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The Gatherer/ Archetype 1

The bowl, the book, and the bird invite us to behold, become, and be heard.

The Archetypes: 3 Lives of an Artist The concept for the artist archetypes all started with John Loengard’s black and white photo of the artist Georgia O’Keeffe carrying a basket on her hip in Abiquiu. The year was 1966 and her grey hair is pulled back, her body dressed in black robes like a wandering mystic of the desert. As I studied the photograph an imaginative question came from within me or just beyond me, “Where is she going?” The answer echoed with equal parts cryptic mystery and clarity: She is going to the Maker; she is the Gatherer. I had no conscious clue what that meant at the time.

John Loengard, “32 Abiquiu 1966” in Georgia O’Keeffe at Ghost Ranch: A Photo Essay (New York, NY: Neues Publishing Company, 1994).

This was merely the beginning of an emerging pattern of three distinct archetypes that revealed themselves through studying the creative process of countless artists including my own. The concept of archetypes arises in psychology, philosophy, and literature as a way to identify repeating patterns of behaviors, thoughts, and symbols that characterize common human experience. It is one way that we express the complex nature of our identities. We are more than one self. As Whitman’s Song of Myself reminds us, “We contain multitudes.”

To be creative is a multifaceted existence. I think we live and work with three distinct artists within us: Gatherers, Makers, and Givers. In other words, we must be people of observation, craft, and voice. These three archetypes, their symbols, and their invitations have revealed themselves over time in my writing. While some might describe the actions of gathering, making, and giving as merely stages of the creative process, each calls for different skills, energies, and ways of being. There are distinct shifts as I inhabit each archetype that highlights different facets of who I am and how I respond to the work I’m compelled to do. By using the lens of archetypes, I hope to focus not just on process and product, but personhood in the midst of the creative cycle. I have come to find that the work of being an artist is most generative when there is balance, protection, and understanding between each of these figures within. Learning to respect their individual needs and the way they relate to one another is an unfolding discipline of maturity for me that I wish to share with other writers and artists.

Michael A. Vaccaro. Georgia O’Keeffe with the Cheese. Taos Pueblo, New Mexico, 1960, The Met. This image evokes the imperative of the Gatherer to see through a lens, to behold.

ROLES of The Gatherer The symbol I associate with the Gatherer is a bowl or basket. My home is filled with vessels. They remind me that my first task as a poet is to observe. The work of writing begins with listening and gathering the raw material out of which I write. When I carry my bowl (my notebook) with me, my primary posture toward the world is that of awe, attention, and anticipation. The Gatherer doesn't have to know "what it is for." She need only fill notebooks full of flint and spark for the imagination. The invitation of the Gatherer is to behold, but understanding that role is twofold. Their work is to both observe and to collect.

Observation, Embodiment, and Love The order is key here; before we can collect material, we must notice it in the world. I chose the symbol of the bowl to represent the work of the Gatherer, but it is important to note that it is always carried into the world. Our bodies bear and fill the bowl with our observations. To the Gatherer belongs the verbs of the sensorium: to look, to listen, to taste, to smell, to touch. Which is to say observation is embodied work. As newborns, our first heuristic of touching and tasting the world in order to know it is wildly instructive for how we make meaning throughout our lives. The archetype of the Gatherer teaches artists to honor the embodied way human beings pay attention and come to know things. Our bodies are not just one tool among many in our kit; they are the crux of what it means to attend.

What we notice and attend to has deep particularity to who we are. Observation for the Gatherer is not an objective and detached activity, but an embodied and contextual act of love. Philosopher Esther Lightcap Meek argues that to know anything requires an active and receptive hospitality based on love and awe. “Wonder takes noticing,” she writes, “Only when we first love do we begin to attend, to listen, to understand, to know…Out of our distinct love, we notice distinct aspects of reality, and reality responds to us along the lines of our distinctive care.” (A Little Manual for Knowing, 20-21). In other words, attention is first and foremost an act of attending, of lending presence to something, which is an act of love.

I appreciate the word hospitality in this context. To behold, to see, to witness is a type of welcome that takes radical hospitality to be impacted by what you see. I think Meek understands that where our attention goes, there our care will follow. What calls to us represents the full spectrum of human experience. We are drawn to the curious, the delightful, but also the disruptive and the injurious. Both beauty and pain summons our sight, for where there is sight (witness) there can be love and where there is love there can be response. Insight within our art, in terms of acumen and understanding, comes from the fount of observation and the act of beholding.

This has profound impacts on the way that we view both love and art. As Elie Wiesel argued, “The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness, it is indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy, it is indifference. And the opposite of life is not death, it is indifference” (Wiesel, US News & World Report, October 27, 1986). The Gatherer seeks to heal the wounds of indifference through finding material out of which to give form to love, art, faith, and life. It is not enough to simply see. The work of beholding and witnessing necessitates a response. Though the Gatherer may not yet know how to respond, they partner with the Maker archetype with the conviction that response is essential.

Collection, Connection, and the Commonplace To notice, is not enough. The work of beholding must include a ritual of collecting to capture what is noticed. We may think to ourselves, “This is so important I would never forget it;” However, memory does not work like a catalog of recall. Memory is the same sort of creature that a narrative is, which is to say it is an interpretation of fragments. The symbol of the bowl is a reminder that we need help containing the fragments and materials that we’ll work with in making our art and writing. I remember attending a reading by Anne Lamott where the classic question was posed, “What advice do you have for young writers?” Her witty answer was priceless: “If you want to be a writer and you don’t carry a notebook and pen with you, even Jesus can’t help you.” While many people notice phenomena in the world, what separates the writer or artist is the commitment to capture what they notice, to make meaning from it, and to give that interpretation form. The cycle of call and response at the heart of art requires a receptacle for keeping and connecting to the commonplace.

TOOLS: A Studio In the World My notebook is with me at all times. It is one of my studios and my commitment to attend to the world and the work. Artists, philosophers, scientists, and writers have utilized the commonplace notebook as the foundation of their practice for centuries. I enjoy collecting images of famous notebooks. Whether it is the rivers of color from Frida Kahlo, the doodle of a fish from Albert Einstein, or the shorthand notes from Mary Oliver, there is something compelling about the scribbles, hunches, and randomness that is not yet in its final form. Greatness doesn’t shoot from the womb fully formed, but is loved and listened into itself. As it is with human beings, so it is with ideas. Notebooks are for attention and experimentation without the burden of creating an artifact. While studio spaces of refuge from the world are important for the Maker, portable studios that get us out chest deep into the world are crucial for the Gatherer.

If creativity follows the cadence of the breath, then the Gatherer expresses the necessity of the inhale. Their primary gesture is to take in, to observe and collect.

Common Needs of the Gatherer:

• a supply of good tools that are hapticly pleasing: notebooks, pens and inks, art supplies, typewriters, cameras, tablets and other technologies

• mechanisms for listening to what is going on in their concentric circles of belonging in the world. (self, home, relationships and friends, organizations, community, state, country, world, history, etc.)

• rituals for repair when being an open and attentive witness to the inner and outer worlds

• time and space to continually practice building hyper-attentiveness and observational skills

• continual inspiration: museums, short trips out of the normal sights, good conversations, spiritual practices, lectures, time to root in a place, connection with our natural home, etc.

• a flow of quotes and images from the exceptional reading of others’ exceptional texts


Curious about the other archetypes and how they fit in with the Gatherer’s needs and roles? Click the links below to read on.


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Take a look inside my current notebooks to gather inspiration for your own creative rituals, studio spaces, and keeping places. 

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