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Art Is Active And Incomplete: A Conversation With Erik Wahl

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By Erik Wahl, Internationally recognized graffiti artist, best selling author and global philanthropist.

Interviewed by Shazeen (UK)

How did you discover yourself as an artist? Where did the spark for graffiti art and speed painting come from?

My story is one of discovering a win through a painful loss. I spent the first half of my life as a business professional – lost everything in early 2000 – and then discovered art and have been combining the two ever since. I share my story often during live performances.

My story begins at an early age, when I was told by a well-meaning teacher that “art was not my strength.” And, unfortunately for my immediate future, I listened. I put down my crayons and paintbrushes and didn’t pick them up again for another twenty years. In the meantime, I became the poster child for educational excellence. I was calculated and precise. I was standardized and robotic. I was an impenetrable façade of no nonsense academic efficiency. I studied hard, memorized and regurgitated answers, and played by the rules. I concluded like most, that strong grades, a solid college education and a good conservative corporate job with predictable growth would be sufficient. The formula looks like this: Good grades + Good degrees = Good money and a good life.

Based on this formula, I entered the corporate world for the next ten years where I methodically angled for financial freedom. However, there was a growing sense that I was not free, that I was trapped in a self-imposed prison. I had a deep feeling that my soul was slipping out from under me. I sensed my true talents (whatever they were) were wasting away inside of me. Eventually, my carefully crafted house of cards (built with power, prestige, and possessions) that I had worked so hard to build up got hit by an unplanned gust of wind when the dot com bubble burst. I suffered a heartbreaking demise and my cards unexpectedly came crashing to the floor. I had witnessed others suffer setbacks, but was not prepared for one of my own.

The cause that brings life to a halt takes different forms in different people.

During this time of self-reflection, frustration, and anger, I was determined to break free from the addiction of security that had lulled the passionate version of me to sleep. By intentionally going against the grain of this addiction, my early artist, the small child who was told he wasn’t a very good artist, was awakened inside of me. Digging into my childlike desires, I poured myself into my art, painting and writing with reckless abandon, all while spending additional time in the local artistic community. The pursuit of Art became my restoration. It was the passion I had chosen to give give up on so long ago, in the form of a paintbrush. I was surprised to learn the answer was so simple. Frankly, this feeling of wholeness I was experiencing felt otherworldly.

From exploring your art, I’ve noticed you insert a personal philosophy in your artwork. Can you describe this life approach?

My philosophy is to approach life as a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved. I want to live life from a beginner’s mind. I’m curious. I’m passionate and engaged.

What is the purpose of art in your opinion?

The purpose of art is not to produce a product. The purpose of art is to produce thinking. The secret is not the mechanics or technical skill that create art – but the process of introspection and different levels of contemplation that generate it. Once you learn to embrace this process, your creative potential is limitless. Artwork should be an active verb (a lens by which to view the world) not a passive noun (a painting that sits dormant in a museum). Creativity lies NOT in the done but in the doing. Art is active and incomplete. Always shifting, always becoming. Art is a sneak peak into the future of potential, of what could be. Not a past result of what has been already done. Art is a process not a product. Art is a human act. Art is Risky. Generous. Courageous. Provocative. You can be perfect, or you can make art. You can keep track of what you will get in return for your effort, or you can make art. You can enjoy the status quo, or you can make art.

What’s your idea of creative learning, and ways in which standardized education affects the learning process?

The word education originated from the Latin root educere, or to draw out, to inspire each individual to become the very best possible version of themselves. Teaching is a creative profession. Let’s free our teachers to be artists that ignite our kids curiosity and not reduce them to a standardized delivery system.

We have bored our kids to death with education. We have standardized them into little academic regurgitating robots. And then we reward the most formulaic of the bunch with high grades and advanced degrees. But we have not ignited their passions, their curiosity their true ability to solve deep and complex problems in a world that is changing far faster than our world of academia.

Creativity appears mystical to most disciplined academic minds. The smarter you are as measured on a traditional linear academic achievement scale, the more difficult the spark (creativity) is to access. In my experience, some of the most highly academic professionals and students struggle with creativity because they lack the confidence to risk failure. Their cognitive biases have defined failure as (loss, weakness, deficiencies) unacceptable and avoid it by controlling their efforts and outcomes to a very limited range of activities. activities that they already know the outcome because of successful historical precedent. If you are not prepared to be wrong you will never experience anything new. You will insulate yourself from risk, and the spark resides on the edge of chaos and the fringes of our comfort zone.

The advanced adult academic mind in all of its magnificence cannot match the brilliance of a beginner’s mind in discovering new ideas. The beginner’s mind can withstand a much higher threshold for discomfort. complexity and ambiguity. – this is why children soar in learning to walk, learning to talk or figuring out how to work an adults iPad. They are driven by insatiable curiosity even though they have never experienced this before. They are not bound by fear of failure, or ding to their ego or complexity or by what is reasonable and they are willing to endure the hardships of discomfort, making mistakes or falling to figure it out. Growth and comfort cannot co-exist.

