November 14, 2015

Gifted vs. Talented: A Philosophical Question

Zion National Park: 2015 Plein Air Invitational Poster

Last week featured the Plein Air Invitational here at Zion National Park. In past years, I've largely ignored the proceedings choosing to focus, instead, on my photography as the week is usually punctuated by fall color. But, the featured artist's image on the literature (accompanying this post) caught my attention. The painting of Johnson Mountain, by Colorado artist, Michelle Condrat, is composed as if standing right outside my front door. That familiarity prompted me to attend Michelle's painting demonstration which led to an experience that really drives the focus of this post.

Arriving early, I caught the tail end of a Portland based painter's, James McGrew's, demonstration. His impressionistic painting of fall trees and the tall spires above the West Temple Basin were exceptional and I lingered, both enjoying and wincing at a variety of onlooker's comments and questions. But Jeff's measured responses resonated with me. I felt a certain kinship in his explanations and the approach I strive for in my own photography.

At one point, a rather gregarious older gentlemen asked, "So, when did you know you had the gift?" Jeff's face (and probably mine) contorted briefly and then he regained his composure, smiled, and said to the effect, "Well, I'm not sure it is so much a gift. It's actually taken a lot of time and work to be able to do what I'm doing here today."

I couldn't agree more. There seems to be two tracks of thought when assessing the talents of artists. It's either a gift (usually inferred as God given) or a cultivated talent. In the past, I might've ignored the "gifted" perspective but now I find its pervasiveness problematic. To be "gifted" implies a special acumen has been bestowed to you, an absolute feature of your self. It suggests a certain divination, that, somehow, you are uniquely special. And it implies some people are gifted while others aren't.

I reject this. Twenty plus years of experience informs me differently.

I now believe, fervently, we all are born with innate talent. The real challenge of life is in figuring out what our innate talents are and then orchestrating our lives to nurture, grow, and realize those talents. Often, individual talents will fly in the face of cultural norms or expectations, and, sadly, they're too often squelched. What's more, many talents may appear completely mundane when, in fact, they are essential to a healthy society.

How many innately talented moms, cooks, teachers, coordinators, machinists and, yes, artists have the fulfillment of their lives cut short by burying those talents in the roles, expectations and responsibilities a rigid society puts upon them? How many education insitutions actually strive to discover innate talent versus teaching to conformity and achievement goals?

So much human talent is, simply, wasted, destined to evaporate like virga on a hot desert plain.

Modern social and neurological sciences have become keenly interested in talent and its relationship to well being and success in life. The key? Time. It takes time to discover your talents. It takes nurturing. And the time needed begins in childhood. Children need time to daydream, to play, to explore, to be bored. To learn how to be with themselves. To have actual human interactions with other kids, not immersion or distraction in digital devices. They, and we, need to interact, intimately.

As an only child adopted by older parents, I now realize I was given the gift of time in childhood. I was allowed, forced even, to explore my home, my neighborhood, my environment. There are distinct memories where my self-awareness, my understanding of my presence in the world, were profound, mystic like in clarity. Fully engaged and present, I felt my life belonged to something greater and sensed I had some unique part to play in it. That, to me, is the discovery of self in a positively human vein, the realization that you are unique and may have something (a talent) to offer the world.

Now, as a remote parent to a teenage daughter living in a digital world, I struggle with the challenge of helping her understand the necessity of time, the need to gift it to yourself, to create the breathing room to really discover who you are, what you love, what you might become.

Imagine a world where talent, its discovery and development, is a resource valued as much as water or energy.

That would be time well spent.

Inspirations

I do not photograph for ulterior purposes. I photograph for the thing itself - for the photograph - without consideration of how it may be used.

Eliot Porter

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