What It Means to Be an Artist In a hall of mirrors

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Gage playing guitar at age 7. Photo courtesy of Gage Bickerstaff.

My first memories are vague, like everyone else’s I suppose. I remember scenes and scents, short bursts of dialogue, the house I was born into. But mostly I remember music. I think the movie soundtracks are what got to me first. I used to sing and dance in my living room to the songs of The Jungle Book, and We’re Back (a movie which most don’t remember about dinosaurs who talk and sing songs, voice-overs courtesy of John Goodman and Jay Leno), but I don’t think I much liked the movies themselves, just the songs.

I remember that the music my parents listened to, on road trips for the most part, brought out emotions in myself I had yet to understand. This led to a guitar when I was seven, put on layaway in a pawn shop in Carlsbad, New Mexico. I used to ask to go see it because we didn’t have the money to buy it yet. I just wanted to look at it, to imagine what I would do with it one day. These are the first things I remember, and some of the only memories that matter when I question what it is I’m doing with my life.

Don’t worry, this isn’t a feeble attempt to get you interested in my autobiography. It is however an analysis of an artist’s unique situation—a journey in reflection to create a cause that affects. That’s what we do right? We create something to strike an emotional response in people, whether that response is in the eyes of our lover, the masses or ourselves.

My question is why? Why do we become artists, and what does it mean to be one? What is it that pushes some of us to make the decision, and take a leap of faith into a field of work known for its tragedy and fruitlessness? There are successful artists, but for every success there are thousands of those who came and went, now forgotten. An argument could be made about success and what it means, but most of the time, in the world we live in, success along with failure comes at the hand of great despair, and we love to romanticize those occurrences. But why do some of us feel it is our job to be the romantics of society? For me at least, the closest answer lies much deeper than “because it’s fun.”

The evolution of my personality started with music, and everything else came later.

Now let me get the last few things about myself out of the way. I can be stubborn, I am angry about a catalog of things, I will be lazy if the moment allows, I drink heavily, I’ve done what some would call an irresponsible amount of drugs, I’ve been weak for women and substance, I am slightly vain, and considering the world stage, I have had an easier life than others. These eccentricities are important in understanding the overall question because the list of them did not fabricate my desire to be an artist, nor did they necessarily result from acting as one.

Characteristics of such nature are sometimes part of the stereotype attached to artistic people, but for me those attributes carry little weight in an explanation as to why I am an artist. I would have these flaws even if I had decided to work in the mines or be a stockbroker. I have also met other artists who are nothing like me in this way. The human condition catalyzes you. The evolution of my personality started with music, and everything else came later; life happened and suddenly I was all of these new things. But I have always been a musician, and my connections to art, and music in particular, are pure. They manifested when I was innocent, and I’ve taken the time to dissect myself somewhat to help answer the question, and to hopefully have you hear what I’m saying, and not filter it through the person saying it.

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Gage jamming the electric guitar for the first time. Photo courtesy of Gage Bickerstaff.

Among other characteristics, there are a few that connect directly to and are the result of the art that has inspired me. I believe in humanity, in my craft, and in love, and I will defend these and their sisters to a fault. Those last three words, “to a fault,” are important. They state something fundamental in my view of the artistic mind: a combination of the human will, psyche, and what makes us innately human—our imperfections and how they clang like bells against our emotions. The difference between artists and everyone else is that artists romanticize those aspects of humanity and have the ability to make them tangible, so that we may all get a better look at ourselves.

Obtaining Musical Rights with Assignment Agreements - Pyragraph

I have seen this kind of romanticism in most of the artistic minds I come across, although they all usually differ in their specific ideas. This brings us to the individual message of artists—the personal march on society driven by one’s convictions and ideas on the chaos that ensues. We spend immense amounts of time creating and contemplating, analyzing and dreaming about the ideas we are inspired by. But why do we believe and care so much about sounds and markings, words and atmosphere, choreography and metaphor, and how they come together in a particular piece of work? The truth is that there is a power that lies in those sounds and markings, and without them we might not ever truly understand anything.

I’ve been asked the question, “If you care so much about the world, then why don’t you do something more proactive like join the Peace Corps or work with the homeless?” This inquiry has laid heavily on my heart for some time. I would love to fix everything and I should do more, but I’m made to do something in particular and I believe in it. Everyone has their role to play in a society, and artists have the wonderful gift of encapsulating everything about life into something concrete—stimulants for the senses to actualize. This goes for the good and the bad, and it can often coax a change in perception, for the masses or the individual.

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Photo courtesy of Gage Bickerstaff.

This happens when artists express an idea as a reflection—a mirror for the face of society or the individual to stare back at. All we have are the perceptions of our own reality, and those perceptions lead to curiosity, which lead to the breaking down of walls so that new perceptions can be made. This all happens inside the mind. Therefore, the reflection upon the way we perceive things manifests as art, which in turn provokes thought and reflection inside the minds of the people experiencing the piece, hence the capability to change perception, if the conditions are right. Imagine a hall of mirrors, and the questionable reflections. We are intrigued by the distortion of reality, and in metaphor the reflections help deepen our understanding of such, or help us to realize that we understand nothing at all.

So why are we artists? Because we weren’t ever anything else.

Artists are able to provide people with something to keep them going beyond the essentials of life, something that reaches them in ways nothing else can. Artists are able to provoke courage, and can ignite will. They are storytellers and soap box preachers, timekeepers and intellectuals, pioneers and revolutionaries. What they create can be everything from an epiphany to a disturbance, and has the power to leave the viewer or listener not knowing exactly how they’ve been changed, but changed all the same. Future societies lay upon the mercy of those who control their predecessors’ boundaries, and artists provide stimuli to question those boundaries, and tear them down if necessary.

Provoking thought and change for the betterment of society is not a hobby, it is a conviction. The power of art lies in the way it connects people, and it is my lifework as someone who believes in the good of people, to bring out their emotions on all issues so that whoever, the individual or group of individuals, might be affected and inspired. My artistic message may be different than yours or others, and that’s okay; we all deserve to be heard. So why are we artists? Because we weren’t ever anything else. We strive to create the spirit of God in whatever medium we work in, to show our fellow man that we’re capable of anything. We carry the burden of facing our emotions, so that maybe someone else can face theirs. And what does it mean to be an artist?

Beyond each individual message, it means to bear witness.

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About Gage Bickerstaff

Gage Bickerstaff studied classical music and guitar at Texas Tech University under David Brandon, and The University of New Mexico under Michael Chapdelaine.
Spending a few summers in Los Angeles to break out of his box and understand the music industry, Bickerstaff decided he wanted nothing to do with the materialistic tendencies he found there, and came back to Albuquerque to start a rock band that created real, influential music.



  1. Zephan on August 20, 2015 at 11:26 am

    This is good. Stoked to see someone address such a generational and nebulous question with such clarity, peace, and understanding.
    “We all deserve to be heard.”

  2. Peri Pakroo on August 27, 2015 at 10:48 am

    Thanks for such a great and thoughtful piece, Gage! Hope to get more from you. :)

  3. Friday link roundup 8/28 | closertohappiness on August 28, 2015 at 9:21 am

    […] On what it means to be an artist. […]

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