Art Can Change Your Life
What piece of art changed your life?
Edited by John Lewis
Experiencing art is, for some people, mere entertainment, a welcome diversion from the banalities of everyday life. Others may think of art primarily as an investment, or something to be consumed. But for some of us, art can be a life-changing experience.
With that in mind, we posed two questions to a few dozen of our finest local artists: What piece of art (visual art/film/literature/music/dance/whatever) changed your life? And how did it affect you?
The responses were entertaining and enlightening. You may even find some of them inspiring. We've also prepared an extensive listing of arts events scheduled for the coming months. Thanks to the Free Fall Baltimore initiative—more than 75 arts organizations are offering events free of charge in October and November (visit freefallbaltimore.com for details)—there's never been a better time to experience the local arts scene.
It might even change your life.
For better or worse, I became the writer that I became in considerable measure because of two literary monuments fortuitously encountered during my student years at Johns Hopkins. The first was James Joyce's Ulysses, that polestar of literary Modernism first published in France in 1922, banned from the USA until 1933 on account of its erotic aspects, acclaimed in a recent poll as the greatest novel of the 20th century, and hungrily devoured by me nearly 60 years ago in the 1946 Modern Library edition. That copy remains on my shelf, index-tabbed and heavily annotated by a fledgling fictionist as wowed at age 20 by that Modernist masterpiece as a naive but ambitious young painter might have been on first encountering the works of Pablo Picasso.
The second (in some ways a counterweight to the first) was the anonymous medieval Persian/Arabian tales of Scheherazade, which I'd read originally as a kid in a radically abridged and expurgated Arabian Nights discreetly illustrated by N. C. Wyeth, but then rediscovered in the Hopkins library in Richard Burton's 17-volume, privately printed and utterly unexpurgated 1885 edition (likewise now in a place of honor in our house) entitled The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night—ribald, raucous, hilarious, heart-constricting —wherein the Sultan's Vizier's beautiful and canny daughter diverts her murderously misogynous master with nearly three years worth of sex and storytelling to prevent his deflowering and executing every maiden in the realm. Her life ever on the line, only as good as her next piece, Scheherazade remains for me the most piquant emblem of the storyteller's lot.
So: one icon of early-20th-century Modernism and another of timeless oral taletelling, Ulysses and The 1001 Nights became (and remain) my chiefest stars. With their aid I've steered my own course, trying as best I can to not mistake my navigation-stars for my destination.
DJ/producer (Basement Boys)
"Soul Man" by Sam and Dave was the first 45 rpm record that my parents purchased for me in the 1960's. It made me fall in love with music. To now have a career in the music business is truly satisfying.
Geologist & Avey Tare
Musicians (Animal Collective)
The Shining by Stanley Kubrick—specifically the music in the film. How could you know at 15 years old that abstract sound could be just as interesting and powerful as melody and rhythm? We certainly didn't until watching that film at just the right moment. Eleven years later, we're still influenced by what we learned that night.
DJ/producer (Basement Boys)
When I was in high school I took a trip one fall with some friends to see Frank Lloyd Wright's "Fallingwater." I was overwhelmed by the design integrity, how it worked with nature and almost became part of nature. It also worked so well as a living space. I knew I wanted to be creative, and affect how people experienced the world and interacted with it. I went to architecture school, and turned to interactive urban planning, by involving and educating communities about the world around them. Then, my interest turned to music. Though I liked many different kinds of music, it was soulful dance music that grabbed me. But what really grabbed me was DJing and creating a musical journey for dancers on the dance floor. The creative process of programming positive, soulful dance music pulled me into a career in music. More than architecture, it allowed me to affect an even deeper, more personal space where people lived.
One of the things that really changed my life was meeting Jackson Pollock and seeing his drip paintings when they were still wet in the studio. They impressed upon me that the canvas and the self are indivisible—they cannot be divided. The work is the self.
The album Money Jungle, the famous trio date involving Max Roach (drums), Charles Mingus (bass), and The Man himself, Duke Ellington, at the piano. I never knew sound could have such adventure and imagination. I knew after hearing this record my life would be spent in the pursuit of sounds.
Tim Camponeschi (aka Slim Man)
When I was five years old, my Dad took me to see a movie with Louis Armstrong and Danny Kaye. It was called The Five Pennies. I saw Louis play trumpet and sing in the movie, and asked my Dad to get me a trumpet for Christmas.
He got me a plastic toy trumpet. I told him I didn't want a toy, I wanted a real one. So for my birthday, right after Christmas, he got me a real one, and it started my love affair with music, jazz, and Louis Armstrong.
