Tag Archives: Artistic Focus

Vulnerability at the Core of Art and Life

by Shane Taylor

by Shane Taylor

This photo by Shane Taylor of a man watching the forest burn around his home got me to thinking.  As beautiful as that forest was, this man’s perspective must have changed dramatically when the magnificent trees that surrounded his abode were destroyed.   His life would never be the same after that day.  As he struggled to make sense of this ravaging destruction, ultimately, this may have created something amazing for him.  It did, after all, provide us with this dynamic image, if nothing else.  

It is the same for those of us who aspire to artistic endeavors.  As often as we’d love to be certain of our subject matter that is to go on the canvas, manuscript paper, or writing tablet, it just isn’t that way for some of us.  We await our inspiration.  We struggle to find the theme, color, texture, movement, or sound, that will reflect what we are feeling inside.  The challenge is we sometimes don’t know what we’re truly feeling inside.

It is in the vulnerability of ourselves that we find an open archway to our creativity. 

I have often taught my students a variation of Marianne Williamson’s phrase, “Fear and love cannot co-exist.”  My offered mantra is, “Fear and creativity cannot co-exist.”

Although fear can clearly show us where we need to focus our attention, like the pain of a wound, it isn’t until we are beyond that fear that we find depth in our artistry.  Each word, each brush stroke, each jeté, is a testament to our willingness to go to another level of intimacy with our creative heart. 

Personal relationships operate very similarly to artistic endeavors.  The more available we are with our raw heart open to the object of our affection, the more likelihood there is to a true union.  One can have the structure of marriage without intimacy, but it is often brittle and unsatisfying.  In the same way, one can write a paragraph without spiritual openness, but the words are simply strung together without much more purpose than popcorn tinsel at Christmastime.  Without vulnerability and intimacy, nothing is really offered and nothing is really gained.

I struggle with these issues as I attempt to grow my art.  My paintings are sometimes functional, but not dynamic.  My words can be pedestrian when I so want them to change another’s cells.  My music is a wet match when all I want is a roaring fire.  There are days when my mediocrity feels like knives in my heart and I want to give up.

217317557_d241e0afffOf course, when one is aware that it is only when one’s heart is naked and exposed that art flourishes, one… I… am obligated to look at that honestly and go past my fear of “average,” to keep my face pointed toward the brightest part of the sunlight to attain, if not excellence, then truth.

I daily commit to putting words on paper, even if it represents rudimentary language and thought, because I know it eventually speaks to my tenacity of purpose and my desire for deep intimacy.  I commit to keeping my face to the brightest part of the sunlight in my art and in my life.

Death Photos

Rather this than that.

Rather this than that.

It is grizzly to conceptualize, let alone view, a photo of someone at or immediately after their death.

When I saw the photo of Michael Jackson in his final moments on the front of a couple of magazine covers, I was simply mortified!

Shame on those editors who decided it was a good idea. They just lost a little of their souls in that moment.   Sadly, it only cost them $5.95 per issue.

No matter how public a figure, the family should not have to have photos like that plastered all over places like supermarkets and liquor stores for public consumption and I, for one, condemn those who opted to publish those photos, especially on the front cover.

While I understand that publications have the right of free speech, I always learned that one’s rights ended at another person’s nose.  These filthy rags should be sued, and sued well, for their horrific invasion into the Jackson family’s tragedy and grief.

I shall never again purchase any magazine that held those images.

We Do Grow Up

n520903918_1585556_3250033This evening, I went to see some of my former students graduate from the school where I used to teach vocal music.  There were some definite surprises for me there.

When I began teaching in 2001, it was a fluke.  A friend of mine called me on the phone in the middle of my retirement and said, “James, we really need a singing teacher here.”  

I had sworn many years ago never to teach in a classroom setting.  Of course, I never thought I could since I hadn’t completed my degree, much less acquire a teaching credential.  This was, however, a charter school that specialized in the arts, so I didn’t need a credential.  I did have plenty of experience, having had my first student in 1977.  I had directed vocal music regularly since the early 1990’s.  I was as prepared as someone could be without the credential, I thought.

The day I began, the co-founders asked me why I wanted to teach there since I was so over-qualified?  Ah, how things were to change.

As the years progressed, I realized I had a lot to learn, but as I had often been told, teaching came naturally to me.  As my supervisor at the time told me, I was an intuitive teacher.  While that was a plus at that point, this same person eventually decided that pedagogy was much more important. 

