“So much time and so little to do. Wait a minute. Strike that. Reverse it. Thank you.” — Willy Wonka (played by Gene Wilder)
“Artists are immortal” says the five year old in me that believes Willy Wonka played by Gene Wilder will live forever in a candy crusted, chocolate filled factory. And, when I mean forever, that artist will remain in a frozen tableau at that point in his/her artistic career, the one that was most personal to you or to me or millions of other fans. That artist will remain in that form forever and will never age, as most mortals do. For me, Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka epitomized the essence of great acting where comedy, mystery, and a bit of devilish uncertainty co-mingle and I am lost in his fantasy. It is not your everyday fantasy too where you visualize some odd place to travel to and then forget about it. It’s the kind of fantasy that helped me build all future ones because Gene Wilder made my imagination possible.
Quite frankly, it has been a wretched year in grief for the death of the beloved artist and it does not get easier — the list just gets longer. Bowie, Prince, Rickman, Wilder are just some of the well-known artists who have died. There is no uniquely beautiful or graceful way of stating that someone is dead. That artist you love is dead and will not return. Bowie is dead; Prince is dead; Rickman and Wilder are all dead. What death means is that the physical form to which you saw, heard, felt and symbolized that person is no longer possible using the same apparatus of perceptual expectations you once assumed. What it means is that you won’t hear/see another upcoming album, concert or film; you won’t be able to celebrate the future of their artistry by comparing and contrasting past works with that ‘future’ work.
What death does not mean is that the original tableau to which you imagined that artist did not die. That tableau still lives and thrives in you. What it could signal is a transformation in which you trade positions with your beloved artist and take on those attributes that inspired you in the first place. For example, it’s not that I will turn into Gene Wilder as Willy Wonka. It’s that the intrigue he inspired in me regarding imagination has and will continue to inform the research I do on imagination and creativity. These lyrics to “Pure Imagination” make sense as I pull together the montage of this argument:
Come with me and we’ll be
In a world of pure imagination
Take a look and you’ll see
Into your imagination
We’ll begin with a spin
Traveling in a world of my creation
Look and see
We’ll defy explanation
To die is a kind of cosmic reversal. Death defies logic and requires one to let go of your ‘normal’ way of perceiving to re-imagine said beloved artist as alive in you. If alive feels impossible, then, you can think of it as a constant flow of inspiration in you. This is the greatest gift of the dead artist: a wealth of art that no longer remains dormant if in you.