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Welcome to the Stubborn Flame

by Russ Cushman


"Nothing in the world can take the place of Persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan 'Press On' has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race."

<Walt Whitman (1819-1892), a figurehead in the Bohemian movement.

Walt Whitman simply said "We convince by our presence."

Many statesmen over decades helped to shape that first famous proverb, usually and erroneously attributed to President Calvin Coolidge, who once modified it for his own use. I love the saying, and have lived by it, and yet it is not actually true. Only God is omnipotent. The human spirit to press on is a gift from the Almighty as well. And nothing has really ever solved the problems of the human race. But a lot of good has come out of persistence, no doubt. Persistence is what has brought me back... for one more blog...and of course, to help solve the problems of the human race!

The chapters on the upper right are like microscope slides of that stubborn flame, what we call the human spirit. The flame is of Divine origins, able to see and reflect the awesome depth and beauty of Creation, and respond with a marvelous creativity of its own. It is a sight to behold. But it has vaingloriously brought mankind to where we are today...standing with arms open wide, as we scan a dangerous precipice with no bottom. In around 150 years, man has raced from the Dark Age to the Space Age, made advances in science and technology far beyond our wants or needs, and traded the known for the unknown, without fear or trepidation. Maybe it's time to see how and why we got here so fast. Maybe it's time to question the speed and thoughtlessness of our direction.

This is a story about Victorian times, but it is also the story of man. It is about God. It is specifically about the stubborn flame of creativity which separates man from beasts; and the very same flame which can separate us from our Creator; the stubborn flame of art and invention and competition and even jealousy and greed. It is about the flame of the human spirit, good and bad. This blog is about our history, but the flames which arose in the Victorian era are also the glowing forge coals of today, still stubbornly burning underneath our collective sub-conscious. There was a battle then and it rages on, two great armies determined and self-assured, oblivious of time, pitted in an eternal conflict where no prisoners will be taken.

One of the lessons I learned in art school was that Art is just an extension of Philosophy. I hated the idea, as it meant that there were paradigms outside of my control  which would and could govern  my art and my career potential. Not only that, but if it were true, then Philosophy would be behind every thing designed by men...  Art is the brain trust of civilization. And the wrong philosophy would spell disaster.

 As a career artist, I have always relished in my talent and in others like me. I make art, I sell art, I collect and restore art. I have made and studied art all of my life, and have a bachelors degree in the subject. But few people, I mean a very tiny minority of humans, care at all about art in general. Even though it is the "MOTHER SHIP"...  And I think that is partly due to the concept that they do not understand it. 

But it is so simple. Art is just a basic, albeit fun and inspiring form of communication, if only with oneself. But as much as I love art, and have devoted my life to it, I still have to recognize its downside. Art is the unacknowledged designer of our man-made world, the flower of man's highest achievement, and yet it is also the instrument of lies and confusion and temptation. 

The same genius that decorated the Sistine Chapel and Happy feet produces ill-conceived films and infinite pornography today.

Art has always walked a fine line between worship and pure debauchery. This is the studio of Elisabet Ney, German born, classically trained sculptor and Bohemian philosopher who immigrated to Texas in 1873.

Like all creative processes, art is primarily a right-brained process. Since the right side of the brain governs the left side of the body, you might say that art, and in fact any problem solving, is a left-handed thing. Just as a tiny proof of this, consider that the three major artists of the Italian Renaissance were Michelangelo, Da Vinci and Rafael. They were all left handed. Many left-brained artists are good at copying, but the right-brained artist prefers to paint originals, sometimes completely from his imagination... Left brain dominance depends on stored information, the other merely on oneself. 

There is something special (and hated and feared in the past) in the right-brained person that cannot be taught. Sure a right-handed person can make art, great art, but it is like a short, white guy playing basketball. There are people on the court with decided advantages, and he has a lot to overcome.

<Study of hands by Elisabet Ney

Art and Science are brothers, so it no surprise than many artists or musicians have been scientists and vice versa. DaVinci, Samuel Morse, Alexander Graham Bell, Albert Schweitzer, Albert Einstein, Lewis Carroll and Heddy Lamarr, are just a sampling of well-known examples of this affinity. 


A dreamscape by Samuel F. B. Morse, inventor of the telegraph, Morse Code and hearing devices for the deaf.

