar feeling, after the pill set in I was unable to concentrate on any thought pattern, a word would enter my head, then fly out, I was unable to string together a coherent idea, it reminded me of the desired state of emptiness attained through meditation. This lasted for maybe an hour, before I fell into blissful sleep. Although I tend to over think and analyze everything, I feared what life would be like if I was in this constant numb state. Ignorance is bliss perhaps, but it doesn’t lead to a meaningful existence, and is it better to suppress the demons or allow these demons to inspire creative output?
If this sort medication was around in some artists lifetime, and no doubt it was for some of them, could it have made an impact on the art world? Would we have encountered more serene landscapes, and jolly Rockefeller-like depictions of life, rather than Munch’s The Scream and Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son? Although, I question how popular it would have been if it was available, there is a certain satisfaction in misery, perhaps even a feeling of superiority that you have been bestowed with insight into the true suffering of humanity, you have, in a sense, been outside the matrix, and there’s no returning to a naive existence.
Whether human suffering is an integral part of the creative process or not, for many artists, having a creative outlet may be their only escape from their burdens, and the best form of therapy. But any form of extreme emotion provides valid insight into a part of the human psyche, and people who are experiencing a bout of melancholy or strife are more likely to seek solace in art they can relate to as opposed to someone who is experiencing a period of joy feeling compelled to see cheerful portrayals of life, not to exclude art that evokes other powerful emotions, but pain is a particularly potent one. As So, although, it may not validate an artists ability, suffering perhaps draws a more captive audience, if only as mild comfort that we are not solely bearing the burden of life’s miseries, whether it’s a purveyor finding consolation in art or an artists reminding us, what all there is to be miserable about.
Graveyard are one of my favourite places to spend time, the peacefulness, beauty and maybe a secret desire that one day when I too lay here people will come to visit me, perhaps stop at my grave and ponder as to what my story was. I think as humans we have an attraction to things that we fear, why else would horror movies be so popular or are people so entranced by Fox News (or maybe it’s all the hot news anchors they hire), I believe visiting graveyards is a way of coming to terms with our death. It’s a meditative, reflective, and spiritual place, and no need to worry about being disturbed, the place is usually dead… (sorry, my dad’s bad joke).
Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
Where heaves the turf in many a mouldering heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.
The breezy call of incense-breathing morn,
The swallow twittering from the straw-built shed,
The cock’s shrill clarion, or the echoing horn,
No more shall rouse them from their lowly bed.
For them no more the blazing hearth shall burn,
Or busy housewife ply her evening care:
No children run to lisp their sire’s return,
Or climb his knees the envied kiss to share.
The boast of heraldry, the pomp of power,
And all that beauty, all that wealth e’er gave,
Awaits alike the inevitable hour.
The paths of glory lead but to the grave.
Nor you, ye proud, impute to these the fault,
If Memory o’er their tomb no trophies raise,
Where through the long-drawn aisle and fretted vault
The pealing anthem swells the note of praise.
Can storied urn or animated bust
Back to its mansion call the fleeting breath?
Can Honour’s voice provoke the silent dust,
Or Flattery soothe the dull cold ear of Death?
Perhaps in this neglected spot is laid
Some heart once pregnant with celestial fire;
Hands that the rod of empire might have swayed,
Or waked to ecstasy the living lyre.
But Knowledge to their eyes her ample page
Rich with the spoils of time did ne’er unroll;
Chill Penury repressed their noble rage,
And froze the genial current of the soul.
Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathom’d caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flow’r is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.
Some village-Hampden, that with dauntless breast
The little tyrant of his fields withstood;
Some mute inglorious Milton here may rest,
Some Cromwell guiltless of his country’s blood.
The applause of listening senates to command,
The threats of pain and ruin to despise,
To scatter plenty o’er a smiling land,
And read their hist’ry in a nation’s eyes,
Their lot forbade: nor circumscrib’d alone
Their growing virtues, but their crimes confin’d;
Forbade to wade through slaughter to a throne,
And shut the gates of mercy on mankind,
The struggling pangs of conscious truth to hide,
To quench the blushes of ingenuous shame,
Or heap the shrine of Luxury and Pride
With incense kindled at the Muse’s flame.
Far from the madding crowd’s ignoble strife,
Their sober wishes never learned to stray;
Along the cool sequestered vale of life
They kept the noiseless tenor of their way.
Yet even these bones from insult to protect
Some frail memorial still erected nigh,
With uncouth rhymes and shapeless sculpture decked,
Implores the passing tribute of a sigh.
Their name, their years, spelt by the unlettered muse,
The place of fame and elegy supply:
And many a holy text around she strews,
That teach the rustic moralist to die.
For who to dumb Forgetfulness a prey,
This pleasing anxious being e’er resigned,
Left the warm precincts of the cheerful day,
Nor cast one longing lingering look behind?
On some fond breast the parting soul relies,
Some pious drops the closing eye requires;
Ev’n from the tomb the voice of nature cries,
Ev’n in our ashes live their wonted fires.
For thee, who mindful of th’ unhonour’d Dead
Dost in these lines their artless tale relate;
If chance, by lonely contemplation led,
Some kindred spirit shall inquire thy fate,
Haply some hoary-headed swain may say,
Oft have we seen him at the peep of dawn
Brushing with hasty steps the dews away
To meet the sun upon the upland lawn.
There at the foot of yonder nodding beech
That wreathes its old fantastic roots so high,
His listless length at noontide would he stretch,
And pore upon the brook that babbles by.
Hard by yon wood, now smiling as in scorn,
Mutt’ring his wayward fancies he would rove,
Now drooping, woeful wan, like one forlorn,
Or craz’d with care, or cross’d in hopeless love.
One morn I miss’d him on the custom’d hill,
Along the heath and near his fav’rite tree;
Another came; nor yet beside the rill,
Nor up the lawn, nor at the wood was he;
The next with dirges due in sad array
Slow thro’ the church-way path we saw him borne.
Approach and read (for thou canst read) the lay,
Grav’d on the stone beneath yon aged thorn