Origins: Fending Off the Sadness

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“I started listening to the wolves in the timber at night. I don’t know how they found me, I’ll never know quite how.”
– musician, Josh Ritter

“The shadow proves the sunshine.”– musician, Jon Foreman

Whether one believes in origins as a matter of seven simultaneous 24-hour days carved out of emptiness, as the result of billions of years of settling and seething, as a lone voice speaking the entirety of everything simultaneously into existence, or as mere ornamental accident, the artist’s act of creating—the effort to birth something new, previously unknown or unseen into the world—is inherently the creation story retold in its most primitive, though fallible, form. Any artist worth any grain of salt must, even on their worst, most godless day, admit that the act in which they engage themselves is an effort to replicate origins. The artist fully engaged in his or work knows beyond a shadow of a doubt that nothing he creates did not already previously exist. Worse still, neither the shadow nor the doubt will ever leave him in peace.

Though not present at the original unveiling of time, the artist yearns jealously to participate, to have a hand in emulating beginnings. Though plagued by cavernous insecurity and grave doubt, the artist is, ironically, a hopeful soul by nature. He seeks to eradicate the dark by introducing light, struggling to fight off the bloodthirsty wolves, and contending however feebly to muzzle the odious butcher voices. The artist is a figure in storm, rapt and straining to hear melody amid chaos, not at all aloof or immune to projectile shrapnel, very much aware of and susceptible to the pain. If lucky, in the end the artist is able to walk away, but never without a limp. Even luckier is the soul with friends and an audience who listens, affirms and joins in harmony.

I am a dabbler and a sparer. I paint canvases. I spare and repurpose dilapidated wood. I collect old books. And, the way I see it, I dabble in the art of lawn mowing. None of these acts involve the writing of words, and, for me, that is entirely the point.

Creating is my way of fending off the sadness. When painting a canvas, I am wringing the throat of darkness, forcing its movement, coloring the vacuum of shadows, answering the aching, dull melancholy with color of my own. When working with castoff slabs of old, dingy wood, I am repurposing an atom of origins, and lending it an atom of myself. By reclaiming lost, unwanted, unnoticed debris, and wiping away the grime of plaguing memories, chipping away tormenting layers of paint, I am reintroducing the refashioned work into the living fold. When mowing a lawn, I am laboring over something unkempt, perhaps hideous, and wrestling it—toiling, even—to make it pretty again, albeit temporarily so. By revering the meek, undistinguished objects and scenes of earth, the artist seeks to recapture a grain of the original garden; that place where the soul first felt its worth. The artist sings a song over his subjects’ unrequited lives of possibility, their lifeless carcasses, and, necessarily, dies a little bit himself. Not all death is to be avoided.

The artist wants. In wanting, he must fight a good fight. Under these terms, fighting “good” is not to be confused with fighting fair. I must push back against the darkness, if necessary using darkness itself as a weapon. In proclaiming origin, the artist humbles himself before the blank space and the medium, and asks of them, “What do you wish to be?” By such expression, the engaged artist wittingly or unwittingly pleads, Your will be done, not mine. In submission, I am shredding the darkness, and flinging it back at itself. We are, after all, replicators seeking to help the near-blind see their own origin of color. In engaging his heart and hands the artist stares through the well of life into the implacable sadness and yanks out the light from the dark depths. In the original garden abounded radiant light, bounty, and beauty, and in his heart the artist continues clinging to, and fighting for, his own shimmering origin. And he hopes that light is enough.

Eric Peters, affectionately called "Pappy" by those who love him, is the grand old curmudgeon of the Rabbit Room. But his small stature and often quiet presence belie a giant talent. He's a songwriter of the first order, and a catalogue of great records bears witness to it. His last album, Birds of Relocation, blew minds and found its way onto “year’s best” lists all over the country. When he's not painting, trolling bookstores, or dabbling in photography, he's touring the country in support of his latest record, Far Side of the Sea.


16 Comments

  1. Chris

    “Creating is my way of fending off the sadness. When painting a canvas, I am wringing the throat of darkness, forcing its movement, coloring the vacuum of shadows, answering the aching, dull melancholy with color of my own.” So true. Thanks for your beautiful words @ericpetersmusic

  2. Amy L

    A hearty “yes” to creating as a way to fight the darkness, both the darkness from without and that from within.

    I recently heard a hard story and felt compelled to start baking – in the middle of the story – and my friend was confused at first. I said that there needed to be some order in the world, and if the story could end with something orderly (and delicious), it would at least dispel some of the chaos. I don’t know if it was so bold as “wringing the throat of darkness”, but it sure felt good.

