Alice Walker On The Importance of Models in the Artist’s Life

Inspiration is that intangible quality that compels us to produce tangibles with a particular shared fingerprint. Despite our racial compositions or our genders, our sexes, or our fiftyleven-million other convoluted characteristics-anatomic, biologic, psychosomatic, or other– our art works to explain our shared experiences as sensory bound beings capable of manipulating and reflecting sensory experiences of others.

In an essay entitled, “Saving the Life That Is Your Own: The Importance of Models in the Artist’s Life”, Alice Walker details this lesson succinctly. This essay, found in her bound collection of essays, “In Search Of Our Mothers’ Gardens“, opens with this quote:

I come out of a tradition where those things are valued; where you talk about a woman with big legs and big hips and black skin. I come out of a black community where it was all right to have hips and to be heavy. You didn’t feel that people didn’t like you. The values that [imply] you must be skinny come from another culture….Those are not the values that I was given by the women who served as my models. I refuse to be judged by the values of another culture. I am a black woman, and I will stand as best I can in that imagery.

Bernice Reagon, “Black Women And Liberation Movements” citing found in “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens” by Alice Walker

Alice begins her piece with a visual. She takes our hands and apparates with us to December 1889. Van Gogh is writing a letter at a desk too small. She reads us his letter. Afterward, she explains why she has magically lifted us to this place:

Six months later, Van Gogh–whose health was “improving a great deal”–committed suicide. He had sold one painting during his lifetime. Three times was his work noticed in the press. But these are just details.

The real Vincent Van Gogh is the man who has “just done five size 30 canvasses, olive trees.” To me, in context, one of the most moving and revealing descriptions of how a real artist thinks. And the knowledge that when he spoke of “suffering under an absolute lack of models” he spoke of that lack in terms of both the intensity of his commitment and the quality and singularity of his work, which was frequently ridiculed in his day.

The absence of models, in literature as in life, to say nothing of painting, is an occupational hazard for the artist, simply because models in art, in behavior, in growth of spirit and intellect–even if rejected–enrich and enlarge one’s view of existence. Deadlier still, to the artist who lacks models, is the curse of ridicule, the bringing to bear on an artist’s best work, especially his or her most original, most striking deviant, only a fund of ignorance and the presumption that, as an artist’s critic, one’s judgment is free of the restrictions imposed by prejudice, and is well informed, indeed, about all the art in the world that really matters.

pg 4-5

Alice brings home her driving point for this introductory set of statements with:

What is always needed in the appreciation of art, or life, is the larger perspective. Connections made, or at least attempted, where none existed before, the straining to encompass in one’s glance at the varied world the common thread, the unifying theme through immense diversity, a fearlessness of growth, of search, of looking, that enlarges the private and the public world. And yet, in our particular society, it is the narrowed and narrowing view of life that often wins.

pg 5

Alice takes a step away from Van Gogh’s kiddie writing desk, transporting us to a university circuit reading. At this reading, she is asked to differentiate between US Black authors and US Whyte authors. Her initial internal response is balanced in an annoyed way. She considers her own thoughts regarding art and her view of written works as one story composed by many writers. She does, possibly to humor her inquirer, distinguish certain treatments of death and struggle observed in these writings based on racial distinctions.

While she admits that her “comparison does not hold up in every case”, she cite two books that do work to assist her analogy of forms: The Awakening, by Kate Chopin and Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston. She goes to explain how many in her audience were unaware of any of Zora’s work. It is, of course, Alice who resurrects Ms. Zora out of obscurity. Through this essay, she explains exactly that bit of US Black Woman’s conjuring occurred.

So when I sat down to write my story about voodoo, my crazy Walker aunt was definitely on my mind.

But she had experienced her temporary craziness so long ago that her story had all the excitement of a might-have-been. I needed, instead of family memories, some hard facts about the craft of voodoo, as practiced by Southern blacks in the nineteenth century. (It never once, fortunately, occurred to me that voodoo was not worthy of the interest I had in it, or was too ridiculous to study seriously.)

I began reading all I could find on the subject of “The Negro and His Folkways and Superstitions.” There were Botkin and Puckett and others, all white, most racist. How was I to believe anything they wrote, since at least one of them, Puckett, was capable of wondering, in his book, if “The Negro” had a large enough brain?

Well, I thought, where are the black collectors of folklore? Where is the black anthropologist? Where is the black person who took the time to travel the back roads of the South and collect the information I need: how to cure heart trouble, treat dropsy, hex somebody to death, lock bowels, cause joints to swell, eyes to fall out, and so on. Where was this black person?

And that is when I first saw, in a footnote to the white voices of authority, the name Zora Neale Hurston.

pg. 11

Alice connects her introduction to this climatic device by writing:

What I had discovered, of course, was a model. A model, who, as it happened, provided more than voodoo for my story, more than one of the greatest novels America had produced–though, being America, it did not realize this. She had provided, as if she knew someday I would come along wandering in the wilderness, a nearly complete record of her life. And though her life sprouted an occasional wart, I am eternally grateful for that life, warts and all.

pg. 12

I consider this piece of spellbound inspiration a testament to that power of will expressed through artistic medium. Two nodes very disconnected in time and space, or spacetime, joined by several well spliced strands. An artist sick of life, yet full of creative gifts who chooses to put a period on it without his own works given much ado. Another artist whose travels extend to and fro Southern Florida and Harlem Renaissance, dying in squalor despite her stunning, shining storytelling. Two examples that become models in their death, one’s works of visual awe selling for millions, that others tales inspiring motion picture symbolism from Spielberg to Oprah to Beyonce.