The artist is the sum of multiple parts. As they develop their own style, the students of art borrow from the masters of their craft, emulating techniques and ideas that will help them achieve their artistic goals.
My friend artist Joe Mettenbrink said there is a person behind my recent immersion into oil painting: The spirit of Arlen Lazaroff, a Nebraska poet and friend of mine for 20 years.
I was shaken by the thought, but Joe is probably correct. I made a turning point in my portrait drawing after I painted Arlen, his spirit was with me as I drew and painted him. I loved Arlen's total devotion to art and poetry, making paintings, found art displays, poems, stories and books, he was committed to art 24 hours per day, seven days a week. He worked on the art to the exclusion of everything else, including his health, like Vincent Van Gogh (Arlen died at age 46 in 2005). Arlen's artistic activism was sometimes crude but made a statement. His End of Sex is the Beginning of a Family was censored in Fremont, Neb., along with another piece by Margery Coffey. Arlen wrote the ghost town is a metaphor for the world's abandoned and forgotten people and places.
Photo of Arlen Lazaroff by Eadweard R. York
Photo of Arlen Lazaroff by Eadweard R. York
Arlen said he wanted to live as a poet and work on poetry 100% of the time. He failed at most of the jobs until he finally found his dream job selling records for Kanesville in Council Bluffs, during the final two years of his life.
Another influence in my life is Harry Dingman III, my brother-in-law, an artist and musician completely devoted to an artistic lifestyle. Harry showed us a way to make art in everything, including family, food, friendships, exercise, yoga, travel. Sketchbook always nearby, he documents life with drawings and paintings; everything Harry does is an opportunity for an artistic experience. His guitar style is distinctive yet versatile in the bands For Against and The Millions and Battleship Grey. When For Against toured Italy I was fortunate to go along and see this La Dolce Vita, the sweet life. The band was showered with affection. One night we had dinner with a group of artists, poets, writers, journalists and musicians and talked for three or four hours and ate all this fabulous food, one course after another all night with great wine and beautiful conversation. This was Food and Dining as Art. I met an Italian poet who was writing a book about Robert Smith's poetry in The Cure. WTF? This is way too cool.
Harry Dingman and Jeff Runnings in Brooklyn, NY. Photo By Michael Hooper
Harry and I toured The Vatican and saw the sculpture called the Pieta by Michelangelo, the luminescent Mother Mary with Jesus. The sculpture of granite is lifelike. All of this art left an indelible impression on me.
Meeting Allen Ginsberg was life altering in the early 1990s. He and I had a brilliant conversation together in the short time that we talked, he signed my book of his poetry and he drew a picture of a flower. He exuded art. He was art. He is an icon. He inspired a generation of radicals, beatniks and fairies. My encounter with him still lives. He asked me what brought me to Lincoln, Neb., and I said you, I've always wanted to meet you. He asked me what I did and I told him I was a reporter at the Grand Island Independent writing about rural life in 14 counties in central Nebraska. He said he once lived in a commune in a rural part of upstate New York with his lover Peter Orlovsky. Beatniks followed them there, and they had parties and worked on poetry and art projects. I especially remember how Allen Ginsberg looked into my eyes and down into my soul. I felt a lasting connection. That is why I want art with a soul, with eyes looking back at me.
I admired Ginsberg's way of gathering up a storm of poets and artists to march for causes that were important to him including fighting censorship, civil rights, the legalization of marijuana and saving the environment.
I learned a lot from these people. In a way I'm still emulating and learning from them while trying to come up with my own voice, my own distinctive style. This is perhaps the hardest challenge for every artist. They say there is nothing new under the Sun. Yet we create anyway, perhaps for the joy of creating, for the meaning it leaves behind. I think the artist must take chances in order to be independent, free, unique and an enlightened soul.
Life is short. Time is our most precious resource. I couldn't think of a more meaningful way to live than an artistic life devoted to the highest and best achievement in work, family, friends, art and life. It is the art of conversation, the engaging with all things in nature, people, animals, trees and land. We learn that to achieve great art, we must love deeply and profoundly. The greatest art is made with passion, desire and love. And that is the art of life.