Get Curious, Oh Artist!
An essay by Joshua T. Calkins-Treworgy
Author of “A Hunter and His Prey”
One of my favorite quotes of all time comes from author and political hopeful Marianne Williamson: “I think the happiest people are the ones who follow ‘I don’t know’ with ‘Let’s find out’.” There’s another quote, delivered by the character of Joshua Lyman in “The West Wing” that comes to mind as well- “What I want to see is evidence of a curious mind at work.” In these two cases, the speaker is talking about a preference for leaders who pose the important questions, geo-politically, but I should daresay I believe it is artists who need to be posing more questions.
There are few pairings of words more powerful in the English language than “What If,” because whatever combination of words follows, you’ll either get an answer or embark upon a quest to find one. It’s really rather intoxicating, though one should exercise caution; I asked a big “What If” back in my earlier days and ended up in the Air Force for a brief stint. It didn’t go so well, and let’s leave it at that.
When asking a friend of mine online, an illustrator, what his favorite piece of recent work had been, he turned me to an illustration that was quite different from his normal fare. Typically, he draws high fantasy men and women in assorted travel/combat gear and postures. By contrast, this newer piece looked like an anime-style giant robot, fashioned like a big, metal person. I asked him what made him draw this piece, and he replied, “I asked myself what one of my knights would look like if they were a robot.” Ergo, ‘What If’ the knight were mechanized?
Blending visual styles, reaching outside one’s comfort zone, swapping color and shading palettes, these are just a few tools at the visual artist’s disposal.
And in illustrations, especially comic books, what do readers look for? Details and consistency are key, and by consistency, I don’t mean repeating all the same story beats over and over again (though that does happen a fair bit in comics). I mean if a character has a light source to their left, then it should cast a shadow to their right. This shouldn’t be assumed to be obvious, though; the artist might be best served learning some basic physics and the properties of light wave function, to best represent it visually on the page.
The musician, likewise, should familiarize themselves with the following subjects on at least a surface level: sociology, audio engineering, electrical work, diet and gastronomy, and theatre. Two of these may seem sort of obvious, the audio engineering and theatre, because the hope, clearly, is to play in front of a crowd and entertain them, connect with them. I’d also encourage musicians of all stripes to watch and study a lot of stand-up comedy; those are artists too often overlooked or dismissed as just people trying to score a laugh or a cheap joke.
Comedy is a subject for a whole other essay, though. That’ll come later.
So why should a musician study sociology? Because you’re playing to a crowd at most times, not one-on-one. As such, you need to appeal to sensibilities that can apply to more than one person at a time. The key to communicating to such a large group of individuals in a live performance is to firstly appeal to them on a broader, group emotional level, and then move up to linguistic, ideological levels later on.
But why, you may ask, should a musician familiarize themselves with principles of electrical work? For one, to here and there help the technical folks setting up the show. They’re people too, and it always feels good to get a helping hand. For two, variety is the spice of life, and having steady work skills before you ‘make it’ artistically is just good sense.
On diet and gastronomy, remember that the musician will early on be relying on cheap and mobile food choices. It helps to know what sort of reactions you’ll have to the food you’ll be ingesting, and how to navigate your options when it’s time to fuel up for performing. Don’t forget too that broadening your skills and knowledge can open the door to revelations in your artistic pursuits. As to theatre, that should be patently obvious. I would argue that the band Kiss is better known for their costumes and stage production work than for the body of their music. Early on in his career with Genesis, Peter Gabriel was much the same, to the point that the rest of the band wanted him gone.
Artists of the written word have perhaps the steepest hill to climb in terms of needing to exercise their curiosity. This is due to a couple of factors, with the one I would personally take umbrage to the most being the common perception that writing is easy, that anybody can do it. This perspective is infuriating, especially for someone like myself who has, since 2007, completed and published through both traditional and modern self-production means 30 novels, 4 short story collections, 2 novellas and a host of short stories not yet assigned to a collection. These works are not quick-and-easy one-and-dones, my friends, no. Every one of them requires outlining, drop lists, drafting, editing, re-drafting, 2nd round edits, inserts, pull-outs, continued drafting, on and on. It isn’t always pretty, and sometimes, I’ll get done with one draft and completely abandon a story as a total loss. It isn’t easy.
Enough about my process, though. The vital point to take away here is that authors can find ways to grapple with complex ideas and use their facility with language, using metaphor and simile to condense down or translate those concepts into understandable snippets that can be digested by a broader audience. Take, for instance, the convoluted theory of time travel and causation. In its original academic format and framing, the hypothesis takes several pages to explain, and comes across rather dry. However, the writers of pop culture sci-fi have simplified through imagery many of those elements to the point that we can all as lay people understand the basics of the theory.
‘Don’t step on that bug, or Mecha-Hitler will be running the world when we get back to the present’.
The “What If” question has historically been given the most freedom in the written prose as an artform. The versatility of prose allows for a great deal of approaches to it, and chances are good that when another artform takes a crack at it, it will use an existing prose example as a springboard to base itself off of. Think on all the bizarre and haunting visual art inspired by Dante’s ‘Inferno’. It translates written imagery from the epic poem, rather than being cut entirely from original whole cloth.
And oh, the visual artists, yes, allow me to come back to them to conclude this piece. Curiosity for them can cover so many areas, from anatomy to sharpen their humanoid drawings to aerodynamics to draw faster cars and machines, to blueprint; the physics of water and light to create hyperrealistic landscapes, or defy the laws of nature like Dali to paint the absurd and haunting. So remember, o artist, to be curious, and to learn always when you can. It can only help your art, and your art, help mankind.