The Impact of Art

Last Monday I got to speak at a homeschool conference about why art, in particular theatre, was important. Since one of the main things theatre has done for me was help me find myself, I wanted to share some of those thoughts here as well.

The impact that theatre has on my life goes way back, twenty years ago, when I was a withdrawn eight-year-old girl.

My older sister, Anna, was very theatrical. She was always acting. One year for a Christmas present, my parents signed both of us up for drama classes. I don’t remember much from that first class, but I do remember the recital.

Our drama instructor had put me in a scene (debating whether cats or dogs were better) and given me an Aesop fable to perform. The scene went fine, but the fable….

It was a lot of words for a shy, dyslexic girl to memorize and speak in front of a crowd of people. So many words in fact, that I wasn’t able to do it. So I performed it with script in hand, not at all disguised by the pretty paper we put on the back of it to look like a book.

Ashamed of my inability to memorize, I ran off stage crying before I had finished reading the fable. No moral for that tale.

After that day, I was certain I would never do theatre again. Obviously, I have since I now help run a theatre company. For one reason or another, I kept returning to it. Through the years of performing, I came out of my shell and found a confidence that I did not have.

Self-confidence is probably one of the most obvious ways that theatre can impact children’s lives.

But there are others. As an adult, when I think about why art is important to me it is not because of the confidence it brings, but because it is a mirror.

In Act 3 of Hamlet, the Prince of Denmark says of acting “the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold as ’twere a mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image and the very age and body of the time his form and presence.”

We use mirrors to see ourselves. We can’t get an accurate picture of our face without outside help. Art can be used to reflect a picture of our core being, our soul, our humanity. As I have been exposed to art in its many forms, I have found that can it challenge me, comfort me, affirm me, and give me hope.

I’ll start with a challenging example. I’ve talked about how I am working to change the subtle ways that I struggle with begin racist before. One thing that I did not immediately recognize when I first realized that I needed to repent of that sin was how dismissive I was of the extent of racism that minorities face today. It was easy to buy the line that the “mainstream media” was “exaggerating” things.

I gained a different perspective when I watched the movie “Dear White People”.

(As an aside, I have been upset by the controversy swirling around Netflix’s remake of it. Nothing about that movie was “anti-white”. Personally, I found it to be very fair and balanced. I fear those who feel like the movie was an attack, went in with the goal of being offended.)

The movie was a very eye-opening and disturbing look at how disrespected and diminished minorities are. In watching that movie, I had to wrestle with how easily I dismiss others pain “because I didn’t mean to offend them.” and realized that if I truly value a person, I am going to take their hurt seriously and do my undermost to understand that pain and seek to learn how to interact with them in ways that communicate respect and dignity.

 

Art can also provide great comfort. I’ve mentioned before how I lost a very good friend to suicide. In the first several months especially, I struggled with so many emotions that I didn’t know what to do with them, and I often pushed them aside and ignored them.

A few months in, I got to watch a one-act based off of a Greek play, “The Trojan Women”. In it, a mother is grieving the loss of her family and home. As I watched the actors go from tears to cold horror to screams of pain, I thought about my loss.

The tragedy of the play took on my tragedy. I found such comfort in seeing the tears that at the time I could not weep reflected back to me.

I found such comfort in seeing the tears that at the time I could not weep reflected back to me.

Art can also be a great affirmation of the beauty and hope that is in the world. The other weekend, I went to see the “Last Days of Judas Iscariot” performed by Northampton Community College. In the final scene, Jesus travels to hell to visit Judas whose appeal for release has been denied. Jesus goes to reassure Judas of His love for him, to offer him a way out if he would only take Jesus’ hands.

But Judas refuses. He instead accuses Jesus of abandoning him to his fate and literally spits on His face, screaming and swearing at Him to leave.

There’s a lot going on there to think about, but as I watched this struggle between the characters, I thought of my own relationship to Jesus and how I often scorn His love and help because I feel that He has abandoned me to my fate. When the character of Jesus was affirming His love for Judas, it reminded me of HIs love for me

When the character of Jesus was affirming His love for Judas, it reminded me of HIs love for me and His continual offer to free me from my doubt and bitterness that I struggle with if I would but accept His love and take His hands.