I resigned my position in 2008 when I realized that the school had changed so dramatically that these adjustments were sucking the life out of what was once a dynamic and formidible educational institution.  The spirit of our organization was barely flickering any more.  I had to get out.   I had lost my voice with the administration and for someone like me who spent his life helping others find their voices, this was untenable to me.

As I was having my final meeting with the Executive Director, he offered me two beginning vocal classes.  He wanted some “new blood” for the other vocal music classes.   His words, not mine.  It was of no interest to me at all.  This school was breaking my heart.  Teachers expressed they felt the same way, but were afraid to leave in this economy.  Parents said they wanted to change schools, but knew that most other schools were more dangerous for their students.  The children themselves said there was something missing that was there in the past.  Everyone got the same message except the administration.

Other than a couple of brief visits to the campus, I really haven’t been back since I left.  I attended several performances.  I couldn’t help but think, “This is why they wanted me gone, so they could have this level of quality at their school?”  Again, I was not alone in this assessment.

As I arrived at the school this evening, teachers, students, and parents greeted me with the most genuine happiness I remember in a long, long time.  If I had to call it anything, it was almost relief that I felt as they hugged me. 

“Nothing is the same since you left, Mr. Hernandez.” 

“There’s been a spark missing since you left, James.” 

These are actual quotes I heard tonight.  Even the Executive Director did not seem as joyful as he had been in years past as he sat on the dais. 

Everything from the singing of the National Anthem to the keynote address was vanilla pudding.  It was Wonder Bread.  It was white rice.  It was beige.

This was no longer a performing and fine arts academy.  It was a traditional, plain school. 

Yet, the one thing that amazed me was that with all the changes notwithstanding, the children have grown up to be creative, motivated people.  I attribute that to the tenacity of the amazing teachers on campus. 

They have fought valiantly against the brutal criticism and desperate neglect offered by the Program Coordinator and Co-Founder of the school.  Both of these administrators have their priorities firmly established although they have not considered the needs of the people involved.  It is all about the awards and recognition and scores.  The people, with spirits and minds and hearts, seem to have become functionaries to the administrators involved. 

The Program Coordinator, in all her ingenuous behaviors, is not above being obviously phony in public when everyone knows how she really feels.  I was embarrassed for her.

Yet, the children advance.  What is it in them that allows them to grow in this way?  They are like roses growing in the desert.  They are like albino shrimp living in the deepest sulphuric recesses of the ocean.  They are strong and resilient and protected by really great parents and phenomenal teachers.

I have held my tongue for a year, and now, at long last, I am speaking my mind in an open forum.  It feels great! 

God bless the children for their success.  May their journey be full of joy and wisdom enough to learn from their challenges and celebrate their accomplishments.

I won’t be back for another graduation without a specific invitation.  My time there is over.  They do grow up.  What’s surprising is so do I.

“A Writer Writes Always”

Billy Crystal’s character tells Danny Devito’s character in “Throw Momma From the Train,” that “a writer writes, always.” It’s true.  Just like a painter paints and a sitter sits.  Where my quandry emerges is, not unlike a tree falling in a forest, if one is not published, are the words still more than simple emotive and physical scribbles on a page? 

I saw on Craigslist a call for poets to submit their poetry about losing one’s mother.  I happened to have lost two mothers, one by birth and my “real” mom by adoption.  I have poetry about their deaths.

There is no pay involved and if one or more of the selections are chosen, one receives a copy of the book.  I’m certain it is self-published and will come, if at all, with flimsy plastic pages and smeared print.  So, why, you may ask, am I submitting my precious gifts at all?  Because, my friends, a writer writes always and then they get published. 

Am I cynical in believing that what shows up on my resume counts, even if it is a small self-published document like this?  Is it important for me to know that perhaps thirty people will own a book with my poetry in it, even if most of those people are the publisher’s family members? 

A Writer Can Also Get Paid.I think it is important.  It is valuable at a few levels.  One, it states that one believes in his or her work enough to submit it to another person, a stranger, for consideration.  Two, if it is published, it is a legitimate entry on one’s work history.  Three, someone is there to hear the tree fall in the forest.   Someone, outside of the few intimates around one can share in this artistic rendering.   With all that going on, one should be very pleased.

