Dare to Feed Your Creative Muse

Posted: December 18, 2018 by Brian Johnston

My father was an interesting man. An engineer by trade and a salesman by nature, he was driven by a tireless work ethic and a genuine love for the freedom that comes along with wealth. He worked 70 hour weeks most of his life. In fact, the day before he died in his sleep he put in a full day. And while he might have opted to spend the day with his wife had he known of his pending demise, an argument could be made that he wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

But for all the creature comforts that his money and success bought him, I think happiness and self-satisfaction were relatively elusive. My father had forgotten more about automation than most experts ever knew in the first place, having been part of that industry since its infancy. He had built countless automated assembly lines all over the world in a wide variety of industries. His expertise was so sought after that he would often work freelance consultation on the weekends and off hours where his fee started at $300 an hour and worked its way up from there.

Despite all this success over a career spanning more than 50 years, he spent an inordinate amount of time reflecting on a single failed project that ate away at his very soul. He had become so used to success that the first iota of failure took the wind from his sails. In fairness, this project would have netted him a small fortune the likes of which most of us would never see in a lifetime. What my father failed to account for was the fact that he was a huge success by the measure of anybody else’s ruler—just not his own.

After this singular career failure, my father started looking for alternative opportunities in his life that were outside his engineering and sales background. I kind of think this served a dual-purpose for him: He was first looking to find a way to quickly make up the money he failed to earn from his unsuccessful engineering project while at the same time he was seeking to fill the void of meaning left in his life that was created when his winning streak ran out. He started numerous businesses, some of them multi-level marketing (read: pyramid schemes), and spent large swaths of time and money pursuing moneymaking ventures outside of his engineering wheelhouse.

It wasn’t until about four years before his death that he finally found some inner peace. The change in him was drastic on many levels. The man who forced haircuts on me during my teenage years suddenly had developed an unwieldy Grizzly Adams scruff. The facial hair seemed to usher in a host of other changes as well. He adopted a much more laid-back demeanor than the man I had known all my life. The man that had mailed photocopies of his middle finger to those whom he felt had wronged him was suddenly in possession of a new-found patience.

To what did he owe this, his new attitude? A cursory glance at his life didn’t reveal much. He still worked more hours than most men half his age. His financial status hadn’t improved in any meaningful way. After a TIA, stroke, hip replacement, and a couple heart attacks, he couldn’t say he had his health. In fact, his mobility had decreased to the point where fishing, his favorite pastime, was a nigh-on-impossible struggle. So what had changed?

My dad renewed his love of oil painting on canvas.

As a very young child, I remember our family going to one of those ‘starving artist sales’ at Mount Mary University. We picked up a couple paintings including one large pastoral picture of a weathered barn on a farm. I distinctly remember my father placing the picture on our living room table, grabbing his oil paints, and mixing up a custom shade of forest green on a 3”x5” card because he had no painter’s palette. He carefully replaced the beat-up red window shutters with minimally-weathered green ones. It may have taken him all of ten or fifteen minutes, but the memory stuck with me. I could see in his eyes how much happier he was with the picture now that it fit his vision of what that barn was supposed to be. He happened to bring his pencils, sketchbooks, oil pastels and other materials up from the basement at the same time, and I looked through them as he worked. I saw pictures he had drawn of my mother, elements of design that looked very much like classroom work, a still life, several lighthouses, and pictures of a variety of animals, mostly birds and fish. As a six-year-old I found it striking to see this entire side of my father that I never knew existed, and I affixed a new label to the man I already most admired, one that I quite liked and wouldn’t have expected: ARTIST.

After my father suffered his stroke, he began taking art classes at Green Bay community college. The courses were free for seniors, and my Dad was an avid student. He would attend classes one or two nights a week. He had homework that he completed diligently. Best of all, he would occasionally talk about his classroom experience with me.

I’ll never forget the day he said he saw the darnedest thing at school. There were two women who had also been taking the oil painting classes together, and they were both very talented. One day there were several people gathered around the easel they shared. On the easel there was an iPad, and they were using a specially-made brush to ‘paint’ digitally. He was amazed at both the sensitivity of the device and the fact that the women were particularly good at pulling off reasonably advanced painting techniques with this high-tech setup. Sensing his excitement, I asked, “Why don’t you get yourself one of those?”

“Brian, it was neat, but I want to put brush to canvas! That’s what I want to do. I don’t have time to learn a whole new setup. I want to do this NOW.”

At that moment I more than understood what he was saying on several levels. On the surface, my father was pursuing virtuosity—and doing it in the purest manner. He took instruction from a mentor, found inspiration in the work of the masters, admired the techniques of his peers, practiced and refined his craft, then followed it up with a rinse and repeat. His only goal was being better than he was the day before. Using others for inspiration and himself as the benchmark, he set out to hone his art and did so through the only way possible: practice and repetition.

But there was more there than was apparent on the surface, not the least of which is the idea that he didn’t feel the need to spend money on ‘toys’ to make himself happy. In fact, this might be the first time I can remember him ever eschewing stuff for substance. I could nearly hear his brain, ‘No, I don’t want a goddamn iPad; I just want to express myself without encumbrance. Is that too much to ask?’

It was refreshing. It was pure. It was real. And it was HIS. From that moment forward I found a new kinship with the man who gave me life.

As a lifelong musician and writer, I’ve always identified myself as an artist first and everything else secondarily to that. Long before my dad rediscovered painting I had once overheard him speaking to a family friend about my sister and me, “He’s a musician and she’s an artist. I don’t know where they get it from, but they are committed.” Wow—the way he said it took me by surprise. If I didn’t know any better, I’d almost say it sounded more like admiration than disapproval, an attitude I wouldn’t have expected him to have about the music and musings that would persistently distract me from more lucrative pursuits. When he started painting again, I remembered that moment and realized that maybe he secretly claimed a bit of ownership of the part of me that mattered most in my eyes.

Probably once a week someone stops me in the hallway at work with a comment, “You’re ALWAYS happy, aren’t you?” While nobody is happy all the time, I’d be willing to say that I am a good sum more satisfied with life than the average Joe on the street. If I were to hazard a guess as to the reasons behind that happiness, I’d point to the fact that I have spent a lifetime feeding my creative muse. Whether it’s music, writing, or merely completing my work as a technician with an artful attention to detail and a personal flair, I infuse my work with the essence of self. At the end of the day it is those things—those expressions of self that are uniquely mine—that give even my busy work significance.

When you can attach personal meaning to the smallest things in life, the reasons behind the bigger things in life tend to become that much clearer with no additional effort. Purpose becomes more illuminating. The path becomes a bit more defined. The traps and pitfalls become a little easier to avoid. When you find yourself vested in the work that you are doing, you will inherently work harder and do a better job, and you will have a clearer idea of the steps you need to take to ensure your success. Owning your portion of a group project will ensure that your contributions are significant and help propel the group toward success. But for any of this to happen, you first must believe that you have something concrete and valuable to offer. To that end, refuse to marginalize yourself in the group context and resist the urge to do so to others.

Respect is hard-earned. If you don’t rate high enough to afford yourself and your ideas the respect you deserve, then how can you reasonably expect a stranger to do so? When your thoughts and ideas have personal meaning and purpose, they will carry significance and value. You will always work harder to give voice to those thoughts because they matter. Time is precious and so are your thoughts, hopes, and dreams. Dare to feed your inner muse. It is unlikely that you will be on your deathbed wishing you’d have put in more hours at some soul-crushing grind.

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1 Comment

  • Brett Burow Reply

    This is one of the most well written, insightful articles I’ve read in a very long time. Well done sir!

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