A funny thing has been happening. I’ve been spending a lot of time in the city lately. Despite the fact that I grew up in its innards, I’ve spent the better part of 20 years trying to get away from it. I think spending my youth there made me tired of its claustrophobic spaces. But over the past couple of years, I’ve felt a strange pull from it. Maybe it’s because I spent so much time away from it. I know Chicago inside out and yet now I sometimes feel like a tourist. In a way, it’s kind of like meeting an old lover. Or like an old leather jacket that has spent decades in a dark corner of the closet. You pull it off of its hangar and slip it on and it feels strange but it’s worn in and it meets the contours of your body. The city is like that for me now. It feels new but somehow it slides into the old contours of my soul. And because I don’t live there anymore I can see it as an artist.
The modern city is the last light of our dying civilization. Its final, heaving gasp. But I’m a moth, drawn to it because there is something morbidly beautiful about it. When I’m there with a camera in my hand something happens to me. I immediately find its rhythm and conform to its thrumming meter like a good little foot soldier falling into a parade line. My real world becomes unreal. Day or night, the shadows deepen and all that’s left is the strange and beautiful light. The light tucks her secrets into the corners of the shadows and surrounds them with a silky, inviting darkness. And so the light becomes the greatest sculptor of all. It chisels and melts and molds itself into a living acropolis, unveiling a new face in each moment.
Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about my life. I’ve been thinking a lot about where I’ve been, the roads I’ve traveled, the things I’ve done, and the choices I’ve made. I’m not going to pretend that I have this all figured out. I only know that I am where I am. And I’m pretty sure that my feet are on the ground and that I’ve grown down into my life. Recently, I decided to let my facial hair grow out. That’s something I haven’t done in 25 years. I always joke about my hair because that it seems as though it won’t turn gray and it won’t fall out. But my beard is another story. It has lots of gray in it. I’m going to keep it anyway. It seems to me that the gray hair is like rust. I have a Jeep that has 150,000 miles on it and sports its share of rust. But it runs like a top. To me, that rust represents all the miles driven and all the places I’ve been in that truck. The gray in my beard is kind of the same thing. I’ve earned that silver hair. It reminds me of the journey I’ve been on, the work I’ve done, and the wisdom I’ve accumulated.
What in the hell, you may be asking, has this got to do with making art? My attraction to the city is something like my beard. Bear with me on this and I’ll get there. If you are going to grow into the person you are meant to be you have to face your darkness. Wrestling with one’s demons can be very dangerous. Because not only does it change you deep to the roots, but you don’t really know how it’s gonna turn out. At the outset, let’s not confuse this darkness with evil. It’s not the same thing. What I’m talking about is the part of yourself that you hide away. The piece of you that violates your idea of what it means to be good and respectable and acceptable. That darkness is a part of all of us. The battle begins when we try to disown it. It’s uncomfortable as hell to think that there are things about us that we find repulsive. In fact, it’s horrifying. But inside of each of us there lurk urges and thoughts and character traits that violate the very sensibilities we have been taught to accept. If you stop and think for a moment, you know this is true. Our natural inclination is to try to bury those things with a kind of self-righteousness. “Other people, those people, do that stuff. Not me! I’m a good person! Not like them!” So we divide the world into black and white, right and wrong, us and them. And all you have to do is watch the news for five minutes to see where that has gotten us. We have to wake up my friend, because life ain’t like that. It just is what it is. It’s just life and believe me, ain’t one of us that’s The Virgin Mary. One man’s sins are another man’s virtues. So get over it.
The nasty little truth is that when you push down the darkness that’s inside you, you’re strangling yourself. Now let’s be clear here. I’m not saying that you should indulge every inappropriate urge on the grounds that it’s a part of you. Au contraire. What I am saying is that you need to acknowledge that stuff is inside you. And own it. And then confront it and learn to use it in a positive way. If you don’t it will escape into the outside world and affect the people and environment around you. You’ll also miss out on some very cool stuff that is the result of the struggle.
That’s exactly what happened to me. If I look behind me, at the years I’ve lived, the path of destruction I left in my wake is breathtaking. It looks like a tornado ripped through my life and tore up everyone and everything around me. No one escaped unscathed. Psychologists sometimes call this part of us “The Shadow”. It’s the part of you that wants to do things that you can never see yourself doing. The part that thinks thoughts that you would never speak in the light of day. Why? Well…because it’s a part of you! That’s why. Instead of dealing with that we try to shove those thoughts and ideas deep down into some hole in our hearts never to be heard from again. Ummm…NOT! I’m not saying that you have to actually do those things. But if you don’t look them in the eye and give them their due, believe me, they’ll find a way to the surface in the most unpleasant and inconvenient way imaginable. So admit that they are a necessary part of you. And then use them to fuel your art. Your darkness contains the artistic expression that removes the “ordinary” from your work.
To be continued in Part 2…