A truth I've uncovered
(No. 87) We can age, but we can't hide, by Stephen P. Williams
My late creation story
Baton Rouge, by Stephen P. Williams
My late creation story
For the last several years I have felt that there was a basic truth about myself that I was not accepting. A powerful, formative and key part of my being that I have not fully connected with since I was a child. It’s been a puzzle, but not a worry — I suspected I would figure it out soon enough if I were patient.
I set a goal of discovering who I truly was, but did not set an end date for this discovery. I looked for the most obvious possibilities — for instance, maybe I was gay and had never realized it. But none of them fit.
Now I’ve uncovered what I was looking for.
In my 64 years I’ve learned many things about myself. In my 20s I finally accepted that I couldn’t tolerate alcohol, and I stopped drinking (many people helped me do this). Twice I’ve accepted that my marriage was not right — twice divorced, once after 18 years, once after 7. In 45 years as a professional writer, I’ve accepted and adapted to many truths about my career — must go digital; must stop writing freelance for magazines; must use social media; must embrace NFTs and blockchain.
Throughout, I’ve engaged with visual art. I studied photography throughout my teen years. In graduate school at Stanford, studying journalism, I also studied analog photography and managed to convince my professor that my blurry photographs of enigmatic subjects was intentional, and art. (Then I immediately gave up on photography.) In the digital age I’ve embraced digital drawing tools, the seemingly limitless potential of the ever evolving iPhone cameras, and video. Instagram has given me such a deep outlet for my visual (and written) expressions.
I have always described myself as a writer. Even with that, I’ve also always felt that I was a visual artist. Yet I would not claim that title, no matter what visuals I produced, or how I truly thought of myself. Sometimes I felt I didn’t deserve to call myself an artist. At other times, I decided that the term artist was unnecessary for me. It would be an affectation. I was a creative person, and creative was word enough.
I trace some of this hesitancy to embrace the term “artist” for myself to a morning in a basement art studio — really, just a couple of easels, canvas and oil paint in the mechanical area of a family basement (either ours or my grandmother’s, I can’t remember) when I was about five years old. My paternal grandmother Grace was giving my older brother, John, who was eight, and me painting lessons. Grace and her five sisters had often painted together when they were younger, often in a basement with some beers on the side.
At age five I was already aware that I wanted to be a writer (a long look at a pack of Hell’s Angels passing our car on the Kansas Turnpike, their beards and filthy jackets and obvious I don’t give a fuck attitude also enthralled me, but I noticed that people didn’t respond well when I said I wanted to be one of those). And my brother John had probably by then embraced the idea that he was an artist. He was good with a paint brush from the start. And during that lesson in the basement he outshone me to such a degree that I cancelled my artistic career right there.
This is no fault of John’s. He probably wouldn’t have cared what I embraced. He went on to have an amazing career as a painter, and still works every day as an artist.
I became a writer who drew and created on the side. I’ve done well enough with words, and am still satisfied and very engaged with my writing. That should be good enough — unless it isn’t.
Recently I helped John pack up his art studio in Los Angeles for a move. We went through decades of his paintings, sculptures, drawings and other materials. I remembered almost every painting we looked at. It felt very good to see them all, and to re-experience the breadth of his career. Somehow, it also liberated me.
About ten days after returning to New York from Los Angeles, an offhand remark someone in my online group therapy made about art clicked in my deepest brain — the part that is connected to my heart — and I realized that what was missing all these years was my acknowledgement of myself as an artist. A visual artist.
I can think of many reasons not to call myself an artist — and all of them are people who might judge me. I’ve always favored artists as friends, and in my head is a list of friends who have labored as artists for decades with various levels of “success” and recognition. I can imagine each one of them reacting with great cynicism if I were to say: I am an artist, as well as a writer.
Lately I’ve been collaborating with TK, an artist-technologist, on a series of NFTs called Westward Ho that combine generative video, words and music. The collaboration, which is the first completely realized work of art that I’ve been involved with, is incredibly satisfying — easily the most satisfying work I’ve done since I wrote my last book, Everlands (looking for a home).
TK and I are now creating another NFT project that is under the veil, for now. Every day, I wake up thinking about it.
I am still exploring why it is so important to me to identify myself as a visual artist in the final third of my life. I will write about that another day. But I believe this acceptance of myself as a visual artist, as well as a writer, will resonate in good ways for the next three decades. I have opened a big space within my consciousness. My body feels grounded. My mind is confident.
The search for meaning in life is so valid. If I can offer advice, based on my own experience, it’s to explore your inner desires, needs and blockages, no matter how old you are. My exploration has led me to feel better today than I have in years.
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