Friday, November 28, 2008

A List of Mentors

It's an annual tradition for the publishing and news cycles: at the end or beginning of a calendar year, there's the usual critical frenzy to summarize everything in a soundbyte, or a quick paragraph or two: a sop to the busy critic's busy audience in the form of those ubiquitous and useless Top Ten lists: the lists of the "best" books, the best news stories, the best new technologies, the best movies, the best best best lists of everything. As though one could summarize something as complex as a year in the life into a list of ten items. Most lists one sees at this time of year are consumerist in nature, in part because tangible objects are more readily quantifiable: the best of this object, the best of that style of object. Even people are commodified while being quantified, in the celebrity culture's continuous self-regard: the best-dressed, the worst-dressed, who's considered the world's sexiest celebrities, who used to be the world's sexiest celebrity but is now considered a wingnut.

As if lists of quantifiable attributes have ever touched the qualitative aspects of one's life.

In the same way that I never make New Year's resolutions, I never make these sort of Top Ten lists. It's usually best to just ignore such lists; they tell us more about their makers than they do about their contents. Few things show how arbitrary aspects of personal taste affect critical bias more readily than lists: because a critic's top ten lists is really their favorites' list, based on whatever criteria they use in their critical thinking. Few things are more subjective.

I do make lists, but they're gatherings together of things in which I find commonalities, and from which I have learned. I make lists to remind myself of lessons learned; of things I've enjoyed; of things gathered together to contemplate, or gathered to answer a question that has been posed. (None of this has anything to do with the mundane list of Things To Do I always have on my kitchen counter; the list of errands, chores, and shopping that I need to get done. That's the most useful daily Top Ten list in anyone's life.)

Rather than make an annual New Year's resolution—which are always grandiose, ambitious, and destined to induce more self-hatred than they release—I write an annual list of Gratitudes. I started writing my gratitudes some years ago, and it soon became an annual tradition. I usually give it the entire period between Thanksgiving and New Year's to think about and write. Sometimes this writing can be seriously challenging; very often one must start small, with a very small gratitude, and work one's way towards something significant and meaningful. One might need to start with, I'm grateful that I'm not homeless (I've been homeless a couple of times in my life) and work towards I'm grateful for the obstacles and suffering that helped me grow as a person. It's much easier to remember the losses, the pains, the wounds, than it is to remember what one learned from each; but that is where gratitude begins.

Gratitude is easy when life is abundant, a feast spread out on the table before you. Gratitude is much harder to find when life is difficult, and there is no feast. But that's when it really counts.

The reason I do gratitudes as a practice is rooted in a saying from Meister Eckhart: If the only prayer you ever said was Thank You, that would suffice. There is more sincerity in this than in any grandiose and detailed prayer for wither intercession, or any prayer for Things. And let's be honest: most often, we all pray for Things, for rewards, for asking for life's scouring sandpapers to pass us by.

One gratitude that I have felt most of my life—I first became self-aware of it in my early teens—is towards those people in my life, personally known or otherwise, who have served as mentors. I have had specific mentors who taught me life-lessons beyond the specific teachings of the moment—my first piano teacher; my eleventh-grade creative writing teacher in high school; William Albright, who was my advisor and mentor as a composer all through my college undergraduate years; and others.

There is also a group of mentors, symbolic as role-models, most of whom I never met personally, who gave me validation, self-acceptance, courage, and fortitude, by the examples of their lives and works. This group of mentors are all people I learned a specific lesson from, and who I was able to point to as examples whenever I was tasked to defend this specific life-lesson.

All my life people have told me to focus on just one art-form, because artists are supposedly only able to do one artform, one medium, with any depth, and must supposedly abandon all the rest. All my life people have been telling me that I should pick just one medium of creativity, focus only on that one, become expert at it. That I should get good at doing just one thing.

"Should" is a word of coercion, always. When used towards you, note how it always stands in for "This is what I think you must do." It is a word used to impose one's own will and ideals on others.

"Expert" is a word loaded with assumption and presumption. I've discussed before, in a lesson from Zen and other spiritual traditions, that expertise is often characterized by mental rigidity, fixed opinion, and know-it-all-ness. Beginner's mind is by contrast fluid, open, and flexible. Experts are limited in what they can know because everything they encounter is filtered through the screen of what they already know all too well.

"Getting good at doing just one thing" is an unquestioned assumption of a culture that has become so complex that specialization is assumed to be necessary, while general knowledge is considered both risky (in terms of building into a financially-stable career) and diffuse (as in, scattered). This is how we beat our of children their native curiosity, their natural exuberance, their enthusiasm for everything new that they encounter: by telling them that they can't do it all. We tell them, in fact, that they probably can't do even one thing very well, but they have to try anyway. "Can't" is a word we use too often, and too well. This is anti-teaching, and it infuriates me whenever I encounter it directed towards children.