Madison Smartt Bell
There is more than one such instance, but the one that comes to mind is the part in Dostoevsky's The Idiot where Prince Myshkin goes to visit Rogozhin. Myshkin, being on the verge of an epileptic seizure, is full of paranoid dread and believes that Rogozhin is planning to kill him. In fact, Rogozhin is planning to kill him (the two have a difference over a woman, etc.). Rogozhin is waiting for Myshkin at the top of his stairs, and Myshkin climbs toward him believing that Rogozhin is holding a knife behind his back, which he is. At the moment Rogozhin draws his knife, Myshkin falls into his fit and in the moment of collapse experiences the full panorama of omniscient euphoria that is often reported from the cusp of such seizures. In my own life at the time, there were events that seemed to echo it still further, so a feeling of synchronicity was impressed deeply upon me. And Dostoevksy became my greatest influence.
Artistic Director (Center Stage)
When I was fifteen, my high school in Long Island put on a production of Thornton Wilder's Our Town. Prior to that, I had not been exposed to anything artistic—theater, classical music, dance, visual arts, what have you—but from experiencing that show, and seeing the depth of vision and human emotion presented on a stage through very simple means, I was hooked. I knew what I wanted to do with my life.
Founder of CityLit Project
The original Clash album (on vinyl!) released in the USA in 1979, but discovered by me in 1981 at Record Masters in the Rotunda. From the first crunching chords of "Clash City Rockers" to the stop-on-a-dime finale of "Garageland," I was hooked. It ushered me to the Ramones, The Jam, Minor Threat, Hüsker Dü, the Replacements, and the rest of the Clash catalog that become my soundtrack for the Reagan-Thatcher 1980s. More importantly, it ignited the first sparks of a DIY spirit within me. While I never dyed my hair blue, pierced a body part, or owned a pair of real Doc Martens, that essential punk spirit evolved into what I guess they call an "entrepreneurial spirit" these days. This drive might partly explain how I have been able to create "career opportunities" in the book world even though the culture of literature is under attack. Twenty-five years later, I still listen to it.
Musician & Co-Founder of the High Zero Festival of Experimental Improvised Music
At the age of six my mother took me to the BMA to see an "empty gallery" exhibit by Sol Lewitt consisting of faint geometric pencil marks on the walls. What it suggested to me at that ripe age was a kind of non-conformist culture confronting the viewer from a remote, complex, strange, and abstract standpoint—like being contacted by interesting aliens that have something fundamental and surprising to tell you. I spent the rest of my life following up on that suggested possibility by energetically exploring and participating in the artistic, musical, and political avant-gardes. While they contain plenty of garbage and fluff, they did ultimately provide me with many "miracles"—piercing ideas and perspectives that go far beyond what is usually possible in our civilization. The path severely less traveled was really where the action was.
Music Director (BSO)
Hearing Brahms' String Sextet in B flat major when I was 12 years old made me suddenly understand that music can change one's life from the inside out. It's the first piece I felt truly "moved" by and I have loved it intensely from that moment on.
Eudora Welty's short story, "The Wide Net"—and more specifically, the sentence describing someone who could sit all day pondering how the tail of the C got through the loop of the L in the Coca-Cola sign. That sentence came at me like a burst of light. It made me see that I could write about ordinary life rather than something grand and operatic.
Dancer and Actress (The Wire)
The most influential artistic experience of my life was seeing the original Ballet Russes de Monte Carlo at the Lyric when I was six years old. It was the singular event that made me "know" that I wanted to perform on stage as a dancer. I saw all of those men and women in beautiful costumes surrounded by stunning, larger-than-life scenery, and I knew that "those were my people." And I have been dancing and performing ever since.
Music Director (Baltimore Choral Arts Society)
They say you never forget your first time, and they're right. The first time I ever sang in a chorus was during my freshman year in college. We sang Gabriel Fauré's Requiem, and I was so moved, that within weeks of singing that concert, I abandoned my plans to be a professional guitarist and embraced choral music as my life's work. The best thing about choral music is that you are part of something bigger than yourself. The Fauré Requiem will always be a big part of me.
Some experiences of great art are electric, dramatic. I'm thinking of the effect on the viewer, or reader, of Van Gogh's swirling, cosmically charged Starry Night or Gerard Manley Hopkins's "Terrible Sonnets." But some art is more quietly life-changing. Five or six years ago, my husband brought back some small paintings from Haiti, done in a naive style by the young painter Armand Fleurimond. His lyrical scenes of the lush Haitian countryside and seashore, of children jumping rope or flying kites, insisted that a parallel world co-exists in that tiny island country alongside the violence, instability, and poverty.
