Make it Art

This article was first published in the Island Word in Fall, 2008.  It’s a favorite.

We’ve just come back from seeing the display of quilts made for the Grandmothers to Grandmothers campaign by the Island Quilters for Community Awareness. (If readers missed this very moving display, keep all eyes open for another chance to see it in October, when pieces will be auctioned off with proceeds going to African grandmothers raising grandchildren orphaned by AIDS). We are yet again stunned by the strength of the creative impulse, and the drive to bring forth beauty out of great sorrow.

Leonard Cohen once said, “If I knew where the good poems came from, I’d go there more often.” But few of us mortals would choose that path. The songs, poems, and creations that break open our hearts with their beauty, come from very deep places of feeling. They may be born out of love, or awe, or joy, but it seems that the good poems require at least an intimate acquaintance with deep pain.

Serena once sat in a large hall listening to author Sandra Cisternos tell about her acquaintance with depression. Waiting for her first novel to be published, Cisternos went through a time of financial hardship and suffocating depression. She went to a traditional healer, who diagnosed a sickness of the soul. The treatment was to create something—anything—every day. In this way, she got through each day as it came, creating a poem, a drawing, a dish to eat, a letter. For a while, each day’s passing was a testament to endurance, but art reminded her that joy might one day again be possible. Then, one day, she was through it. She had a grant to do more writing, and she felt buoyed by the love of her family and her friends, the confidence that others showed in her gifts, and the beauty of everyday things like the sun coming up, a cup of coffee, geraniums on a window sill.

Art does not have to be particularly good to be healing. Serena, who is anything but precise in her quilting, finds courage in the mantra, “if it’s worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.” The fact that kids still learn to play musical instruments, when they hear perfect music from CD players before they can even clap hands to a beat, is a miracle of courage and persistence. A seventh grader persists though the awful rendition of “Rock Around the Clock” for their first band concert, and goes on to master Chopin or Sousa. Good taste, someone said, is the enemy of art. It’s important to be able to risk our efforts turning out creations less than immortal, and it is a gift to take pleasure in humble accomplishments.

To create something is to experience power in its most positive form. A child with a ball of clay is the total boss of that clay. Armed with a paint brush, one is like a god to the canvas. Children who are held captive by the thrill of destruction (and don’t we all know such children? Who will kick over ant hills, break branches and smash Halloween pumpkins because they can?) need art supplies desperately. Sometimes one needs to take something apart, but always there is the need to build.

A creative outlet that we both rely upon is writing. Serena seemed born to talk the ears off the most patient of adult listeners until she began, at age 10, to keep a diary. Her early entries were hardly of literary note. “Dear diary, Today the girl scouts had a picnic. It was hot out. I like S.H.” But by high school she had progressed to angst-ridden poetry, and by college she occasionally turned out something pretty good. Now both of us journal in fits and starts, mostly around times of big transitions or momentous occasions. Still, it is there when we need it.

Paper, says Monika, is patient. It never says, “you are taking too much air time”, or “so and so is such a nice, quiet girl.” There may not be enough ears in the world to hear all of the stories that need to be told, from grade four picnics, through first loves, to the raw, open chasms of loss created by just one of history’s great epidemics, wars or natural catastrophes. But paper lets us tell it again and again, until we get it right. And when we have wrestled our stories out of the experiencing and on to paper, we are left with something like a pearl: a gift that may not be worth the suffering, but that is ours to keep nonetheless.

The lines between art, craft, work, and play are blurry, as Huckleberry Finn demonstrated in the painting of a picket fence. Work is what other people pay you to do; play is what you are willing to pay for the privilege of doing, and art, well, is art. It is not defined by the permanence of the product (think of improvisational music) or by its quality (which is mainly still in the eye of the beholder). Just about anything, depending upon the spirit in which it is done, can be an expression of art or of prosaic, dull, utilitarianism. We once knew a professional dishwasher who took pleasure in arranging glassware just so, taking a secret pleasure and fighting boredom by creating designs in the trays before they went into the steaming mouth of the big stainless machine. “It’s an attitude thing”, she would say. Is that art? Is gardening art? How about grooming the dog? Composing a multiple-choice exam for a college course? We strive for the attitude that will make it so.

When we bring conscious intent and an awareness of the sacred to what we do, we are making art. Art is the bridge between the inner world of our imagination and the outer world, where such dreams can be seen and shared by others. The artist is between the worlds. And, as they say in certain wise and pagan circles, “what happens between the worlds can change all the worlds.”

Art needs us with all of our frailties and follies in order to come into solid existence. Making art is a form of channeling grace into the world, and doing so leaves us blessed. To quote Leanard Cohen again, “there is a crack in everything; that’s how the light gets in.”

We recommend spending some of the long, hot days of summer dreaming up stories, making lines and color on paper, playing with something soft and silky like fabric or gooey like paper mache, or joining the birds with sounds that you find beautiful, haunting, poignant, or simply heartfelt. It’s cheaper than therapy, and, if you are in therapy, will see you though your therapist’s holiday time. And it will change something: your world, your thoughts, your heart, your vision of what can be.