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The Gaps In One's Life . . . A Missed Calling?

by Gary John Gresl

About 25 years ago I and some other parents were being carefully “handled” by my son's kindergarten teacher. We were told why our children were not being moved into first grade but instead were about to receive one more year of enlarged kindergarten material...to better prepare them for first grade. This phrase was used more than once: "Some flowers bloom in Spring. Others in the Summer. And still others in the Fall."

Both I and my son continue to be late bloomers. I was nearly 40 years old before I was motivated to begin my life as an artist, and my son, now age 30, is wrestling with the matter of what it means to be an artist, to express oneself and to expect little material or financial compensation. To be an artist is to risk...risk appearances, risk exposing once private thoughts, risk criticism and embarrassment...and certainly to risk investments of time and money. Some degree of bravery is required for some of us to expose ourselves in this way.

As practical business people will say, "Time is Money", and artists often choose to invest their time in activities that have little opportunity to see returns of cash. We usually create on “spec”...speculation that what we make will sometime be purchased and/or appreciated. Few artists have the luxury of a patron waiting list for their creations...or much assurance that sales will continue to support them. That is why, like in the performing arts, we become wait staff and clerks and manual laborers...or hold on to the teaching jobs.

To be sure, there are returns other than money which are encouraging and which offer adequate reason to keep on art making. It is these things that have kept me active for over 26 years. These returns are usually quite intangible and may even have their value questioned by others in our culture. BUT, sometimes these returns are extremely useful and centrally important in an individual's life...helping us grope with the meaning of our existence, enabling us to find balance and joy. The art making process seems to link us with the creative forces in the Universe, as exaggerated a claim as that may sound.

I have a limited knowledge of art therapy, but I believe in it strongly. From personal experience and from some decades of associations and readings, I have faith that persons engaged in some creative acts can benefit thru the pleasures and discoveries...and purging...that comes thru the making and expressive exploration. And I have no doubt that given the right opportunity and motivation, that anyone at any age can begin to experience the positive results found thru sincere and honest creative activities.

Young folks, old folks...seemingly healthy or challenged. Chronological age should not be a barrier. Finding and taking the opportunity to create is obviously the key to testing this thesis. With me, that commitment came later in life than some...when I finally listened to voices that had been in my subconscious since I was a kid.
What happens if a "calling" is ignored? What is lost if one does not "follow one's bliss"? How does one fill the potential psychological and emotional gaps in one's life if some activity, some longing, is not fulfilled?
So it was with me since my high school days when personal considerations of entering art school surfaced. As a seventeen year old I was entirely dependant upon my parents and their support. I was naive and without means, without experience or independent thought. I had no courage to argue, so my future was not being written by my own inclinations. Thereafter from my first year of college en route to becoming an elementary teacher until age 40, there was something missing from my life There was that recurrent nagging just below the conscious surface, and a sense that something more existed that might give me greater fulfillment as my own human being. I say with all honesty that there was a prolonged period in my early twenties when I consciously sensed that some part of me was being concealed, calloused over...displaced by the exigencies of adult life, teaching, responsibility and an imposed regrettable duty to neglect an important aspect of my life. It did not die, but it did get buried over.

I wonder how many others feel the pestering sense that some aspect of their lives is unfulfilled, that there is some element not yet discovered. Personally, I did have bouts of art making during my earlier searching years of maturation, but nothing enduring or especially meaningful. It was with the birth of my two sons in 1979 and 81, and thru associations with the raw, elementary and often enthusiastic approach of young people, that I personally turned my serious attentions to art making. Beginning with basic materials of clay, paint, canvas and found objects, my life began on a path that had been denied twenty years earlier. I began to bloom...
Other associations were gained by joining a community of art makers which further propelled exploration and growth. Wisconsin Painters & Sculptors, at the time experiencing 83 years of existence, was operating and offering opportunities and networking. By becoming a participant in that group, by doing work with and for other artists, I gained new experience and motivations that added meaning to my existence. I have no doubt that such experiences can be gained thru parallel efforts with many other artist organizations. (FYI, WP&S has just changed its name to Wisconsin Visual Artists, Inc., and is beginning its 109th year of operation.)
In such groups one will encounter all the quirks, positives and negatives, found in any body of individuals. For some artists the difficulties and disappointments inherent in these organizations can be reason enough not to join...but helping to mold such a group and assist other individuals can also be reason enough to endure that which is not pleasant. One can grow, improve...find satisfactions and joy by active participation. This, of course, depends on the personality of each person. But...just being a member, even if one remains shy and apart to some extent, can provide moments of insight and growth.

While I have gone beyond the point of no return in my participation in the regional art culture, the other late bloomer in my family, my son, has not yet made a commitment to “being an artist”. Despite the meager financial returns, and despite the exposure and some disappointments he might experience thru making and exhibiting art, I am hopeful he commits to art making as an important part of his life. I believe he has the temperament, natural inclinations and eye for this field. I suspect that if he does not make such a commitment, then like me, he may continue to wonder why it is that he remains a bit discontented with life. He may wonder what it is that lurks just under his skin and in his subconscious...why he senses that his life is not yet fulfilled in some way.

And how is it with you, Dear Reader? Are you an early or late bloomer? Have you yet flowered? Are the roots of your experience in life supplying your interest and “need” to create? If you are not a visual artist are you a writer? A dancer? A musician? A gardener? A nurturer of other living things...children, animals or plants?
Have you found what might be your bliss? Are you yet ready and willing to listen to some calling...perhaps a distant but constant one? Do you already know what direction you want to take, but is your light still under that bushel, fearful of coming out and being exposed?
I leave you with this quote from one of my favorite books, a novel called “Boy's Life”, by Robert R. McGammon:

“When I was twelve years old, the world was my magic lantern, and by its green spirit glow I saw the past, the present, and into the future. You probably did too; you just don’t recall it. See, this is my opinion: we all start out knowing magic. We are born with whirlwinds, forest fires, and comets inside us. We are born able to sing to birds and read the clouds and see our destiny in grains of sand. But then we get the magic educated right out of our souls. We get it churched out, spanked out, and combed out. We get put on the straight and narrow and told to be responsible. Told to act our age. Told to grow up, for God’s sake. And you know why we were told that? Because the people doing the telling were afraid of our wildness and youth, and because the magic we knew made them ashamed and sad of what they’d allowed to wither in themselves.”

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