Need a little inspiration? Well, here ya go: 15 years ago, when I graduated from RISD with my MFA, I spent my last semester working on my thesis which resulted in the following paper. I'm not sure how many other people go back and read their master's theses, (I suspect not many,) but mine was really lifechanging for me and became a manifesto of sorts. So, I thought I'd share that with you. If you have become weary and are looking for something to validate your creative practice, I encourage you to read it. I know I wrote it, but every time I re-read it, I'm like "Damn straight, lets go make some art!"
Its called "You Can't Get There from Here"
Have you ever asked directions of someone and gotten the response, “You can’t get there from here.” It sounds absurd, because of course we all know that, physically, you can get anywhere from anywhere, but occasionally, you really can’t get there from here. Sometimes, there’s a turn in the road that leads in the right direction, but it looks like every other turn in the road, and there’s simply no way to explain which one it is – you just have to know. It’s possible to get there, and maybe even easy, but there’s a loop-de-loop in the middle that is hard to explain and easy to miss.
This thesis process has been very much like that. There’s a beginning, middle and an end, but somewhere along the way there was a turn in the road regarding personal investment that I wasn’t expecting that has made all the difference in not only this 6 month exploration, but in my life as an artist.
Doing only what you’re told and thinking for yourself are pretty much incompatible. An artist must create with conviction that comes from personal investment rather than with the goal of external validation. Only then can the work she makes be truly meaningful to her as a maker.
This is the conclusion I have come to after a long engagement with a very different point of view.
For the last 30 years, I have been the poster child for “good girls” and approval junkies. Despite the fact that I am naturally stubborn, opinionated, strong-willed and irreverent, I was raised in a way that is completely contrary to nurturing this kind of personality. My childhood was spent in a very structured and punitive environment where the parameters of acceptable behavior were narrowly defined, expectations for achievement were high, approval was hard to come by, and nobody wanted to hear what I thought about anything. It was my job, at all costs to just be a good girl and do what I was told, and if I didn’t all hell broke loose. Lather, rinse, repeat. After years of reinforcement, this training left me with the understanding that authority in any form was infallible and to be obeyed, that I was not in any position to question it, and having an opinion about things was not an option.
So what does this have to do with my creative life? A lot. This conception has influenced my understanding myself as a person and a designer, and has greatly influenced my decision-making process when developing design solutions. Much of my creative activity up until this day has been centered around academia, and those darned report cards are pretty hard to argue with. When you’re supposed to be a “good girl,” and you get the opportunity to have it spelled out to you in A’s and B’s in hard copy to show off to everyone what a good girl you are, things can get a little obsessive, especially in the absence of any other positive reinforcement. Growing up as a smart kid who scores in the ninety-somethingth percentile on all the aptitude tests, I came to think that 1-100 score actually meant something in reality, that there were limits to things, that they were contained, definable, knowable and somebody somewhere knew it all. And of course, those somebodies must be the ones in charge – the teachers, the parents, the clients. I held the view that institutions were a dependable, infallible, and perfectly reasonable judge of me, that the student-instructor relationship was that of sage and pilgrim, and that there was some final “right” end that they were all leading me toward like intellectual heaven or something. I believed that if I just kept following along, working hard and doing what I thought everyone wanted, one day I’d get there too. Yeah, and if you clap loud enough kids, Tinkerbell might just make it.
Luckily, though, I’ve always had the sneaking suspicion that this is a bunch of bullshit. Like I said, I’m naturally strong willed and opinionated, so I’ve been secretly nursing a little rebel faction all along. Occasionally, I’d bring it out and say “I want autonomy! I want to determine my own agenda! I want to do it my way!” But most of the time, I was assured that “Teacher knew best” and I should fall back in line. Unfortunately, one of the biggest problems with this kind of thinking, aside from its basically messianic and fascist tone, is it’s a vacuum. The student in this model pretty much can’t function “off the reservation.” This, then, was the giant predicament I found myself in at the beginning of this year. As our thesis work approached, and we were expected to develop our own programs, I found myself directionless and panicking. I’d always wanted the opportunity to do it my way, and now that I had it, all I could hear was the chirping of crickets.