It was amazing to watch because though it looks different, I betray Jesus all the time. Yet He still loves me. He died for me. And He comes to me in my darkness to rescue me.

The reflective nature of art is why I think it is so important. It is why I wanted to keep my theatre going after my older sister stepped down. I want to invite others to have their own experience of seeing themselves more accurately because of a show, or a drawing. I want to encourage others to wrestle with the beauty and pain of life that we can often push aside.

Art often gets dismissed as unnecessary, an extra activity that can be removed if there is a lack of money or time. I strongly disagree. I know everyone is different, but in my life, art has been one of the most powerful tools to help me bloom into the person God made me, either in giving me confidence or giving me understanding.

Have you had similar experiences with art? What about it is important to you?

 

 

Longing for Narnia

The other week I had a deep longing for Narnia, and more importantly, for Aslan. C.S. Lewis created an amazing world and unforgettable characters. The lion, Aslan, has helped me grow in my understanding of Jesus. There are many times when I will repeat the words of Mr. Beaver, “Safe? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good.”

Or when Shasta (Cor) asks Aslan why he scratched Aravis’s back, and Aslan doesn’t tell him the reason because it is not his story.

And many other things.

I’m planning to revisit those books soon, in my preferred order of publication, but I couldn’t wait to be in Narnia, so last week I drew it, spending twelve hours in that beautiful place.

 

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“A Visit to Narnia”. India Ink and India Ink Marker. 2017.

My visit to Narnia was one of the highlights of my year so far. I love how art, be it literary or visual, can transport you to other places.

 

Easing the Pressure

Lines drawn in the sand can get washed away. Hard lines drawn on a page can be impossible to erase. That is the lesson I learned when I was working on this picture:

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The photo is not the best quality, but you can see that the gridlines are still stubbornly present, refusing to cooperate with the eraser, or me.  I wrote a post about how I had to be patient with myself as I went through the process of growing as a writing, artist, and person.

Growth can take longer than we want. Even though I knew I needed to be careful with the pressure of my drawing, the paper of my next illustration was left scared by my heavy-handed execution.
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True, the grid lines and original sketch is lighter than in the drawing above, but they are still there.

Fortunately, Photoshop exists for those of us who have trouble with drawing lightly.

My issue is that I love intensity. I thrive on it. The other night (cooling down from a passionate debate), I described myself as a “Volcanic Crusader”. My favorite motto, despite knowing it is not true, is “Brute force is always the answer”.

When I work out, I want it to be extreme.

(Consequently, I’m starting to take boxing lessons this week. I cannot wait.)

When I play the piano, I bang. PP’s are FF’s and FF’s are

FF’s!

And when I draw, I lay down thick, bold, and rather unerasable lines.

Sometimes this works okay, especially when I am working in Ink. But as my previous pictures show, this is not always good. After I completed my last illustration of the kid pretending to be a doctor, I was frustrated by my inability to go light.

So I’ve been making a practice of it.

And I’ve learned something. Starting out gentle, light, tentative, leaves room for nuance and gives much more control.

Drawing my grid lines lightly and working layer by layer with the pencil has turned out so much better. And I was still able to bring intensity into it, it just came about more slowly.

So I’m learning that there are times when it’s good to ease up the pressure, on my pencil but also myself.

Because I struggle with wanting to be Superwoman all the time I often put high and unreasonable expectations on myself for performance. Pressure can be a great motivator. I think intensity is a lot of fun. But gentleness and working a little at a time is sometimes the needed approach.Taking thing nice and easy, step by step, being diligent and patient with one’s growth, instead of demanding instant results, can yield better work.

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I have more work to do on this drawing to finish it, but I will continue to work lightly and then go back with layers as needed.

Intensity is still amazing, and I will probably always joke that “Brute force is always the answer”, but I am now trying to practice developing intensity out instead of forcing it. So far so good. We’ll see how long it takes for me to forget this lesson.