    Thank you for putting this into words.

  3. Karenee

    “In engaging his heart and hands the artist stares through the well of life into the implacable sadness and yanks out the light from the dark depths.”
    No depth of loneliness sinks deeper than love; no emptiness is vacant of presence; all darkness, unresistant, is vanquished by light; and vacuum cannot unmake the heavens; nothing is too small for intricacy; nothing is too vast for simplicity.

    In the end, it is a wonder to explore the unknown and ask, “What do you wish to be?” and “What were you made to be?” because in the answer to those questions twines a DNA of possibility. Thank you. It’s good to find others who seek light in the shadows.

    I’m saving this for the next time I get lost and start feeling alone.

  4. tricia prinzi

    “By reclaiming lost, unwanted, unnoticed debris, and wiping away the grime of plaguing memories, chipping away tormenting layers of paint, I am reintroducing the refashioned work into the living fold.”

    This reminds me of when Travis and I moved into our 100 year old house (with 100 years of grime and damage done by renters). I was so overwhelmed. I was sad and stuck. As we started caring for it, though, the change in me was more apparent than the change in the house. The reward for our work was not what we got for it, but what we became by it. We were living out a parable of taking this broken, ugly thing and restoring it to beauty, just as God has loved and restored us. And it gave me hope. It made me remember that a time is coming when all will be right and restored again.

    It’s a relief and a joy to read your words. Thank you for keeping it real, EP.

  5. Jack Freeman

    When my wife found pinterest, my house was completly filled with repurposed dilapidated wood….I love it dear?

  6. Bruce Hennigan

    Once again, Eric, you touch my soul with your words. As Walter Wangerin, Jr. said, the poet, the “shaper” takes darkness and shadows and debris and shapes events such that “chaos becomes cosmos”! Thank you for turning your shadows into His light!

  7. PaulH

    Thanks Eric for your creative words to help me see what I could not express clearly in my own artlife.

  8. Brad Voigt

    Dabbling in the art of lawn mowing is therapeutic. If the first time it doesn’t work, there’s always next week. Well played Eric Peters, well played.

  9. Amy S.

    Thank you! I absolutely needed to read this post today. I’m realizing how visual arts help me emotionally, how God uses paint and glue to work out the knots in my stomach and the deep emotions that have no words. I’m a writer, always defined by being a word smith. But, maybe I’m more. I feel encouraged and by golly, I’m going to go paint!

  10. James Witmer

    By revering the meek, undistinguished objects and scenes of earth, the artist seeks to recapture a grain of the original garden; that place where the soul first felt its worth.

    Eric, thank you for acknowledging and reminding that anywhere – from lawns to music – we are willing to fight back the entropy, we become more like the Maker. The beauty becomes more real in us.

    Tricia, thanks for adding your story. It’s too good not to be true.

  11. Jaclyn

    Well, now that you’ve outlined my entire life, I have another question:

    **Do those who would not call themselves artists, and would not thoroughly resonate with this article, also fight this battle against chaos and darkness? If they are, could they possibly be unaware, or be experiencing it differently? If so, how?

    I’m very curious to understand what separates artists from those who are “not artists,” which is a difficult idea for me to even accept. Part of my “sparing” is rescuing the identities of others. I believe that everyone creates, as a created image-bearer of God. The trick is in discovering what it is a particular creation was made to create.

    What’s more, it is easy to confuse a lack of “creativity” with simply fighting bad. Many times, I believe (because I, sadly, do it often), we create by simply replicating the darkness rather than shoving it away. The darkness has its own sinister sheen that can be mistaken for light, and it takes the perseverance only faith in the Creator can bring to patiently draw up True Light from the grimy wells and dusty mineshafts.

    Has anyone else wondered about this? I’d love to hear your thoughts. And thank you so much, Eric, for this article. Just reading the epigram has chased away much of my own sadness this weekend.

    PS: I had to look up “tryptich,” but now I agree. It’s pretty awesome.

  12. Dan R.

    @Jaclyn: I feel honored to pass on something that was recommended to me by our friendly rabbit-hood Becca Reynolds when I had some similar questions. In chapter 11 of Dorothy Sayers’ “Mind of the Maker” she sets out to tackle some of the very issues you bring up. It might not answer all your questions, since her broader goals are kind of different than this essay, but if you haven’t read it yet (or even if you have) you might find it very helpful.

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