If there is anyone who can express the struggles and triumphs of an artist's life, it is the incomparable diva and dance revolutionary, Martha Graham. Her life and work continue to fascinate long after her death in 1991 at age 97. While she's most often associated with New York City, she grew up in Santa Barbara, CA - a place that she would return to throughout her life for it's beauty, tranquility and healing atmosphere. When driving past the historic Santa Barbara High School, I sometimes picture her as a young woman running and leaping across the grounds before she traded our little town for the life of a touring dancer, and before the world became aware of her great talent and presence. Like so many others, whether in the dance world or beyond, I've read just about every word written about her, including Martha: The Life and Work of Martha Graham written by her friend and fellow dancer, Agnes de Mille. Within the pages of this book, a multi-faceted portrait emerges of a woman both inspired and insecure. She was driven and determined, yet she was quite vulnerable and oftentimes struggled with worry, despair, precarious finances and even addiction.
de Mille recalls how after achieving her own first real success with the opening of Oklahoma! in 1943, she became confused about the true value of her work, since her earlier works had all but been ignored for years. The two women met for a soda, where de Mille shared her anxieties to her friend and mentor: "I confessed that I had a burning desire to be excellent but no faith that I could be. Martha said to me very quietly,
'There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all of time, this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is nor how valuable nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours clearly and directly, to keep the channel open. You do not even have to believe in yourself and your work. You have to keep yourself open and aware to the urges that motivate you.
Keep the channel open. . . .
No artist is pleased. [There is no] satisfaction whatever at any time . . . There is only a queer divine dissatisfaction, a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.'"
Graham's wisdom reminds us that the source of our gifts is beyond our control - our job is to stay awake and aware - to "keep the channel open." There will be moments when we feel truly connected to this source, and many others when we find ourselves flailing or simply subsumed into the ordinariness of daily life. In either case, she makes it clear that "satisfaction" is not the goal of an artist's life, indeed it may not even be possible. What we experience when we are called to create is in Graham's words, a "queer divine dissatisfaction" - a type of blessing that does not ease our longing, but one that keeps us restless and marching toward our destinies.
Graham's insights are a treasure trove for creators of all types. In addition to de Mille's biography, take a look at Graham's memoir, Blood Memory, Barbara Morgan's Martha Graham: Sixteen Dances in Photographs, and the rare and awe-inspiring Notebooks of Martha Graham.
Watch excerpts of her dance, Night Journey based on Sophocles' Oedipus Rex below. She was profoundly influenced by myth, Greek tragedy, and ritual. More on the myriad of inspirations that shaped her work and her life in future posts!
I'm Mary Antonia Wood, Ph,D. I share both contemporary & ancient insights on the origins & realities of artistic expression. Creators of all types will discover enriching & practical wisdom about their vocation as expressed through the lenses of philosophy, mythology, archetypal & depth psychologies, neuroscience and more. Take a look.