Each of these mentors dismantled, ignored, and demolished such limitations. Each of them practiced more than one artform, and practiced them well. Each mentor served as an example of how beginner's mind roves from medium to medium, and by fully engaging in the moment with that medium, created diverse yet unified bodies of artwork, thought, and invention. Their examples of engaged awareness remind us of what it means to be fully human, fully alive.

Each of these mentors demonstrate that there is one great creative force which can come through many channels, separately or together, and operates without ceasing in every aspect of life. Their lives were works of art as much as were the products of their art-making practices.

The first mentor on this list was Gordon Parks, who had already achieved recognition as a photographer, author, music composer, and filmmaker by the time I discovered him, when I was around 11 years old. He was the first artist I was able to point to as a role model for doing good work in more than one medium, when the adults around me were trying to convince me to focus on doing just one thing well. I was able to use Gordon Parks as an example of someone who worked well in several artistic media. It didn't shut up those adults in my life who were more concerned about my eventual career than my soul, but it did give me an inner fortitude that helped me talk back to the criticism, and to point to Gordon Parks as an example of where their guidance was utterly wrong.

Over the years, I've compiled this list of role-models and mentors again and again, yet it always remains incomplete. I keep adding to the list, when I discover a new name that inspires. These people are my heroes, my inspiration, and my guides. I am reminded by their examples that "can't" is a word none of them believed in.

Let this list resound as a reminder that I am not alone in doing what I do, creatively, and neither are you. This is my list; I encourage everyone to write down their own. I encourage every artist to regularly make their own list of mentors, add to it, reassess it, think about those names on their lists. It is a good strong practice for finding the strength to go on against all odds.

In no particular order, therefore:

John Cage: composer, performance artist, inventor, philosopher, essayist, poet, visual artist

Leonardo da Vinci: artist, designer, engineer, natural philosopher, scientist, essayist

Benjamin Franklin: inventor, natural philosopher, scientist, writer, bon vivant, political wise man, humorist

May Sarton: poet, essayist, author of poetic journals, spiritual gardener

Gordon Parks: photographer, artist, composer, author, filmmaker

Ansel Adams: photographer, environmentalist, author, inventor

Derek Jarman: painter, essayist, playwright, filmmaker, designer, gardener

Loren Eiseley: naturalist, scientist, poet, essayist, writer of sublime memoir

Frederick Franck: artist, essayist, drawing teacher, spiritual seeker, translator, sculptor, calligrapher

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Blogger Jim Murdoch said...

Role models, mentors ... why not simply call them heroes? I've never been a great one for assigning that attribute to anyone. I remember when Stravinsky died I begged my mum to let me sit up to watch a special performance of The Rite of Spring which she did and I can still feel myself sitting there, bleary-eyed and actually not enjoying it that much if I'm honest but I was aware, and this is the first time, that a great man was no longer with us. They next one was John Wayne oddly enough - I'd be about nineteen then.

One thing they do over here, during the Hogmanay show, is list off all those who are no longer with us and I have to say it's been a while since I've felt a stab in my chest because someone is no longer with us. Perhaps this is because I've become more aware of the inevitability of it all.

I wrote my list and then I deleted it. I was writing a list because you had a list and I wanted to play the game too. But the fact is I'm not really interested in the game. If I was desperate to get to know you then I might have left it but we already know each other without the list and so I feel I can let my true feelings out here. I looked at the list and it never meant anything. I thought every entry on it was lacking, B-list heroes if you like and I felt guilty because I didn't see them as A-list heroes when they were probably doing their best and what more can you ask from your hero?

8:59 AM  
Blogger Art Durkee said...

Heroes are people you put on a pedestal and quasi-worship. They can be role models, to be sure, but there is always a distance. And we tend to expect more perfection from heroes, and not allow them to be fully-rounded humans with strengths and weaknesses like anybody else. When heroes fall, they fall hard. There is a lot of projection onto heroes of things that aren't really there: a lot of myth-making. John Wayne was a more complex person than his film and public persona; although in his case it was more seamless than others, most probably.

Heroes are people I respect, and admire. That's an entirely different list.

This list of mentors is specifically of people (and there are many heroes I had to leave off this list) that I learned an important artistic lesson, or life-lesson, from. A mentor to me is someone who takes a student under their wing, passes on what wisdom they've learned from experience, and otherwise encourages them to grow in their own direction. I've had professors who wanted me to carbon-copy them; these were not mentors. My mentor in music school, William Albright, spent our lesson times helping me refine my music, not copy his own. Mentors are teachers who teach you to be more fully yourself, and more fully human, fully alive.

I mentor a few younger people now, myself. The role has clear boundaries, unique to each relationship.

So I think heroes and role models are great. Everybody should have some. But I also think that mentors are something more than that; although they obviously are also role models.

9:08 AM  

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