life as a work of art

For years these words were on my website about what I want for my clients and myself:

  • Following our deepest purpose and direction in life
  • Saying “Yes!” to our unique talents, potential, and creativity
  • Breaking through obstacles that hold us back
  • Living passionately and experiencing life as a work of art

Life as a work of art

This one’s got my attention today. Because as much as I love the idea of it, it comes across as a bit inflated to me now.

Maybe that’s because when I think of a work of art, I remember those grand moments standing in front of a Van Gogh or Picasso. An evening of theatre, mesmerized by John Malkovich or Brian Stokes Mitchell or Estelle Parsons. Finishing a book, perhaps by Willa Cather or Dickens, and wanting to read it again immediately.

Transcendent experiences. All of them. Extraordinary.

Yet our days, our lives, are more often ordinary than extraordinary.

Waking. Eating. Working. Shopping. Exercising. Feeding the dog. Reading. Doing the laundry. Sleeping.

In truth, the art of our lives is made up of many small, ordinary moments.

So how do we find the extraordinary in the ordinary?

Inspiration from an unlikely place

You may not have heard of him, but Jerzy Grotowski knew something about finding the extraordinary in the ordinary.

He was a Polish actor and director born in 1933. And he worked relentlessly to peel away the extraneous layers of theatrical construct that intruded between actors and audience. His quest was to get a performance down to its essence, just what was needed.

All the bells and whistles of other mediums like film and television weren’t for him. Instead, he set out to reduce rather than enlarge the theatrical experience, presenting it in its purest, simplest form:

Grotowski began to ask himself what theatre really was. What, he wondered, was essential to its production? His answer was simple: space, actors, and spectators. That was all. Theatre could be performed without props, without orchestras, without makeup, without lighting, even without a stage. But, “it cannot exist without the actor-spectator relationship.” This stripped down theatre he called the Poor Theatre (Richard Brestoff).

It’s been said that Grotowski’s work aroused people to access deep levels of feeling. The paradox here is that by focusing on what was most basic to his art form, he found elegance in simplicity. He reached for transcendence.

And that, I suspect, is how we truly live life as a work of art.

Toward a poor art form

What’s your art form? Writing? Painting? Performing? Maybe it’s parenting, or the work you do. Or perhaps it’s the whole deal – living life as a work of art.

Whatever it is, when it’s stripped down to its most ordinary, it becomes an act of extraordinary meaning making.

A few questions for the day

How would you describe your life’s art form?

What is essential to its production? (Remember, the answer is probably something very simple.)

What are the things your art form can do without?

This post was recycled with fresh art for Art Every Day Month 2012. Comments are closed since I’m on vacation.

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46 thoughts on “life as a work of art

  1. Patty, You have a knack for asking questions that I find very difficult to answer. I love it because it makes my brain ache. Like you, I had often thought of the phrase Life as a Work of Art to be inflated. I like the more simplified approach that you describe.

    I think of my life in the simplest form, and in that form it is just ME. Nothing else is required, yet in it’s simplest form I would miss out on a great many things, most notably my wife and daughter. So then my simplest form joins the simplest forms of those I love the most. I think this then becomes my new simplest form. That of me and my family. From there we can do anything we desire and the world is open for us to explore. And that is extraordinary.

    To Patty’s wonderful readers. I would love for you to come by and participate in our campfire. Patty contributed to a wonderful conversation on happiness. I am very excited to pulled together my favorite bloggers to participate. Pull up your camp chair or a patch of grass and dip into our big bag of marshmallows.

    • Oh, dear, I don’t want to make your brain ache Eric! But thanks so much for hanging in there and exploring and sharing what this means to you. Love what you say, too, because in the end it is just us, as in we are the only ones responsible for our lives. So when you add in your wife and daughter, it just makes it even more precious and extraordinary. An ordinary family is an extraordinary thing!

  2. I love this post, Patty. It’s right up my alley, it is. 🙂

    I practice a poor art form… it’s called “cartooning”. Perhaps you’d be surprised at the number of folks I’ve met through the years that seemed to sniff down their noses at what I do. It’s not real art, or at the very least, it’s low art.

