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A Buddhist printmaker came to see me. He produced beautiful prints of traditional motifs like cascading waterfalls and scrub trees clinging to cliffs and birds soaring in the mist. They sold brilliantly. But they didn’t matter to him. They gave him no joy. He didn’t know why he created them.
“I must not be very advanced,” he said, shaking his head. “I still feel a need to have things matter. I know I should get over that!”
I had to smile a little. “Maybe you should give your prints away. That would be quite advanced. I have wall space for several of them.”
He didn’t laugh. He stared at me, thinking.
“The subject matter isn’t the problem?” he said after a while. “It’s commerce that’s the problem? The selling? If I made prints and I didn’t need to sell them, they would matter more?”
I shrugged. “What do you think?”
He thought about that. “No,” he finally replied. “If I were producing work that mattered to me, I wouldn’t mind selling it.”
“All right!” I continued. “So, commerce isn’t the problem. For many visual artists the core problem is that with so much arresting natural imagery occurring all around, why compete with that? Why make more images if there are things to see already, everywhere. Might that be it?”
Again, he reflected. I could see him turning the question over. It is rare for people to actually bother to think—usually people respond with habitual, reflexive responses—and it is a very good sign when they do think. How else will solutions come except by thinking?
“No,” he replied. “I understand what you’re saying. It’s a valid point, an important point. You can’t ‘improve’ on nature and nothing is really more arresting that what you can see walking along a country lane or the street of any city. But a visual artist—a good visual artist–” He hesitated. “A great visual artist does something else. He does a one-in-a-million kind of thing—but I don’t know how to say what that is.”
I nodded. “But at least you know what you mean. So … tell me what you really want. Do you want not to want? Or do you want to do the great work you just alluded to?”
He thought for another long time. “Not so long ago I saw a retrospective of the drawings of George Grosz,” he said. “I was completely transfixed. There’s one watercolor called ‘A Married Couple.’ For me, something about the whole Nazi era is captured in that watercolor. How can that be? How can you paint a watercolor of an ordinary couple and communicate so much about a hideous regime and a world war? Grosz could and did. I stand in front of that watercolor and marvel.” He stared at me. “I want to do work like that.”
“So you want to want?”
“Create a sentence that makes some sense of your desire to want and your philosophy of detachment.”
“Wow. There’s a task.” He closed his eyes. “‘I want to try my hand at greatness while not caring.’” He shook his head. “No. That’s not it. ‘I want to do great work but …’” He opened his eyes. “I can’t get caring and not caring into the same sentence. It doesn’t seem to work.”
“Let me give it a try. ‘I want to do great work but not attach to outcomes.’”
He pondered that. Slowly he nodded. “I get that. I need to really try—and if a certain image fails, so what? I go on to the next one. Really try – and then let go. ‘Really try and then let go.’ That works!”
“Okay! Now, about your waterfalls and mountains and trees–”
“They’re beautiful,” he interrupted. “But they’re not important to me. They’re beautiful but not important.”
“What imagery would be important?”
“I don’t know.”
“That’s the question, isn’t it?”
“That’s the question.”
“So, let’s get that answered.”
He laughed. “You don’t go very slowly, do you?”
He closed he eyes and murmured, “What is my imagery?” He sat that way for a long time. I could see him picturing and rejecting imagery. Every once in a while, he would shake his head, rejecting an image with particular certainty. Then something dawned on him. He turned it over several times in his mind’s eye. He nodded and opened his eyes.
“I have it,” he said. “I don’t want to describe it, but I have it.”
“Can you give it a shorthand name, so that we can talk about it?”
“Faces,” he said.
“Faces would matter?”
“Faces would matter.”
I could feel him hesitate.
“And?” I said.
“And I can’t do them. I don’t have the power, the confidence, the fortitude, the commitment. I don’t have what it takes. I know they would matter but I can’t manage them.”
“That’s a heartbreaking statement,” I said.
“Which I don’t believe for a moment.”
He looked up suddenly.
“No,” I continued. “You haven’t tried yet. You fell into the reasonable place of making beautiful things that connected to a philosophy that attracted you. You have all the skills and heart you need—that shines through in your prints. To say that you can’t do the deep work that you just named and that would matter to you is preposterous.”
For the first time, he laughed.
“No, you’re absolutely right,” he replied. “I just got afraid. That’s all. To put my real dream on the table and imagine failing at it—that was too scary to contemplate.” He shook his head. “But I don’t need to predict failure. I don’t need to think that! I know how to show up. I know how not to scare myself with bad thoughts—at least, I think I do.” He smiled. “I wonder if all my practice will stand up to this challenge—to do real work.”
“Let’s predict that it will!”
“So,” I said. “What will you be doing?”
“Making powerful images that matter.”
“Yes.” I studied him for a moment. “Do we need to go over the details? How many hours a day you’ll work at this—any of that?”
He shook his head. “No. I know how to work. I’ve just been working on the wrong things.”
“Well, then! What do you want to plant in your head as your last thought for this session?”
For the final time that session, he thought. “That I have real work to do. We’ll see if it matters. We’ll see if it turns out brilliantly. We’ll see about all of that. My job is to do the work—and not just any work, because I’ve always worked. My job is to do this real work.”
“I believe I can let you go on that note,” I said.
“I believe you can.” He smiled, thanked me, and left.