“When you have achieved what you want in a certain area, when you have explored the possibilities’ that live in one direction, you must, when the time comes, change course, search for something new.” – Henri Matisse (1919)
I have this professor at the school where I now go. He is a tired and withered man in his mid fifties, a veteran jazz musician in New York City and a warrior of the arts. Never satisfied with his craft, this man continue to practice, compose, teach, and perform without ever slowing down or taking a break. He once told me something that I will never forget, something that has truly changed my life, and something that I would like to share with you.
“Find where your ability meets your inability,” he looked me in the eyes, “and live there.”
Today I visited the Art Institute of Chicago for the purpose of catching the Henri Matisse exhibit that was in its final day. The exhibit, titled “Radical Invention,” highlighted the incredible growth, creativity, and artistic fervor that Matisse fostered in his craft from 1913 to 1917. As I slowly took in each work, from his “Flowers and Ceramic Plate,” to his “Bathers by a River,” and then his Jeannette Sculptures, I couldn’t help but be reminded of my professors’ quote. The success of Matisse’s work during this time period was so clearly rooted in his will to constantly live and work in a space that made him feel uncomfortable.
Matisse used to say that “creativity takes courage.”
Often times, we stick to the parameters that are given to us by society. Creating can be a frustrating process, that often leads down a dark and narrow path towards a ditch marked “failure.” Sometimes, we can work our tails off to create, to use our creative energy to produce something unique and fresh, only to have a critic or a peer deem it un-creative, un-original, or worse…a bad work.
It is for all of these reasons that when we find something that we are good at, we often stick to it. When we find ourselves living in a comfortable space, we struggle to leave. Why should I get up off my couch to go to the gym if it’s so soft and warm? Why should I leave home to face the unfamiliar when I can revel and sleep peacefully in the familiar? Why should I follow my dream of being an actor when I could safely work in a bank with job security and a decent and guaranteed income?
From 1913 to 1917, Matisse constantly worked to make himself uncomfortable, constantly changing perspective in every way as if attempting to mold himself into the artist he dreamed to be just as he would mold clay.
“I made sculptures,” he wrote, “because what interested me in painting was to organize my thoughts. I changed my means; I took up clay to have a rest from paint, with which I had done absolutely everything I could for the moment…when I found it in sculpture, it served me for painting.”
I believe that we all struggle to find where our ability meets our inability, and struggle even more to live there. As a growing jazz trumpeter and musician, I often find myself sitting alone in a practice room with this great dilemma. I can run through the etudes and exercises I know I can play well, singing my song and sounding good in the process, or I can practice what I don’t know, what I can’t play, and potentially sound like shit. And yet, each time, I think of my professor and choose the latter. Because as uncomfortable as I may feel while practicing the things I cannot do, I slowly learn how to make them work, and within due time, push the line that separates my ability from my inability a little to the right.
What do you wish to accomplish in your life? When you practice it, when you work at it, when you address it, where do you lie? Are you uncomfortable or comfortable? Are you challenging yourself to see the world from new perspectives, just as Matisse would switch from still life’s to cubisim to prints all with the intention of taking multiple paths to reach his ultimate dream?
I have a lot of passions, and I want to thank Matt for giving me this opportunity to have a forum to write about them. But before I write about any of my passions, I thought I should share with you a common struggle that anyone with any passion must face. If you are reading this, if you are breathing, alive, and have a pulse, I believe that you have a passion.
And so, for you, I have a question: where does your ability meet your inability, and are you living there?