Fast forward to Wintersession 2006, where I find myself in the position of Teacher. There’s a reason why in all those sci-fi movies it’s dangerous to travel back in time. With the whole space-time continuum paradox thing, you might run into yourself in another life and irrevocably change history forever (cue dramatic music.) A similar thing happened to me when thinking about performance from both the perspectives of teacher and student. I suddenly realized I was in the role of one of “them,” the one who’s supposed to know everything, the one with all the answers – I was the TEACHER! (Please resume reading when you’ve stopped laughing.) Yeah, it suddenly seemed pretty ridiculous to me too, on so many levels. I think I’m qualified to teach a class, but by no means do I think I know everything about anything – and BIG SURPRISE, neither do any of my teachers. They are not infallible, omniscient, super-beings. Yoda has not been on the faculty of any of the educational institutions I’ve attended, and I don’t think any of my teachers ever signed up with the expectation to be supernatural. Mostly what teachers have to offer is the benefit of experience, and a desire to facilitate a student’s understanding of their work, not the keys to the universe. We’re all just trying to muddle through and do our best with our shortcomings and imperfections in tow. This whole time I’ve spent thinking that there was some absolute scale or goal or end game and the teachers were the gatekeepers, I have been sorely mistaken. There is no “right” answer, there is no perfect solution, there is no manual with the answers in the back, there is only the process and growth.
As elemental as this sounds, the realization of this was a major breakthrough for me. For so long, as “good girls” should, I’ve based the majority of a project’s value on the opinions of my teachers, subsuming my own priorities in anticipation of their expectations in order to make the grade like it was gospel. Being a self-defined overachiever I finally saw what I was actually achieving was a fictional goal with artificially imposed non-existent boundaries. The practice is ridiculous and futile because the goals aren’t even mine, so how can the progress be truly meaningful to me either.
That, then is the real problem that arises from this blind faith educational practice, rather than encouraging me to seek personally meaningful solutions to problems, approaching the educational process this way has not helped me cultivate a strong personal creative voice. Outside of the shadow of those grades, my own perception of myself as a designer has gone undeveloped, but that is about to change. I now can see and truly believe that I don’t need some outside authority’s stamp of approval to feel like my work and interests are valid. I need first to look inside myself, assess what is important to me, and make my work from a place of personal value. I will no longer be satisfied making work that is only anticipatory of someone else’s expectations. My work will first be relevant to me, and at that point, I will consider outside critique.
So what does that mean for my work? If, in the past, I have done work because I was trying to meet someone else’s expectations, what expectations do I have for my work? I believe those expectations need to be based not so much on specific subject matter, but on a new way of working that incorporates freedom of exploration.
Good work vs. Right work
In the past, I have striven to make good work. Of course, no one wants to make bad work, but what does it do to my state of mind if I’m constantly trying to make good work and not make bad work? Addressing this topic in Art and Fear, the authors of this book come to the conclusion that needing to make good work leads to a paralyzing fear of making bad work. A conclusion with which I agree. Eva Zeisel echoes a similar sentiment in her book On Design when she discusses the topic of innovation. To paraphrase: If we are focused on trying not to repeat something, we will never make anything, because our focus is fear, not creation. I have found this is true in my own life, and it is only counterproductive and stifling. Thinking about design from a focus of fear has made me assess what it is I am afraid of and the validity of that fear, and this is the discovery I have made. If I think about the work I’ve done, I consider much of it to be good. However, the further I get from the completion of a project, generally my estimation of it lessens in the light of more recent work, either because I’m getting better as a designer, or my aesthetic is changing, or both. But the basic dynamic of the situation is that work I once considered my best work, I no longer think of as being as good a number of years later. This being the case, one must conclude that the good work I am doing today is simply tomorrow’s bad work. While that sounds a little harsh, the relativity of the situation is pretty liberating because it helps alleviate the pressure to make “the best work ever.” As Rosanne Somerson keeps reminding us, let’s all hope you’re not doing the best work of your life right now – there’s a lot of life left.
