in my craft or Sullen art: a reflection

martin aguilera


It took me a long time to accept that I’m an artist. It’s such a lofty word. The first time anyone called me that (it was a friend and mentor, during a phone conversation) I felt startled by it.  Hearing it was like a dangerous act of transgression.  Artists were great writers, painters, actors, filmmakers, musicians. Artists were names emblazoned across time in books and magazines, on walls and plaques. Artists were legendary, larger than life. Artists changed the world, known by multitudes. What it meant to me, who I applied it to, this word could not be me.

And yet it’s all I’ve ever been: if I could add up the sum total of all the parts of my life, there is no way I was going to be anything else.

For those who aspire to it but don’t have the confidence to own it, calling yourself an artist comes off as the worst kind of self-aggrandizement: but annihilating this fear (“What will they say, what will they think?”) has been paramount to my evolution – not merely as an artist, but as a human being.  Along with the wisdom that comes with age, experience, and a deep understanding of oneself – there comes a point when not giving credence to the opinions of others is a necessary act of selective defiance.

I arrived in Los Angeles from El Paso, Texas ten years ago off a Greyhound bus with $800 dollars, one suitcase, one script, and nowhere to stay.  I had a big dream and great expectations. I was a contradiction. I come from a humble background, the American-born son of shy, divorced Mexican immigrants whose hard-working American dream was realized in being able to provide with dignity for me, whom they raised in one of the poorest zip codes in the country.  When I graduated from high school my dad told me I could now get a good job as a janitor.  It wasn’t that he was aiming low for me, just that in his experience of the world work was work, and the limitations of the environment we were a part of didn’t allow him to think beyond hard labor jobs.  It was all he knew.  My mom suggested I’d make a great translator at some government office, since I was bilingual.  I doubt they expected the anomaly that was me.

I only mention this because as the journey of my past decade has unfolded it astounds many of my friends and colleagues that into my early thirties I manage to keep afloat with so little.  What they fail to grasp is for me it’s par for the course: I come from nothing, I’ve had nothing, thus I know how to survive with nothing.  I’m also brown, I’m gay, and I’m large; in an industry and culture obsessed with appearances I wasn’t genetically predisposed to coast on my looks.  This builds character.  While the going has been tough more times than I care to remember, on the opposite of that spectrum lies what I believe to be one of my biggest strengths: needing so little to keep me happy.

You can’t mentally, spiritually, emotionally tear down a person who only needs a few basic things to hold on to for sustenance of the soul.

Things you cannot touch. 

For me it’s an obsessive, all-consuming devotion for cinema, for books, the two things which most often orbit the nucleus of my fertile and morbid imagination.  They are the fuel to the fire of my creativity.  Because of them, mine is a rich, meaningful, interior life perpetually in conversation with those works that move me, haunt me, which make me laugh or make me cry.  While I can be personable and outgoing, by all appearances an extrovert, the reality is I’m much more in my element in the silent peace and solitude of the examined life.  I navigate these waters with an ease I don’t always find outside myself.  It is in that space that I draw from vast wells of humor, empathy, strength, confidence, desire, even cynicism, while engaged with the concepts of those who have come before me or share this moment in time.

A love of knowledge, of learning, of ideas is my armor against the slings and arrows inevitably flung when inhabiting the realm of the arts, a world where one can often feel lost.  There are no maps for these territories.  External circumstances will almost always be loaded into the quiver: the destructive commentary and actions of well-meaning family and loved ones, the financial hardships from unsteady employment, the commitments to friends or lovers that take us away from engaging with our art.  But the most dangerous arrows will come from ourselves – in how we feel about our accomplishments, in how myopic we can be about small victories, in measuring our sense of worth by outside validating factors and wading onto avenues of uncertainty and fear because of it.

It’s been a long, hard road.

It takes fierce will to be an artist.

Which is why loving what I do, how it makes me who I am, and calling myself an artist has become the ultimate primordial act.

Commitment to the art has been my saving grace.

Ten years in, another ten or more before that in my formative stages, and here I stand: in Hollywood, a writer, filmmaker, bibliophile – nowhere near where I want to be, yet much further along than where and how I grew up would ever have had me believe possible.

I wake up every morning regardless of whatever personal or professional struggles I may be faced with and remind myself I’m in the game, living on my own terms in a city I adore, surrounded by good friends and like-minded wanderers who, like me, are inhabiting a business and an industry – at times peripherally, at others fully steeped in it as only insiders can be – that I still respect for its ability to engineer dreams.

A storyteller who loves what he does beyond reason: this being the most important fact, because forgetting it all too often is what has us come undone.  

Only love for the vocation keeps the looming fears at bay.

Dylan Thomas wrote a poem called “In My Craft or Sullen Art” wherein he lays out an artistic philosophy that has come to mean much to me.  It concludes with why the poet (and in effect those of us who share his sensibility) does what he does: “…for the lovers, their arms / Round the griefs of the ages, / Who pay no praise or wages / Nor heed my craft or art.

How powerful those lines are to me, singing their song of a truth speaking to the reality of my life as I complete my first Los Angeles decade.  They are a beautiful gift.  I call upon these lines as hope, as prayer, as celebration.  If you have this you don’t need much.  It was a long, hard road.  But it doesn’t matter anymore.  I am here.

I was an artist, after all.


written by: martin aguilera

images by: alex harper