Duende: the Mystery, the Risk, and the Fire
Back in the 90’s when I fell in love with the books and art of Nick Bantock, who wrote the introduction for my recent book Giving Voice, I learned of the power of duende. Described by Spanish poet Federico García Lorca,* “the spirit of the Earth […] the duende surges up, inside, from the soles of the feet. […] a force not a labour, a struggle not a thought.” Lorca quotes Goethe to further describe it as “‘mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained.” The current popular notion of where creativity comes from or how the muse strikes, is that one must put aside oneself, “get out of the way” for something that comes down from above. I won’t argue that this is a real experience for some people. For me, however, that is utterly lame.
What Nick and Lorca, and years of dance training in my previous life taught me is that creativity comes up from within, from the fire of the Earth, through the life giving dirt, into the soles of our feet or the parts of us that touch the ground, and up through our bodies and out through our hands and hearts. The millions of micro decisions our brains make in the service of art making, are our own discernment’s guiding and steering of this wild force. This is the place where practiced skill meets underlying inspiration.
Watch a flamenco show, and you can’t miss this phenomenon in action.
I recently spent nine days in New Mexico, visiting friends and teaching Eastern Repousse and Chasing to a group of bright and excited learners at Rio Grande in Albuquerque. This year, my husband also got to experience the whirlwind that is my annual trip to the Southwest. Before the workshop I art-directed a model shoot of my art jewelry with stellar photographer Pat Vasquez-Cunningham, caught up with friends Sessin and Lorna Durgham, visited Brooke Barlow of Bonnie Doon fame in Taos (her S/O cooked us a fabulous French dinner from their own garden), spent a few days in Santa Fe where Chris took a ceramics workshop with Jennifer McCurdy, stayed with and puppet shopped with my friend Gail Philippi, and spent time talking with my Rio peeps, who are truly among the kindest, smartest people on the planet.
The surprise event was heading back to Sante Fe for one evening after class when host and Rio co-founder Molly Bell and her husband Charles took my husband and me to the flamenco dinner show at EL FAROL. I listen to flamenco guitar music often. In fact, when life in the studio feels too frenetic from all my projects and deadlines, flamenco becomes my go-to because of its utterly unique combination of pure energy and mesmerizing focus. This event though was the first time for me to see flamenco dancers or hear a vocalist live. To describe it as powerful, would be a vast understatement.
What I hadn’t known, until Molly explained is that the musicians follow the dancers’ feet not the other way around. This is unheard of in ballet, jazz, modern, or Middle Eastern. In those forms of my past studies music dictates the moves, but in flamenco, the dancers’ intense feelings and inspirations, as they experience the duende, drive everything. They do not perform for the audience in the typical sense. They do not smile or even look directly at the audience except at the very end of their dance. Instead, they invite us into their intense journey of improvisation. They call us with the rhythms of their heels on the floor and beckon us to witness the experience with the twists of their hands. It is the most intimate kind of dance I have ever watched, the inner creative process literally in motion.
People love to ask artists where we get our ideas. I used to answer “everywhere” and that “one idea sparks another in an endless chain of possibilities.” All true, but my favorite answer that I’ve taken to stealing is Neil Gaiman’s: “from my own imagination.” Equally true. The components float around in there like whisps of starstuff in a stellar nursery. Given time and the right circumstances, they form into something recognizable and occasionally even brilliant.
There is a point of absolute flow when I am confident that an idea is worth bringing from mind and rough sketch into to full physical form. If the Big Bang is the metaphor for the idea stage, then brushing paint across blank paper, disrupting a pristine sheet of metal with hammer marks, or typing on my iPad the fleeting words I hear in my head* is the beginning of coagulating chaos into matter, and like the flamenco dancers, I experience it not as something sent down from on high, but as an intensity that surges up and out from deep within.
In order to keep my interest and not break the flow that I must summon again and again over the months or even years that most of my projects take, there must be one key element: risk. Duende is not defined as all love and light. Without darkness and death, it would have no real power. Risk gives it edge, keeps us invested in the process or the performance. All the honing of skill all the acquisition of technical prowess is all about creative risk management. It’s the face of the flamenco dancer, twisted and frowning almost in pain, as she feels all that power of possibility and intuitively decides with each careful and previously practiced move how it surges out of her.
30 years on as a visual artist and metalsmith, I know that within the wheelhouse of my expertise, I can pull off just about anything with nonferrous metal. If that sounds arrogant, trust me: what it really means is that through sheer persistence and plenty of mistakes I’ve had to solve, I’ve honed a remarkable skill set, which paradoxically can eventually lead to boredom and burnout. That’s why I constantly raise the bar and push the boundaries of technique and design. I thrive on that ever-present question of “Will it work?” and the answer “I won’t know for certain until it’s finished.” The greater the risk in pulling it off, the louder the ‘olé!’ But the real joy is in pulling off the risk itself, the “how did you do that?” factor. The ‘olé’ is the acknowledgement that others see that passionate journey within the work.
Channeling that kind of energy to dance flamenco or create visual art takes its toll. As exhilarating as it is at the beginning, by the end of a project big or small, I am as exhausted as the out of breath dancer when the music stops. When the performance is over and the frilled and fringed costumes have been exchanged for casual street clothes, passionate dancers politely take compliments from those around them, but they are already thinking about their next performance, its challenges, what they need to work on, and what they will do differently. As soon as I’ve completed one project, I’m focused on the next and rarely take the break my family (strongly) suggests. When that surge to begin something new hits, I know I either have to follow its lead or be miserably frustrated by merely ticking the boxes on my to-do list. Duende surges up, a force that refuses to be contained.
*Back in the 80’s I used to think I had some secret mental thing because some back part of my brain stayed in near constant creative narration mode, then someone invented blogging and I discovered my narration “voice” was just my imagination urging me to write.
*Lorca, Garcia (1898–1936) – Theory and Play of the Duende