This leads me to the conclusion that rather than striving to make good work, I should be trying to make work that is right for me. What is “right” work? “Right” work is the work that I am compelled to do, it is the work that informs me and inspires me, it is the work that is unconsciously in me that needs to get out. I’ve thought for years that I’ve been doing “right” work, but I now think that I’ve only been doing this in a very limited capacity. This is because I only considered the work I was doing to be good if someone else agreed or encouraged the work I was doing. I needed someone else’s permission to validate the work so I could do it. This left a lot of really important creative avenues unexplored. There have been many projects I’ve not let myself consider either because they seemed silly or useless or not serious enough to be worth doing. Or I was simply too embarrassed by the prospect of trying to defend things of this nature.
What I am finally realizing, is that these inclinations are, in fact, me. They are my experiences and views of the world and the relationships between them. They are my artistic statement. By not allowing myself to express many of these thoughts in the past, I have denied myself the opportunity to understand subject matter that is relevant to my work. If I am compelled to make the work, then it is valid. That is enough of a starting point, and I can edit it later. If I veto every idea for which I can’t see an end, I’ll never discover anything. The act of doing the work may produce a result I didn’t foresee, or uncover an idea that I never knew was present. Additionally, all the work I do doesn’t have to result in a “piece.” Simply doing work as an exercise is worthwhile in itself and can also produce rich ideas that eventually may lead to other work.
So, “right” work then, is more about the doing than the product. It is a mindset of working in earnest, free of judgment, granting equal validity to all ideas because their expression is important to me. The hashing out of these ideas will eventually elucidate their importance, at which point I can appraise them. Those explorations that merit further development can then be moved forward from that point. Which brings us back to the quality of the work and “good” work. If I am doing “right” work which will, by the practice of it, energize and inspire me, one of the side effects of this practice should inevitably be “good” work. Additionally, the goodness of this work will have more longevity because of it’s based on meaning. And even if it turns out to be immediately bad work, at least it will have significance, and that will only serve to feed the rest of the work to follow.
With this new outlook in mind, the following three pieces that have come out of this thesis exploration are a direct result of this process of change and growth.
Minimum Requirements for Being Adequate
This piece is a physical representation of a dogma that I was raised to believe and have now come to question. It is the mantra of the “good girls.” The power of this piece for me is that the stating of it in a complete and emphatic way sheds light onto these requirements exposing them as an unreasonable and unattainable goal.
The form the piece takes is that of a tower, or a smoke stack, but with a strongly feminine overtone reminiscent of a female form or a dress. These formal references are meant to be iconic of both unassailability and pollution from a distinctly feminine experience. The scale of it, however is meant to imply the perception of the possibility of attainment. It is just larger than human scale, which makes it imposing, but not so impenetrable as to be undeniably out of one’s reach. That being the destructive seduction – if, on my very best day it is possible to reach that height, to attain that goal, I must.
The outside “skin” is a series of bands with a succession of commands, each one different from the last, building in stricture from bottom to top as the form itself tightens at it’s highest point. The message is cumulative, not just a set of individual demands, but a long running string of continuous requirements. The font has been chosen for it’s florid graphic, it brings to mind formalized celebratory occasions and gives the connotation of beauty and happiness. It is not until the viewer draws close enough to the piece to read the actual text that they gain the realization that the instructions are insidious and oppressive. The words themselves, cut from the metal, are physically empty and negative, allowing the viewer essentially to see both into and through the piece from varying viewpoints.
Inside this structure dangles a single white “carrot,” visible, yet out of reach, the inaccessible goal caged inside the impossible skeleton. The presence of the carrot also activates the interior of the structure, representing the internalization of the belief as well as emphasizing the barrier of the text.
The materiality of the piece was also an important consideration, because it makes the piece time-based. The untreated mild steel, left alone, will deteriorate slowly over time, it will literally disintegrate and fall apart. It is representative of how a belief system can deteriorate over time when left unenforced, but the slowness of this deterioration is also a reminder of the time it takes to establish a new way of thinking.
