Maybe I should destroy my art work if I don’t like it. I heard that Picasso slashed some of his paintings into shreds with his palette knife because they didn’t measure up to his standards for himself (1).
I’m not quite as intense as Picasso, but I’m also not quite as relaxed as Andy Warhol, though I aspire to be. He’s what he said:
“Don’t think about making art, just get it done. Let everyone else decide if it’s good or bad, whether they love it or hate it. While they are deciding, make even more art” (2).
This month I am showing my art work in two different group exhibitions in Louisville, Kentucky, and it’s always inspiring to me to see the work of so many different artists.
Looking at all of the art work on display, I sometimes wonder how other artists choose what to submit for these invitational juried exhibitions. (Artists send photos of their work to the gallery and hope to be accepted into the show.)
I have three categories of work, at least. Work that I love, work I’m unsure about, and work that I don’t like. I have a closet full of such pieces, work that didn’t turn out so great, and you’ll never see it, unless maybe you’re one of my kids sorting my stuff after I die.
Sometimes, I know that a painting or a drawing is bad, and I won’t show it. Other times I have trouble being objective about my own work. At those times, I try to think like Warhol. Let everyone else decide if it’s good. While they are deciding, I’ll just keep making even more art.
“And I have caught a pregnant bluehead lizard that has already had one egg. Soon it will have more eggs.”
–Joseph Brooks, October 21, 1996
When we first went to Mozambique, our son Joseph was 6. As I sort through old emails, I came across a letter that he dictated to Martin to be typed into an email to send to his friends back home. It reads like this:
“Everywhere you walk, there is sand. Most of the time it does not rain even though there are dark clouds. We have tall thorns around the whole compound as a fence.
“It’s more exciting here because every day you have friends to play with, and you don’t have to go far to find any. Most of the time we play marbles or play with a hacky sack or we play soccer which is really called football here.
“And I have caught a pregnant bluehead lizard that has already had one egg. Soon it will have more eggs.
“And also, there was this hole in the flower bed, and I accidentally shot a marble, and it went down the hole. As I was trying to dig it up to get it, a head popped out of the hole. I thought it was a snake at first, but then my gardener told me that it was a frog. So I ran and got a jar and caught it while my gardener watched it. And I still have the toad and the lizard. The frog is as tall as my finger and as wide as my fist.”
Joseph always was, and still is, a happy person. Maybe it’s because he focused on the toads. Too many times in life we are expecting a snake, and God gives us a toad instead, and it’s wonderful, but I tend to just say, “Whew! That was close.” I forget about it, and go on looking for the next snake. Instead, like Joseph, I should run and get a jar, and celebrate the toads! How many times has God given me a toad when I was expecting a snake, but I just move on, forgetting all of the good times God has given, and all of the times I have been rescued, and I go on looking for the next snake to bite me, instead of being happy about the all of the toads.
I often hear, “Write what you would want to read.” As I think about what I want to read as an artist, and maybe what most artists need, it is encouragement to keep going. Did anyone’s parents ever say to them, “You should be an artist when you grow up”? Maybe a few did, but mostly they say be a doctor, lawyer, engineer, etc.
Being an artist is not for everyone–it is constant work and frequent rejection. When I was teaching, one of my colleagues said he had dropped out of being an art major to study law because art was too much work.
“For art, ” he said, “you actually had to make stuff!”
But another thing I keep hearing from artists is “You always come back,” or some variation of my own story, which is for years I neglected doing my artwork because everything else seemed more important, but eventually I came back to making art.
So why is art important? According to Friedrich Neitzche,
“The essence of all beautiful art, all great art, is gratitude.”
I can relate to that. Not that my art is great, but that I create out of gratitude. I see such beauty in nature, in people, or in colors and textures, and I’m so thankful to always have beauty. Even and especially in the midst of pain and a constant flow of devastating news, that beauty is freely given, if I can just pay attention long enough to notice.
When we make art, we know we are more than just machines: we can feel again, we can react to what we see in front of us or in our imaginations in ways that are intuitive, emotional, and unexplainable. We do not know what is going to happen on the canvas or on the page. We are led by something or someone beyond ourselves. There is mystery and magic once again when we create art.