Fleurimond's paintings capture a private realm that I return to again and again, always feeling restored by his fresh, innocent vision. His paintings speak to the power of the imagination to give us a different version of the violent world we have grown accustomed to living in. By their very existence, they insist that hope prevails. In Haiti. Here. Anywhere. I call that life-changing.
Music Director (Soulful Symphony)
In high school while watching the Kennedy Center Honors, which my mom forced me to do every December, I saw The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform their classic Revelations as they paid tribute the their Artistic Director and Founder, Alvin Ailey. It gave me an aesthetic framework for the elevation of the African-American vernacular. It represented the power of an institution to represent culture at its highest form, and the ability to engineer that culture through art. It is that benchmark I pursue.
Green Day's American Idiot CD catapulted me out of whatever I thought middle-age was supposed to be. My transformation from hermit-like suburbanite to 47-year-old punk rock groupie was stunning. The opening guitar riff of the title song nailed me nearly two years ago, while I was working on the computer and listening to the Howard Stern Show. It caused my whole body to surge backwards in my black swivel chair, hands involuntarily flying off my ergonomic computer keyboard as if I'd been shot full of electricity. Giving a middle finger to the powers-that-be, it was the most satisfying rock music I'd heard in over 15 years, and I hadn't realized how much I'd been craving that kind of expression.
It helped pull me back from the brink of becoming a sloppy drug addict with severe health, relationship, and job problems. The pain of a severe case of sciatica got me addicted to painkillers, cigarettes, Bailey's Irish Cream, and Cocoa Puffs.
It was a slippery slope. None of my clothes fit, and visits to the liquor store became embarrassingly frequent. Fearing I'd end up being some fat, out-of-shape, rode-hard-and-put-up-wet 50-year-old, I started doing yoga and gave up my vices. Hearing American Idiot was the final slap in the face that ratcheted up my recovery 10,000 notches.
To see Green Day perform, and I simply had to, I started to travel—before that, I always hated to travel. The band was playing American Idiot in its entirety at the Hard Rock Café in Las Vegas, and I wanted to go. Flying, especially after 9/11, totally freaked me out, but I went anyway because I was sick of thinking that only other people went on adventures. The show was exhilarating. Frontman Billie Joe Armstrong is a force I've never witnessed before—a cross between Charlie Chaplin, Jim Morrison, Mister Rogers, and Elvis. But the cherry on the top of that Sin City hot fudge sundae was shooting craps with the band's drummer, Tre Cool, who complimented me on my Green Day tattoo. Oh yeah, I got a Green Day tattoo on my forearm.
Then, there was Europe. I impulsively bought a ticket to see the band in Lyon, France. A friend of mine was so amused by my newfound fandom that she gave me a free, first-class British Airways ticket to cross the Atlantic. The trip to Lyon turned into a tour of four countries in six days, during which I saw the band three times. I even took the Chunnel between England and France, something that I never ever ever would have considered before that—much too dangerous!
American Idiot upended my life so exquisitely that, after years of fearful living, I was liberated. I learned how to have fun by myself and with others, how to fly without panicking, and how to infuse my own music and life with spirit and guts. Now, when something overwhelms me, I get in touch with my inner Billie Joe.
I first saw this shocking, elegant, beautiful painting—Nude Descending A Staircase by Marcel Duchamp—in a magazine when I was about 8 years old and it stopped me in my childhood tracks. I couldn't wait to show this masterpiece to friends but they all said, "EWWWWWW!" "That's ugly." "You're stupid." Right then I realized the thrilling power of contemporary art and for the next year every time I came down the steps at my parents' house, I was Nude Descending A Staircase, but I didn't tell anybody.
Back in 1987, I had the opportunity to get to know the Japanese composer Toru Takemitsu while performing his concerto "To the Edge of Dream" with Seiji Ozawa and the Boston Symphony. Up until that time, I had seen classical music and my own work much more from an intellectual point of view. But after that experience, especially after getting over the shock of both of them encouraging me to infuse my performance with much more eroticism, my work transformed itself to be much more about beauty, poetry, and ultimately about the human experience.
So many things. So many important things. Eliot (Four Quartets), Stevens (Notes Toward a Supreme Fiction), but it always comes back to music. All art feebly tries to attain what music does naturally. So, recently, the Aria movement from Roger Sessions' Divertimento for Orchestra, but always the one thing that I go back to and which has had the profoundest effect: the Bach Cello Suites, preferably played by Janos Starker.
Nothing goes deeper or sees more.
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