Art is about choice making.  Every word, brush stroke or note is a message from the author/artist/ composer about who he or she is and what is in their heart.  Sharing those choices adds to the pool of veracity and beauty available for the greater consumption.

Yes, it is about self-discipline.  Yes, it is about the work.  Ultimately, however, it is about the willingness to open ourselves up to others joining the party in our spirits.  It is about joining together, artist and patron, to share a common experience. 

My door is opening and this is my journey over the treshhold.  It is exciting and unnerving and about time. 

So, write writers!  Paint painters!  Compose composers!  Always!  Just remember to celebrate your art by sending it out to just one stranger if you get the chance.   But, finally, it’s your choice.


I have begun writing a book entitled, Interwoven.   This book is a memoir about an adoptee, me, who found his birth family as part of his genealogical research.  For medical and emotional reasons, it was imparative that I locate my family of birth.  It ultimately saved my life.

My father, my brother, Darren, and me

My father, Robert, my brother, Darren, and me

This week, I met my youngest brother, and got to know my other two brothers and father better during my visit to St. Charles, Missouri. 

Since my visit, I’ve realized that my book is changing.  Certainly, my life is changing from this dynamic and thrilling encounter. 

I am finding a new level of joy and wholeness in this process that I never imagined possible.  I am looking forward to seeing what grows from the seeds that were planted this week. 

The Arroyo Brothers - Eric, James and Mark

The Arroyo Brothers - Eric, James and Mark

I suspect this is going to be a truly remarkable book.  Perhaps not to anyone else, but certainly to me.

My message is clear.  Each person with whom we come in contact has an impact on us.  Our self-perception, our self-love, our self-criticism all grow exponentially based on our encounters. 

No matter how we are impacted, though, I am finding an elevated level of gratitude rising out of the mist of my learning.   Gratitude to my family and friends and my gratitude toward God for providing this phenomenal opportunity.

A Proud Moment in Film

A few months ago, a group of us decided to produce a film called, “Two Tears in a Bucket.”  The script was written by a new friend of mine, Dave Garcia.  He asked me to take one of the roles and line produce the picture.  I was not terribly busy, so I agreed. 

I’ve never had anything whatsoever to do with film in my life before this.  Nothing.  Not one tiny thing. 

It was going to be a lark.  Sure, I’ve produced many theatrical stage productions before, but this was a new adventure and I’m always up for a new adventure. 

We cast the film, worked out the logistics and began rehearsals, which I think are important.  I did the acting coaching, some of the directing, location management, scheduling, budgeting, and many of the other activities a line producer does.  The more I got into the process, the more enjoyable it became.  I realized that I was actually pretty good at this.  Although I had no formal training, after thirty years involved in theatre, I understood the concepts. 

Our cinematographer/editor came along and we were ready.

In the middle of this process, we were fortunate to do a tiny little six minute film, “Out of the Frying Pan,” which, incidentally, can be seen on YouTube. 

This film was a great training ground for us.  We learned what we could do and what we couldn’t do given our limited resources, limited time, and limited experience.  We were fortunate to have amazing people around us to get it done at all.

Once we were ready to begin filming, “Two Tears…” we felt as though we had a head start.

Tonight, a few of us gathered to see the first cut of our film.  I was prepared for the worst.  We’d done our best, but with few exceptions, we were neophytes. 

What I saw tonight was a surprise and a pleasure.  The first cut of our film was a testament to all the dedication, love, and effort everyone had pulled together for this project. 

The film is now going to the composer for the score.  Rick Dean Sumners has the responsibility to reflect the heartbeat of the piece.  Yet, another joyful connection in my life because I’ve know Rick a long, long time and know that he’s going to do a superlative job.

We have a real film developing here, ladies and gentlemen; a film of which I am so deeply proud.  I can hardly wait for you to see it.

This is what comes from true collaboration and focus.  At this point in my life, I suppose an old dog can learn some new tricks.

The process, quite honestly, has been a rollercoaster of emotions for me, but worth every moment.  I suppose that’s what comes from being willing to take the risk to make yet another dream come true.

My Own Dreamcoat

Tonight is the last nighttime performance of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat at the Woodland Opera House.  We still have one more performance tomorrow in the afternoon, after which we will strike the set, the pit, the costumes and props and ourselves from the venue.

This has been a special show for me because it is the first show I’ve done, start to finish, since Mom died.  

