Martha Graham and the Inner Nag

Posted by Gregory Johnson on

The attached photo shows a quote by Martha Graham that I taped to the top of my easel as a constant reminder of the reason I do this. My son noticed it and asked who she was. I had to answer that I really didn't know, and that I had come across the quote accidentally. You the reader may be wondering what rock I emerged from under, to not know who this was. Upon researching just a little, I found out she was probably the most influential modern dance performer and teacher this country and the world had ever seen. She literally changed modern dance through sheer brilliant innovation.

Well, alrighty then...

The life of the creative artist is a strange one. I have been creating slightly off-kilter to completely strange drawings for many years, all the while wondering why, and never having a sufficient answer. I just had to. Now that I am revealing them to the public, which I didn't want to do for as many years, I feel a deep sense of...insufficiency. They are NEVER quite right, never quite there. I notice the flaws, I compare myself to other artists work that I think is better, I anguish about feeling like a fraud, these are too much this, or not enough that. In the photo, you can see a part of a drawing that I am producing as a 12 part series covering Jung's 12 archetypes. This one is "The Ruler". I have done 7 so far, and on the one hand, I'm very proud of them. On the other, I nag myself: Too cartoony? Too much technique differences? Too much negative space, not enough? Too much this, not enough that. There are many moments in which I experience a creative crisis, in which I question just what the hell am I doing, and who am I kidding?

Then I look at that quote.

My work isn't for everyone. There are a few which you may want to put on your living room wall, but not many. Unless, of course, your living room wall is really interesting. There are plenty of such walls out there. I post work on this site in hopes that someone may want a print, or a t-shirt with my drawing on it, but that's NOT the reason I create. Below is the complete quote by Ms. Graham, as related by Agnes de Mille:

The greatest thing [Graham] ever said to me was in 1943 after the opening of Oklahoma! when I suddenly had unexpected, flamboyant success for a work I thought was only fairly good, after years of neglect for work I thought was fine. I was bewildered and worried that my entire scale of values was untrustworthy. I talked to Martha. I remember the conversation well. It was in a Schrafft's Restaurant over a soda. I confess that I had a burning desire to be excellent, but no faith that I could be. Martha said to me, very quietly: "There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares to other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you. Keep the channel open...No artist is pleased. [There is] no satisfaction whatever at any time. There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others."

So, now it's time to research the next archetype: The Magician.


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