In a free bin in Baltimore I found a copy of The Passionate Journey, an out-of-print novel by Irving Stone. The novel - which I thought was fiction up until a few minutes ago - is the biography of the American artist John "Wichita Bill" Noble. Noble was born in Wichita, Kan. in 1874 and was raised on the Osage Reservation in Oklahoma. He made paintings of the Texas plains driving cattle with his father, and later went to France to live the life of an artist. He died of alcoholism at New York's Bellevue Hospital in 1934.
I was drawn, obviously, to the title "Passionate Journey," and it's clear that Stone uses the word passion in the sense of "the passion of Christ:" an intense life filled with ecstasy and also great pain. Noble struggled with depression throughout his life, and so provides us yet another example of great art coming from great suffering.
The central theme is the artist's struggle to find meaning in his life. A recurring image is of a white buffalo, which Noble pursues in his dreams and works into his paintings. The white buffalo is a sacred symbol in many Native American traditions - as my paleface ass vaguely understands it, the white buffalo represents communication with the Creator. Noble also carries a pendant, given to him by his mother, which represents the North Star. In Noble's childhood, when his friends play a cruel prank on him, his mother points his bed towards the North Star, telling him
"...it's always there. No matter what happens to us, or to the world, that star is steadfast. It will never change, fail you. As long as you can find the North Star you'll know that you're secure."At different times in his life, Noble finds the White Buffalo in death, in his work, in the love of his life, in himself, and ultimately in his experience of God, which he feels as the animating force in his art.
Humans are meaning-making animals. I've tried, especially in recent years, to resist the urge to create some whole conceptual overlay to my life. In a very real sense my life is my art, and the existence I have created for myself, through hard work, inspiration and lots of luck and serendipity, is my masterpiece. So I guess I could say that my White Buffalo is experience -good and bad - and the North Star that has always guided me has been freedom. (Having written that, it sounds awfully glib, but I'm sitting here reflecting on it and I can't find a reason to change it - so if it's glib it will have to remain so.)
Here's a chance for me to go a little interactive on my blog for a change: what is your White Buffalo, and what's your North Star?