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Lessons From Bowie - Looking At An Artist, As An Artist

Bowie - Aladin Sane

Bowie. Say no more. I know. There has been a huge shift in The Universe since news broke about his passing a week ago. It has been incredible to repeatedly read just how Bowie touched so many souls, through out so many generations. I don't mean to be redundant here by even choosing this as a blog topic or being utterly unoriginal at this time. I know I can't say anything that hasn't been said or felt. But one of the key things I have taken away from this very sad event is looking at Bowie's body of work as a whole. Now. Today. As an adult artist, looking at and truly appreciating a master.

Art. Fashion. Music. For some of us...that is the holy trinity. Or at least it was to me....a burgeoning creative teenager type growing up in Egypt during the 1980's. When I was first introduced to the music/fashion/art scene, our biggest influence was from the UK. That is...when we could get it which was usually a few months behind the times. None the less, Bowie was more or less at the pinnacle of all of that. Anything art, fashion and musically oriented was a by product of him paving the way.

For us, (I can only speak for the expat kids I went to school with) he was like part of life's soundtrack. In the background, in the art room (my high school sanctuary), school dances, movies, Egyptian discos, blowing down the road along the Nile in the back of a taxi, begging the driver to play the cassette you were waving over his shoulder. Bowie followed me to London and back to the US for art school. He serenaded me through endless nights in the studio while I wondered if I was ever going to survive this chosen path. His presence was just a given. An inspiration. A comfort. A knowing.

I haven't followed Bowie much during the later part of his career but felt, even after all of these years....he was woven into the fabric of time and place. His passing has felt like someone removed one of the important bricks of my creative foundation and young adulthood.

Having worked in the entertainment industry for many years, I have loads of opinions about my fellow creatives and celebrities...some not so favorable. However, I have nothing but admiration, respect and love for Bowie and his unbelievably wild journey. The truth be told, I have probably learned more about what it was to live (and die) as an artist over the past week, by reviewing his career as a whole, than I did by attending art school. Here are some of the key points I've pondered, accompanied by words from the man himself.

David - Bowie as Ziggy Stardust

Chameleon? Please...."For me a chameleon is something that disguises itself to look as much like its environment as possible. I always thought I did exactly the opposite of that. I don't have stylistic loyalty. That's why people perceive me changing all the time. But there is a real continuity in my subject matter. As an artist of artifice, I do believe I have more integrity than any one of my contemporaries."

OK I have to get this out of my system. Bowie being called a chameleon is simply annoying. Chameleons change colour to blend into their environment. Bowie did quite the opposite until he chose to lead a more quite, out of the limelight life as a family man. He bucked cultural constraints and gave all of us who thought, lived and created differently a safe place to be who we were. He took risks. His hero's were those who transgressed the norm, defied convention regardless of it being painting, music or anything. He took his cues from them. He was a trail blazer, pioneer, shape-shifter, envelope pusher, breaker or bender of the rules ..... anything. But never a chameleon. Come on y'all.

Do the work. "I suppose for me as an artist, it wasn't always just about expressing my work; I really wanted, more than anything else, to contribute in some way to the culture that I was living in. It just seemed like a challenge to move it a little bit towards the way I thought it might be interesting to go."

Being an artist isn't just about having free pass to be a freak, a slack ass or a temperamental asshole. (Which I have seen repeatedly. It is tedious and boring at best.) We are all unique individuals in our own way. But being an artist means more than just stirring up trouble, weirdness, whining or using shock value to make people uncomfortable. It is producing work (and a life) with integrity, honesty and intention. Add substance to it. Even if it just to make something beautiful that has no meaning. Provoke thought or appreciation or something. Doing the work also includes producing a HELL of a lot of work just as Bowie did up until the end. It is a never ending journey and no way to half ass it. You've gotta show up.

Bowie - Thin White Duke

Detach from the work. During my freshman and sophomore year at the Maryland Institute College of Art, I had a design teacher who was hell bent on getting us to detach from the work. So she would take our piece off of the critique wall, tear it in half, hand it back to us saying, 'you can do it again'. As graphic design majors, we had working with clients to keep in mind when creating a project. It wasn't just our baby, so emotional attachment was not encouraged. Personally, I thought this was a damaging, almost abusive way to make the point and one of the reasons I walked away from design for so many years. But I digress.......

