"It's not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters." – Epictetus
What do we do, and how do we react when confronted with, what we consider to be a negative or challenging situation? As artists, we have a unique opportunity to respond to the things around us in a creative way. Whatever happens to us can fuel our work. It’s easy to convey the joy and excitement of what we consider to be something positive. It’s quite another to channel those things we consider negative or challenging; because in doing so, we have to feel and embrace those emotions, and we have to sit with them for a while, so we can capture them in our work. It is difficult, uncomfortable, and challenging. But that challenge brings rewards, by helping us process the emotions around the situation, adding depth and relevance to our work.
The rewards are not just ours alone: although we may not see it as important at the time, it may prove to be very important for someone in the future. In fact, some of our greatest artworks have been inspired by our darkest of emotions: “Guernica” by Picasso, the wonderful “In the Mist” piano suite by Leos Janacek, and the extremely powerful “Masque of the Red Death” trilogy by Diamanda Galas, just to name a few.
I had the experience of finding out how my work, born of the darker emotions, was able to affect and heal someone. While doing a screening of my multimedia work “Misery”, I was speaking with the audience members afterwards. This older gentleman came up to me and said, “Thank you. You have no idea how much hearing your piece means to me”. He told me that he had lost his wife several years ago, and the piece, (which among other things deals with grief and grieving), captured his experiences and emotions so well that he felt comforted in knowing that someone understood what he had been though, and that he was not alone. Talk about one hell of a compliment. For the rest of my life I will remember this gentleman and his words. The fact that I was able to touch him in such a way with my work, is worth more to me than any award or prize.
It also helped me see the value in the experiences that I used and tapped into when writing the piece. I lost my best friend and fur baby, Tony, to cancer back in 2012. He was the best cat in the world, and his loss totally devastated me. While going through the experience, I kept thinking “I need to feel this”. I remember when waves of grief would come, feeling and noticing how they came and how they rose and swelled like the tide. I remember noting how my body reacted, how my breathing was, and the thoughts going through my mind. All of it was what I tapped into when writing “Misery”, and having that gentleman tell me how my work, and the suffering that helped create it, had given him some solace, in turn, gave me solace.
I remember watching a documentary on the life of Christopher Isherwood and Don Bachardy, a truly wonderful love story. One thing I remember about the documentary was, that in the final months of Christopher’s life, Don devoted all his time to painting him, since he knew he would be gone, and painting him was the most profound way to connect with him. After he died, Don spent the entire day drawing his body, doing 11 drawings before the doctor arrived. He used his art to maintain the connection between them.
You don’t have to be an artist to redirect what we consider negative emotions about a situation in a positive way. I was attending the funeral of the son of a friend. Sitting in the church, at what was supposed to be a funeral, the preacher started going off on this whole diatribe about how same sex marriage was wrong, (at the time, it was still not the law in every state). What angered me more than anything, was the fact that one of her surviving sons is gay. So, in the midst of his grief over burying his brother, he had to stand there and listen to some person champion the idea that he should be discriminated against. Now, as much as I would have loved to have just walked out, I didn’t. But, when I got home, I made a sizable donation to an LGBT organization, channeling the anger energy into something positive.
My multimedia piece “The Adventures of Florian” is nearing completion, and with that I’m reminded of why I started the project, and how important it could be to others. I began the piece when the violence against transgender people was increasing, and there were more reports of young transgender kids committing suicide. I wanted to create a work that showed a transgender person as a hero, since they have been the some of the greatest heroes of the LGBT community. More on that later, I want to devote a whole post to transgender heroes.
After the 2016 election, I redoubled my efforts, and threw myself into a writing frenzy in order to finish the piece. I needed to do something with all the energy and emotions I was feeling. Mike Pence has been a known enemy of the LGBT community for as long as I can remember, and the person taking office was supported by the KKK and actual Nazis. I knew one way to counter the darkness that was about to descend on us was through the one thing that has given me hope my whole life: my music.
I was given another reminder the first week of January, when I overheard two guys talking. One of the many news stories was that the administration had chosen not to defend Trump’s ban on barring transgender troops from the military, which meant that transgender people were now free to enlist, again. One guy was going on a full transphobic rant about this and using the typical right wing talking points about “men in dresses”, how “they are not transgender unless they have the surgery”, and, everybody’s favorite: how all trans people are mentally ill. As I stood there feeling the waves of anger, I centered myself and reminded myself of my work, and am more committed to it than ever.
I knew better than to engage the person, because it wouldn’t do any good; but, my project, “The Adventures of Florian”, would have a positive impact, and I swore to do everything in my power to get it out there. The piece is for people of all ages; however, it is a fairytale and designed to connect with children. It is important that young transgender and gay kids see themselves represented positively in stories and this project does that. It is meant to not only entertain, but teach. It teaches the difference between sexual orientation and gender identity. It shows that a transgender person can be a hero, and a gay boy can not only be a prince, but get his man and live happily ever after. It won’t change the transphobic guy, but it may change the thoughts of future generations.
So, the next time you are confronted with a challenging situation, feel it, sit with the emotions, not judging them, just letting them flow, and then channel them creatively transmuting them into something that may mean something to one person, or possibly, the world.