The old building, with its grand architecture, elaborate woodwork, intricately tiled floors, is a warren of art studios. On the first Friday of every month, the artists put out brownies and lemonade, white wine and home-baked Parmesan crackers, craft beer and crudités. They sweep up the detritus that’s left from making art; they display their work on rickety tables covered with jewel-toned cloths. And they throw open their doors to a cool-eyed crowd. They wave and beckon, hoping the public will appreciate and understand.
I wander down the hallway after the boyos; at the very far end, in a small, bright room, a slender young woman stands rigidly next to a table full of tiny paintings. I say hello and she takes a breath, and then she is unleashed.
She tells me she works in paint and crayon, ink and oil. She does multi-media art and photography. She is celebrating her one year anniversary of having this studio with a buy two, get one free sale.
She looks at me, hopeful.
I ask her about her favorite medium, and I pick up a pen and ink drawing of the Dark Side album cover. I show it to Jim, who, at age 27, has just discovered Pink Floyd. (“Oh, by the way,” he will ask me, once or twice a day, apropos of something random, “which one’s Pink?”)
I mention Jim’s interest to the artist, and she lights up, swiveling, still in that tightly-held posture, to face him. “Favorite song?” she demands, and Jim is thoughtful. He tells her about the four albums he has bought and downloaded in the last year; he has favorite tunes on each. He loves an opening here–but not the rest of that song,–and a cover there.
I leave them discussing “Comfortably Numb,” (“My dad wants that played at his funeral,” Jim confides to the artist-girl) and wander next door, where Mark is looking at some large photographic canvases. There are shots of soaring planes in magenta clouds and gleaming red sports cars on rain-glazed Parisian streets. There is one of Janis Joplin floating above the ground next to a pink RV. Behind her, the moon is tethered to the ground with what look like attenuated swing-set supports. Acrylic and multi-media, read the tags.
This room is bigger, evening sun shining through massive windows with ancient, rippling glass, and many artists share the space. Amazing wooden sculptures interrupt the photographic realism. They sweep and swerve and they beg me to touch their gleaming surfaces, as smooth and lovely as those railings that help us heave ourselves upstairs. Polished by elbow grease, though, these works are–not patina-ed by time.
We circle the room, the walls lined with prints and girded by sculptures; the sweeping floor punctuated by installations. I circle around one and find, behind a wall of paintings, an exhibit of chain mail. There are gloves and the beginning of a vest; there are tiny samples of linked metal that show how one begins. There is a stack of flyers advertising the artist’s specialty bracelet–chain mail linked by a polished silver puzzle piece. He urges people to wear them in support of families affected by autism.
“How about that?” I say, showing Mark,–and Jim, who has joined us. The artist, a gentle young man in a fuzzy toque, with baggy jeans and sleeves so long I can just see his black-tinged fingertips, breaks away from a conversation and wanders over. He tells me that someone from the autism society suggested the project to him. He liked the idea.
How many should I make? he asked his mentor, and that person said, I don’t know. Twenty?
So he made twenty, and they sold within two days.
I need to make more, he says.
I told him we’d be interested in knowing when he had more bracelets. Autism, I say, is a topic of close importance to my family.
He looks at me, fiercely making eye contact. To MINE, too, he says.
He gives me his card, and we wander on, down the stairs, past the three men by the doorway, playing folk guitars and singing “The House of the Rising Sun” .
We cross an alley and a parking lot and we go into another studio, shared by two women named Susan who do collage and fabric art and experiment with paint and printing and weaving found objects into their work. Their studio is upstairs; three men make music in a couched corner. Above and behind them soars a book lined loft, reached by ladder-like stairs. Slouchy, comfortable chairs angle into the sun. I want to sneak back and spend an afternoon, reading in the sun amidst amazing art.
At the back of the studio, one of the artists offers us a tour of the loft apartments which have just been vacated. We walk on reclaimed wood floors, surrounded by soaring brick walls, and windows that reach from floor to 16-foot ceilings. Sleek open spaces. Wood and stone and metal. Someone’s artistic urban vision come to life in a downtown Zanesville building.