One of the things that dawned on me, is that Bowie knew how and when to detach. He didn't cling. Just like an actor lets go of their character when the filming is done, the same went for Bowie. His characters were actually created out of the discomfort of writing for himself and performing. In addition, he had the intuition to know these characters had a short shelf life and when to pull the plug. The man has worked every angle of his talents from Ziggy Stardust, Aladdin Sane, The Thin White Duke to catchy pop songs, to jazz, to blues to everything in between. But he knew that an audiences appreciation was going to be periodic at the best of times and that artists fall in and out of favour continually. At the end of the day, I think he quite enjoyed experiencing it all.

Own your work. And I mean literally. I refuse to believe that artists of any sort HAVE to be poor. Not good with numbers? Yeah me neither. But that has nothing to do with putting value on the work and yourself. If you were a lawyer, you'd be damn sure to charge your rates right? Why are we different? We have had years of training, schooling, failures, successes and zillions of hours of work. People undervalue our work because we undervalue ourselves. Bowie stepped up to take financial control and full ownership of his work, correcting bad financial and career mistakes made by trusting the wrong people. This should be taught in every art school around the world. Unfortunately, most of us learn it the hard way.

Bowie - Earthing Tour - Alexander McQueen Union Jack Coat

Know when you are beating a dead horse and move on. "You can't stand still on one point for your entire life." 

This is the down fall of those who are 'one hit wonders' doing the same thing year after year... whatever the medium. There is a real danger of getting into, and staying in a rut, perpetuating something that has gone before. Variety is the spice of life for the artist, as well as everyone in their audience. Think about it...how many decades did Bowie's work span? And just what do you think Ziggy Stardust would look like, act like and have to say at age 69?

Uncomfortable is the key to creation."If you feel safe in the area you’re working in, you’re not working in the right area. Always go a little further into the water than you feel you’re capable of being in. Go a little bit out of your depth. And when you don’t feel that your feet are quite touching the bottom, you’re just about in the right place to do something exciting."

If that is the case, then I am on to something. And I'm holding him to this.

Don't do it to be popular. "The thing you should turn around at the end of the day and say is...'I really like that work' or 'that really sucked!' Not 'was this popular or that popular'." and "The only real failure is trying to second-guess the taste of an audience. Nothing comes out of that except a kind of inward humiliation."

Listen carefully. Stick with what is true to you, your style and your personal journey. The creative well will be endless and it gives you control to steer the ship.

Time Out London - Bowie Tribute 2016

Diversify. "When you are an artist you can turn your hand to anything, in any style. Once you have the tools then all the art forms are the same in the end." 

Along with being a musician, he was a song writer, producer, a performer, a mime, a painter, a designer, a movie actor, a writer for the art magazine Modern Painters, an art collector, a philanthropist, a financial bad ass (he created Bowie Bonds. Look it up!), started his own Internet service provider and progressed with the technology of the music industry...  to name a few. Doing more than 'just your art' actually deepens, strengthens and enriches the work. And your life. And your contribution to the planet. It's about long term sustainability.

Ditch the drugs and alcohol dependency. "One day I realized that I really needed to stop losing myself in my work and in my addictions. What happens is you just wake up one morning and feel absolutely dead. You can't even drag your soul back into your body. You feel you have negated everything that is wonderful about life. When you have fallen that far, it feels like a miracle when you regain your love of life.'

Creative people rely all too regularly on this. Anyone who knows me knows this is a no go. It may sound preachy, but I have watched over many years, addiction ruin lives, finances, families, relationships, careers and ones health. It is devastatingly heartbreaking. It doesn't make you more creative or better at what you do. If so, it doesn't last. Bowie had to pull himself from the depths of hell on this...as do so many. In fact, he almost lost everything including his son and his own life. It's a counter productive choice and becomes a waste of wonderful talent at the end of the day. Why waste your greatest gift being strung out or hung over??

Don't take yourself seriously. "I'm looking for backing for an unauthorized auto-biography that I am writing. Hopefully, this will sell in such huge numbers that I will be able to sue myself for an extraordinary amount of money and finance the film version in which I will play everybody."

Bowie more or less laughed at the whole phenomenon, took it with a grain of salt and rode the wave with style and grace. He was serious when creating, but the fame it created, he took in stride. The man who fell to Earth, actually seemed very down to Earth and didn't forget to keep perspective.

David Bowie in The Man Who Fell To Earth

Be secure with in your self, what you do and generous with your knowledge. "If you come from art, you'll always be art."  

There is enough room for everyone. How many other colleagues and younger musicians did Bowie either collaborate with, produce, write for or help launch? I think he believed that sharing knowledge was part of the creative process and was very generous with what he had been so blessed with. Holding our knowledge doesn't help us or anyone else. Bowie nailed it with his generosity, wisdom and experience.

