Guest Post: What Inspires Michelle Aldredge

(Design & illustration by Robert Roxby)

Today is the last day of the inspiration series on my blog! I love the following essay by Michelle Aldredge, creator of the new arts site Gwarlingo. She speaks to art and life, creativity vs. commerce, and so much more in this eloquent piece on what inspires her to create:

—We are only alive to the degree that we can let ourselves be moved

A visual artist I know once told me about an audit she endured with the IRS. My friend is a professional artist in New York City with her own studio. Her work is shown at galleries and museums. She has received grants, been accepted to artist residencies around the world, and every now and then, she even manages to sell a few pieces of artwork.

During the audit, one of the IRS employees explained to my friend that she couldn’t keep declaring a loss for her business year after year. “This looks more like a hobby than a profession,” the auditor said.

My friend attempted to explain the financial ups and downs of being a working artist. Yes. There had been a dry spell in the “income department” in recent years, but her expenses were legitimate. Art was her business, her life, her passion–not a mere hobby. The auditor was completely puzzled. “But if you aren’t making any money creating art,” he asked, “why do you keep doing this year after year?”

I love this story because it says so much about the profit-oriented culture we inhabit as artists (and when I say “artists,” I define that term broadly to include writers, performers, designers, filmmakers, composers, visual artists, etc.).

For most artists I know, money is a constant source of anxiety because most creative projects don’t make economic sense. As artists, we have chosen an alternative paradigm to the profit-oriented one. This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t be smart about the business-side of art making, only that money isn’t our primary motivator.

The concept of creating for its own sake remains a radical concept in our culture. This is one of the central rifts we see playing out now between Wall Street bankers and supporters of the Occupy movement. One camp places a higher value on profits, while the other a higher value on more elusive qualities like imagination, empathy, and justice.

Of course, if you have your money invested in the stock market, then you want your broker to be greedy with your money—you want to earn 6%, not 4% like everyone else. But when it comes to art, greed turns the best ideas sour. It isn’t hard to sniff out the difference between work that was created from a free, deep place, and a blatant commercial commodity.

You may be able sell the end product of art—the concert ticket, the photograph, the book—but the idea itself is free. Art is a gift. It is an elusive mystery that thrives only when it’s shared.

Being an artist is hard because we’re operating in a parallel universeone that values imagination, creativity, and ideas more than money or status. But a true creative exchange—one in which art is given and accepted without obligation is a way of side-stepping the soul-crushing grimness of consumerism. I would go so far as to say that it’s an alternate way of being. It’s this free exchange between artist and audience that creates movement, provides pleasure, provokes change, and offers meaningful connection.

As writer and MacArthur fellow Lewis Hyde says in his classic book The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World, “The gift moves toward the empty place. As it turns in its circle it turns toward him who has been empty-handed the longest, and if someone appears elsewhere whose need is great it leaves its old channel and moves toward him. Our generosity may leave us empty, but our emptiness then pulls gently at the whole until the thing in motion returns to replenish us.”

“Motion” is a key word here, for an artist needs this movement to thrive. “Make the work,” said Walt Whitman. “Just stop thinking, worrying, looking over your shoulder wondering, doubting, fearing, hurting, hoping for some easy way out, struggling, grasping,…Stop it and just DO!” wrote artist Sol LeWitt to his friend Eva Hesse. “Don’t worry about cool, make your own uncool. Make your own, your own world. If you fear, make it work for you—draw & paint your fear and anxiety…You must practice being stupid, dumb, unthinking, empty. Then you will be able to DO!”

“No art is sunk in the self,” says Flannery O’Connor, “but rather, in art the self becomes self-forgetful in order to meet the demands of the thing seen and the thing being made.”

In Journal of a Solitude, May Sarton writes: “There is only one real deprivation…and that is not to be able to give one’s gift to those one loves most…The gift turned inward, unable to be given, becomes a heavy burden, even sometimes a kind of poison. It is as though the flow of life were backed up.”

“The artist who hopes to market work that is the realization of his gifts cannot begin with the market,” Hyde explains. “He must create for himself that gift-sphere in which the work is made, and only when he knows the work to be the faithful realization of his gift should he turn to see if it has currency in that other economy. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t.”

