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Mortality and the Artist

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Madeline MerrittI’ve been going through a challenging time. My vibrant, generous, loving step-grandmother Arna, who has been part of my life since I was three years old, is dying of cancer. When I look for one example of the artist in my family, she has always been it. Arna Means creates drawings and etchings and paintings. She taught English, Art and Special Education across northern California for 50 years before retiring. She has been making and selling her stirring works since the 1960s, and has raised an impassioned family that now stretches four generations. She has become a fixture in her Northern California community, and this week was honored with a commemorative show featuring decades of her work. Her art is touching: deep, multi-faceted, enticing. She is a true elder in the arts: she lives her artistic process in a way that is inspiring to witness. Her work reflects so personally the experience of being a woman, of being a dreamer, of our human connection to the other side of reality.

By the River, Etching/Aquatint, Arna Means

By the River, Etching/Aquatint, Arna Means

In her own words, “To me, art reflects the process of a struggle toward resolution. As an expression of that struggle, a work of art can be seen on many levels.”

In this process of losing her living presence on this earth, while grief is the first word of this experience, there is another deeper message that her graceful and present transition brings up for me: what is it that I want to leave as my legacy? Why am I an artist, and most importantly, what do I have to say?

Epiphany, Etching/Aquatint, Arna Means

Epiphany, Etching/Aquatint, Arna Means

For many artists, our artwork is a struggle against mortality. It is the way we fight against the loss of our lives; it is the way that we hope to live on after our physical bodies have died. We are people who want to move others, who want to affect our surroundings to make the world a better, happier, funnier, more caring, or hey, more scary place (if we like to make horror movies). And some of us will change the course of our society, becoming remembered and revered over time. Some will be a lightning bolt that shake-up something stale by setting our culture on fire in an instant, only to be largely forgotten in a decade. And some of us performing artists, will affect a few, only a few, on a deep level, in a way and in a moment we don’t realize. All are important. Art will be what we leave behind, and we as artists seek to affect the cultural genetics that are larger than any one of our lives.

So, I ask you, what is it that you want to leave behind? Even if you are sixteen and just thinking about pursuing a life in the arts, it is not too early to ask that question. What is it that I want to say? How do I want to affect people? What kind of art makes me transform? How do I do that to others? How do I treat art as a practice? What am I trying to resolve inside me with my artwork? What questions am I asking with it? Am I making art as a warning, or as an inspiration, or as a fantasy escape from the harsh world we live in? Am I bringing hope and self-acceptance to those who feel like outsiders? Am I fighting against injustice? Am I creating a moving inspiration for the world, or showing the world the unique way that I experience it?

Nude with Potted Plant, Etching/Aquatint

Nude with Potted Plant, Etching/Aquatint

As a performing artist, I am, in many ways, the art itself. Every piece I have put on camera so subtly reflects who I am in that moment. It can’t be overlooked. It is a presence. So a legacy can be a moving, transforming being, just like we all are. It can be human, and alive. But don’t overlook it. It can be so easy, so easy, to be schizophrenic in this industry. You can say, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” to anything that pays and be flexible enough to do a pretty good job at a lot of things, and get spun around in so many different directions, and put your name on so many different projects that don’t reflect anything about what it is that YOU want to say. It is easy to lose your identity that way. And the most valuable thing you possess, being you, is your sense of self. Listen to the inner voice that tells you, “YES! This is the art that I was put here to create.” And in that way you create the legacy that will be remembered and cherished by those who love you, and by those beautiful souls your artwork was lucky enough to effect.

I feel very lucky to have spent a few cherished days with Arna this month. And I hope to see her again in this life. But just in case, I wrote her a letter with all of those things that are so hard to say when you are with someone who is passing: how much she has meant, how grateful I am for her bringing me into her family. What I didn’t say, and I hope she reads now, is that I am grateful for all the questions this process of losing her has brought up for me. How I can sit here now, and think about what is hopefully many years away, and make a course in terms of legacy, to hold that perspective, because life is short, and precious, and not enough time for the artist inside us to say everything.

Madeline Merritt

About Madeline Merritt

Actress, Freelance Writer - Madeline grew up on stage and has loved telling stories her whole life. From the Bay Area, California, Madeline received her degree in Theatre and Political Science from Northwestern University and moved to Los Angeles in 2008. She recently spent a year in Paris, France but missed the city of Angels and the entertainment industry here. She cares deeply about social issues, including women’s rights, indigenous rights, poverty and the environment. She feels the role of storyteller through entertainment is very important in opening dialogue and creating change in the world. You can see her in The Guest House (available on Netflix, Itunes, Amazon and Time Warner on Demand) and the soon to be released American Idiots, coming to a Redbox near you in June 2013. She is thrilled to continue her journey of collaborating with women in film and television through Ms. In the Biz.