The “why” of what I do. Or “Thank you, Joe Chaney”

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Tara Gentile, the You Economy creative business advocate, keeps nudging me. Reading her blog posts and website for about two years, I nod and smile, amazed by her insight and fresh take. Often her words make me squirm with the discomfort that comes when finally facing a truth I’ve managed to ignore.
Tara’s writing prompts for the Kick-start Lab on blogging fueled recent changes to my blog. Yay! 
Her essay Stop trying to make money from your passion, left me feeling flummoxed AND convicted. Quoting the wisdom of Simon Sinek, she notes:

People don’t buy what you do. They buy why you do it.

So what is my why

The answer came as I organized my studio desk. Amongst newspaper clippings and old files, I found a printout of a radio essay written — of all things — about me and one of my painted pieces. Essayist Joe Chaney spoke prophetically about my work and my why:

The Artist’s Clock — reprinted with permission

Last Thursday at the third annual South Bend Art Beat, I bought a large decorative mantel clock at a crafts booth in the square across from the Morris Performing Arts Center. During the long evening of wandering from scene to scene and chatting with friends and strangers, I’d been tempted by quite a few lovely objects: pots, vases, sculptures. I was looking for something to take home, but I didn’t know exactly what I was after, or why, until I spied the clock.

The craftswoman displayed a selection of her hand-painted furniture. All of it appealed to me. But the clock seemed special. In aesthetic terms, it didn’t outshine the other pieces. But it spoke to me because what I was looking for, as it turned out, was just the sort of amusing, witty object that this clock was, by virtue of being a clock.

Some clocks are stately and ponderous; others are fussy or sleek or merely functional. Mechanically, our new clock is simple. Its brushed steel dial, fancy black minute and hour hands, and simple battery-powered mechanism are nothing special. But the architectural wooden case is whimsically hand-painted in bright colors—blue and orange and green and yellow and black and red. In irregular ways, one color frames another, and within the frames are spirals and twists and bright polka-dots scattered like stars. What the artist has done is to cover the clock’s structural austerity with a picture of mental frivolity. Yet it isn’t a child’s clock, this dream object, this elegant household clown. It tells time for us, but it also tells us not to take time or ourselves too seriously.

It changes our rather serious little house, and it changes me to look at it. What am I saying? I still try to arrive at meetings on time. But when I check the time on this clock’s face, which is immediately framed by the starry night, I sense how the foundations are tilting and shifting beneath me, how in the clock’s laughter, joyful as it is, an abyss opens, levies break and cities tremble.

There must be a million ways to communicate love, many of them rare and difficult. The artist of this clock reveals her care in the patterns and in the brushstrokes. There is something hard-won about the vulnerability of all these gestures, part design and part chance. Like all art, it is a struggle against time, no matter how desperate, and an effort in favor of love, no matter how perverse. She isn’t laughing at us—or with us, at the world. Through her, somehow, the world is laughing, and in the light of a certain time outside of all the times we know, we appear ridiculous to ourselves. Aren’t we ridiculous—all of us such consummate politicians, careful in all the wrong ways, technicians of our own undoing, always checking the time as if to ensure that we’ll never understand?

The beauty of art is that it destroys us all at once. How is that an expression of love? Don’t we want to live and grow and avoid being destroyed? Yes. But because art may be as close as we can come to experiencing our own deaths, because it permits us to glance at the clock that no longer changes,it may free us to live beyond our deaths and to know something of immortality in this life. Really, I have no interest in making you believe that my unconsequential clock can save us, when what I believe is that our salvation is all around us. We can hardly escape it.

Ah, but we do.

Broadcast by Joe Chaney on September 23, 2005. Michiana Chronicles airs on Fridays at 7:35 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. on WVPE (88.1 FM), the home of public radio in Elkhart / South Bend, Indiana.

Thank you, Joe Chaney. Down deep I knew that. But you gave that knowing the best words. Thank you. 

I let the world laugh through me.  

Why? So that a piece of visually expressed laughter will change you when you look at it; make your life brighter, your living and working space lighter. I make mental frivolity into functional art that triggers a giggle, a smile. For you.

I’d love to know your why.

5 Responses to The “why” of what I do. Or “Thank you, Joe Chaney”

  1. Tracy Burchett May 3, 2012 at 1:16 am #

    My deepest why is connection. I do what I do to understand, connecting a happening to its why. I connect people with information in my job, to see that light bulb go on for them, “Ah, yes! This is what I need to help me!” I observe, I wonder, I ask questions, I write, I pray – all to understand myself, the world, other people, and the divine, so that I can connect with them, and at the very least, say, “Me, too.”

  2. dj May 3, 2012 at 2:58 am #

    I love seeing people’s faces light up at the sight of my lowly creations.
    And I harbor aspirations of being self-employed. If only smiles paid the bills.

  3. dj May 3, 2012 at 3:31 am #

    Nice having someone to put it so well for you.

  4. Rebecca May 3, 2012 at 4:07 pm #

    Tracy, I LOVE what you write about connection and the ways you find understanding of yourself, “the world, other people, and the divine”. Knowing we are not alone, that who we are interlaces with, is part of, the universe we inhabit, is a powerful “why”. So happy you replied. Thank you.

  5. Rebecca May 3, 2012 at 4:11 pm #

    Yes, Darla, it is SO nice to have someone else put it so well. And I suspect that your creative work prompts similar musings from those lucky enough to acquire it.
    Alas, smiles don’t translate to financial freedom. But your joy, shared through your work, does make life brighter for you and others. That’s something money doesn’t buy.

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