Vesperisms: Laying the Foundations
Adapted From Season 1, Episode 1, March 2020
Since I’m new to Substack, I’m going to begin by posting the scripts from the podcast. That way, you won’t have to wait too long for new content. The first season will be free, and after that, paid subscribers will get the full content, while free subscribers will get an occasional free post, and a preview of others.
It’s been a while since I’ve gone back to the foundational principles of Vesperisms, which is something I’ve been meaning to do. Enjoy!
Greetings and Salutations, and welcome to Vesperisms: The Art of Thinking for Yourself. I’m your host, author-illustrator Vesper Stamper, and I’m here to help you recalibrate toward an artistic worldview. So grab your coffee, and have a seat in the big comfy red velvet chair in my studio, and let’s get started!
Since this is our very first episode, I thought we’d lay some foundations. Who am I? What is Vesperisms about? What the heck is an artistic worldview, anyway? Well, let’s just dive in, shall we?
I am an author-illustrator. I create books. I’m an illustrator of, well, lots of things, album covers, websites, product packaging and such, but my eternal love is picture books. But I never considered myself a writer. My first novel, What the Night Sings, began as a small project in my Illustration MFA program, and before I knew it, I had a brand new career as a novelist. It turns out that stories were always living in me, but I didn’t know how to release them into their full reality until then. It took me 16 years to get there. And I’m grateful for that, because even though I felt primed and ready for success right out of my undergrad, had I been one of those rare early successes, I wouldn’t have had the maturity or self-understanding to be able to properly handle it.
So even though I’ve always known I was an artist, it’s been on a much longer and more circuitous journey than I expected. And if you’re listening to this podcast, you may be in a similar situation. Maybe something cut your artistic journey short and you’re trying to recapture something you once loved. Maybe you’re just getting started in the arts and the amount of information out there is overwhelming to you. And maybe you’re not an artist—or don’t realize you are—but when you’re around artists, you kinda like how they see the world, and you want to try to capture a little bit of that for yourself.
Whatever the reason you’re here, I want to introduce you to the motto of our show. Write it down, memorize it—it’s going to be a good thing to repeat to yourself in unexpected times. Ready? Here it is:
THE WORK ISN’T EVERYTHING, BUT EVERYTHING IS THE WORK
What does that mean? Well, hold on to it, because now that you know a bit about me, let’s lay out some foundational principles about Vesperisms.
First of all, what this podcast is not.
This is not a podcast about business. Except that we’ll probably talk about business sometimes.
Or ten hot ways to be more creative right now! Though we’ll probably talk about that, too.
There are SO many podcasts out there that are amazing and smart about art. There’s 3 Point Perspective, which is a total insider’s view of the business of illustration, led by my friend Lee White and his pals Will Terry and Jake Parker. There are interview shows, like my favorite, Makers & Mystics, where my friend Stephen Roach interviews a wide variety of artists of all disciplines talking about how art and spiritual life dovetail. There are intellectual shows about art theory, and inspirational shows that will help you not give up on your dream with meditations and journaling exercises. And you know what, we may touch on all of those. I’ll have the occasional interview guest myself. But this podcast is not one of those.
Vesperisms is a show about reclaiming an artistic worldview.
You may have noticed that artists have a…different way of looking at the world. If you’re an artist, your friends may have called you “artsy”, or worse, the gag-inducing “arty”. Or “quirky” or “different” or even “odd” or maybe even “a little strange.” I’m being nice here. It can get ugly. Maybe you’ve been shamed for being creative. Maybe you’ve found, like me, that you seem to fit nowhere.
Well then, this is the show for you. Because we artists are made this way. It’s not an accident that you process the world differently, or that you’re a misfit who always seems to live in the lobby instead of the sanctuary, if you know what I mean? The fact is, there are many, many ways to see the world. Accountants, plumbers, athletes—these come with their own set of assumptions. Not all worldviews are positive, and surely, not all artists are fantastic people. But an artistic view of the world can be one of service to the world.
Look, I’m not saying that the artistic worldview is superior. Not at all. I’m going to give you a word picture here. Picture humanity as a chair—a big, throne-like chair that has to hold a lot of weight. Various ways of looking at the world are like the legs of that chair. We need athletes’ worldviews and scientists’ worldviews and engineers’ worldviews. But without including the artist’s way of seeing, the weight of the world cannot be supported. You are needed—desperately needed. But it’s not easy to keep your head screwed on straight.