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How do you experience failure and success in your artwork? What does the very process a piece of artwork teach you about failure and success?

Dealing with failure is integral to success. “Micro-failure” is a term I use to learn to fail fast, fail forward and use setbacks as an opportunity to grow. Success is largely about overcoming failure and auto-correcting to new territory. If you are not prepared to fail you will never be able to succeed.

In your recent Einstein work, you said: “By using a systematic approach to de-constructing an idea or problem to its most simple form – you can then create infinite new solutions. This is the discipline of creativity. This is the spirit of innovation. This is a system that is replicable to any concept or strategy”

This is an interesting way of doing art. Do you find yourself solving problems or finding new doorways to creativity during your work? 

As I was learning to paint, learning to write, play poker, build a business, coach a team, build a brand, perform live, learning to walk all stem from the same learners mindset. Allowing myself to fall and getting back up. Letting curiosity and passion lead me to try again, and not critiquing my approach or results. As my kids learned to walk I was always their biggest cheerleader – rooting, coaxing cheering them on for another try. I didn’t tell them how they should walk, or coach them on how to do it better. I simply let them try. I let them fall. I helped them back up and then encourage them to try again. What if all of our teaching was like this? This is how you encourage growth everywhere.

What can you say about fear?

Fear is often nothing more than a self imposed illusion. Yet these illusions of failure (fear) kill far more dreams than actual failure ever will. Overcoming your fear is not easy. But every time you recognize and overcome a fear, you become stronger. you become more confident. and you become more courageous.

Has not pleasing everyone been part of becoming an artist? 

I take feedback from others with great openness. Yet I don’t let it immediately change my course. Everyone is allowed to express an opinion but not everyone knows where I am headed. Only I can filter feedback to use it to propel or decelerate my growth. I have become a very adroit filter.

You described the power of ‘NOW’ on one of your recent talks. Can you tell us about struggles of staying in the present moment, and how did you accomplish an ability to be in the ‘NOW’? 

This is a struggle that I experience every minute of the day. I am human. I live passionately. I suffer. I experience joy. I get depressed. I get angry. I love deeply. As I enjoy the second half of my life I have learned to absorb these experiences. Sometimes I do it well. Sometimes I suck. But I am doing my best to let the moments pass through me. Accept them for better or worse. And then move forward.

How can art help to lessen the suffering in the world?

Through our foundation thewahlfoundation.com I am using art to raise good money for great causes. To awaken, to capture and to give. I am passionate about how to creatively use art to raise funds for those who need it the most.

To watch my videos or see how I weave my art into my live performances, visit my website today on The Art of Vision

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5 comments to “Art Is Active And Incomplete: A Conversation With Erik Wahl”

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  1. I wonder, would he chose to be the artist he is now if his house of cards didn’t blown away? This dot com bubble burst was something outside his control.

    As someone who also feels like his soul is slipping out (in my case: 7.30 – 17.00 government job) should I wait for any disaster to crush me downy? Or perhaps, I should creatively initiate a disaster for myself; to enforce a need to start from scratch within my own frame of passion. Or, just doing the conservatively logical thing: keeping the job, while trying to find time for my passion. I admit I’m still very much clueless now.

    • in short, sasmito, i would not have become an artist. it was not until i lost everything that i was free to do anything. art was my way of coping with loss. my art ultimately was a channel to better understand myself. a spiritual journey inward more than an expression of myself outward. this tormented journey inward was the path that i had to take to ultimately find peace and then expression thru various forms of art

      your post is hauntingly beautiful. haunting because i know the feeling of being at the end of yourself. it is painful, confusing and lonely. and beautiful because you are coming to an inflection point where you cannot take the slow drip anymore and life is about to change.

  2. Thank you for reminding me what wildly authentic looks like.
    Finding your path and sharing it to inspire others is the truest of all paths.
    Much gratitude.

  3. unklemikey says: May 6, 2016 at 23:32

    That ^ is where it’s at.

    Thus far, I’m still managing to make it through life as an artist and conceptually, you said everything I would have said, except you said it better than I could’ve said.

    Growth is what I do in between comfort breaks. 🙂

    I don’t come or go from the ‘now’. It happens when the constructs of past/future are absent. When I’m in the zone framing up the world around me and working my way down through levels of abstraction, I’m totally absorbed and in the now.

    Thank you for your positivity and inspiration.

    You are straight up real and right on, brother.

  4. unklemikey says: May 6, 2016 at 23:54

    As artists, the older we get the more wisdom we find in a child’s point of view. 🙂

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