Minimum Requirements for Being Adequate text:
you must always be good you must always be invisible you must always be acceptable you must always be quiet you must always be inconspicuous you must always be independent you must always be unobtrusive you must always be meek you must always be unassuming you must always be sensible you must always be more you must always be less you must always be a mind-reader you must always be compliant you must always be faster you must always be trainable you must always be loyal you must always be passive you must always be unimposing you must always be right you must always be dutiful you must always be well-behaved you must always be obedient you must always be voiceless you must always be submissive you must always be pleasant you must always be appreciative you must always be malleable you must always be flexible you must always be impressionable you must always be correct you must always be thankful you must always be grateful you must always be aware you must always be excellent you must always be the winner you must always be charming you must always be polite you must always be courteous you must always be reasonable you must always be reliable you must always be consistent you must always be a sponge you must always be mature you must always be exceptional you must always be responsible you must always be humble you must always be vacant you must always be calm you must always be dependable you must always be a servant you must always be punctual you must always be smart you must always be able you must always be efficient you must always be content you must always be successful you must always be helpful you must always be accommodating you must always be cooperative you must always be useful you must always be accurate you must always be superior you must always be practical you must always be realistic you must always be selfless you must always be serious you must always be grown up you must always be beautiful you must always be normal you must always be less expensive you must always be needless you must always be everything to everyone you must always be easy you must always be undemanding you must always be someone else you must always be something else you must always be a good girl you must always be pliable you must always be exemplary you must always be agreeable you must always be mindless you must always be happy you must always be cheerful you must always be self-reliant you must always be immune you must always be precise you must always be detached you must always be unshakable you must always be autonomous you must always be self-motivated you must always be number one you must always be wealthy you must always be mainstream you must always be outstanding you must always be conventional you must always be like me you must always be like them you must always be tolerable you must always be positive you must always be silent you must always be better you must always be best you must always be better than best you must always be persistent you must always be a scapegoat you must always be defenseless you must always be a whipping girl you must always be an excuse you must always be less bothersome you must always be convenient you must always be small you must always be still you must always be neat you must always be an example you must always be prompt you must always be last you must always be respectful you must always be subservient you must always be opinionless you must always be self-deprecating you must always be a door mat you must always be a crutch you must always be impervious you must always be graceful you must always be resourceful you must always be tolerant you must always be capable you must always be gifted you must always be extraordinary you must always be competent you must always be accomplished you must always be ingenious you must always be brief you must always be legitimate you must always be valid you must always be justifiable you must always be intelligent you must always be unquestioning you must always be faithful you must always be appropriate you must always be devoted you must always be a vessel you must always be understanding you must always be careful you must always be vigilant you must always be focused you must always be perceptive you must always be blameless you must always be guiltless you must always be contained you must always be objectionless you must always be observant you must always be manageable you must always be emotionless you must always be stable you must always be talented you must always be insightful you must always be clever you must always be effective you must always be thorough you must always be creative you must always be deep you must always be interesting you must always be worthy you must always be valuable you must always be credible you must always be professional you must always be amazing you must always be strong you must always be resilient you must always be sound you must always be constant you must always be secure you must always be confident you must always be committed you must always be dedicated you must always be devoted you must always be remarkable you must always be impressive you must always be inspired you must always be compelling you must always be formidable you must always be meticulous you must always be incomparable you must always be profound you must always be fascinating you must always be passionate you must always be tireless you must always be faultless you must always be indestructible you must always be brilliant you must always be relentless you must always be immaculate you must always be idyllic you must always be invincible you must always be unfaltering you must always be unfailing you must always be unwavering you must always be flawless you must always be unsurpassable you must always be genius you must always be perfect
*As of 2021, this piece has very satisfyingly decayed as hoped. Several of the rings have come loose and sit askew. The metal has rusted to a rough, crusty texture. Several years ago, the carrot fell to the ground and is rotting. Most surprising of all, the text is completely illegible now having developed barnacles of rust around the cuts like scar tissue and even filling in the gaps in places. I've recently moved, so it has a fresh new home but it sat for a decade in our garden where it was slowly taken over by vines as though the earth was trying to reclaim it.
