I’ve struggled for decades as a creative person who devalued his creativity if it wasn’t packaged with absolutes that could explain why I did things the way I did them.

I felt as if I needed to make a lawyerly case to gain external validation for them, for myself. I created with a self-defeating assumption that “real” artists always know what the fuck they’re doing, and that viewers/listeners/readers are owed that knowing.

I’m approaching 50 years of age now, and only in the past few years have I started learning to accept that creativity is an energy that moves through me. I’m good with the philosophical and spiritual concepts that suggest we are only conduits for that creative energy, that I am only receiving the Muse, that my work is not actually mine. 

I am approaching 50 years of age, and I recently had a psychological breakthrough: The perceived need to explain myself as an artist is connected to so many years of feeling like I needed to explain myself as a human. As a controlled, fearful, people-pleasing, hypervigilant child, and later as an adult who still placed others’ emotions ahead of my own needs.

I’ll save the rest of that line of thought for my journals and a therapist, but I now see much more clearly why I have struggled for decades as a creative being who is inexplicably torn between the calling of the Muse and my anxiety-riddled anticipation of a critical audience who would demand I make sense of myself. The truth is, that’s not how art and creativity work. I was fighting the creative forces that I needed most to listen to.

None of that means I no longer am interested in knowing where ideas and creative urges, strokes of madness and ecstasy, come from. I just no longer view that knowledge and sense of certainty as required. I now know that whatever creativity comes through me is what’s meant to come through me. I don’t have to understand it at all times, and I don’t need to explain it to others.

A lot about art, making it and viewing it, listening to it, etc., is about feel. As such, I care less about textbook technical proficiencies than the flowing process of creating. 

Since I’ve been making black-and-white photographic portraits, using a black background, in conjunction with a podcast I host and produce, We Are Chaffee: Looking Upstream, there’s been a feeling I’ve had about a specific aspect: the difference between a person who exists within the surrounding blackness versus a person who seems disconnected from the environment, as if the black background feels stark and false. 

I initially edited the photographs by feel, knowing when I did and didn’t like what I was feeling, and adjusting accordingly. But I hadn’t put my finger on the fine line between, “Nope, that’s not it,” and “Yeah, there it is.” 

Until one day I did. I was looking at the portraits I’ve viewed so many times in the process of making and editing them, but not yet understanding this: The black vignetting at the bottom of the images is the subtle difference for me. It creates an aura of soft darkness surrounding the person, who subsequently gains the sense of being lightness emerging through or from within the dark. 

These portraits accompany podcast conversations that often are vulnerable, insightful, philosophical, enlightening. They are filled with humanness and connection. The people I’m photographing and then presenting in this way are the light. It’s their humanity. And subsequently ours – mine and yours – shining in the portrait. 

Remove that vignetting, and they are merely bodies posted in front of a black background. Separate, disconnected layers. The black means nothing. The human in the photograph is posted there, alone in the coldness of space. 

I carried all this in my subconsciousness, perhaps. The practice of listening to the Muse and acting on its behalf is what gets us out of the overthinking mind when we’re creating. It’s about action not intellectualized answers.

In making and presenting these portrait photographs as I do, there is my own empathy  and care, my own sense of humanness coming through. In recognizing that moment of clarity about these portraits, I’ve deepened my understanding of my own work. I’m grateful for that. 

But here’s the thing: Had I waited to understand this before I ever created any of the photographs, I’d still be waiting. The creative process requires us to trust the Muse, to listen and flow with its guidance, to leap into the unknown. To take action by faith. 

It has taken me half a lifetime to learn that lesson. It has taken half a lifetime for me to untangle from feeling the requirement that I explain myself in my creative work – and in all matters, actually. 

Not that I don’t still contend with that nagging voice from my childhood, demanding an explanation. I just no longer see myself as that frightened child who must respond on command.

View the Portraits gallery to see more.