It’s one o’clock in the afternoon and I am pouring yellow sand into the cracks of a weathered log. The granules dance and settle into the meandering patterns across the wood surface. I’m transfixed.
I look at the log for 30 minutes. Or more. I don’t really know. It’s quiet. I begin to think about searching for new ligneous shapes to study the traces of wear formed on them through years of exposure. I have an idea for a new series of drawings, some photos. This feels right.
And then a voice interrupts this proceeding like an uninvited guest, “What the hell are you doing? Is this responsible? Don’t you have real work to do?”
Lately, I know this voice all too well. I hear it nearly every day.
It wasn’t always like this. For almost twenty years, I’ve been a professional artist. I’ve worked hard. Really hard. I’ve never missed a deadline and rarely fail to deliver a finished piece that pleases the client. I’ve been busy, won awards, received some press. During this time, I didn’t hear the voice at all. So where did it come from?
Looking back on my upbringing, I desired something different than my parents. We lived in a suburban, middle class neighborhood near San Diego. My dad went to work every day, seven to six (or later). My mom stayed home. I never knew what my father did there exactly…something to do with management or publishing or management publishing, but I knew he was busy at it. I don’t remember seeing him much during the week.
I went away to college, out of state. While I was there, I enrolled in a study abroad program in London. I had an African-American girlfriend, which shocked my family. I read Shampoo Planet by Douglas Copeland and felt empowered as a card-carrying member of Generation X. I decided to major in art, shocking my family even more.
My senior year, a visiting professor showed us how it was possible to make a living doing art. This gave me hope, a validating purpose. I was going to make it my goal to become a freelance illustrator. This was going to work.
Fresh out of college, I landed one of my first assignments for the Los Angeles Times. It paid well, especially for a recent graduate who was living at home and delivering gourmet food out of a car part-time. The amount I received surprised my Dad. It is the only time I can remember him seeing value in my art.
Working as a commercial artist, I built a steady client list and a reputation, free-lanced from different parts of the world, had an agent. I stayed preoccupied with assignment after assignment. I enjoyed the freedom and flexibility. It was a tidy system: concept, deadline, finish, praise, payment, repeat. I felt responsible. I felt relevant.
But as the years passed, it all became familiar. Little surprised me about the work anymore; I had too much control of the process from start to finish. I was starting and finishing a task, completing a job. My desire to engage the work dulled. I began to view my art only as a means to an end.
One day, I noticed a book on my shelf that had been given as a gift and never opened: In the Name of Jesus by Henri Nouwen. I leafed through it quickly and then my eyes fell upon a page with this excerpt:
The first temptation with which the devil accosted Jesus was that of turning stones into loaves of bread. This is the temptation to be relevant, to do something that is needed and can be appreciated by people—to make productivity the basis of our ministry.
I wasn’t an official “minister,” but this hit me like a punch in the gut.
This temptation touches us at the center of our identity. In a variety of ways we are made to believe that we are what we produce. This leads to a preoccupation with products, visible results, tangible goods, and progress.
The temptation to be relevant is difficult to shake since it is usually not considered a temptation, but a call. We make ourselves believe that we are called to be productive, successful, and efficient people whose words and actions show that working for God’s Reign is at least as dignified an occupation as working for General Electric, Mobil Oil, or the government. But this is giving in to the temptation to be relevant and respectable in the eyes of the world.
It all made sense in an instant—my dissatisfaction, my confusion, my change of heart. I had let my art, a vehicle I’d hoped would help me escape the conventional path, become a mechanical errand.
And Nouwen was so right: I was being provided the security of quick affirmation and significance. My work was dignified because it produced results. I had re-entered suburbia—a neatly controlled environment where little is left to chance and appearances are everything.
A few years ago, I stepped on a plane headed for Frankfurt, Germany with no return flight. My commercial commissions were dwindling and I was trying to figure out why I was even doing art. Before I left, my wife handed me a flask and a small, handmade leather journal. She looked me in the eye and encouraged me to embrace the unknown, to treat the exploratory trip as a journey and to see how God would open doors. Inside the cover was inscribed,
Art is like beginning a sentence before you know its answer.
If I’d never boarded that plane I wouldn’t be making the art I am today. The temptation to be relevant is difficult to shake. It’s a slow and clumsy process, like a baby learning to walk. I’m still crawling. I long for accolades and easy validation and a paycheck on the end of it.
But I’ve learned that making art is not about being busy or knowing the answers or even staying productive. In turning away from something familiar, I’ve had to embrace doubt and uncertainty and in that, I’ve been able to discover value not only in the work, but also in the working.
So I pour sand into crevices, I draw with crushed leaves, I sit in silence and observe the expanding rings on a tree stump. The voice returns often: “Get back to work. This is a waste of time. Where is this leading?” I’m getting better at ignoring it.
And so, I humbly present three paraphrased thoughts from my journal that have helped me deny the voice and keep pouring sand:
What you need to know about the next piece is contained in the last piece. The place to learn about the your materials is in the last use of the your materials. The place to learn about your execution is in your execution. The best information about what you love is in your last contact with what you love. – Art & Fear
I never used to work unless I felt like it. Consequently, I found I was creating the same piece over and over. We’ve all heard the advice to embrace a daily creative ritual. Agreed, but a bit vague.
I suggest spending time with the materials you’ve already been working with. Put yourself in a position to be surprised by your process.
There’s a passage in “Jeremiah 13” in which God directs the prophet to wear a linen loincloth around his waist, then take the loincloth from Jerusalem to the Euphrates River and bury it in the rocks. After several days, he’s then instructed to go back to the same spot and dig up the loincloth.
The passage deals symbolically with disobedience and judgment, but I’ve always been fascinated that Jeremiah walked 700 miles round trip to bury underwear.
To me, the Bible is one long consistent story of doing the unconventional. In every way, God shakes up our preconceptions about value, worth and beliefs. This gives me great comfort when I doubt my direction, which is often.
Always a tough one. I want to have something tangible to show at the end of the day. Just like prayer, art and writing are seldom orderly proceedings, they often leave us confused and frustrated. Their value is in the aggregate; the story becomes clear if we keep reading.
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