David Bowie vs. David Jones: "I surrounded myself with people who indulged my ego. They treated me as though I was Ziggy Stardust or one of my characters, never realising that David Jones might be behind it."

Sadly, I was never on the right continent to see David Bowie perform. And later in life.... I was working some film or TV shoot that was dictating just about all of my time. I do regret that as he was historical. I can only live vicariously through friends who have been to concerts, along with even a smaller group who have worked with or met him. I have heard stories that he was a wonderful man which went beyond his talents. He was kind. Lovely. Funny. Intelligent. We all have known and seen 'David Bowie' for decades. But to meet the real man, David Jones and know the difference...that had to be extra special and something to treasure for life.

Friend and fellow crew member on my last Broadway show, Fritz Frizsell, shared this on Facebook the day Bowie's passing was announced. And I thought.... THIS is the kind of thing that makes the world go around......

Back in the early 80's, I was on my way to the now-gone Carnegie Hall cinema, when someone behind me asked "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?". I turned to see which of my friends this wise guy was - and my jaw dropped when I saw it was David Bowie.
When I finally found my voice, I told him that I was on my way there myself to see Samuel Beckett's FILM, starring Buster Keaton. Turned out Bowie was going there for the same reason. We walked together, talking about Beckett and Keaton along the way. It is not a well-known movie, and there was practically no one else there. Afterwards, we left together and chatted a bit more.
Shortly after, we parted ways and I was embarrassed to realise I had never acknowledged that I'd known who he was (though by my initial reaction, he surely must have known). A few months later, I was walking through Shubert Alley, I saw him signing autographs after a performance of The Elephant Man, a show I had seen him in shortly before meeting him at the Carnegie. Looking up, he saw me, smiled and said "Well, if it isn't my fellow Keaton fan". It was the same sweet smile you see at the end of this lovely rendition of Brel's My Death. A tremendously talented artist, a beautiful soul, and a great, great loss. This one hit hard.

And yes it did.

David Bowie - The Elephant Man Broadway Production 1980-81

Maintain integrity and dignity. Always. I have seen it written many times, Bowie was simply a gentleman. And that he considered his privacy the greatest of luxuries. Rather than making his illness a public affair, he gave his last creative projects his very best...meanwhile.. behind the scenes, battling his illness and protecting his family from the media circus that it could have become. Death, just like birth is an incredibly intimate process. He kept it on point and on what was important. After a lifetime in the spotlight he quietly took a bow with his last creative projects, and like a phantom in the night, silently slipped away.

Bowie's long time friend, Robert Fox and producer of his off-Broadway show said this, "He wanted the minimum of fuss. He was just a private man. And I think he wanted to protect his family from the insanity there would have been. It would have impinged on the album (Blackstar), the off-Broadway musical Lazarus, his family - everyone would have been inundated at a time when he didn't need or want that. And he did it perfectly."

And we all should take note.

One of my favorite quotes (and personal life goals) comes from Erma Bombeck: "When I stand before God at the end of my life, I would hope that I should not have a single bit of talent left and could say, 'I used everything you gave me'. For Bowie, I believe he absolutely did. Until the very end. In a way that only Bowie could.

Thank you for reading. Have a Bowie story to share? Join the conversation below. Would love to hear.....

-A special thank you to Lady Fritz for allowing me to share your wonderful story. It gave this post the shine it needed. Keep the memory of your story close to your heart, always.
-I'd like to credit the first Bowie image, not sure where it came from, but it was too perfect not to use.

-Bowie in a costume designed by Kansai Yamamoto for the 1973 Aladdin Sane Tour.
-Bowie's 1976 character The Thin White Duke. Album, Station to Station. 
-Bowie in Union Jack coat designed by Alexander McQueen for the Earthing album cover + tour 1997.

-David Bowie - Poster for The Man Who Fell To Earth.
-Bowie on the cover of Time Out London 2016.
-David Bowie in the Broadway Production of The Elephant Man 1980-81.

5 comments

Feb 14, 2017

Beautiful article – thank you.

James Harris
Feb 11, 2016

What a lovely piece Caitley—inspired me in many many ways.

Karen Gearhart Jensen
Jan 23, 2016

I don’t even know how I got here, but I’m so glad I did. I loved reading this. Bowie’s death has affected me in ways I cannot even begin to explain—true, honest grief.
Thank you for this.

Allie
Jan 20, 2016

David Bowie’s spirit would smile reading this, how he inspired all of us around the world and given so many the desire to be unique and show talents is beautifully said.

Rachel Lee Miller
Jan 20, 2016

♡♡♡ Excellent, I took several things away from this on both a personal and professional level.

Megan Murphy

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