In fact, everything around you—and I mean everything—is conspiring to short circuit this perspective. You have enemies. One of them is distraction. And we’re going to tackle that. One is other people’s opinions. We’ll go there, too. But one of the biggest enemies to artists that I’ve been witnessing, especially over the last 6 or 7 years, is the political worldview. It’s a valid one, don’t get me wrong, but it’s one of the legs on that chair that wants to become the chair. It has to be kept in its proper place.
The political worldview would like to divide all of humanity into groups, camps, factions, and pit them against each other. It drains color from the world. It thrives on fear. It’s unforgiving and demands conformity. And it is incredibly fragile. Does that sound like everything an artist would say on Opposite Day? “Divisive. Colorless. Afraid. Conforming…”
But it is absolutely the prevailing view in our culture right now. I mean, you even talk to elementary school students and you hear this worldview. It’s fine if old crotchety people with no senses of humor want to line up on a cable news show and sound off, but when it gets so entrenched that little kids are spouting the opinions of their teachers or their grumpy uncle from Thanksgiving, you know you’re in trouble.
SO. “Divisive. Colorless. Afraid. Conforming…” Those are all elements that are not an artistic worldview. But what is it?
There’s a word that the average person doesn’t really use anymore, and that’s PROPHETIC. Do we believe that there are legit prophets today? That people can prophesy and give prophesies? Aren’t those old humorless men with long beards who live in the desert and eat insects and shout insults at people?
No. A prophet isn’t a fortune teller either, or a psychic or a spiritualist.
A prophet is someone who sees. Someone who’s able to peek behind the curtain and show a side of reality—and I mean reality, not fantasy—that not everyone perceives. Yes, that can take the form of social commentary in the early works of Van Gogh. But it can also take the form of the intense humanity of Rembrandt, or the atmospheric essence of a Japanese Sumi-e painting, or the astonishing beauty of a Jessye Norman aria. The artist is able to pull the unseen into the seen and hold it out as an offering, to help people understand deeply that there is more to being human than consuming goods and pushing buttons.
An artistic worldview is EXPANSIVE.
No, I didn’t say “expensive.” :) Though it can be—don’t look at my last art store receipt. An artistic view is always letting out its tent pegs. Artists are curious. We’re insatiable. We’re always learning, always wanting to try new things, new materials, new movements, new camera lenses. We read a lot. We have big appetites, soul appetites.
When I was working on What the Night Sings, a little nugget of curiosity that I picked up from watching a documentary about the post-Holocaust period turned into a downright obsession that I had to put some boundaries on after a while. I couldn’t learn enough. I couldn’t process enough. I was willing to endure real psychological anguish in order to tell this story through words and pictures. What I often say is that I took in as much of the horror as I could and metabolized it within myself, so that I could offer it to my audience. I had to make my soul expand bigger than it ever had. I’m not going to lie—it took courage. Sometimes it scared me. But it changed me—for the better, I think. Artists teach themselves to be unafraid; to not write anything off until we understand the thing; we teach ourselves to encompass possibility.
Now, I’m not saying it makes us dumping grounds for everything we come across. That’s not healthy. And actually, that’s a contributing factor to a lot of artists’ struggle with both mental and physical illness. Sometimes we stay too open. We’re allowed to contract when we need to, to care for ourselves, and ultimately, sometimes, to say no to things we don’t agree with or don’t believe or can’t handle. But when the next inspiration comes, we have a little more room to explore because we’ve become bigger on the inside than we are on the outside.
An artistic worldview is HUMAN-CENTERED.
I mean this in the sense of two things: the Body and the Audience.
All of the arts—whether painting, writing, dancing, making music—are centered in the body.
I’m a person of faith, and so I’m going to bring spiritual concepts into this conversation. One of those concepts is of the human being as an entity created in the image of an infinitely creative God. What that means is that every person—whether friend or foe, no matter their ethnicity, belief system, geographic location—is a reflection of that Being. Every single human is a living, breathing locus of glory…including you. It means that every person is full of dignity and worth—including you, and must not be misused. It also means you’ve been made, on purpose, as a creative being, whether you’re an artist with a capital A or not.
I once had a friend say that the best authors are those who are critical theorists first. I could not disagree more. There are plenty of things you can and should build on theory first. Engineering would be one of those things—you don’t want someone building a skyscraper who’s just “trying out some new experiments with gravity.”
