Orpheus at the Crossroad with Failure


I often tell my students to push themselves beyond what they think they are capable of. We all like to lie secure in the harbor and tackle only those things within our own abilities. But one needs to push oneself where failure is a real possibility and more than a possibility- in a way seems inevitable. Oftentimes, it is only when we fail do we come to see new possibilities that before we were unaware of. All profound things lie hidden and only when we change our perspective through an experience like failure do we come to ascertain what lies hidden before us.

One of my favorite myths is the tale of Orpheus. Orpheus is a poet and musician who was well known among the people for his gift of words. On the day in which he is to be married to Eurydice, his wife to be is bitten by an adder and is sent to the underworld. Orpheus pleads to Hades to let him enter the underworld in search of Eurydice. This he is allowed to do and while in the underworld, Orpheus sings a lament of his dead brides death and all who hear it begin to weep. Even Hades himself weeps and relents. He allows Eurydice her freedom, but only if Orpheus has faith and proceeds to the upper world without looking back to see if Eurydice is following him. Orpheus fails this task and Eurydice returns to the underworld. He calls to Hades once again to let him return for her, but he refuses and Orpheus laments on the shores of Styx alone.

Orpheus, with all his great gifts, succeeds where no one thought possible- his song of lament releases Eurydice from death and she is given a second life. But Orpheus also fails. His lack of faith seals Eurydice’s fate. But only in his failure does Orpheus find his ability to speak in a profound way has been amplified. Now when he sings of the beauty of the world a forests springs up where only a desert had been before. Rivers begin to flow and animals wander in a place that was formerly barren. His failure and the emotional experience of that failure has utterly transformed him. He not only creates beautiful poems and songs but these things transform the very world in which he lives. This is Ovid’s testament to the power of art.

All great work is drawn from the wells of the unknown. Failure puts us on that plane. It places one before the unknown because we have ventured beyond what is recognizable and comfortable. It allows one to be open to a paradigm shift. From this new perspective, a more profound engagement with the world is possible. It opens a door for the imagination to find the forms necessary for this new shift in perspective. It is fertile ground for new work.

Before I begin a painting, I look at this broad new canvas as yet unmarred before me. The whiteness of it is profound and it almost takes my breath away. It is a an unknown land wishing to be discovered like a new continent. It is a new Mount Analogue, upon entering its space, one knows not where one will end up- it could be failure or a new experience to embrace.

Author: Judith Reeve

For nearly 30 years I've developed my painting practice in the studio, building on what I leaned from my student days at the Lyme Academy of Fine Art. Along with my daily journey creating images which I write about here on this blog, I am also currently writing a book on the color practice of Robert Henri.

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