From an early age, I understood that art possessed its own strange power. Growing up in a conservative, fundamentalist family in suburban Atlanta, I was taught that the Bible was the inspired Word of God and that its words contained the literal answers to all of life’s problems.

I was also taught that many books, songs, movies, and artworks were dangerous and capable of damning you to hell for eternity. During my childhood, art was like a red-hot burner; its mysteries and dangers were a constant lure.

This idea was further cemented when a group of angry citizens demanded that the public library I worked for remove several “pornographic” books from the shelves. Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War and Jim Carroll’s The Basketball Diaries were the two books that sparked this ugly censorship battle. It was a divisive fight that dragged on for years, but the death threats, mudslinging in the press, and outraged library customers who screamed in my face and accused me of hurting their children taught me that the freedom to read should never be taken for granted.

While I didn’t support the group’s efforts to ban books, I did understand why some members of my community were afraid. They understood the old cliché that knowledge is power. They were afraid that what happened to me might happen to their own children—that all of their efforts to instill “family values” might be undermined by the freedom to read contrary opinions. For some parents, there is nothing worse than having your own child “backslide” into a state of doubt.

After so many years of seeing the world in crisp black and white, I’ve learned to value the beauty of the gray areas. I can still find solace in the woods, in a sacred space, or a room of friends sitting silently together, but the gift of art remains central to my well-being. I hate to think what my life might be like today without it.

It’s the hard, deep, uncomfortable work that inspires me most. Easy answers, like easy art, make me suspicious. I’m in awe of writers like Darcy Frey, Adrian LeBlanc, and Jeff Sharlet who spend years on a single book. They have devoted years of their life talking to people, shadowing them, researching their subject, listening, and writing in order to shine a light on a subject that was previously invisible.

But art doesn’t have to have an overt social conscience to be meaningful. A short piece of music or a seemingly simple painting can be as powerful or transformative as the thickest Tolstoy novel. By choosing to pay attention to any piece of art, we are acknowledging the value of imagination. To look, to listen, to attempt understanding is to participate in this free exchange.

My new arts site, is also an exchange of sorts—a way of giving back to the artists who have given so much to me through the years. I created Gwarlingo because I was tired of seeing the same movies, music, shows, and books covered in the mainstream press again and again. There are a lot of exceptional alternatives out there, but the trouble is knowing where to look. My idea was to create a place where art lovers and artists of all disciplines could discover compelling work. I wanted to go deeper than the average blog—to have real conversations with real artists about ideas and process. To break down the barriers of genre, geography, and age, but to also have a little fun along the way.

It is difficult to talk about the meaning of art without sounding fanciful or foolishly idealistic. We’re all afraid of sounding uncool or demystifying the creative process by talking about it too much. And yet, I know artists are hungry to discuss these ideas because they’ve told me they are.

The best art emerges from the tension of opposing impulses: discipline and play, solitude and community, intellect and emotion, success and failure, fear and fearlessness, giving and receiving. I believe this, and yet, I still find it difficult to fully comprehend the creative process. I have learned to be satisfied with these mysterious gray areas.

“The passage into mystery always refreshes,” says Hyde. “If, when we work, we can look once a day upon the face of mystery, then our labor satisfies…It is when the world flames a bit in our peripheral vision that it bring us jubilation and not depression…for we are only alive to the degree that we can let ourselves be moved.”

—Michelle Aldredge

Michelle Aldredge is a writer, photographer, and the creator of Gwarlingo, an arts and culture website that covers music, books, film, visual art, and the creative process. Since 1999, she has worked at The MacDowell Colony, the nation’s oldest artist colony founded in 1907. She has also worked as a librarian, a docent at The High Museum of Art, an English and literacy tutor, and an editorial assistant at an arts magazine. For two years she cared for injured eagles, hawks, and owls at a raptor rehabilitation center in Vermont. She also likes sailing, bird watching, hiking, and Southern barbeque. She has received two fellowships from The Hambidge Center and recently finished her first novel, Promiseland.

Visit Michelle at

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