Monday, April 6, 2009


An excerpt from Anna Deavere Smith's Letters to a Young Artist, one of my favourite works and one of the most inspiring and honest. The blurb on the back reads:

"Here is Anna Deavere Smith's brass tacks advice to aspiring artists of all stripes. In vividly anecdotal letters to the young BZ, she addresses the full spectrum of issues that people starting out will face: from questions of confidence, discipline, and self-esteem, to fame, failure, and fear, to staying healthy, presenting yourself effectively, building a diverse social and professional network, and using your art to promote social change. At once inspiring and no-nonsense, Letters to a Young Artist will challenge you, motivate you, and set you on a course to pursue your art without compromise."


Hi, BZ:

Your grandmother is losing her memory. Her short-term memory, that is. She cannot remember seeing you yesterday, but she can remember with clarity her girlhood. I would like to take this interest that you have in memory and talk about your memory as a gold mine for your art.

My Aunt Esther said to me, about two years before she died, "Old age is sad; nobody tells you it's going to be this sad." And she looked at me with her clear gray eyes. And it broke my heart.

So: memory. Memory is not only a practical utility that helps us know whewre we are. Memory is an essential substance for us, as artists. Memory is the beginning of romance; it's at the root of feeling. We are a conglomerate of complicated memories, all kinds of memories that make us who we are. Now, your grandmother can't remember that youc ame to see her yesterday, and she certainly can't remember what you gave her for your birthday, but she remembers her fifth birthday party. And possibly she longs for that.

My favourite quotation - or let's say the quotation that really gets to why I have chosen to be an artist:

"A man's work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened."

That is a passage from Albert Camus. I learned it from a remarkable man named Barney Simon ...

So for me, this quotation from Camus - both what is says, and how I came upon it, says it all. My work is nearly a full-time enterprise of trying to reach back and find those great and simple images that first found access to my heart.

Being an artist requires an intense identification of all aspects of life. For acting, this requires an ability to experience, absorb, accept, feel, and transmit all aspects of the human condition - all notes on the scale. It is exactly this "rediscovery" with open arms, of all of those elements, in the way that they first found access to my heart. Some of them made my heart sing, some of them held my heart like a cradle, some made my heart tremble, others made my heart break. But it's all part of it. BZ, you can also help others rediscover those two or three great and simple images through your work.


Text belongs to Letters to a Young Artist, by Anna Deavere Smith, published by Anchor Books, trademark of Random House Inc., New York, copyright 2006.

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