Memento mori – remember you will die… What does that say to you?
Does it sound fatalistic or liberating? Either way, it’s a powerful phrase. Examining what emotional response the words create is an insightful exercise. Death isn’t good or bad, it simply is, like night/day or hot/cold. It’s a force of nature, not a punishment or reward.
Mortality can be an amazing motivational tool or a depressing immobiliser. The ability to see and accept the duality of life and death has followed humans through history.
- In ancient Rome, one powerful general had a servant follow him on victory parades whispering memento mori to keep his ego contained. He realised that even the most successful victory never changed the fact human life is finite.
- Christianity in the middle ages used the phrase to frighten the public into following their rules. Every corner of Europe used the it to emphasis that the afterlife would be an enjoyable paradise forever if you were sin fee or a flaming pit if wicked.
- Karl Marx used the phrase to illustrate that rich, poor, famous, anonymous, beautiful or disfigured – all face the same end; we have more in common than what sets us apart.
- Buddhism, Zen and Islam all have variations of the phrase to remember death.
As an artist, I use the phrase to ward off fear and procrastination. It reminds me to ask what do I need to say, do, create TODAY. There may not be a tomorrow, so use the time I have. What inspiration is burning in me that will never see the light of day if I don’t make it?
The ancient Greek philosopher Seneca put it succinctly – when you go to bed you may not wake up in the morning and if you do, you may not sleep another night. It’s a humbling and invigorating thought. Is my fear of talking to galleries worth not having my work seen? Is my fear of making a lumpy figure worth not making any sculptures? Is my fear of writing a bad plot worth the the story never being told?
My memory can be spotty, so I use small pieces of art to keep ideas fresh in my mind. Memento mori is such an emotional idea though too much would be depressing, therefore I don’t fill my home with skulls or skeletons. I use a coffee mug. It’s a simple reminder as I start my day to use my time wisely.
My mug designs are available to buy if this post has inspired you to begin collecting your own pieces of memento mori, but there’s no reason why you couldn’t create your own.
Carpe diem and YOLO are popular phrases also, but usually these take a slightly different approach to the idea. They often promote the hedonistic pleasures of the moment rather than the long term. I’ve heard it used to justify binge drinking and splurges in spending so I prefer memento mori. To me, it feels more restrained, more elegant. It’s a reminder that although there is every possibility you could live to be a hundred, you are a human, not a god. Do what you can, when you can and accept that it will all end someday.
Now get out there and create. Only you can release the masterpiece growing inside your soul.
Art is as natural as sunshine. Do you believe that?
Try asking a preschooler while holding a box of crayons. Would the child hesitate?
Now ask yourself – what’s holding me back?
Recently I made a list, something I do regularly, but I tried something different this time. I put estimated times next to each item in an attempt to organise my tasks. As the day rolled by nothing fit neatly into the little boxes I’d designed. First some glass stuck to the kiln. I didn’t notice until part way into the day’s sculpting which had to be scrapped, everything taken out of the kiln, and the heat raised enough to scrape the offending nuggets off the floor before they became a permanent problem. Then the wind chimes I’d fired the day before couldn’t be assembled due to missing parts.
But I also noticed that as the time slipped by, fear lead me to procrastinate more than the small obstacles warranted. Small fears whispered it would be better to have a coffee, eat a sandwich, and weed the garden than carry on trying to make things when it’s obviously not going well. Unfortunately listening to this little voice often leads to guilt and panic that not enough is getting done. Oddly, the unhelpful panic then spirals into even more procrastinating.
Somewhere in between is the balance of making, accepting and moving on with life. Creation is natural. It is the foundation of life, but somehow we’ve let our minds, our fears get in the way.
The time-list wasn’t a complete success, but it let me observe my actions more clearly. It led me to the realisation that even when I have a clear plan, as soon as uncertainty creeps in, so does fear which leads to procrastination. My lurking monster was cast into the light by the mindful task. It gave shape to my beast. Now that I’ve seen it there is hope I can tame it.
Watch for my next post for ideas on how to get “unstuck” when fear throws creativity into paralysis, but in the meantime – get out there and create.
And don’t forget to have fun with it.
After taking my course on figure sculpting, I’ve been working on making a genie to go inside one of my bottles. More work required to get the size and pose right, but I’m pleased with the way this idea is starting. The transparent grey glass works well for the idea of a form made of smoke, whereas the solid blue figure leans more towards the cartoon imagery popularised by films. Both are fun but have a different ‘message’ to the viewer. Since I’m still refining the whole work, I’m not sure which I will use in the end. Possibly a combination of both.