When people ask what I am doing, I tell them I quit my teaching job to pursue my art, and they don’t seem to understand my answer. I get it. Rarely does one meet a fine artist, as opposed to a commercial artist, who is making a living with her art. People assume that I have “retired” from teaching to kick back and enjoy the grandkids and dabble in art as a hobby. The fact is that I do enjoy a little more time for the grandkids, but I have no retirement package, and I’m too young for social security. I have made a leap into the unknown, and it is yet to be seen whether I can replace my teaching income with income from my art and writing.
So how do I spend my time? So many different art and writing deadlines are looming that I’ve had to make a spread sheet which I update each week. The columns are for things that need to be done “this week, this month,” and in the “near future.” It also has a place for a shopping list. Here’s a link to the weekly planner I made for those who might like to use it: my one page weekly planner
To keep up with the demands of the two galleries that represent me, KORE Gallery and the Jane Morgan plein air gallery, I need to do at least 2 large oil pastels per month, and go out every Thursday to paint “en plein air,” which means painting outdoors. In addition to creating work to sell at these galleries, I have juried invitational shows and art fairs for which to create work and a solo show coming up next year.
On the writing front, I am working on a book of stories about our time in Mozambique. From emails and journals that I wrote while in Mozambique, I publish a devotional blog story every Wednesday, which is a short excerpt from the book. Here’s a link to the first of those posts if you are interested. Mozambican Odyssey, #1. I am also sending off articles and stories to publishers each month.
What makes me think I can do all of this and maybe make a little money at it? I ask myself that all too often, but when I need encouragement, I remember the words of a beloved college professor of mine. Many years ago, when I studied art in college, the professor in charge of the art department called me into his office one day. He asked what I wanted to do with my life. When I told him I wanted to be a fine artist, he said this: “I tell most of my students that they should go into commercial art because so few can make it as fine artists, but you could make it as a fine artist. You can do whatever you set your mind to do.” That dear man died of cancer a couple of years after giving me that encouragement, but I’ve never forgotten it. It has taken me about thirty years to get around to trying it full-time, but I think that professor is watching from heaven, cheering me on.
I asked if any of the children wanted to accept Jesus and be baptized, and they all started shaking their heads “Yes”!
“Wait a minute,” I thought, “let me make sure they are saying what I think they are saying.”
You see, I was still learning Portuguese, and Portuguese is also a second language for these children. They speak Changaan at home, but school is taught in Portuguese because Mozambique had been colonized by the Portuguese. I had these illustrated Bible story posters with the story written in Portuguese on the back of the big, colorful illustration. I would practice reading the stories in Portuguese, and the other missionaries told me my pronunciation was good, so they asked me to teach the children on Wednesday nights. The truth is, I could read the words and pronounce them well, but at times I didn’t comprehend what my own mouth was saying as I read the story to the children.
Sometimes having good pronunciation can get you into trouble because people think you have better language skills than you actually do. The other night for example, two babies came to class with their older siblings, who looked to me to be about 6, and just as the class was starting, a baby toddled out into the dark night. I tried to ask the children to go get her, but in my panic, my high school French popped into my mind instead of Portuguese, and the children all just looked at me blankly! It’s as if my brain has a foreign language switch, and when I’m panicked, trying to think of a word in the new language I’m learning, instead, my brain supplies the word from a language I haven’t studied for years, sometimes a word that I wouldn’t be able to think of if I were trying! I’m curious as to whether this happens to other people, or is my brain broken?
After I realized that I had used French instead of Portuguese, I corrected myself, and the big brother went to retrieve the baby. After the story ended, I asked if any of the children wanted to accept Jesus and be baptized.
They all started nodding their heads and saying, “Yes!” I was super excited, but not quite sure they understood. It would have been great to just baptize them all and report the wonderful results to our supporters; but instead, I questioned them further, finding out that many of them had already been baptized, and things were not exactly as they seemed on the surface.
Most of the time these days, I’m not trying to communicate in a second language, but do I still make the same kind of mistakes? I make a judgement, based on someone’s brief response, not really taking the time to ask questions and make sure they understood what I meant, and maybe I plow forward based on mistaken assumptions, not taking the time to get to know people or listen to them because I have an agenda for them.
Jesus, on the other hand, took the time to walk, talk, and eat with people. He didn’t push an agenda, but he asked what they wanted, sometimes even when the answer seemed obvious. He spent time daily with his disciples, teaching them by example and with stories and conversations. I need to be reminded to slow down and listen to people. It’s not all about my agenda for them. Maybe they don’t need what I think they need, and I won’t know unless I let go of my agenda for them and listen.
