Tuesday, February 8, 2011

On Greener Grass

"I really haven't had that exciting of a life.  There are a lot of things I wish I had done, instead of just sitting around and complaining about having a boring life.  So I pretty much like to make it up.  I'd rather tell a story about someone else."

-Kurt Cobain

I have developed somewhat of a fixation for reality shows about addiction.  My favorite go-to is Dr. Drew Pinksy's "Celebrity Rehab."  I once spent a whole day editing and watching, out of the corner of my eye, back-to-back episodes of "Intervention."  When those ran out, I put on "American Meth," and "Haze."  I was traumatized.  And intrigued.  I remember reading an article a long time ago, in a magazine whose name I have since forgotten, that a survey taken of the richest people in America revealed that they credited "hard work" as the number one reason for their success.  Such is the same for artists, except that we really are not doing it for the money.  When I was heading to grad school in an art college, my friends joked about "what a great life" I'd be having, I'd be spending days "scribbling with crayons," "wasting time in coffee shops, analyzing pointless books," and "trying to look cute in second-hand clothes while drinking Two-Buck Chuck at endless gallery openings."  The truth is about as far from vanilla as you can possibly get.  The hardest work I have ever done in my life was performed in the pursuit of a graduate degree in fine arts.  Days upon days of sleepless nights.  Innumerable dinners cobbled from the aisles of the gas station down the street.  Molding my class schedule to ridicule hours so I could work a full shift waiting tables at the celebrity restaurant downtown five days a week.  The never-ending quest to discover "the thesis project." Shooting. Editing.  Re-shooting.  Printing.  Looking back, I'm surprised I survived.  I did almost fail out of the program; I had to petition the head of the department and the dean to stay.  When I finally graduated, I was down to the last thread holding me together.  

It's been almost four years, and I've found large and hazy gaps in my memory about my time in grad school.  Most of it is due to the sheer exhaustion of what I was doing to myself on the daily, but I'm sure some it comes from the coping mechanisms I adopted.  Drinking bottom of the barrel margaritas from the disgusting Mexican place next door, out of discrete coffee mugs, to take the edge off while the RA-4 machine broke down once again, only six hours left before my final portfolio was due.  Four generic PM painkillers at the end of my work shift at night so I could sleep, two Five Hour Energy drinks during the day to keep me functional.  I worked hard, and I partied harder. On a given week, by the time Thursday rolled around, the desperation kicked in for human contact after knowing nothing but the four walls of a private darkroom, or the screen of an unfriendly computer day after day.  Restaurant workers by rule party hard, as well, and we were all art students, so the partying took on a different level.  And still, above the incessant input and interaction, there was a nagging feeling of, "I'm not doing enough."  Somebody else was spending more time on their thesis, or shooting more exposures, or I was always missing out on the best night out, the biggest party.  I had a serious case of the Grass is Greener.

Last Saturday night, I found myself still at the studio at midnight, after an already long day.  I was putting together a Rather Important portfolio for a review at the Corcoran the following day.  Something happens to the mind when you force it to focus for so long.  A semi-delirium sets in.  I work to loud music. The louder the better.  I'm usually a hard-core Dave Matthews fan, but this night I had Passion Pit and the Killers on repeat.  I discovered you can create a playlist on YouTube and put Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros on a loop.  To break the monotony of the editing, I turned to e-mail and Facebook.  I've said before that being an artist is the loneliest job in the world.  Let me tell you, at eleven o'clock on a Saturday night, you can definitely bet that it is.  All I could think about was all the fun everyone else was having while I was locked down in the studio.  I hadn't been outside in almost thirteen hours, other than a quick jaunt to the Chinese food place two doors down for a can of Diet Coke and a box of the most delicious Taiwanese grub you've ever put in your mouth.  It's at this time that the depression sets in, the self-doubt.  This is the point where trouble begins.  Moments of doubt in times of creation are what breed the alcoholism, the drug-dependency, the out-the-back-door excuses for artists who are handling "too much."  

When I finally forced myself to go home, the feeling of things left undone wouldn't allow me to sleep.  I stayed up reading The Daybooks of Edward Weston (I. Mexico), to console the puritan part of my brain telling me I was a slacker.  This is the general esprit of my life: consumed by the guilt of never doing enough, of not being interesting enough, of not pursuing enough.  "An artist is a creature driven by demons," William Faulkner once said in an interview for The Paris Review with Jean Stein.  "He doesn't know why they choose him, and he's usually too busy to wonder why."

As a photographer and writer, I tell stories about other people, other places, that are much more interesting than my own reality.  It sure is better than spending my time complaining about what I haven't done, or wondering what everybody else is doing.  "I wish I was like you," Kurt Cobain once wrote, in the lyrics  of the song All Apologies.  "Easily amused."

"My Grass is Blue"
Washington, DC, 2010

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