What do we get out of giving?


OKAY, THIS IS GOING TO SOUND WEIRD. Self-aggrandizing perhaps. Or self-serving. Maybe all three.

I hate it that it might sound that way. But honest, that’s not at all what I’m trying to do here.

Instead it’s a revelation that I want to share, one I had just this morning, triggered by a comment on my last post about the musician Ezra Vancil (pictured at left) and of the unbroken circle of inspiration that often connects artists, musicians, and writers.

The comment I speak of was written by Lori Martin, Ezra’s singer and bass player, in the wee hours of Saturday morning following his Friday night concert at a coffee house in the Deep Ellum district of Dallas:

I was at Ezra’s show tonight. You made one man incredibly overfilled with joy, just by having you be there. And then I watched him become overwhelmed with emotions as you gave him your original “Pressed Flower.” A beautiful ending to a beautiful story.

So here’s the story Lori is referring to.

In the article to which she posted her comment, The Case for Authenticity, I wrote about how Ezra and I reconnected this week for the first time in ten years, all because of a collage I’d created early in my short career as a visual artist. That collage, “If I Could Keep Her Like A Pressed Flower,” was in my first solo exhibition fifteen years ago at Mountain View College. Out of the blue, Ezra emailed me two days ago and reminded me of how after seeing “Pressed Flower,” he’d written a song called “Error of Days.” He also reminded me of the attempts he and his wife had made to buy the collage. Unfortunately it had sold during the show.

For me, “Pressed Flower” proved to be a seminal work from those early days of my art career. It was a very personal piece, first appeared on the postcard that announced the show, and, because I was cheeky enough to mail the card to art galleries around the region, it helped land my first representation in Santa Fe. But more importantly, it captured the imagination of Ezra, became a touchstone for him in writing the song, “Error of Days,” and now becomes the centerpiece of the story you’re reading here, about what it really means to give a gift.

Ezra was in the midst of preparations for a live recording session at that Deep Ellum coffee shop when he emailed me. Because we hadn’t talked in all those years he was hesitant to invite me to hear him perform “Error of Days.” I think he may have wondered if I’d even remember this song that everyone else seemed to have ignored, perhaps because it sounds just a little dark (you can judge that for yourself by downloading it free from the post, The Case for Authenticity) . But I could never forget that a small piece of art I’d made had, in part, inspired this musician to create such a beautiful piece of music.

And as we emailed and texted back and forth, I came to realize how much that meant to him as well. I began to wonder to myself if it might be possible to retrieve “Pressed Flower” from its owner and give it to Ezra.

Austin Haynes is an artist I met through the Mountain View show, a friend of Larry Felty, the department head at that time. Austin was the one who had purchased “Pressed Flower” from the exhibition, who came to pretty much every show I was in since, and who has stayed in touch over the years. I texted him after hearing from Ezra and asked if there was any way he might consider trading the collage for something else in my collection, anything else, because it would mean so much to the musician. “Sure,” he said.

So I loaded up my laptop with images, loaded up my Honda Element with sculpture, and yesterday afternoon drove to a little town called Justin, north of Fort Worth, and Northwest High School where Austin teaches art. “That one,” he said, and I returned to Dallas with “Pressed Flower” on the seat beside me. After Ezra finished performing last night, during which time he told the story of “Pressed Flower” and the song “Error of Days” that grew out of it, I told him I wanted to give him something. I had no idea what it would mean to him; he clutched it to his chest, and turned away.

So that’s the story. But here’s the revelation.

I learned something about myself over those eighteen hours between reading Ezra’s email and handing him “Pressed Flower.” In the excitement I felt about making this happen, I learned how important it is for me, for all of us, I think, to give gifts. I explained it this way in my response to Lori’s comment:

Lori, thank you. Not that I haven’t learned this lesson before, but last night I had it deeply impressed on me in a way that I can’t shake: I think that we are made to give.

You see evidence of that in all the rituals we have adopted at the societal level, with holidays and personal celebrations that circle around giving someone a gift. But that’s only the “institutional” implementation of a very meaningful, very personal need that each of us has imbedded in us, perhaps at the level of our DNA. That is, to GIVE gifts. We need to give. We just have to.

I wish I could describe to you what it felt like to make that happen.

Now I’m left thinking of the implications. How I want to make a habit of this gesture, giving to someone something that may very well have relatively little value to me, if only because it has much greater value to them. And how I hear over and over from individuals working in a new business paradigm of giving more than you expect to get. I’ve been a little skeptical, but now that’s changed.


Thanks to Ezra’s friends, I was finally led to Paco Estrada’s video shot during the performance (below). This is Ezra telling the story of how he came to write Error of Days. I had to “bite my tongue” through the entire evening, especially here when he’s talking about how much he wishes he’d been able to buy Pressed Flower during my exhibition, because all along the collage was tucked away inside my backpack, on the seat beside me.

4 thoughts on “What do we get out of giving?

  1. Pingback: Mokah 22nd 2013 show details |

    • I seem to remember a text or tweet or something going by me in a blur, and then not being able to catch up with it again. I hope I come across it again somewhere.

  2. Hi Jim,
    I enjoyed your story. I identify with being moved by the act of giving something very personal. Just this week I completed making a pillow cover for a friend’s birthday. Its a long story, but the essence of it for me is how wonderful it felt to give my TIME to someone. I know how to sew, design, and create with fabric (and other materials) and love to engage in the process of art making. To make something specifically for someone requires my time. I give my things away more easily than my time. So, ‘spending my time’ on someone else is an act, for me, of taking giving to another level.
    Hope you are doing well. All the best to you during this holiday season.

    • Thanks, Pam. It’s great to hear from you again. I wonder if part of the challenge is that we have to get some ways down the road before we can come to this realization. That’s how it feels to me right now, like there’s no way I ever could have grasped this before, at least not like I grasp it now. Again, I can’t shake the feeling.

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