But before an artist ever creates or conceives a work, it comes through the senses and is processed in the body, and then expressed with the body—the hands, the feet, the face, the whole body. Theory is external and after the fact. Theory is helpful for understanding a painting, but not terribly useful for creating one. Artists get into real trouble when they become disembodied—when they think “art” is something that exists only as a mystical force outside of themselves. They deny themselves sleep, food, or relationships. They find themselves wishing they could literally detach from their bodies in order to make more work. And I know, because I had spent the greater part of my life like that.
Then there’s the Audience.
Yes, there are some who are recluses like Emily Dickinson, incurable introverts, even agoraphobic creators. They’re part of the family, too. But central to being an artist is the sense of audience. I remember taking a tour of an Eastern Orthodox Church, and the priest showed me some icons painted by an elderly woman who became housebound. Well, she passed away and they were cleaning out her house, and they discovered that this woman had painted every square inch of her home with images. She didn’t do those with an audience in mind, but even she had to be thinking that someone, at some point, was going to see what she had done. If she hadn’t, she would’ve painted over everything, instead of continuing until her dying day.
There are a lot of reasons why artists make work. You could call it self-expression, but not all of it is. Some is just experimentation or play. Some is social commentary. But we all create in an individual human body, and at some point our work and ourselves are going to intersect with the larger human body. And that necessarily implies a responsibility to both. We weren’t born as cats or pigeons or trees; we’re human beings, in a human family. So as artists, the more we’re aware of this, the better.
An artistic worldview allows for GROWTH and CHANGE.
Artists, you may have noticed, need to move around a lot. We’re always traveling, going to performances or museums, or even just cafes and bookstores. We have unusual friends. We talk about ideas a lot. Artists understand deeply, sometimes woefully, the fact that we’re on a journey.
You may look at a childhood picture of yourself and say, wow, that kid looked so…normal. How’d he turn out to be an artist? We’re not the same people we were five years ago. We’re always renewing, re-inventing, recalibrating.
The prevailing view in our culture right now is one of a static, rigid way of being. We must all come out of the womb with the correct way of thinking, speaking and acting, or we will be canceled. And unfortunately, many artists have drunk this Kool-Aid and have stopped thinking like artists. Starting from a place of theory, they think that if their work does not express a political worldview, it isn’t valid or socially responsible. But remember—the political leg of the chair wants to become the whole chair. The artistic worldview distributes the weight—it allows for the journey. It allows people to shift and grow and change. We don’t view Picasso’s early work the way we view his later work. And unless they’ve fully bought into the Instagram paradigm, any artist will tell you that for every good work they create, there are twenty that went in the trash. We can allow the same grace for people. When we think like artists, we allow for growth and change, in ourselves and in others.
So remember our motto from the beginning of the episode?
Work isn’t everything, but everything is the work
Artists, let’s face it, can get obsessed. The aim of Vesperisms is to help you put the actual creation of your work in its proper place as one facet of who you are, and to understand that everything the artist sees and does—whether it’s choreographing a dance or making dinner for your kids—is something you will internalize, process, and allow to emerge into what you create. It’s worth paying attention to what you see, what you let in, what you embody, and how you let things grow and change. That’s why “Work isn’t everything, but everything is the work.”
Whenever I read something worth sharing, I’m going to give you a recommendation to further your recalibration into the artistic worldview.
THIS WEEK’S RECOMMENDED READ IS:
Art & Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of Artmaking, by David Bayles & Ted Orland. This short volume is one of the most-read books on the artistic process, and you will find yourself breathing a sigh of relief that you’re not alone in some of the anguish that goes along with art making. I especially appreciated reading that the figure of the “extraordinary genius artist” is mostly a myth. This is a good time to dive into books like this—it’s profound without being dense. If you’re like me, you’ll read each chapter twice, it’s that refreshing.
Thank you for being a subscriber. You can follow me on Instagram @vesperillustration, become a paid subscriber here on Substack, Patreon or Locals (all are just $5 a month) and subscribe to my newsletter at vesperillustration.com to get news about my work, and a free outtake chapter from my book, A Cloud of Outrageous Blue, which happens to be about a girl discovering her creative gifts at the onset of the Great Plague of 1348. My NEW book, Berliners, is available now for pre-order, and comes out in October.
If you’re a listener to the podcast, I’d love if you leave a 5 star review on iTunes. That’ll help others find Vesperisms, and spread the message of an artistic worldview to more people.
Your voice is important. Your contribution matters.
Work isn’t everything, but everything is The Work.
See you next time.