There have been times when a garden
Was the thing no one dared to say.
Chaos, endurance, change and chance –
These grow here, a trickster’s bouquet.
What can I make out of this? It’s the question of artists and anyone who doesn’t know where their next meal is coming from; the prayer of anyone whose place in society is not secure. When you have nothing, there is exactly one thing to do: make something.
The act of making things is a dangerous discovery. Gods are defined by the act of creation. It’s not only that they can make something out of nothing; it’s that the act of creation starts to tip the world in your favor, as if you suddenly acquire more gravity. In a way, you do. You are filling up the world with your presence, your will, your vision, and your soul. The thing about souls is they don’t get weaker from being divided. They’re more like amoebas: ripping in half is an excellent path towards strength in numbers.
Of course you can’t just make anything. Half-hearted term papers and unwanted peanut butter and jelly sandwiches won’t cut it. It has to be something you mean, something made with intent. If the rest of the world ignores it or puts up a barricade, that’s fine – as long as you make something that’s got enough depth and strength to build a world on. You will, in fact, be building a world on it: yours. So don’t make something you don’t value enough to trust with your life.
Eventually, after enough time spent making things out of nothing, you uncover another secret. There’s a word for people who make things out of nothing. Here it is: trickster.
When your world says you’re worthless, how do you name your own worth? Become a trickster. When there are monsters under the bed, how do you play hide-and-seek? Become a trickster. And when you look at the scales and realize they’re hopelessly stacked against you, here’s the trick: you laugh. Tricksters know that stacked scales can make an excellent catapult.
Whether your monster is society or poverty or trauma or expectations, creation is a crucial tool with which to subvert it. Make it a caricature; turn it into a poem. Make it an abstract, and cover it up. Violate its boundaries and distort its horror into humor. When you have nothing, your world is yours to create.
Now, what brought all this talk of tricksters out? I’ll tell you some of it. There are two culprits – both artists, both viewed with askance by their societies.
Kateryna Bilokur was a Ukrainian artist born in 1900. Her lifetime overlapped with both world wars and multiple dictatorships in a part of Europe that has always been tumultuous. The government-issued artistic aesthetic was social realism; her inspiration was flowers. Therefore she was viewed as subversive.
But she kept painting. She made works full of such perfect color that your brain feels like singing, like the perfect harmony that comes from a resolved chord. She painted a beetroot and it glows like a treasure; her flowers fill the paper with unearthly detail that holds you mesmerized in such a way that social conformity and propaganda campaigns can’t compete. No wonder the government was afraid.
I see Bilokur’s work as a different facet of the same type of trickery put forth by the American artist Georgia O’Keefe. O’Keefe is almost comically famous in comparison – yet her outsized flowers were also viewed as subversive, worthless, audacious, and, frankly, pornographic by critics and social commentators. Like Bilokur’s work, they hold a fascination that belies their “simple” subject. It’s a glimpse at another world, a world built on the intent of tipping gravity, just a bit, towards the artist’s vision. Both artists’ work has the sort of power that comes from intent, integrity, and a belief that the power of creation will have the last laugh.
These artists are the inspiration for the verse at the start of this post.
For more trickery, here are some links:
Bois de Jasmin introduced me to Kateryna Bilokur’s art with this post.
View all of Kateryna Bilokur’s paintings online here.
My thoughts on tricksters, artists, and acts of creation owe much debt to Lewis Hyde and his book, Trickster Makes This World: Mischief, Myth and Art. It’s a richly enjoyable read, especially the chapters on the Winnebago Trickster Cycle.