Are we our works? Are we valued by our works? Is work a noun or a verb? The child in me asks these questions until the parent in me wants to answer, “I don’t know. Go ask Alexa!”
We’ve all been there with the rug rats of our families and kinfolks. Children are curious and for this we’re grateful. This incessant questioning is their way of learning about the world. It’s altogether better than a puppy’s chewing on every new object it comes across. If families are to encourage their child’s interest, they get them a library card so they can have internet access and books to read, and they answer as many questions as possible. If they don’t know the answer, “Go look it up in Google or the encyclopedia.”
In ancient Greece, Socrates taught by asking his students questions, a technique we call the Socratic Method. Some of us teach art in this way also. When we see the student at a stopping point, we teachers ask, “Are you having a problem and not figuring out a solution?”
The student can usually point out what they want to change on their work, but they don’t have the experience or prior learning to drawn upon to solve it. For instance, if the flower petals all look flat because they’re painted in one color, the beginning student knows this doesn’t look right, but they need a trained eye to point out the variety of values in the petals. Once they see the gradation of light to dark, it’s never again unseen. We know it’s there.
Teachers can point out the range of values from dark to light that make up the visual vocabulary of shading a two dimensional image so it looks like a three dimensional shape. Students can learn this technique and master it over time. Mastery then becomes a matter of hand and eye coordination. In a sense, we have to lose ourselves in the subject matter so we can let its energies enter into our hearts and minds, and quicken our hands. The rest is a matter of practice and learning how our egos can quit controlling the outcome.
The spiritual writer and Jesuit priest Richard Rohr speaks of the three eyes in his book, The Naked Now. The first eye grasps what the senses can understand, the second eye understands the science and poetry, while the third eye is aware of all of the above, but especially how all things connect as part of God’s great mystery. When we enter into this “now,” we’re present not only to God, but to all creation, as well as our own selves. This is the contemplative spirit for which the artist strives, and not just for the mastery of the materials or for the rendering of the subject matter.
If we allow this energy to move our hands, does that mean our work also becomes part of us? If we baked a simple yellow cake out of a box, we might not ask that question. When we start decorating a cake made from scratch and adding frillies of frosting, then we start identifying with the cake. Should someone smash the cake enroute to the soirée, there’ll be hockey sticks to pay.
I remember almost fainting in Italy when I saw a glue blob on one of my delicate watercolor paintings, which had just been framed for an exhibition there. A stiff shot of some unknown alcohol brought me back to life. The framer made it good, for the glue was water soluble, so we could gently lift it up. I was more of a drama Queen in my 20’s also. I take things as they come these days. I also was more immature, for I didn’t separate my work from my identity.
Some say we are what we eat, so then are we what we create? Jesus had an answer in Mark 7:18-19 for those who thought certain foods were unclean, or forbidden to eat:
“He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)”
That fancy dinner we ate two nights ago leaves us after a few cups of coffee in the morning. We don’t recognize it and most of us don’t even inspect it as we flush it down the toilet on its way out the sewage pipes to the sanitation station. Of course, only parents can get excited about their two year olds who manage to do their “business” in the toilet instead of in their diapers. I know I was one of those. If Facebook had been invented back in the day, I’m sure I’d have posted an update.
As we grow older, we enjoy making and crafting for the experience of the textures and the command of the materials. Children have fun pushing the paints, papers, and glue all around the surface of their artwork. Parents often look askance at the grey, scribbled messes their children excitedly present to them for the honored place on the refrigerator display, but these muddy creations are the result of a dramatic story of their child’s imagination. “Interesting, why don’t you tell me what’s going on here?” Is an adult’s best response in this situation.
I’ve had kindergarten children meltdown because they had difficulty cutting a snowman on the fold. It’s hard to be five years old and live in a home in which the parents don’t want their children to make a mess. These children, as a result, have poor fine motor skills, have difficulty writing, and handling scissors. Even folding a piece of paper is tough. Then they miss the important information: hold the fold, and cut on the flaps. If they hold the flaps instead, they end up with two halves of a snowman. And a meltdown into tears.