Up In Soap
This piece is a representation of the synthesis of two systems of thought – external and internal motivation and validation. Originally, in thinking about the form this piece would take, I wanted it to be in two separate halves with a break in between them. I wanted to make some sort of declaration that the old rigid “good girl” way of thinking was in the past and I was forging ahead with newfound creative freedom. But the more I thought about this, it occurred to me that some need for external recognition was healthy and to completely discredit it was as much a mistake as believing in explicitly. External recognition can serve as both a barometer and a bolsterer of one’s work. Running off for long periods of time (like the rest of my career) without any external feedback could lead to a serious loss of perspective, and that is just as bad as being a affirmation junkie. What needed to change was the emphasis I placed upon both external and internal motivation and find a way to balance the two The two things needed to integrate into a symbiotic whole.
It was also important to me that this piece be something that I will live with. It is important to me that I remind myself of this need for balance. It is easy to fall into old patterns and it is important to me that there be an object with a constant presence urging me to trust myself. It was also important to me that the piece be physically engaging and fun to use. Because physical experience is so much more powerful than just looking at an object, I wanted to make that an important part of the piece.
The form the piece eventually took became a kind of growth from inside out and then out into the space around it. There are three significant parts to the piece which consists of a drawer filled with layers of images, a set of three glass smokestacks, and the contents of the stacks – bubble solution and wands.
The images inside the box represent the layers of motivating influences from my past – specifically academics. They range from the beginning of my schooling through college. The specific images are representations of academic perfection, failure, and the reactions and judgments that were made about my performance. The message of these graphics is that even though I was performing at a very high level “we know she can do better.” This is the representation of external pressure and outside achievement.
The stacks, also emblematic of smokestack and tower imagery, have transformed from metal rings that bind and prohibit into clear containers of new perspective. The glass used to hold both new and old expectations transitions from the drawer below with it’s evaluation imagery, penetrates the structure and rises above the surface to offer up a substance that is playful and lighthearted - bubbles.
The bubbles inside the stacks characterize the freedom of self-determination. The activity of blowing bubble is available simply for the fun of releasing something beautiful and playful into the world. The apparatus with which you create the bubbles are part of a form language that I am developing with the idea of happiness and silliness in mind. The transformation of what was previously a polluting influence into joy through the act of breathing life into the object, is a way of breathing life into a new way of thinking.
When developing this piece and explaining the components and the need for a change in thinking, I was asked if this was a “fuck you” kind of piece. It’s really not, but I’m sure it could have been, and at the beginning there was a certain “fight the power” sort of feeling about it all. But as I worked on the concept, my thinking evolved, and in the end what this piece really represents to me isn’t about anger at all, it’s about peace. It’s about coming to peace with thinking the way I want to think and making the work I want to make. It’s about rising above convention and tradition and creating my own set of values and beliefs. A person who’s oppressed is angry, a person who is free is not. This piece is about gaining the freedom to choose.
Guys on Sticks
I set out on this leg of my thesis to make a set of objects that resulted from a form language I’d secretly been nursing for the last couple of years. I wanted to make a set of objects that represented fun and silliness and didn’t have to be validated by traditional conceptions of function. I also wanted to provide myself an opportunity to work more loosely and allow the objects to inform their evolution. This project was in a way about risk – the risk of doing something that couldn’t be tidily explained, and the risk of going down a road I couldn’t see the end of. I decided to develop a kit of parts in slip cast porcelain that could be combined in any number of ways, and I started playing.
I laughed more and cursed less with this project than any project I’ve worked on previously. Is that because it was technically less demanding, because it was easy to do, took little thought or preparation, was a cake-walk? No, it was none of these things. It was actually relatively tedious, precarious, delicate, and confusing work. Mold making is pretty mind-numbing, physically demanding, dirty work. I had to make slip twice, had it perform erratically and eventually ended up with what seems to be 5 gallons of useless expensive wet dirt. Working with slip-cast objects is very delicate, and sometimes things just break in your hands. And on top of all the tedium of getting the objects out of the mold and in a finished state, I had to cobble together an ad-hock education in ceramic properties and kiln operation while imposing on people who barely know me to help me with all of it. And I had a blast.
