The deeper you can cut, the closer you get to the heart.

It is important to cut deep when you are learning your craft. If you shy away from the harder, darker, deeper expressions you may not find your way beyond the surface expression. Think of the love poem as an example. If we take the easy road, we may find lovely expressions of beauty, affection, joy, exhilaration. But perhaps this is more the love poetry of our childhood, rather than the poetic expression of rip-roaring love.

Let’s look at two examples:


This is more of a love greeting card than a deep expression of emotion. It’s fine to begin here, to start with this type of expression, but it takes no risks, it uses ordinary language. And this type of “poem” is fairly lifeless. Your sweetheart might enjoy the sweet card on Valentine’s Day, but this type of poem was better in elementary school.

Now let’s find a short example of a poet who takes a deeper cut at love.

You are a sky of autumn, pale and rose;
But all the sea of sadness in my blood
Surges, and ebbing, leaves my lips morose,
Salt with the memory of the bitter flood.

— the eyes of beauty, Baudelaire

While this poem may not be to your taste, you get the full thrust of his longing and ache of his love and lust. You get oceans, and blood, and salt. He has truly opened a vein and let a bit of his heart spill out on the page. This is your task. Find the vein that you are able to access and give us the deepest cut you can at the turmoil love brings into all you think, and do, and feel. Safe expression of love is not very interesting. We all have this opportunity, and we can get it in the birthday card aisle at the grocery store. This is not the realm of art.

If you are looking for art, and wanting to find a your unique voice, you have to bypass inhibition, and go for the darkness, the real free-falling, the overwhelming sensations that you cannot control. Even in you art (visual, musical, textual) you must lose control. It’s the controlled loss of control that creates great art.

Think of your top inspirations in creative expression. Most of them learned to cut directly through their own editors to unleash a torrent of emotion that could not be contained or edited. It’s more like a flood when you hit the rich gold of deep expression.

Some of our best and deepest artists tapped into that expression beyond the conscious or rational control. It is in the risking, the dare you take to go further and farther into your obsession and give us a glimpse of the ecstasy or agony that is roiling inside. I think of Robert Motherwell’s explosive ink paintings as a fine example of letting go, exploding, pouring out something darker and deeper than words could express.


What he gives us is the controlled lack of control. Something random and dark that he released as finished and complete. He dared us to look into child-like expressions and see the art, the love, the power of the gesture. He is not saying, “Look at my genius, look at my love or my artistic expression.” In most of his work, his genius was letting go, showing us how to release anything and everything with abandon.

Your job, as a young artist, is to learn to let go. Find your way to the depths of expression and pull up any small bits you can. The more pure and raw, the more original and striking. You can afford to fail at your age. Try and dig deep. Go fearlessly into the abyss and pull back some of the cold, black, mud from the bottom, then toss it at your virtual canvas and step back.

One of the hardest lessons you must get in going deep, is to turn off the editor while you create. You can edit later. But while you are plumbing the depths, you might hear yourself saying, “This is stupid. This is gross. This makes no sense.” And thank your editor for the information and press on. Imagine the first moment Robert Motherwell blasted a white canvas with black ink and said, “DONE.”

He was pioneering some radical notion that this minimal, child-like, gesture could be ART. And as an adult man attempting to establish his genius and find his unique expression, he was taking a great risk. But the more he poured out on the canvas the more he must have felt the rush of exposure. The more he ripped at the canvas, added color and shape without any prior guidelines, the more he knew he had tapped a deep vein of expression.

You’ve got to find your vein. And, pardon the expression, you’ve got to spill it out all over the page.

John McElhenney
@jmacofearth (also seen on Google+: jmacofearth)
permalink: http://uber.la/2014/08/cutting-deep/

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supportive references:

image: artist’s toolbox, see-ming lee, creative commons usage

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