    For me, it’s just what I do. The ordinary is what my characters trade in as they try to transcend and understand the extraordinary… right from where they’re at. Every facial expression, every line, it all comes from where I live – a heart full of emotions, a head full of bewildering experiences and ideas.

    One thing that my pretend art form could do without (besides the snobbery directed at it by the artistic elite) is the stigma of being nothing more than funny little pictures for kiddies. There’s nothing wrong with art being made for children, but there’s also nothing wrong if it isn’t.

    Man, I’d better get down off my soapbox. Sermon over. 😛

    • I’m so glad you’re here to comment on this one, Tony. Those little characters in cartoons magnify so much of human experience. No better way, as far as I’m concerned to find the extraordinary in the ordinary. Great point, too, about cartoons not just being for kids! Thank you!

  3. The paradox here is that by focusing on what was most basic to his art form, he found elegance in simplicity. He reached for transcendence. And that, I suspect, is how we truly live life as a work of art.]] – I couldn’t agree more.

    How would you describe your life’s art form? – Very mysterious, vague, and unreal. Looking beyond my mundane existence is perhaps the only thing that makes living worthwhile… for me. =)

    What is essential to its production? – My unquencheable thirst for wisdom and liberation.

    What are the things your art form can do without? – Society. haha.

    Great post, Patty!

    • Ah, powerful Ryhen. “Looking beyond the mundane; thirst for wisdom and liberation.” And doing without society! By that I’m guessing you mean society’s preconceived notions about what is? Thanks much for stopping by.

  4. I hadn’t really thought of this before – but Life as art is a way to express the phase that I am currently enjoying with my daughter. She is a serious student of ballet and I am a serious student of life. In both of our “arts” I have come to realize that the key may be to not only study and create and live our arts for ourselves, but to find the means of expressing the love that lies within through that means. The art in each is, perhaps, not the external presentation as much as it is the internal passion or meaning that is expressed through the performance or the meaning that is secured to each internally. (And my words and the expression of these thoughts into words is a work in progress! 😉 )

    • Wow, Mia, you made me get a tingle. Getting the essence down to love. It may be a work in progress for you, but you articulated it wonderfully. Thank you!

  5. This is a great topic full of good questions. I’ve thought often about the value of “creating something” as a way to use our hands and tap into a different part of our brains. It is so fulfilling to make something tangible.

    What is my art form? Perhaps I have a few creative outlets, although I don’t consider myself especially creative. I enjoy baking – it is a nice escape for me. I love gardening: digging in the dirt, nurturing plants, seeing the fruits of my labor. And sewing is a nice escape too. Nothing fancy, just pillows or curtains.

    For any of these, time is the essential ingredient. Just making time, declaring that I will set aside time and give myself permission to pursue my “art” instead of more chores.

    • Hey, Eva, we create some of the same things: gardens, pillows, curtains. And I’m so glad you brought up the essentialness of time. A wise person once said to me, “you don’t make time, you take time.” That really got me thinking, realizing it was already there but I had to be a lot more assertive about grabbing it. Thanks for the thoughts!

  6. Hi Patty
    When I was young I read a book called Le ski: un art, une technique by Georges Joubert.
    A book, which treated skiing as an art form, backed up with sound rechnique.
    Joubert argued that without technique, there can be no art.

    When I write a speech that flows effortlessly and appears spontaneous, it looks like an art form. But believe me, it is backed up by a lot of technique.

    Perhaps we could say “Blogging un art, une technique.”
    That great post on a great website looks like an art form… but oh the technique!

    • Lovely point, Keith, that the most essential thing to any art form can be technique. And I would add that it takes lots and lots and lots (OK I’ll stop now) of ordinary, everyday practice to get there. Thanks!

  7. I’ve often struggled with this question. There’s such a strong desire in me to be extraordinary, and yet that comes from attention to the ordinary.

    As to your question, I’m a writer and all I really need is a pen and paper. I can be happy anywhere with that. Yet sometimes I long for a craft that has more in the way of tools, like paints or hammers and saws. I’m so attracted to physical tools, precisely because I need so few of them!