Why – because the objects I was making were giving back to me every step of the way. I was so delighted with what I was making that the hardship hardly registered. By developing a kit of parts with a form language I have wanted to explore for years, I was able to build and play with a cast of characters that continually left me smiling and chuckling. Any object that can make you laugh out loud at 3 in the morning after an 18 hour day, is a pretty powerful thing.
The objects themselves consist of 3 main bodies and various appendages that can be combined in any number of ways to create a composition or character. These characters are then set in one of two forms – either as compositions which make up scenes or as kinetic sculptures on sprung piano wire. They are all relatively narrative in their presence, but the compilations relate more to each other and the kinetic pieces engage the viewer and the space they occupy more dynamically. In either case, they are meant to have a feeling of identity and be relatable to the viewer as entities, or others.
People keep asking me what these objects “do,” and I’m contemplating telling the next person that asks that question that they cobble shoes in the middle of the night when no one’s looking. Or maybe that they’re currently unemployed, but actively job hunting, and when they find one, I can get back to them.
Previously, I felt deep down that if an object didn’t “do” something, it wasn’t worth the space it occupied. This is probably a reverberation of the childhood lesson that if I didn’t “do” something, I wasn’t worth the space I occupied. But the fact is, you don’t have to label an object’s function for it to “do” something. These objects won’t hold you off the floor, you can’t serve tea with them or shake salt out of them, but they can elevate your mood, they can remind you to laugh, they can encourage you to look for joy in your surroundings. They can do a lot of things you can’t find in the appliance aisle at Target, and they’re still ok.
This project is really the representation of the understanding that I’ve come to through this thesis process. Function and necessity are two very subjective concepts. The work I do doesn’t have to be stuffy and respectable, or easy to label to be valid. My work doesn’t have to be polite cocktail conversation, it doesn’t have to be easily describable to my mom’s knitting group, it can be messy or uncomfortable or seem silly and frivolous to everyone else if that’s the way they see it, but it can still be worth doing if it’s important to me. You only live this life once, if you’re constantly checking the rule book to make sure it’s ok to do something, you’re going to miss it.
Life, and in particular the lifestyle I am so fortunate to live, is a rare and fleeting gift. I’ve only get one, and I don’t know how long it’s going to be. Every day is my next opportunity to do everything I’ve always ever wanted to do and I don’t know how much time I’ve got to do it. I truly feel like the clock is chasing me down, and I’ve still got a lot of things I want to try. With those kinds of stakes, it seems downright immoral to waste any of it fretting over whether I can gain the approval of every person I encounter. If I can’t, they can come find me when I’m dead, until then, I’m busy.
Last Thoughts on Woodie Guthrie
By Bob Dylan
When yer head gets twisted and yer mind grows numb When you think you're too old, too young, too smart or too dumb When yer laggin' behind an' losin' yer pace In a slow-motion crawl of life's busy race No matter what yer doing if you start givin' up If the wine don't come to the top of yer cup If the wind's got you sideways with with one hand holdin' on And the other starts slipping and the feeling is gone And yer train engine fire needs a new spark to catch it And the wood's easy findin' but yer lazy to fetch it And yer sidewalk starts curlin' and the street gets too long And you start walkin' backwards though you know its wrong And lonesome comes up as down goes the day And tomorrow's mornin' seems so far away And you feel the reins from yer pony are slippin' And yer rope is a-slidin' 'cause yer hands are a-drippin' And yer sun-decked desert and evergreen valleys Turn to broken down slums and trash-can alleys And yer sky cries water and yer drain pipe's a-pourin' And the lightnin's a-flashing and the thunder's a-crashin' And the windows are rattlin' and breakin' and the roof tops a-shakin' And yer whole world's a-slammin' and bangin' And yer minutes of sun turn to hours of storm And to yourself you sometimes say "I never knew it was gonna be this way Why didn't they tell me the day I was born" And you start gettin' chills and yer jumping from sweat And you're lookin' for somethin' you ain't quite found yet And yer knee-deep in the dark water with yer hands in the air And the whole world's a-watchin' with a window peek stare And yer good gal leaves and she's long gone a-flying And yer heart feels sick like fish when they're fryin' And yer jackhammer falls from yer