A disproportionate percentage of the great inventors, military generals and yes, five of the last seven American presidents have been left-handed. (Ford, Reagan, Bush I, Clinton & Obama). Think about the odds against that for a moment...

Several Presidents in my lifetime were painters(Eisenhower, Carter, Bush II). One an actor (Reagan). Consider this. In WWII, several of the major leaders in the conflict were painters. And pretty good ones!

<Boats at Cannes by Winston Churchill

Winston Churchill by Dwight D. Eisenhower

<A cityscape by Adolf Hitler

I like to explain the difference between left-handed and right-handed this way: The left-brain, which is most commonly dominant, is your hard drive. It stores all of your brain's programs and memories. It is what reminds you to prefer chocolate over vanilla or to brush your teeth. It stores your multiplication tables and telephone numbers, and those answers you crammed for in a final exam. The right lobe of your brain is your calculator. It tells you that you cannot make it over the ditch if you were to jump, or how or when to substitute ingredients in a recipe, or how to shape a lump of clay into a frog. It writes songs rather than memorizing them. 

People who are right-brain dominant are usually left-handed, have immediate challenges in early life, especially in school and athletics, and a high percentage of them end up depending a great deal on their creative skills to compete and survive. These inborn skills surface in construction, engineering, advertising, photography, sales, cooking, art for a fortunate few, and crime for too many.

One of the great failures of our culture is to recognize our inherent differences and to nurture right-brained children in a right-brained way. Not doing so has been a disaster. The prisons are full of young men,  a disproportionate number being left-handed, who have considered themselves subversive almost since birth. Yet there is no movement in education to rectify this injustice. 

A left-handed person might end up as a surgeon or an engineer or a con-man or a forger. The “problem solving” talents are the same, but the possibilities can be varied, and sometimes disastrous. A disproportionate number of lefties end up as leaders and actors, but also as inmates in incarceration. Lefties tend to take the foreboding road less traveled, but one teasing with promise. Many lefties tend to take charge, speak with confidence, and approach challenges with uncanny skill. But they also learn the short cuts and can be a bit too gifted with the “slight of hand,” or the gift of gab. For the lefty, the key to success is communication; writing, orating, dancing, painting. All require self-assertion and risk, and are rife with temptations. No wonder we have come to expect the stereotypes of the “crooked politician,” or the self-destructive entertainer, or the “weird artist.”

Still, I have come to really savor the processes of art, and appreciate what right-brained thinkers have done for our world. From Alexander the Great to Isaac Newton to Jimi Hendrix, lefties have led the way in vision, art and innovation. But a study of these people will also reveal the costs of these gains in human terms. When I discovered the old tintypes in this story, and researched the individual stories of the individuals in this amazing network of creativity, my right brain kicked in and said, “Damn. Why don't WE know this? Why isn't all education based on the knowledge of this?” Well, immediately my left brain answered that one, “Because we live in a left-brained world, STUPID!”

So to go further, most of you (85%?) must suspend your disbelief, ignore your dominant brain lobe which is screaming, “NOOOO! Don't go there!! You can't trust that stuff!” and follow me, your right brain guide, to where few left-brained men (or women) have gone before. Don't be scared. After all, unlike me, you can always return to your safe “I know all I need to know,” left-brained existence, any time you want.

Before we dive, I must warn all of my readers, especially those of a more conservative nature, that much of what we will confront is guaranteed to be offensive and controversial, and may be a more straight forward discussion, especially from me, a Southern Baptist, than you would expect. This is a study of the Bohemian movement in Victorian times, which was all about sex and humanism and freedom and individual rights and artistic expression. I can only explain that this, the Stubborn Flame, endeavors to finally address the issues inherent to Bohemian thought honestly and without restraint or too much hyperbole, which have masked the truth for a century. The Christian Right has majored on the minors and ignored the realities of the times for so long that it has become irrelevant. Our world had gone forward without the leaven of Judeo-Christian wisdom, as we waited for it to repent and listen. And still we wait.

<Stairs to the study at the Ney studio in Austin, Texas.

This blog is written for the objective thinker, in these times probably a pagan, who is not offended by candor, and secure and inquisitive enough to experience a different point of view. Perhaps, a “right”-brained perspective on the runaway train of our left-brained world.