Earlier this summer, I took a much needed vacation to Berea, Kentucky. For those of you who don’t know, Berea is a jewel of a town nestled in Appalachian foothills right in the convergence of central and eastern Kentucky that, among other things, is known for its natural beauty, vibrant arts and crafts community, and historic Berea College, the first racially integrated college in the American South. I wanted to go to Berea merely to relax, unwind, and be a tourist for a few days before I began some musical obligations this summer. There’s something freeing about spending a few days with no purpose or plans other than to look around, shop, eat, and try to have a good time along the way, but by the end of the trip, I’d realized that Berea had more in store for me than I’d anticipated. It reminded me of an oft-forgotten yet sorely needed truth about what I want to create and who I want to be as a musical artist.
As I previously mentioned, Berea has a vibrant and successful arts and crafts community. A sizable portion of the town’s residents are painters, woodworkers, photographers, seamstresses, candle-makers, or other artisans in Appalachian traditions dating back hundreds of years. Consequently, I spent a good deal of my time in Berea going into these artists’ shops, admiring and even purchasing some of their works. Perhaps the most impressive thing about these shops is the sheer volume of works that adorn the walls and shelves. Candles, carvings, and other creations quite literally fill the shops to the brim, each one unique and thoughtfully considered. To enter such a space where someone’s artistic life work stretches as far as the eye can see borders on the sacred. Seeing such a physical representation of an artist’s output can feel daunting to someone like me who deals more or less in manipulation of the transient. My art is realized in live settings that are tethered to the passage of time, rather than left to sit on a shelf for someone else to come and purchase. Yes, there are recordings of my music, but I and every other composer I know will tell you that recordings do not compare to the vibrant energy and inimitable acoustic of a live performance. From this perspective, it seems that there are a great deal of differences between my art and the art I saw in Berea, but it was the similarities, not the differences, that reminded me of a truth I didn’t realize I had forgotten.
After being fortunate enough to speak with some of the artists that run these shops, I learned that they devote several hours a day to working on more projects, even while their stores appear full. Upon first consideration of this, I didn’t quite understand. Their shops were full. If they quit putting out new work, they’d still have enough to drive sales for months, if not years. Why continue to create with no apparent benefit? Then, I realized that these artists were not so different from me after all. Their work was not simply filling the shops, but continuing to devote themselves to their creative intuitions day after day, without fail. Their “shops” were reflections of their daily processes and efforts, focusing on the act of creation, rather than stopping to rest on the laurels of the final product. I mentioned earlier that my vacation to Berea was much needed. To tell the truth, I was stuck in something of a rut compositionally. I was just starting a new choral piece I hope to share with you soon, and while I liked the text, I was having a great deal of trouble coming up with any ideas I found worthwhile. As doubts started to creep in, I found myself stuck in a debilitating cycle. My lack of belief in my ideas was destroying my motivation to keep working on the piece, and my inability to continue work on the piece was in turn forcing me to dwell on my dissatisfaction with what I had conceived thus far. The inner critic is at times indefatigable, and before the Berea trip, I was firmly entrenched in the inner critic’s clutches. By seeing the artistry that exists in Berea and considering the underlying motivations behind the art, I was able to allow myself to get back to work with something I hadn’t felt about my music for far too long: confidence.
Thank goodness for the artists of Berea. Thank goodness for their quietly courageous practice of committing each day to the process of their art instead of obsessing over the potential pitfalls of the finished product. Through this, their art always gets where it needs to go. After the trip, upon these reflections, I was able to silence the inner critic and focus on my own process, and by trusting the journey instead of worrying about the end product, I found myself encountering a newfound belief and trust in my own writing that I didn’t realize I’d lost until I wandered back to it. Through this, I found that the artists of Berea and I had a good deal more in common than I’d imagined. If there is a moral to this story, let it be that whenever any artist has doubts, they need only take a moment to be rejuvenated by the vibrant community of artists around them to soon find themselves making art they believe in again.