I’d like to introduce you to a novel way of thinking about crafting our legacies. Typically, when we refer to an artist’s legacy we mean what comes after—the objects and influences that trail in the wake of an artist’s passing. But what if we imagined shaping artists’ legacies as an active and deeply fulfilling practice, one that establishes continuity between their creative work in later life and that which lies beyond? What if we saw forming legacy as a process that animates and informs creative expression, not simply as a means of attending to the future care of our work? What if we envisioned legacy as practice—a means of consciously entering and engaging the final stage of our creative careers fully and well.1
Knocking on the Door
At some point, every artist becomes aware of diminishing energy and capacities, and with these changes the proximate finitude of life. Artists reaching this juncture may find less satisfaction in their work, and discover that previously cherished social roles no longer hold particular allure. Such awareness arises in rumblings and ruminations: “How do I continue when the work has lost its light? How do I go on when I’m unsure how long my abilities will continue to hold? How can I persist when my peers are gone and the end is in sight? “
While the appearance of these questions is animated by feelings of loss, dissatisfaction, unease and fear, their presence presumes the possibility of a vitalizing response, one that brings spark and fresh appetite for new and innovative work. If an artist is willing to make significant adaptive changes, such revitalization is indeed possible. The path to productive adaptation entails a release of past socialization and prior ambitions in favor of a return to self.
To this point, meaning for the artist has been defined by various forms of accumulation: discipline, skill, social connection, reward and reputation, and by projection of self through distinctive work, self-promotion, and strategies of influence. As artists enter later life, the desire for accumulation begins to lose meaning and the urge to self-inflation that underwrites the practices of projection diminishes in attraction. When this structure of meaning crumbles an artist may come to recognize that he or she is entering a period of life in which value and fulfillment are found by precisely opposite means.
Rather than continuing to work on old terms predicated by familiar motives, an artist’s late life finds renewal through a conscious and willing transformation of creative identity, a shift from the role of art warrior (or tribal leader) to elder. An elder artist’s task is to shape a living legacy by exchanging ambition and authority for the freedom to offer wisdom, to work with renewed spirit and emotional depth, and to bestow parting gifts while yet alive. This turn to heart and spirit can open a channel to the larger Self and yield creative work of great force and profundity. But the turn does not come easily.
Making the Turn
Though an elder’s role carries immense satisfaction, it’s often hard for artists to imagine operating in such capacity. So they resist—stretching, straining, overworking, and sabotaging the people coming up behind them; struggling to remain relevant, or falling prey to listless depression. Then, the resistance having proved futile, a crack may open, and the artist’s inner dialogue may shift. “I would come to grief if I shared with no one what I have learned. If I relinquish control and open my heart, my work may find new life. I don’t want to be careless about what I leave behind.” And with such acknowledgements the artist lets go, accepts the freedom of great age and begins to learn the practice of creating legacy.
We can see this transition to elder as a process of waking up. The artist who has accepted the elder’s role and who has begun the work of creating legacy has arrived at wry self-acceptance, come to embrace life as it is, and is alert and alive to the moment. An artist so situated speaks with clarity and directness. “I’m no longer building a creative career; I’m finishing the journey. I have nothing to prove, but I’m happy to share what I’ve learned along the way. I’m concerned with using my time well, and with what I will leave behind. I want to work now from my heart and to follow the call of my spirit. I want to die with my brush in my hand.”
So how does this newly awakened artist proceed?
Engaging in Practice
Artists thrive in late life by abandoning claims to status, reputation, esteem and control in favor of fully expressed individuality, and the capacity for deep generosity from which legacy is made. Such artists relax into the moment; discovers humor in their emerging limitations; connect with and channel the larger Self in work that travels through the heart, and bestow wisdom on those who seek it. Artists arrive at this place by developing and expressing what Carl Rogers termed, “…this underlying confidence in themselves as trustworthy instruments for encountering life.”2
In functioning as Rogers’ trustworthy instrument, legacy as practice begins. From the perspective of life as encounter, bestowing wisdom and dispensing one’s gifts become natural extensions of what we might call expressive receptivity. Energy for new work, often embracing novel subject matter and proceeding by different means arises from this same source.
Beyond dispensing wisdom and developing novel work, legacy as practice often entails cultivating a capacity to collaborate with skill and generosity. Artists, particularly those in the performing arts, entering later years often find themselves working with less experienced, less knowledgeable, and less skilled colleagues. For artists still enmeshed in their roles warriors for the craft, this can be a source of immense frustration. (i.e. “I can direct circles around that idiot thirty-year old. Why should I put up with this crap?”)
Artists who have embraced the role of elder meet such experiences quite differently because these encounters represent for them neither an indignity, nor a threat to reputation. Consequently, they proceed with generosity, engaging the possibilities in the moment, embracing the naivety, insecurity and awkwardness that accompany the vital energy of their younger colleagues. By exercising warm sagacity in such situations, they become valued collaborators, passing on their craft by illustration and through gentle suggestion.
Such emergent capacity for collaboration, and the need for older artists to infuse their lives with new sources of inspiration, especially in domains, such as writing and the visual arts, where artists commonly work alone, suggests the need for a robust intergenerational brokering system that pairs older and younger artists. Possible pairings might include: mentorship programs; actively curated project-based associations; intergenerational exhibitions; master-classes; social events and service activities. The need for such intermediary structures presents a robust opportunity for educational institutions; arts support organizations, and philanthropies.
A Trustworthy Instrument
The artist creating legacy is facing neither inward, nor outward, but is balanced: accepting and offering, inspiring and expiring, a swinging gate through which life and expression pass simply. This artist is free, vital, unencumbered and engaged. Such an artists accepts fully that he or she does not know how things will end, but sees the openness of the situation as a shaper of priority and as a spur to action.
An artist so situated brings powerful resources to the enterprise, among these: a capacity to look back with awareness; a knowing of how things can unfold; an embodied sense of loss that can direct attention, inform action, and instruct methods; deep grounding in the methods of production, and variety in experience and human encounter. More powerful is the wisdom to see that these are simply resources—tools, available to be used, but not binding on the artist.
The sage artist understands that the art of creating legacy is a process of live engagement and self-determination, informed, but never governed, by accumulated experience and the resources it provides. It is a means of working intentionally and astutely from the heart, accepting what comes, offering what one has, and producing that which is needed. Proceeding from this awakened state, artists, who conceive of legacy as practice, unleash the prospect of producing work that sparkles with vitality, pulses with humor, shines with love, and perhaps finds transcendence. And that is why fulfilled artists never stop working, because for them legacy is practice.
1. For more on the stages of a fulfilled creative life, see Arc and Interruption | Grantmakers in the Arts
2. “Toward Becoming a Fully Functioning Person,” Carl R. Rogers, ASCD Yearbook, Perceiving, Behaving, Becoming: A New Focus for Education, 1962.
© Copyright Marc Zegans, 2017. All rights reserved.
Marc Zegans is a creative development advisor who helps artists; writers and creative people thrive and shine. He is the past executive director of Harvard University’s Innovations Program and a working poet with four collections in print. Marc can be reached for consultation at: firstname.lastname@example.org. His website is www.mycreativedevelopment.com.