Irons in the Fire

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I didn’t necessarily grow up in an arts-centric home. My brother, a hard rock drummer, was the musician in the family, and when he and my dad were learning to play guitar together, I decided I had to learn also. Though they thought it was a whim, my folks very generously bought me an acoustic guitar for Christmas when I was nineteen. Two years later, I wrote my first song. I was hooked. For the next twenty years or so, my focus was on writing lyrics, words, and melodies. Several years ago, I reached a point where I needed a creative outlet for my creative profession. It wasn’t that I was brimming with ideas, but I needed an outlet that did not involve language or words. I was coming out of a dark season at that point, and though fear certainly held court, I was drawn to a new mode of expression, to push back against and confront some of my long-held fears. Having appreciated the visual arts from afar (e.g., Van Gogh, Arthur Dove, Mark Rothko), I had until that point been afraid to try my hand at painting. I was afraid of failing, of having zero experience or background, and of admitting I had no idea what I was doing. I was afraid of embarrassing myself. Any thought process that began, “You should try painting,” was immediately followed by a much louder and constant, “Why try? You’ll just be terrible at it like you are at everything else.” So that’s really the biggest reason I started painting: to push back against some of those merciless voices.

So, in a way, the music-songwriting medium led me to try my hand at visual art, and from there to the folk-art sculptures I make out of assorted found objects (Daily Piece). Most of what I create tends to be abstract. I enjoy the act, the exercise, and getting lost in the creative process. Painting allows me the gift of not requiring me to say a single word. I get very tired of hearing myself talk, so it is a grace to have an outlet of expression that doesn’t require anything audible of me. In some ways, I suppose I paint to be quiet—to “speak” without actually having to speak. The Daily Pieces are perhaps a different pleasure in that they are tangible, tactile objects. It is satisfying work to use my hands and feel the dust and soot—even the splinters. There is challenge in the exercise of experimenting with various collections and arrays (wood, cloth, fabric, metal, twine, paper, paint, etc.) to find an arrangement that, at the very least, appeals to me. Some of the assemblages are whimsical, which may strike some listeners as odd, seeing as how they originate from a guy who tends to write overly serious subject matter.

In the case of Far Side of the Sea (a concept album based on the accompanying photo-essay book I wrote) the photographs I shot informed the songs. In certain instances, a specific image begat the song. It’s a stretch to even call myself a hobbyist photographer; my interest and participation waxes and wanes. The seed idea for Far Side came from a collaborative photo-essay book, Something Permanent (prose by Cynthia Rylant, photography by Walker Evans). Though they were not contemporaries of one another, Rylant wrote a handful of brief, gorgeous, prose vignettes based on some of Evans’ photographs, in which she extrapolated stories from his black and white images. The work is rich with humanity, so artfully and respectfully done. The Rylant/Evans book was the gold standard for mine. As I was writing and working on my book, with input and advice from friends, I tried writing songs based on a few of the book’s excerpts. It was a challenging effort in that it required me to enter some dark places in order to imagine, to construct, and to plumb the depths of the subject matter. In a way, I suppose I collaborated with myself: songwriter Eric paired with artist-photographer-writer Eric. Far Side of the Sea, from start to finish, took about three years, and as I worked it became clear to me that the thrust and theme of the entire project was that of empathy. Whether or not I failed the subjects, I am proud of the end result, grateful I didn’t quit en route (which I wanted to do), and mighty proud of Gabe Scott (producer) for hearing my overall vision for the project, for caring about me, and for wanting to see my vision for it come to life. We worked hard through what was an emotionally gut-wrenching season.

As far as my visual stuff, I tend to paint the way I write songs: abstract, instinctual, indirect. For better or worse, I usually go with my gut, and a lot of times that means I can’t fully articulate a song’s precise meaning, or explain what it is I’ve put to canvas. Art’s most gracious quality to me—as a Christian taking part in the creative act—is that it offers me freedom: to make, write, or paint whatever comes out of my soul at that particular time, with the Spirit as guide. I hope I’m getting better at seeing and listening, maybe even starting to see myself and the world through clearer, less judgmental eyes.

Over the years I’ve learned I have to trust the process—to trust the cycles, enduring the ups and downs of seasons of productivity or times when I simply have nothing to say. Less frequent are the panic-filled moments (“That was the last song you’ll ever write,” or “Your best work is in your past”). In that regard, a history of experience is teaching me contentment I didn’t possess when I was thirty. When one art form slows, I need to keep putting myself in the place where the Muse can visit. The Muse cannot be a welcome guest in an empty house. If I’ve walked away for good, or if I’ve completely detached myself from—or avoided—the tools at my disposal (guitar, canvas, brush, camera), then it’s hard to experience that rare but gratifying rush of ideas and activity. My biggest hindrance is myself—specifically the fear and anxiety in me.

Here’s the thing, though: all the mediums stir up anxiety. I’m most familiar with and experienced at writing songs. That doesn’t mean that trying to write doesn’t feel completely strange or unfamiliar at times. With painting, when I try too hard or force it, I mess it up. When I have commerce in mind, I mess it up. When I over-think things, I mess it up. For me, my gut instinct is a trustworthy guide. The mumbling, nonsensical, rhythmic melodies that start me down the path of a new song tend to be the same murmurs that lead me in a new painting, or in assembling a Daily Piece folk sculpture. I rarely, if ever, know what I’m writing about (or painting or assembling) when I first start the work. But when I trust the indistinct rhythm in my chest and let it lead, the work usually goes where it needs to go, does what it needs to do, says what it needs to say. Even though the mediums in which I participate are not without their share of anxiety, they are cathartic in their own way, at their appointed times. Each outlet offers me a healthy, necessary break from the other. I suppose that’s a good thing. If only there was enough time.

I don’t know when it happened, but there are no longer enough hours in the day. I feel that more than ever as a dad. Our boys go to school at eight in the morning, and the hours until three in the afternoon can disappear into a vortex. I’m an early bird, so my most fertile work period is in the morning. Come dinnertime, I am mentally baked. Though I’m learning to do so, letting go of control is saving my life these days. I still very much struggle with anxiety. I still fear a blank canvas. I arrange and rearrange found objects on a background base for the hundredth uninspiring time. Sometimes the acoustic guitar in my hand may as well be a snake for how strange it feels and how much I may want to crush it underfoot. When I stop pretending to have any control whatsoever over my career, my work as an artist, the security of my family, or being faithful to the hours in a day, then I am better for living out of that grace. When I live out of a grateful, humble heart, acknowledging my failures and weakness, the river of creativity flows. Out of that well of gratitude, I can tend to the work joyfully, and without concern for tomorrow, because tomorrow always takes care of itself.

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