“I’ll never be able to make a snowman! My snowman is cut in two pieces. Why can you make a perfect snowman and I can’t?”
This lesson always called for me to wear my therapy hat, and remind my five year old students I’d been making folded snowmen for a very long time and my first ones looked just like theirs did. There was hope for them. We just needed to go over the directions again and make one together. Sometimes we miss a step, and that’s ok. It’s just a piece of paper. It’s not like we took away recess from everyone forever.
Usually when we went over the directions again, I could remind them of the way to hold the fold and cut the flaps. Then they’d all be amazed at how easy the project was. “Everything is easier when you follow the directions.” They’d laugh and start decorating their snowman, all their meltdowns forgotten.
Most of us aren’t successful the first time we attempt a new experience. If we were all extraordinary artists right off the mark, none of us ever would get excited about Michelangelo, Rembrandt, or Picasso. If we could all pick up a musical instrument and play it well right off the bat, who’d have the need for civic symphonies or even bar bands? We’d all be happy making our own music. The truth is some of us not only have the interest and inclination, but also the will to spend not just hours, but years, honing our craft, until we sing our notes purely or paint with a master’s hand.
If we all aren’t masters, we all can enjoy the journey if we learn to detach our egos from our products. When I wrote papers in seminary, before I opened up my graded work, I’d repeat the mantra, “I am not my grade. I am a daughter of the living God, chosen for God’s work.” Then I’d look at the markings on the inside. This helped me to remember who I was, whose I was, and what my purpose was. I was also two decades older than that fainting child in Italy.
As I would tell visitors to Perkins, “If your well-being is wrapped up in your grade average, you might want to rethink either that notion or choose another school.”
“Yes, if you’re going on for a PhD, you’ll get over a 90 in your classes. The top grade for the Mdiv is 89. If you get any grade higher than that, the professor thinks you could do PhD level work.”
“That doesn’t seem right,” they said.
“It’s a curve. If you go elsewhere for a DMin, those schools know Perkins’ grading system. Think of it as an A at 89 and don’t worry about it.”
Some people can’t restructure their world so their 89 is an A, but if that’s the system they’re in, that’s how it is. If they have in their mind nothing less than a 95 will validate their worthiness, then if they do their degree work at Perkins, they’ll always be up against the immovable wall. When they go out into ministry, they’ll discover everyone they meet has a grading system. That can drive a person crazy, unless he or she decides the ultimate approval they seek comes from the one who says, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Likewise, if we’re beginners in art, we have to suspend our criticism of our imperfections in our work. Instead, we reframe our critiques into “areas which need improvement.” Even now, after decades of working in my studio, I’ll let a canvas rest near me in my living room. I’ll eye it in different lights, until I hear it call my name. I’ve totally repainted some of these, and others I’ve destroyed. A few I leave alone. All of us will keep learning something new, both from our “good paintings “ and our “need improvement works.” Most likely, artists quit painting when they they think they have nothing left to learn, or when they lose the courage to risk moving into the unknown mystery, as it’s written in 1 Corinthians 2:9—
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.”
Paul also writes in Romans 8:27-28,
“And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
So we too ask the Spirit to work more in us and free us from attachment to our need to be loved and affirmed by our works, since God is already working for good for those who love God and who are called according to God’s purpose. As we drop our old ideas and preconceived notions of the good, we become open to God’s good and God’s purposes. Releasing control to God is an act of humbleness and faithfulness, both of which are contrary to our modern belief in self-actualization and autonomy. This is the way of the mystic, or the contemplative, and the inspired artist.
Gastrointestinal Transit: How Long Does It Take?
The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See – Kindle edition by Rohr, Richard. Religion & Spirituality Kindle eBooks @ Amazon.com. (Also available in iBooks, for more money)