Some people think about what will bear witness to their time on Earth, when they’re gone. Others never give it a second thought. For those that care about what remains of their presence, after they’re dead and buried, they are usually driven by a deeper purpose and want to leave artefacts of their core ideas and beliefs behind, after them. They’re building a purposeful legacy, every day and the project is always never completed, or good enough, to faithfully represent them and what they were all about.
For many artists, the testament to their lives is in their paintings, their music, their poetry, what they constructed, their writings or their artworks. Those things stand as representatives of their unique way of envisioning, what they concerned themselves with, how they contributed and how they wanted to be remembered. For other people, especially politicians, the witness to their deeds and actions in life are the long lasting consequences of them, both intended and unintended. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan are with us even now. Still others wish to leave no evidence of their misdeeds at all. They are concerned with getting away with it, leaving no trace of their responsibility of blameworthiness.
It is tempting to become consumed and obsessed with your legacy and to drive yourself crazy with creating it, in all its glory and perfection, before your time is up. I think getting so worked up about it is unhealthy and frankly, not how most people driven by a need to leave something positive behind would like to be seen – as obsessive and egomaniacal. That said, it’s always worth putting your best into your work at all times, because you cannot know what remnants of your life will survive or be destroyed. You cannot know when your time is at an end. All you can do is your best and hope that those considering your legacy, in years to come, will smile upon it with favour and nostalgia at your passing.
I felt a great loss, as a child (and even now), at the fact that my paternal grandfather died before I was born. I never knew him. There were few photographs of him and only fragmentary family stories about him and his life. He left no artefacts to speak of, no writing, nothing he made, no evidence of what he thought. It occurred, to me, though, that one thing he did leave behind is me. I am, to some degree, similar to him. We may not share the same views and ideas, but I am certain that our way of going about things has to be similar. We share the same wiring, in part.
Both of my grandfathers were survivors, actually. Both lived extremely hard lives, losing everything they owned more than once, due to war and were displaced from the lands of their birth and their native tongues. Yet, in both cases, they managed to keep their families intact, despite bombs, poverty, and starvation, fleeing as refugees and becoming second class citizens in their adopted homes. They had to learn new languages just to survive. They had to rebuild from nothing; from scratch, knowing no-one and without funds, by sheer hard work. But survive they did. They even found it in their hearts to be happy, despite all their losses and grief.
Every one of their children was safe and unharmed, if permanently scarred psychologically by the trauma of it all. Whenever I am up against it and finding it hard to carry on, I just remember what my grandfathers had to do, just to make it through the next day. I feel an obligation to fight at least as hard as each of them did, to endure and prevail. Their testament is the inspiration to carry on.
Whenever I look at the sad and sorry state of my half completed artworks and various unfinished projects, or read back on the inadequate representation of my thoughts and beliefs that are captured, in fragments, in my writing, I feel a mixture of panic, because I want to get the work done, but also deep calm, because I know that there are other things I leave behind besides the art I made. It’s a strange mixture, this peace and panic.
Ultimately, it will all be forgotten, as are the details of the lives of my great grandparents and their ancestors, of whom I know virtually nothing. All I know is that they survived so that I might survive too. Whatever the traumas, privations and difficulties of their lives, the details of which can never be known, now, they made it through them all for long enough to raise their children and for those children to spawn subsequent generations, all the way down to me and my children. If I have inherited a fraction of their talents, resilience and abilities, I count myself lucky.
I think it’s respectful and useful to be mindful of the testament you are creating, every day, when showing up to do your artwork, and to also be mindful of the legacy you inherited from your forebears. It’s a very interesting mix and continuum.