Answering Art’s Call

I have an artist friend who argues that he’d be a very wealthy man today if he’d chosen any other profession—plumbing, blacksmithing, accounting or working as a short-order cook—and given it all of the time and effort that he’s invested in his art. He has no doubt of this.

“Oh sure,” I kid him, “but then you wouldn’t have done all of that great painting over the years.” I remind him that art keeps life interesting, and that he would have gone crazy as a bat without it.

Artists belong to a unique club: There’s often little money circulating, and yet there’s an undeniable sense of richness that money can’t touch. Unfortunately, that very rich inner life, seen only in brief glimpses by the general public, may often appear slightly nutty. My theory is that artists are born tuned into a frequency that only they can hear—like nature’s own dog whistle. And to ignore that sound means trouble.

Think about it. Who else would lay awake in bed at 3 o’clock in the morning, coveting someone else’s value range? Or drool over another’s use of scumbling? And more than once, I’ve been sketching in the air with my finger, then suddenly noticed that people were watching in mute horror and fascination as I whisper instructions to myself, “A nice thin line, yes … yes …”

Another artist friend was once caught red-handed admiring a rope turnbuckle in a men’s gym class. He had stopped to frame it up with both hands, movie-director fashion, squinting his eyes, studying the light and shadows. Then he noticed the entire class watching with questioning eyes.

Who can argue? It’s a subtle form of madness.

And yet, there’s a more outright form of madness out there: those people who refuse to follow the call of the whistle. Most of the time, people ignore the whistle because they fear failure. But what’s failure, anyway? I believe that real failure is the blatant denial of your true calling. If you have it in your heart to paint a picture, play a piano, or sing a song, then nothing in this world should stop you. And nothing will, really, except for the little judge inside your head. The little judge fears failure, that’s all.

But what happens if we do fail? I want to speak to the record on that one: I’ve been rejected more times than I like to admit, and I can honestly report that the landing is a lot softer than you’d think. And every welt and blue mark of failure brings with it a lesson of survival and hope. More to the point, it fuels the gusto to dust off and try it again. So I say, revel in your failures. Strut brazenly down the streets like John Travolta in Saturday Night Fever, strewing your rejection notices like rose petals. You see, if you’ve followed your calling—no matter the quality of your current artwork—you’ve answered the Big Dog Whistle of Life, and a certain honor goes with the faithfulness of the response. In a way, it’s the real art of life, to faithfully follow that road no matter where it leads.

My friend who would be a millionaire is probably right about the money. But he doesn’t dwell on the subject for too long. He’ll laugh it off and something will suddenly catch his eye. And then he’s in his own world again, framing the shape of a bird or a cloud with his hands, mad as a hatter to all the world.

Artist and writer Jim Chapman is based in Lula, Georgia, where he devotes most of his energy to pursuing the life of a country gentleman.

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