    • Isn’t that the truth, Charlotte? I too sometimes have this wish to jump right to extraordinary, but it’s the day-in and day-out that gets you there. And then even if you are heralded as extraordinary, you gotta go back and do it all again, get back to ordinary. And I totally understand what you mean about the tools part. When I was no longer doing so much theatre, I was longing for an art form that required different tools, especially because theatre requires other people, and they’re not always around. So I wished I was gifted in a solitary expressive art form, like painting. Of course, now I have writing, but writing I’ve found is intense! Thanks!

  8. Hi Patty.
    I love how what you wrote shows that our desires for elaborate fancy expansive things is taking us away from our creative core. I so agree.
    The tragedy of modern times is that simple life that is beautiful and extraordinary, has been made into something that is to be judged boring and NOT extraordinary. I love raw theatre, and I love raw living, raw food, the real stuff. You get to taste the real flavor, you get to know your core as well as you get stripped of all the fancy layers you have been wearing.
    My art is our rural property and beautiful veggie garden, my spinning and natural fiber garments, the eco house and the great tasting rain water we drink, my blog and WomenLikeME.
    My art is using the raw materials of life, NOT the mass produced trinkets.
    I do agree it is time to show that the emperors of today are not wearing any clothes even if they think so.
    Living with nature on you pallet is wonderful and extremely extra ordinary.
    xox Wilma

    • What glorious art forms you have created for yourself, Wilma! You’re a living example of life as an art form, and Grotowski would be smiling. You’ve stripped it down to the essentials, and found extraordinary beauty. Thanks so much for sharing that!

  9. I’m still working through questions like these in my life. In my opinion, the essentials are best found through trial and error: I’ll be enamored with this pursuit or that for a while, but then put it aside. Over time, only the essential bits stick, and the “form” of the play becomes easier to see.

    I’m beginning to explore, for example, the theme of learning and virtuosity, which I now realize has been an undercurrent of my life for as long as I can remember – it just took a while (and a lot of trial and error) for me to see it.

    • Brilliant, Jeffrey. It seems to me you’re saying that the essential for you is experimentation. I adore experimentation. And the link you make between the bits and pieces that come from it, how all begin to stick together to create the form, is a juicy thought that I’m loving getting my mind around this morning. Very Grotowski-esque. Thanks!

  10. Thank you for relating life to art. They say you cannot be inspired all the time, but what if you cannot be inspired on ONE thing all the time? Imagine living inspired through the whole day, from one thing to the next one. When inspiration disappears, move on. I would love to know how clean your dishes get if you do them inspired. 😀

    • Hi Michael – Welcome, I so appreciate you stopping by and chiming in. Your comment makes me smile. There’s so much about being present in it. If we can put everything aside and clean our dishes from that place of inspiration, then wow! So inspiration is the essence. Yeah! Thanks, and come by again sometime.

  11. Oh, Patty, you sure know how to push buttons. I could go in any direction with this but I’m a professional meanderer these days. If the title were Life’s Meandering Path through Questions, I’d have a lot more to say based on where I am at this moment. If you may recall, I wrote a post called Life Is Art a while ago and I honestly don’t know how I feel about it now. Ahh, is such the nature of evolving (or is it regressing? Does it matter on a gorgeous day like today)? As is often the case, I offer no answers (as I either hate for the seeking to end by settling on an answer or I’m simply not sold, especially if it’s supplied to me and not one I arrived at myself). It’s the questions that hold so much promise (and discovery, surprise, significance, etc.). Not to say that I have no compass, as I do have principles I live by. Still, I just find questions so much sexier…
    I love finding the extraordinary in the ordinary. And I believe it comes from being truly present and in the moment, when the concept of time is so far away. Ah, another paradox?
    As for my art? I’m no virtuoso but lately, it seems to be finding that common thread with someone, anyone, near or far. This undeniable connection that we all have with each other, I’m passionate about. But again, I have many passions. Oh boy, talk about meandering! Thanks for setting the stage. You’re the best hostess and cruise director!

