By Sandy Burgham
Once upon a time, around 40 years ago, twelve young lads, teenagers most of them, entered an art or design college in various parts of the world, from Leicester to Townsville to Auckland. They didn’t really know what they wanted to do with the rest of their lives, but fortunately parents back then didn’t seem to be that invested in over- managing their children. So the boys followed their instincts and interests and went with something that sounded fun and do-able. After all, they had been quite good at art stuff at school.
At art/design college, they learnt not only how to tailor their craft but fuelled by the collective energy of the like-minded, lived Einstein’s assertion that “imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited, whereas imagination embraces the entire world, stimulating progress, giving birth to evolution.” They had nothing to lose and everything to express.
But, alas, this was to be a moment in time, albeit a formulative one. Soon each answered the intoxicating call of the system with its promises of money and fame, power and glory, and got what is now called “a real job”. Over the years, it has been my good fortune to meet each of these men on my own journey of discovery and meandering career path. Some have had the mixed fortune of being married to some of my more sassy, sharp-tongued, whip-cracking girlfriends. One had even found himself married to me, the gentle soul that I am.
Then through a series of events that took place a few months ago, a seed of an idea was conceived. I had been quietly observing one of the guys for a while. He is known to have the Midas touch in the creative industries but I always suspected there was something else lurking beneath his spectacular career. Meantime, I attended a lunch when another guy presented a sketch he had whipped up as a gift to the host. Then the Baader-Meinhof phenomenon — when something you’ve just noticed crops up everywhere — kicked in. I started noticing men, a dozen of them in fact, whose creative genius had been somewhat tamed by life. An idea presented itself to me.
I had just read Elizabeth Gilbert’s book Big Magic, which encourages acting on an idea as soon as you have it, before the idea escapes you and looks for a new host. Being open that the idea itself is not yours, but is nurtured by you, means that the idea can have a life of its own and not be dampened or restricted by the confines of your current imaginative processes. For it is the idea activated that will stretch your own boundaries.
“I will have an art show,” the idea whispered and probably because I have spent years studying gender, the show would be called ‘The Male Gaze’. I would invite 12 men to return to their roots — older, supposedly wiser, but with a whole lifetime of male-gazing-by-default to draw from. Re-entering an art practice in the ripeness of their adult years might be the start of something beautiful. After all, Paul Cézanne was a failed artist until his later 50s. Claude Monet hit the ground running in his 40s, after his wife died, and anyway, it’s often not an artist’s early work anyone bothers with.
I contacted all, told them the idea that had come to me, and asked them to play. They all agreed without question, some more nervous than others. Only two had kept up some sort of painting practice over the years, and for many, painting itself had never been their original medium. But they had to paint something for the show and there was a completion deadline. Then the universe conspired with a two-month lockdown, so I saw little excuse for them not to paint something!
So last month, I turned my apartment and the office next door into an art gallery for an evening, and lived out a fantasy of being an art curator and gallerist. In the run-up to the event most involved, including me, were a bit jittery in a pre-wedding nerves sort of way. My son, home for the uni holidays, took one look at me, rolled his eyes and remarked “stress mode activated”, because the guest list was growing daily and I realised I didn’t really know what I was doing. We had the show. Was it a success? Was it fun? It was more than that – it was magical.
Not only did I realise that the event itself was my own creative expression, but the collective creative energy seemed to spark something in everyone who attended. Of the 12 participants whose work was on show, for many, they remembered the joy of painting, and will continue to do so.
Once upon a time, I was a strategist, thinking for a living, and it is hard to shake this reliance on intellect over instinct. But this event was not over-thought, it was simply activated. It was not lost on me that mid-life reinvention is a great part of what I now am involved in, and is indeed the subject of this column. But I hadn’t thought to write about this until afterwards, but this idea continues to be evolutionary.
So what can I share about your own Second Act from this experience? Simply this – if you are asking yourself “what do I want to do for the rest of my life?”, you will not find the answer in logic and linear rational thinking. In fact, you are asking the wrong question. It’s not what you want to do for the rest of your life that counts, but what kind of person you want to be.
Forget about what success looks like for the future, and start remembering who you were at the beginning, how you loved to play, and act on that. The outcome will be beyond what you currently imagine.
This article first appeared in the August 2020 issue of The Hobson Magazine.