Infinite ballast: the purpose of ‘The Fight in the Dog’

Infinite ballast? Ballast was used in ships for the return journey after their cargo had been off-loaded. A stone or other heavy item, like a sandbag, was placed at the bottom of the keel to give the ship stability for its journey home. The word ‘ballast’ is also used in a metaphorical sense to refer to anything that gives sustenance and steadiness to the soul, and it is the premise on which I have established this blog.

Parisian staircase

The Fight in the Dog will be a collection of feature articles I write on various topics in various formats regarding skills, techniques and the creative process. It will explore the method, creativity and discipline it takes to craft something – whether it be an object, a lifestyle, a career, a state of mind, a philosophy even – over a period of time.

I want to write about how creative people work and the value of ideas, vision, intelligence, persistence and passion, and the satisfaction of achieving a goal. The blog will celebrate the lifelong nature of mastering a specialist skill and how such fulfilling pursuits provide us infinite ballast. By that, I mean the essence we each have, which is unique to our own life and which sustains us, to pursue the interests we find compelling with the ever-giving vigour to be ourselves.

The creative life of Vincent van Gogh is a source of great inspiration to me. It is interesting to read how he described his art as the ballast for his life in a letter to his brother, Theo, on 11 March 1883:

In my view, I am often immensely rich, not in money, but … rich because I have found my metier, something I can devote myself to heart and soul and that gives inspiration and meaning to my life.

Before van Gogh found painting, he searched elsewhere – the priesthood, art dealership, book illustration – for his metier, his ballast. His personal battles, together with his compulsion to create and learn, have resulted in an impressive body of work produced in a short lifetime (he died at the age of 37 in 1890), beginning with his early works that were dark and sombre, then developing with positive artistic influences into the passionate, fury of colour we know him for today.

I was fortunate to see some of his original works in August 2014 on a visit to Arles in France. The recently opened Fondation Vincent van Gogh gallery had an exhibition which included several works on loan from the Rijksmuseum in The Netherlands which showed the self-development van Gogh achieved through experimenting with different methods and schools – trying, failing, learning and applying his experiences – being open to the self-expression of other artists, and having the courage to respond honestly in his own artwork. Again, to Theo, he wrote:

I can’t change the fact that my paintings don’t sell. But the time will come when people will recognise that they are worth more than the value of the paints used in the picture.

For me, my ballast is writing, a love of words and different forms of expression, and a fascination with languages, interesting people and cultures. I am fascinated with detail, intricacy, simplicity, good design, inventiveness and the stories behind peoples’ creations. I love the fact that some people go the long way round to do things. They choose to practise skills and explore techniques and involve themselves in time-consuming labours because they know the end result will be worth it.

The unique, the unusual, the unorthodox, the bespoke and handmade – pursuits of thought and effort, really – intrigue me. During my travels through France and Spain in 2014, I was enthralled by the importance and value placed on handmade items like the guitar makers (luthiers) in Granada, Spain, and the little leather workshop I stumbled across in Saint Paulien, France, and the skill and meticulous detail involved in food production like the chocolateries, patisseries and charcuteries (smallgoods butchers) that are all over France.

I believe you can learn from anyone, regardless of their field of expertise, if you have the will and openness to do so. I want to write here about the skills and techniques used in the creative process of people engaged in a variety of activities – artists, metalworkers, sportspeople, tradespeople, chefs, gardeners, vintage shoppers, luthiers, coopers, photographers, winemakers, you?

Therefore, dear reader, this is the standpoint from which I create this blog: we are all unique human beings who get a chance to live on this earth for a while. The way some people choose to live is nothing short of inspirational to me, so this blog is a collection of articles that chronicles their dreams, goals and skills with the transparent intention of valuing their creative process and their dedication to mastering their skill of choice and – creating a metaphor out of van Gogh’s words – to discuss how a life lived with ballast is ‘worth more than the value of the paints used in the picture.’

Leanne Barrie
8 January 2015