    • Oh, wow, Belinda, I forgot you wrote that! I hope I didn’t inadvertently copy you or anything. I’m gonna have to check that out. But you probably know that when I was talking in my post about being a tad inflated, I was thinking of myself and no one else. I’ve NEVER experienced you as inflated. Quite the contrary. And so much good stuff in your comment. Essentials like living the questions, being in the moment, reframing the concept of time. But you do really hone in on it, I think, when you speak of connection. The essentialness of connection. I’m reminded of Forster’s “only connect.” That is such a picture of you. And I am so delighted to be connected to you. It’s quite a gift!

  12. A thought provoking blog – as usual!

    I do wonder if there are more “Life as a…” questions out there for different people? The word ‘vocation’ seems to have gone out of favour at the moment but there are still people whose life work is caring for others, or teaching, or ministering, raising a family, or seeing that justice is done. Not Superheroes but ordinary heroes. Although I expect that many of the ordinary heroes do creative and expressive things, their focus is not the personal performance of an Art, but something else. “Life as Service” perhaps?

    I’ve chewed over the choice of my personal “Life as a…” statement. Although I’ve acted in plays and could draw and paint quite well (for a novice) that sort of stuff just doesn’t move me. It doesn’t satisfy the thirst in my spirit. Now that I’ve retired, raised a family, etc. it is now clearer to me that I like to find out and understand stuff. I get a thrill out of finding out where the next footpath goes. I get a thrill about finding out how we evolved. I get my deepest satisfaction out of relating two apparently unconnected facts.

    I guess my statement is “Life as an Exploration”, or even “Life as an Experiment”. It wouldn’t suit everybody, but then everybody is different…

    • Hi there – That’s what’s so great about framing the questions from Grotowski’s perspective, it doesn’t have to suit anyone but you. I love the idea of the essentials being about exploration and experimentation. I’m happy you brought up vocation, too, because the root word of vocation is “vocare,” to be called. So when we get things down to essentials, I do think there is a very strong element of calling. But sometimes we tend to think of calling as this big thing, rather than as an essential thing. Hmm, you’re really getting me to think! And I know just what you mean about actual art forms, theatre and the like. For me it’s wonderful, but there is something more essential, basic, universal at the bottom of it. And when I get it down to that, it does feel deep and ordinary and extraordinary all at the same time. Thank you!

  13. HI Patty! This was a brilliant post – you have everyone thinking about this and how it relates to each one of us personally.

    To me, there really IS such a thing as artful living, and not just because I paint Just as I choose the medium to work in, or what brush to use, so too I choose the mind set. Decisions we make – or our process of making them – is an art. Waking each day with a plan is an art. I think it is impossible to live a non-creative life because everything we do (from selecting our clothes, styling our hair, cooking food) is ALL creative. It may well be that people freak out over the use of “art” or the word “creative” – they cannot draw stick figures is what I hear all the time in relation to creativity – and they miss the point! If only more people could SEE and feel themselves to be the work of art that they ARE – well maybe this post will help them to do that?

    My art form (in life) is keeping things simple. What I can do without is negativity and doubt!

    Btw, that photo of messy paint on a palette has me salivating! Luscious!

    • Wow, suZen, you’ve beautifully articulated so much of what I was struggling to get out in this post. Thank you! I was driving to meet a friend for dinner last night and was thinking that yes, there is an art to life. Because if we are ultimately the only ones responsible for our lives, then it is a responsibility for creating that life. An act of creation, each day, as you say. Maybe we’re artists in the traditional sense too, a painter like you, but we don’t need to be such to create a life. We just need to access that creative archetype in all of us. And I love how you name your essential: simplicity, without doubt or negativity. Nice ring to it. As always, love your wise words. Hugs!

  14. Patty — I loved learning about Grotowski and how you used his example to make me think about what the essence is to my own creativity and to feeling good about life.

    Regarding creativity, it’s taken me ages to realize that its not what others think, but what I feel about whatever I create. It’s that moment of total focus; the time when what I am doing makes everything else disappear. I experience these moments as total joy.