 

Investments 

Black Friday shopping is dangerous: crazy drivers, crazy shoppers, but also crazy deals.

This past Friday was my second venture into the fray. My list was short: a pair of gloves and one colored pencil. This plan for derailed when I realized Dick Blick was selling a set of colored pencils I had been wanting for years at less than a third of the original price.

Impluse buying is typically frowned upon. That’s what I told myself. But I made the decision to calculate the price per pencil. 

Then I called my husband. 

I didn’t want to blindly throw away a large sum of money. So I asked his opinion. I presented the cost benefit and also the fact that I would be needing to buy several of these pencils in the near future for my next illustration project.

Being the great guy he is, he fully supported me in whatever decision I thiught made the best financial and artistic sense.

I wandered around the store for a while debating. 

For us, it was a lot of money. For the pencils, it was dirt cheap. I would need many of them for my next illustration project if I did it in full color. But I might just do it in monotone since I’m not that good anyway. 

These kind of thoughts went back and forth for several minutes. Finally, I decided to make an investment, not in colored pencils, but in myself.

Seizing the Black Friday deal was more than a purchase; it was a commitment. I made a commitment to myself to push past my perceived limitations, a commitment to develop a stronger technique, a commitment to believe that my growth as an artist, and a person, is worth the investment of money, time, and tears.

I know figuring out how to work in color may be frustrating, but I am committed to conquering that medium. 

Thanks to Black Friday, I have 150 pencils to reminded me of that commitment.

Sometimes you need to be willing to invest in your own growth. What’s a way you can invest in yourself this week?

Controlling the Flow

She spread the pages of her sketchbook, seven pages of paper, out in front of her, and she dipped her pen into the ink well. She pressed the metal nib against the paper and drew. A dark line of ink seeped out. Black blood took shape.

….

Splat!

A blob of ink darted off the nib. She relished ink as a medium. It was dark and unpredictable. The ink would flow exactly how you wanted it until–bam! It disregarded its wielder and did exactly what it wanted. She wanted to be ink in Anson’s pen. He had control over her now, but one day she would overthrow him.

– From my first novel, CHRYSALIS 

Little did I realize how true these words were. Expect for the unpredictable bit. You can predict that ink is not going to do what you want, in fact, it most definitely will do the opposite of what you want.

That is what I love about it. But I’ve learned with one of my more recent art projects that India ink does have its limitations.

 

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“Rose of Notre Dame”. India ink and India ink marker. 2016.

 

The above was my attempt at recreating the rose window at Notre Dame. It’s the second piece that I have done for a former professor of mine, Michael Pogach, who wrote an intense (in the best way) book and did me the honor of asking if I’d be interested in doing some sketches based off his story.

Rose windows in general, and in particular at Notre Dame, are sprinkled throughout the novel. The beauty combined with the technical challenge of the location captured my interest in drawing it.

Though the perspective is skewed, I was pretty pleased with the piece until I got to the stained glass. My brilliant idea was to use my favorite art medium, flowing India ink, to fill in the different shapes and shades of the window.

The process quickly proved to be frustrating. It didn’t matter how much I tried to dilute the ink, it was still dark when I wanted it to be light. Giving the ink time to dry didn’t prevent the ink from bleeding into parts of the drawing where it didn’t belong. In short, what I thought would be an awesome way of capturing the varying degrees of color and brightness turned out to be more of a mud pie. At least in the actual rose part. Some of the saints on the bottom aren’t so bad.

Frustration with the ink meant that I got sloppier, less patient, and less concerned with messing up. The result is a mixed piece of sections that I love, sections that are decent, and sections that I’m really not thrilled with.

But, as always, I’ve learned a lot from this piece. India ink is not a great medium when you are working in small areas and you want to create specific details. Especially if you aren’t patient enough to let it dry.

So now I know. My plan is to redo this drawing in 2017. Make it much larger and buy several colored India ink markers to do the stained glass. Or….just buy colored ink and let it run as it pleases.

