Unlocking the Soul Cages

the main source of my artistic inspiration growing up was song lyrics, poetry, the imagery derived from the written word. As I turned myself into a songwriter over time, I started to develop my own parameters for what I would choose to talk about, what images would and would not be usable in my written work. I never wrote "nothing" songs, I never wrote a "Don't Worry Be Happy" type of ditty. I derived inspiration and formative sensibilities from heavy hitters like Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, and Sting. Most of these artists are still actively recording today, and a few of them are still people I would purchase something from without hearing a note.
Paul Simon is responsible from some of the most beautiful lyrical poetry and clever turns of phrase in popular culture. Joni Mitchell may be the most poignant, gifted, and wholly artistic force I have ever encountered. Peter Gabriel is intensity, passion, and deeply primordial in not only his lyrics, but also his soulful singing. Sting was my guidepost as I became a musician - he embodied so many qualities I wanted for myself: writer, musician, lyricist - he was a triple threat. His lyrics for three songs on the album "Syncronicity" made me want to be a writer: "King of Pain," "Tea in the Sahara" and "Wrapped Around Your Finger" were so timeless and vivid, so deep and meaningful, I was hooked.
The power of these words, and I was only ever really interested in music insofar as it was lyrical and song-based, made me turn away from my visual art aspirations I had since a child, and delve into the world of music. Like all mediums when you take the first step, I was rubbish. My lyrics were highly derivative, my scope of experience was nothing, and the fact of the matter is, I had not lived enough to be a writer. I was a teenager. But, over time, I started producing songs I was proud of, songs that I still like to this day, and lyrically, were finally about something. It ran its course, and I am not actively writing now, but the odd song comes through now and again when I check the well for that particular water, but for now, the visuals are back in my life, and I am able to take my sensibilities and interests and channel them, usually successfully, into a visual representation. It feels, in a way, like coming back to something I left behind, but in most ways, it is an extension of what I was doing as a lyricist.
Art is art - the mediums change, but the source is the same.
Like many of the songwriters I admire, I look to other sources for themes and settings for my art. Sting referenced, in fact, directly translated a chapter of Paul Bowles' "the Sheltering Sky" into his song "Tea in the Sahara. " Peter Gabriel channeled Anne Sexton for "Mercy Street." I am no different, and I am inspired by a lot of the songs I hold dear to me, and their words take on relevance and meaning depending on what is going on in my life.
Take the "Soul Cages," for example. It is the name of the Sting's third solo album and also the title track song. It is somewhat a concept album, with a theme of family and the trap it can become woven throughout. Sting distanced himself from his upbringing, his family, to make himself into who he wanted to be. A shipbuilder's son, the nautical imagery of the lyrics were hypnotic and palpable. It is by far my favorite album of his catalog.
Family can indeed be a trap - and it's one I have tried to side-step for many years. I did not have the most idyllic childhood. A lot of it I would like to forget. I am estranged from most of my family now, and honestly, that is how it needs to be for me to ever hope to become happy or comfortable with who I am. Early into my adulthood, after college, I started the distancing, and I felt I needed to control who and what was allowed into my life. You cannot choose your family, but there is no requirement for you to retain them. At some point, you have to ask yourself if the people in your life provide any value, and joy at all, and if they do not, you have to decide how much you are willing to sacrifice for these people. I have no children, and I keep myself fairly insulated from most of my family now. It's not that they are bad people, all of them, it's about need. What do you need to become the person you wish to be? What is sustaining, what is depleting? This is not at all a unique point of view - many people feel they were born into the wrong family. I feel very alone when I am with them - no one shares my point of view, my aesthetics, my thoughts. Feeling like an alien is something we all experience now and again, but at some point you long to return to your home planet.
At my age, this is not a big upheaval - things have settled into what they are, and most of us have our own lives. But the drama, the dysfunction, the debris, is all around, and shrapnel is still flying, and I feel a potential cage, the chains threatening to pull me under again. It is not about compassion, not about love, it is about survival. There are elements in my life that are not allowed in any longer, and I will not alter this for anyone.
And so, this theme resurfaces, and finds its way into my art. Three months ago I shot model Mike Ryan with no preconceptions of what I was shooting, what this raw material would become. I did a few shots of him jumping up and down. Who knows what it could be? It eluded me for months. Two months ago I shot a large body of water, and two weeks ago I bought these massive, heavy and rusted chains. This weekend, I found a way to use these elements to revisit the Soul Cages, the metaphor of being trapped by your past or your family. My character is trying to lift off, achieve escape velocity from the dark sea, and chains hold him fast, threatening to pull him down. All around him are the hats , those that tried to escape before that did not make it out.
The irony of this image, the song, and the events and thoughts motivating it, is that nothing would be there at all without the darkness that created it. If nothing happens to you, if you live in Pleasantville, there is little to write about, to process into your work, to fuel your alchemy, turning angst and pain into art. The cage underwater fuels the desire to escape, the fear of being pulled back does too, and the need to express all of this does too. They are all connected. Perhaps the attempt to escape, the desire to be free of it all, to float above it, is finally the point, and the cage is never really going to release us, but reaching for the sky gives the cage context and relevance, and the effort of rising out of the water, the space between the limitless sky and the murky deep, is actually where art lives. I suspect it does, at least for me.

Michael Bilotta
July 29, 2013