TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Invoking the Muse "with a little help from my friends"...

I just issued a challenge to the TAFA Team (TAFA's members selling on Etsy) to explore the theme of "Invoking the Muse" in blog posts, treasuries and in any other way they can think of.  As I chewed on what that meant for myself, I thought about two things:
  • The creative place is an altered one, the closest I experience as described by mystics who engage in prayer or meditation.
  • That altered state is often enhanced by our "friends": alcohol, caffeine, sugar, nicotine or other mood alterants.
Howard Finster came to my mind.  An outsider artist and preacher from Georgia, Howard Finster has passed on to the ultimate altered state, death.  But, his work continues on as a legacy.  I love how his pieces are sermons of his world view (not necessarily my own), but his story also captivated me a long time ago.  Finster was a revival preacher until one day, when he was fixing a bike (if I remember correctly), a splotch of oil on the ground looked like Elvis to him.  He saw that as a calling from God to become an artist.  Finster is often described as a "man of visions", not only because of his huge body of work (all supposedly numbered into the tens of thousands), but because he also had actual hallucinogenic encounters with Elvis, Marilyn, Kennedy and other icons of our pop mythology.

Why?  Maybe because he only slept four hours a night, added sugar to his coca-cola and drank chicory coffee all day and night.  He produced so much work that his wife laid down the law and allowed one piece in the house and the rest had to be outside.  That led to outdoor sculptures, the creation of Paradise Garden, and his growth into a tourist attraction, much to the chagrin of his neighbors.

In his book, "Howard Finster", JF Turner, addresses this question of altered states among artists.  He quotes Dr, Dean Edell, to whom he showed samples of Howard's work:

"If I knew nothing about this man and just looked at his art, I wouldn't be surprised to find that this person was a chain smoker and a coffee drinker.  Nicotine and caffeine have synergistic effects on the body and the mental state.  In one test where nicotine was given by injection and not identified, many of the subjects throught it was cocaine.  Nicotine is a very strong "upper" that has effects on the mind that are only now being unraveled...

... You don't have to look deep or hard in art history to find a relationship between artists, alcohol, and even chain-smoking.  This is the sense that people utilize to keep them going.  It would be hard to imagine somebody like Mr. Finster putting out his kind of energy in a consistent way without some pharmaceutical or spiritual help, and that in itself alters aesthetic expression.  Mr.  Finster is borderline, meaning only  that he experiences hallucinations.  By this definition, most of the world's great visionaries may have been psychotic.  I think that with high dosages of caffeine and nicotine, a borderline personality can be thrown into a visionary or hallucinogenic state."

Notice how the good doctor says "pharmaceutical or spiritual help" but does not explore the spiritual side of this formula.  Finster was driven by both.  He was deeply motivated by what he felt he needed to share with the world through his direct connection with God.  As his art was a sermon, so was his message to anyone who would listen.  Here's an example (feel free to roll your eyes...):

I know I have my mood alterants.  For me it is nicotine and wine.  I'm one of the last smokers that I know and hate it.  I've tried to quit so many times that it's become like Mark Twain's quote, "Giving up smoking is the easiest thing in the world.  I have done it thousands of times."  I've been seriously considering going the medicated route and am scared to death of messing with my chemical balance.  For, even with this horrible crutch, I am even tempered, wake up happy, and rarely feel any signs of depression.

But, even as I feed my muse its offerings of smoke and the red fruits, I believe that my creative spirit comes from a deeper place, from my own understanding of God's grace.  Whatever you may call God, for me it is a place of love, forgiveness, and meaning.  The world view I was taught as a child fits within that, but it also goes beyond any intellectual understanding of what faith may be.  My father once described faith to me as stepping out into darkness.  That image stuck with me because that really is what life feels like.  Decisions are made, chances taken, doors open and close, with no real knowledge of what the consequences will be down the road.  When I enter the creative mode, something physical happens where that darkness is lit up.  It's the only way I have been able to experience mysticism. 

If we, as artists, really can be diagnosed as psychotic, then what happens in a healthy world?  Does the drive disappear?  I don't think so.  The same energy is re-harnessed with a different drive.  Perhaps those of us who need some help from our "friends" are only doing so because our bodies are out of balance and we compensate in this way.  Something to chew on...

I was able to make my pilgrimage to Paradise Gardens many years ago.  Mr. Finster was still alive, but not well on the day that I was there.  His grandson had him sign some pieces that I bought there in the gift shop, but I did not meet him in person.  I walked around and let Howard's art fill me with joy.  What I know for sure is that we must all invoke our muses and allow them to speak loud and clear.  The world is full of angels.  Mr. Finster was one of them.

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  1. Wow. Just wow, Rachel. Are you and I the only smokers left on earth? I have struggled with the shame of it, never conquering it for more than a couple of years at a time. I really have never thought about how altering my mental state with nicotine and caffeine (coffee or soft drink always at hand) impacted my work or art. Not consciously. But I definitely write more easily and generate more creative ideas when I'm wound up on my "drugs." Interesting.

  2. I've been a huge fan of Howard Finster's art for years, Rachel. Thanks so much for this post! I especially enjoyed the video, and wish I'd had a chance to visit while he was alive.

    And I firmly believe that "genius is touched with madness." Unfortunately that bit of madness leaves the genius vulnerable to addictions and all manner of other ills, but those things are a small price to pay for the brilliant moments. I never in my life wanted to be ordinary (well, okay . . . maybe in high school where I stuck out like a sore thumb, but besides that, never.)

  3. First of all, I find it hilarious that when he lists work animals, for some reason Work Elephant is the first one that comes to him.

    Secondly, what makes me genuinely wary of him, is his comment about the different kinds of blood and not "mixing" them. Is it me, or is there a severe undercurrent of racism in there?

    Creepy! lol

    My vices are wine and buying more batiks. And were I crazy like him, I would insist that god wants me to drink fine wines and buy as much batik as I can! ;)


“Sing like no one's listening, love like you've never been hurt, dance like nobody's watching, and live like it's heaven on earth.”

“Whatever you say, say it with conviction.”

(Both by the master, Mark Twain)

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