hand to yer feet And you need it badly but it lays on the street And yer bell's bangin' loudly but you can't hear its beat And you think yer ears might a been hurt Or yer eyes've turned filthy from the sight-blindin' dirt And you figured you failed in yesterdays rush When you were faked out an' fooled white facing a four flush And all the time you were holdin' three queens And it's makin you mad, it's makin' you mean Like in the middle of Life magazine Bouncin' around a pinball machine And there's something on yer mind you wanna be saying That somebody someplace oughta be hearin' But it's trapped on yer tongue and sealed in yer head And it bothers you badly when your layin' in bed And no matter how you try you just can't say it And yer scared to yer soul you just might forget it And yer eyes get swimmy from the tears in yer head And yer pillows of feathers turn to blankets of lead And the lion's mouth opens and yer staring at his teeth And his jaws start closin with you underneath And yer flat on your belly with yer hands tied behind And you wish you'd never taken that last detour sign And you say to yourself just what am I doin' On this road I'm walkin', on this trail I'm turnin' On this curve I'm hanging On this pathway I'm strolling, in the space I'm taking In this air I'm inhaling Am I mixed up too much, am I mixed up too hard Why am I walking, where am I running What am I saying, what am I knowing On this guitar I'm playing, on this banjo I'm frailin' On this mandolin I'm strummin', in the song I'm singin' In the tune I'm hummin', in the words I'm writin' In the words that I'm thinkin' In this ocean of hours I'm all the time drinkin' Who am I helping, what am I breaking What am I giving, what am I taking But you try with your whole soul best Never to think these thoughts and never to let Them kind of thoughts gain ground Or make yer heart pound But then again you know why they're around Just waiting for a chance to slip and drop down "Cause sometimes you hear'em when the night times comes creeping And you fear that they might catch you a-sleeping And you jump from yer bed, from yer last chapter of dreamin' And you can't remember for the best of yer thinking If that was you in the dream that was screaming And you know that it's something special you're needin' And you know that there's no drug that'll do for the healin' And no liquor in the land to stop yer brain from bleeding And you need something special Yeah, you need something special all right You need a fast flyin' train on a tornado track To shoot you someplace and shoot you back You need a cyclone wind on a stream engine howler That's been banging and booming and blowing forever That knows yer troubles a hundred times over You need a Greyhound bus that don't bar no race That won't laugh at yer looks Your voice or your face And by any number of bets in the book Will be rollin' long after the bubblegum craze You need something to open up a new door To show you something you seen before But overlooked a hundred times or more You need something to open your eyes You need something to make it known That it's you and no one else that owns That spot that yer standing, that space that you're sitting That the world ain't got you beat That it ain't got you licked It can't get you crazy no matter how many Times you might get kicked You need something special all right You need something special to give you hope But hope's just a word That maybe you said or maybe you heard On some windy corner 'round a wide-angled curve But that's what you need man, and you need it bad And yer trouble is you know it too good "Cause you look an' you start getting the chills "Cause you can't find it on a dollar bill And it ain't on Macy's window sill And it ain't on no rich kid's road map And it ain't in no fat kid's fraternity house And it ain't made in no Hollywood wheat germ And it ain't on that dimlit stage With that half-wit comedian on it Ranting and raving and taking yer money And you thinks it's funny No you can't find it in no night club or no yacht club And it ain't in the seats of a supper club And sure as hell you're bound to tell That no matter how hard you rub You just ain't a-gonna find it on yer ticket stub No, and it ain't in the rumors people're tellin' you And it ain't in the pimple-lotion people are sellin' you And it ain't in no cardboard-box house Or down any movie star's blouse And you can't find it on the golf course And Uncle Remus can't tell you and neither can Santa Claus And it ain't in the cream puff hair-do or cotton candy clothes And it ain't in the dime store dummies or bubblegum goons And it ain't in the marshmallow noises of the chocolate cake voices That come knockin' and tappin' in Christmas wrappin' Sayin' ain't I pretty and ain't I cute and look at my skin Look at my skin shine, look at my skin glow Look at my skin laugh, look at my skin cry When you can't even sense if they got any insides These people so pretty in their ribbons and bows No you'll not now or no other day Find it on the