Mom's Mexican Coffee

Mom's Mexican Coffee

In the fall of 2005, I was in rehearsals for “She Loves Me” at WOH.  When I found out my mother had pancreatic cancer and that she was dying, I left the show to spend the last two months there with her.  It’s the best choice I’ve ever made.

Since that time, however, my vital vibrancy has been less than radiant.  My heart has been so very heavy with grief since November 23, 2005 when Mom died.  I haven’t had the energy to truly commit to anything much at all, including the shows I’ve done.  I’ve done concerts, shows at the Performing and Fine Arts Academy where I worked, and the latter part of “Damn Yankees” at WOH, but there has been something missing in those processes for me. 

I’ve been dreaming of finding my joie de’vivre again.  At last, three-and-a-half years later, I’ve found it.  This is been an engaging show, a phenomenal cast, including our precious young ones, and I have been so thrilled to be a part of this group.  Our orchestra is small but mighty simply because we have some of the best musicians in our pit in the area.  That helps.  Our crew, designers, and staff are incredible. 

Angela Shellhammer, our director is superlative.  Her sensitivity and strength, wisdom and creativity have all impacted this show, and me, in the best way possible.

Our Executive Director, Jeff Kean, has been, as always, the foundation upon which our excellence is based.

I say this only to acknowledge the spectacular contribution these magnificent people have made to me personally.  They aren’t likely to see this blog; however, I know that this is the way I feel.  I’ve said so to them, too, but I wanted it down on “paper,” if you will. 

They have participated in my healing in a very real way.  For that, I will be forever grateful. 

This last show is for you, Mom, to say another phase of good-bye to my grief.  I may have another thirty or more years on this planet and I have to find real happiness along the way.  As much as I love all of my departed family, I must learn to live in the land of the living. 

So, I shed my mourningwear and don my own dreamcoat for the future.  And, what pretty colors it is!

Woodland Opera House Orchestra

Woodland Opera House Orchestra

Writing about Writing

The Morning Trudge

The Morning Trudge

To writers, especially new ones, it will come as no surprise to hear that taking on the task of writing a novel length work is daunting, at best.  When one is writing a memoir, it is all the more challenging because one must balance their research, as personal as it is, with the emotional ramifacations of delving into the deepest recesses of one’s heart. 

I would love to blithely say, “It’s just a book, so why worry?”  It would be a perfect way of distancing myself from the material; however, I know better.

As a music director, when I’m training singers for their roles, I always tell them that if the veracity of their words and phrasing are not there, the audience will know.  They always know.

It’s the same way with writing.  If there is any subterfuge, insincerity or gimmicks, the reader will know.  That holds especially true for one’s family when the subject is their history, as well as one’s own. 

So, here I am, excited at the prospect of leaving a written legacy for my family about being an adoptee who finds his birth family and, thereafter, begins his genealogical journey toward understanding his complete  life more fully, while recognizing how his journey is impacting others around him, as well.  Yet, the intimacy is very intense and can, at times, stop me in my tracks. 

As my mother often told me, I must continue to put one foot in front of the other and keep trudging down my path, no matter what. 

That, my friends, is exactly what I intend to do.

Focus Like an Independence Day Sparkler

After nearly fifty years of participating in one creative venture after another, I am finding myself trying to refocus my energies.  The challenge, of course, is that after having experienced so many art forms, and having developed a love for most of them, I am discovering that my passions for any of them are flaring out with as little direction as an Independence Day sparkler.

Writing, singing, conducting, acting, directing, producing, filmmaking, and dancing have inspired me to create.  It feels as though I haven’t the time for everything; yet, all I want to do is to do everything.  My body can’t seem to keep up and my pocketbook requires more attention than that. 

It dawns on me that there are artists making a living all over the world.  Why not me? 

That is where I find myself today, asking the question, “Why not me?”  I haven’t the adequate information to find the right publisher for my books, so I must reach out.  I haven’t established the most resourceful inroads to fund my films, so I must reach out.  I haven’t found a musical venue that will pay me an ongoing salary to direct music, so I must, again, reach out. 

There appear to be more questions than answers right now; however, my heart still rides on the wings of hope.  I know that as I find the answers, or at least those who have them, I will be able to share that information with those around me who are also asking similar questions.

So, as I begin my first blog, I say, “Powodzenia,” or “Good Luck!” in Polish, to you and to me and to us. 

I am simply reaching out.