    Regarding life, it’s the moments when I feel really present in life. At these times, there is no room for doubt or questioning. I like to call these moments, my “sigh” times because I usually know I’ve reached them when I give a special deep breath sigh:~)

    As usual, I love that you make me think outside my little box. Thank you:~)

    • Beautiful, Sara. The essential is joy. I feel a welling of unexpected emotion as I read what you say. How do you do that? You always slow me down and get me centered. So right now I’m taking a deep breath and a sigh moment. It’s wonderful. Thank you!

  15. Patty –

    I often talk to my clients about painting the picture of who they are. This involves reflecting on every aspects of their life- their story, experiences, strengths, skills, values, passions. Taking time to paint this picture is so powerful in understanding who we are. it also helps us to create the work of art we wish to show to the world. I don’t believe that anybody is in the least bit ordinary – every person is extraordinary and unique.

    Just as a painting is made up of many brush strokes, that is how we are as people. We need to learn to appreciate each and every component that makes us unique. Then we become art lovers / lovers of life.

    Great post!


    • Hi Phil – What a lovely picture you paint of working with your clients. They are lucky indeed! I agree with you that each of us is unique, nobody else like you or me or any of the other zillions of people in the world. I’m fascinated by the idea of all the components you speak of, and I’m getting a Gestalt thing – the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. That’s exactly what Grotowski was talking about. The parts may be very basic and simple, but when you put them together you get something extraordinary. Wow, thanks Phil for pushing me toward that insight today!

  16. You have done beautiful art with your writing today! You ever so eloquently weaved in the story of the Polish man and his quest for simplicity and purity.
    My life is art, this in it’s basic form is simply being and being aware. All else is just icing on the cake so to speak. Thank-you for this is an important writing.

    • Ah, you touch me with your words. I did not think of this as beautiful art, but actually rather ordinary. So perhaps what takes it to the land of extraordinary is that it asks people to acknowledge what is most essential to them. Like for you, being and being aware. And it feels quite extraordinary to me to have a window into these truths for other people. Thanks so much.

  17. Reading this, it occurred to me that I do a lot of stuff that would be considered art in the conventional sense — writing, music, and so on — but I don’t think as often about how I can bring that artistic mindset to my relating with people. I used to resist the idea that this was even possible for some reason, but that resistance has been an interesting thing to explore.

    • Sounds like it’s a new way for you to think, Chris. I’m curious, is it appealing or otherwise? Just wondering since you said it’s been interesting to explore your resistance around it. Thanks for the comment.

  18. Hi Patty.
    I like this question: “So how do we find the extraordinary in the ordinary?” For me it comes down to digging even deeper into the pieces of the ordinary; peeling back the layers. And then to understand how they fit together to make the ordinary extraordinary. Almost sounds like a scientific experiment doesn’t it?

    There’s no doubt to me that my life’s art form is writing because I could do it forever if I had the time. All it takes is for me to access feelings. What it can do without is judgment and that IS what stops me.

    • Well, I think you’ve hit on something, Davina. I’m thinking life is both an art AND a science. And I like what you say about feelings, because that emotional context is the basis from which so much art is made. And when you say judgment, do you mean internal? I know I’ve got a very healthy inner critic! Thanks for stopping by.

  19. Patti,
    The issue with me is there are so many art forms in life I love, art, creating, writing, nature, family, friends…but all in all like Belinda I like making the ordinary…extraordinary. I love Wilma’s answer and life…
    It’s so exciting to know that we can create and experience life any way we want in spite of what anyone else is doing.

    Oh most importantly my art form is love…loving every one and life itself every second of my day…I only want to become a better lover!

    • Hi Tess – You sound like me, attracted to so much that it’s hard to dive deep into one thing. Barbara Sher calls us scanners, but in the past few years I find I want to dive deeper and give up some of the scanning. I like how you get it all down to love, though. You sound positively exuberant when you speak of it. Thanks!

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  21. Fabulous post. You inspire me. I am working like crazy right now to keep my family afloat. My passion and dreams are on the back burner. When I read your posts, I want to move them to the front. Thanks for a little hope and inspiration for my day!

    • Hi Erin – Thank you, I appreciate your words. Sounds like it’s really intense for you right now. So I’m sending good thoughts your way. Take care.

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