doorsteps made out-a paper mache´ And inside it the people made of molasses That every other day buy a new pair of sunglasses And it ain't in the fifty-star generals and flipped-out phonies Who'd turn yuh in for a tenth of a penny Who breathe and burp and bend and crack And before you can count from one to ten Do it all over again but this time behind yer back My friend The ones that wheel and deal and whirl and twirl And play games with each other in their sand-box world And you can't find it either in the no-talent fools That run around gallant And make all rules for the ones that got talent And it ain't in the ones that ain't got any talent but think they do And think they're foolin' you The ones who jump on the wagon Just for a while 'cause they know it's in style To get their kicks, get out of it quick And make all kinds of money and chicks And you yell to yourself and you throw down yer hat Sayin', "Christ do I gotta be like that Ain't there no one here that knows where I'm at Ain't there no one here that knows how I feel Good God Almighty THAT STUFF AIN'T REAL" No but that ain't yer game, it ain't even yer race You can't hear yer name, you can't see yer face You gotta look some other place And where do you look for this hope that yer seekin' Where do you look for this lamp that's a-burnin' Where do you look for this oil well gushin' Where do you look for this candle that's glowin' Where do you look for this hope that you know is there And out there somewhere And your feet can only walk down two kinds of roads Your eyes can only look through two kinds of windows Your nose can only smell two kinds of hallways You can touch and twist And turn two kinds of doorknobs You can either go to the church of your choice Or you can go to Brooklyn State Hospital You'll find God in the church of your choice You'll find Woody Guthrie in Brooklyn State Hospital And though it's only my opinion I may be right or wrong You'll find them both In the Grand Canyon At sundown
I love this poem because I relate to the way Dylan illuminates these universal feelings of aloneness and loss. He is so magnificent at putting into words the unspeakable that it seems as if he is going to give us a solution or an answer in the end, which I have always found disappointingly underwhelming. Of course, these are Dylan’s thoughts about what Woody Guthrie means to him and how Guthrie embodies these sentiments, but it’s always been a hollow answer for me. I’ve thought a lot about this over the years and wondered what a satisfying conclusion would be to this searching poem. What’s the real substance lying behind those doors?
What I have come to understand is that whatever is behind those “doors” Dylan refers to is whatever you choose to put there. The answer is yourself, a mirror of sorts. One door, the Guthrie door, leads to more questions, more self-examination and the endless riddle that is life. The other door, the “Church of your choice” door leads to surrender. Surrender of the questions of “why?” and “how?” to the realization that things just Are. If you believe there is a higher power controlling things, you leave it in their hands. If you don’t believe there is a higher power controlling things, it is the inescapable ebb and flow of the universe that we are all caught up in, a wave we must ride. Either way, these doors lead to the same place because, in the end, there is no one answer; the room is full of whatever we choose to place there and that changes over time.
Sometimes we need to go through that door to find determination, a will to keep going. Sometimes we need to find rest on the other side to allow ourselves to heal from the turmoil without. Sometimes we need to find a comforting loved one or an inspirational mentor, connection to another that we cannot produce alone.
The chaos that Dylan describes is simply life; it is our collective experience, and it will never stop the constant churning. What appears behind our door is uniquely our own. And maybe what we’re really seeking isn’t a thing at all, but a state of being and the items we put behind those doors are merely vehicles. Perhaps what we are all looking for is our door to the Grand Canyon at Sundown: a place of wonder, beauty, peace, clarity, divinity, perspective, fullness, synchronicity.
Art and life are mirrors, what you find behind your door is intimately individual and constantly evolving. Both are a struggle; both are beautiful and terrifying and thrilling. Both can be shaped and molded, but also have an energy of their own and must be respected as collaborators. Any artist knows that listening to a piece as it evolves throughout the creative process has an infinitely better outcome than if you rigidly try to force a static artistic vision upon it. Michelangelo famously said, “I saw an angel in the marble, and I carved until I set him free.” We press on in our practice continually seeking to co-create with the universe our personal Grand Canyon at Sundown.
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