That’s a very exciting thought.

Hmmm….

I’ve got time to figure that out. Either way, I’ve learned something about myself as an artist. There are times when I love going with the flow, but there are also times when I need to control the flow. Figuring all that out is all apart of the process.

I think that’s similar to life too, isn’t it? There are times when we can go with the current, times when we want to go with the current but can’t, times when we want to fight against the current but shouldn’t, and times when we must fight against the current.

Do we go with the flow or control the flow?  How do you know when to do what?

Accepting the Process

Instant gratification is not enough for me. I want instant perfection.

As a late bloomer, I struggle with the need to “arrive”. When some of my gifts did start to unfold, a need to make up for lost time drove me to succeed. I had to be the best at art, theatre, writing, anything and everything that I put my mind to. The goal: gain perfection in at least one, if not several areas, to hide the shame of being “slow”, “uneducated”, “academically backwards”, etc.

(This is apart of my “Superwoman” complex.)

One of the great frustrations of my life is that blooming is a process not a single event. That should be a comfort to me. We aren’t limited to one blossom opening up and adding to beauty! We grow, and change, and impact the world in different ways at different times all throughout our lives. The fact that rose bushes put out multiple buds, all opening and fading as they will, is a wonderful way to look at ourselves or others.

We have never arrived. We are never beyond hope.

And yet.

And yet, I often get weary of the blooming process. I don’t want to have to struggle for excellence.

I’m tired of having fought so hard for simple things like being able to tell the difference between  P’s and B’s and understanding basic rules of grammar. I am at a loss to understand how sometimes I am able to draw and the next time I pick up the pencil I have forgotten all about the art. Fighting the same sins of self-righteousness, selfishness, and addiction gets discouraging, even in the midst of gaining ground, because it isn’t enough ground, it isn’t gained fast enough.

Maybe you can relate.

The area that has been causing me most frustration at the moment is the area of drawing. Back in 2008 when I took “Drawing II” at NCC with my wonderful Professor Isadore LaDuca gave me feedback about my work. He said many encouraging things, but one thing he noted was that I would seemingly at random produce projects of great caliber and great disaster. For whatever reason my skill was not consistent.

It still isn’t, though I am less likely to draw flops as I was back in 2008. But they still happen. Here are some embarrassing examples.

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This was my second attempt at the cover for my sister’s children book that I am illustrating. The first attempt was worse. There are sections of this drawing I love, but for some reason, I was not able to draw their faces, even though I had just recently completed a good portrait of a dear friend of mine in pastel.

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This is an in progress shot of my current illustration for my sister’s book. The faces are better, but still there are perspective issues, and I drew the grid marks too dark to be able to erase them. Photoshop can fix that when I go to put the book together for publication, but it infuriates me that after ten years of seriously studying art, I cannot draw a grid correctly!

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Here is my second attempt at an illustration cover for my grandfather’s commentary on Galatians. I gave up once the woman’s face was beyond saving.

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This is much better but still flawed.

Artistically, this year has been difficult. I created a greater amount of work that were more technically proficient last year when I was still recovering from an injury that almost severed my drawing hand. It’s not that I haven’t accomplished any good drawings this year, but it hasn’t been as effortless.

Why is this year harder? Who knows? But I’ve learned something over the past 11 months of trying to draw.

Even though my work isn’t attaining the instant perfection that I desire, the process of failing and trying again is valuable.

In the illustration for my grandfather, I learned that while I can come up with a concept and a sketch in my mind for an illustration, I need real faces, tress, clothing, etc., to reference for the actual drawing.

My current illustration project has taught me that I have to be more careful about drawing the grid lines.

To be honest, I don’t know what I learned from the two failed covers, but I know the practice drawing will not be wasted.

Instant perfection would be gratifying, but I would learn little if the skills were uploaded into my brain like the Matrix. So while I’m not thrilled or proud of my failures, I am trying to accept the process.

What about you? What are some areas that you are trying to improve? Does the process discourage or encourage you?