We drive home by the still and mirrored river, and I ponder artistry and inspiration. I am reading a new book by Kay Redfield Jamison, Robert Lowell: Setting the River on Fire. It is subtitled, “A study of genius, mania, and character.” Lowell, who won the Pulitzer for his poetry, also spiraled between intensity and insanity, in and out of institutions, up from the depths, writing his way through despair and shame after manic episodes left him reeling.
I think of the intense young artists I met tonight. I think of an artist’s cooperative I visited in Chicago with my nephew Brian, a vibrant downtown space filled with the work of autistic adults. I think of Vincent Van Gogh and his mutilated ear.
Because where is that line, the one between genius and lunacy?
Children are creators, uninhibited, dancing and singing, wielding wild crayons, declaiming to plush audiences. Cutting paper into baubles worthy of the Queen. Children land beautifully, unselfish-consciously, on the side of crazy-good creating.
But that doesn’t always–or often, maybe–stick. Something happens; the creativity fades and other passions flood in–the passion for achievement, for nurturing, for being responsible. This is not wrong or bad or ill-advised. But I remember going to visit ‘Auntie’ Mags, many years ago; she was in her nineties, in a home, and her hands encircled my wrists like the claws that blindly reach for gaudy treasures in those rip-off machines at the arcade.
She’d been an art teacher, Mags had, and a dancer. Once, she told me, she’d loved an artist; he had, she said, a chest as big and firm as a tropical beach, and as warm and tantalizing to rest on. She chortled at my twitch of shock.
An artist, she mused, remembering, and then she told me that a day came when she looked at him and didn’t see free-spirited creativity. She saw laziness instead. She burned, she said with the desire for motherhood and respectability, and not long after that, she met her love, a businessman who adored her bohemian charm. They had babies and they gave parties in their artfully appointed home. They traveled. He built her a studio over the garage.
It was an artful life, said Mags, but not an artist’s life. She had come to a day, way back there when she was a wild-eyed, dancing girl, when she had to decide which flame to fan. She never regretted her choice, but, she said, when you close that door…Oh, it stays so firmly shut.
There’s a fine line, they say, between genius and insanity. Robert Lowell walked that razor’s edge, falling sometimes this way, sometimes that. Living on that terrifying ledge, he was able to make his art. His art enriched the world.
Mental illness does not guarantee artistry, and not all artists are mentally ill–I know firm-footed, completely grounded creators who produce work that makes one soar and dream and weep. But there is some open doorway there, in all creators, an access to a rooftop, maybe; it’s a vista reached by a hidden stairway not all of us can climb.
Maybe the fact of illness, for some people, unhooks the restraints that keep the rest of us tethered. Maybe there’s a moment of decision for every artist–a pivotal point like the one Mags remembered so well: rooftop or kitchen? Phoenix or LeSabre?
And some, maybe, put away the brushes and the clay and craft a life instead–a life often filled with beautifully sculpted meals and well-plotted family adventures and rich fabrics and doors that open to a fascinating fleet of friends. Life as collage, perhaps, responsible and well-ordered, yes—but tinged around the edges with a vibrant searing hue.
And the others–well, they throw themselves into the fire and let genius, as Jo March’s sisters said of her, burn. And what they forge! The songs and sonnets, tales and tableaux, paintings and sculptures. Masterpieces. In between, of course, there are the false starts and the flops, the mis-steps and mistakes. The artists throw those things back into the fire. They continue on.
They emerge sometimes to get cool, to rest from the unrelenting heat. But then, the creative brave ones, they dive back in. They sacrifice, those artists do, giving up a certain security, foregoing some sorts of domesticity–they enslave themselves to art.
If they live next door to us (unmowed lawn, lights blazing late at night), we might call them lunatics. If they are separated from us by time or geography, we deem them geniuses, and we scrimp and save to buy their creations, or to visit the museums that showcase their work.
What makes a person an artist? What calls a person to create?
I don’t know, but I know I need it. I need the spice and rhythm and richness that artistry releases into the world. I need the direct contact with jolting, flooding feeling, with a different kind of worldview, with a willingness to walk an unmarked path.
I don’t know what conjures up the artist in a person, but I walk the busy studios on First Friday, I see the intensity and eager displays, and I am grateful beyond gladness that there are those–in any and in every time–who give their lives to art.