Lately I’ve been going through old photos from our time in Mozambique. The photo that this artwork is based on reminded me of an eye-opening experience I had after we first moved to Mozambique, when my daughter was only 3 or 4 years old. We had hired a young mother to help me with the housework and with learning the language and culture. One day she needed to bring her children to work with her, and she brought her little daughter who was the same age as ours, 3 or 4, but strapped onto the little one’s back was a baby! That little one, very much a baby herself, I thought, was expected to bounce that baby and keep her happy while her mommy worked. I couldn’t believe it. I watched as she entered my house, carrying that heavy load, and I worried about the little head bobbing up and down as big sis–tiny big sis– carried her around. The little girl walked through the kitchen, and then she caught sight of my daughter’s bedroom.
At this point I feel the need to say that my kids left so many of their toys behind in the states, and there was very little around Maputo that we could afford to buy for them, or even that they would want when we first moved there. Hannah did not have very many toys compared to her friends back in the states. But when that little toddler entered her room, still with the baby on her back, her eyes got huge! It was as if she had walked into Disneyland. She had apparently never seen so many little girl toys, baby dolls, etc., and she just wanted to play in there all day. That she did, as I recall, occasionally stopping to comfort her in-the-flesh baby sister on her back, as she played with the dolls.
It was another of many such moments in which I realized that I was the rich white American, and my employee’s kids could not imagine living like we did, despite the fact that we felt we had given up so much to move to Mozambique.
I’ve been processing this stuff for years, and I still don’t have many answers. Being ashamed of having more than someone else is not helpful, but I do think we need to struggle with what can be done about income inequality and find ways to be compassionate.
Micah 6 : 8 comes to mind. “And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
I need to be concerned with justice, mercy, and humility. These three are so needed, now more than ever.
Every day is filled with incredible stress, guilt, and fear. My husband nearly died from an unidentified illness, and I fear for the health and safety of my kids almost all day, every day. It’s easier just to stay on the compound with the other American missionaries, but that’s not why I came. God, help me get through this.
The women here are so strong and persevering. They work incredibly hard everyday, many with absent husbands, caring for children in addition to working a job if they can find one. Most prepare their food over a fire and carry water some distance from a pump. Their lives seem like constant struggle and pain to me, and yet they sing and smile and are so beautiful in their laughter.
I am a pampered child who cannot handle much stress, apparently. Many days I wonder what it would be like to have a nervous breakdown. How can you tell if you’re about to lose it? What are the signs? I can’t talk to anyone about this because they’re all stressed too, and I’m supposed to be a hero to the people back home. What a crock! I’m a wreck. The kids are the only ones who seem to be okay, most of the time. I try to hold it together for them. I keep my inner turmoil hidden. God does help me and carry me through, but I wonder if He will keep us safe. I wonder if all 5 of us will make it back home to Kentucky.
I know that God is good. I see it in nature and in the beauty of children and in the Mozambican people all around me. How can the creator of such beauty not be good? But I also see the suffering around me. Children are dying from cholera all around. I saw my 20 year old brother suffer and die of cancer within a few months. My dad died at age 63, just before retirement, as a result of a car wreck. Life is suffering, beauty, and glory, all mixed together. Sometimes I could hide from that back in Kentucky, but not here in Mozambique. Extreme poverty slaps you in the face as children beg for bread every day; but at night, the stars crowding the sky seem so close you could throw a rock at one and send it crashing down to earth. This beauty is also undeniable.
Looking back in 2019, I did survive 3 years in Mozambique, but one of my teammates did not. He was shot and killed by armed robbers that entered our compound one night. I did not feel free to write about how difficult it was for me back then, but now I am free of the pedestal and the expectations that were put upon me at the time. I don’t know why I am safely back home, and my friend is not. God allows suffering, and He is is good. These truths I have to hold in tension, and probably always will. I hope I can live in such a way as to celebrate the beauty and goodness, and at the same time, maybe I can alleviate a little of the suffering, or at least, stand in solidarity with those who suffer, as Jesus does.
Don’t worry. I haven’t committed a crime or anything like that, but sometimes, artists have to submit their artwork to to be judged by a group of jurors, and either we are judged to be at a level of accomplishment that warrants a title “juried member” or gets us into a show, or we remain in a not-yet-juried position, when it comes to joining certain groups of artists.
I am still learning about all of this, so I thought some of you might find it interesting as well. Artists face a lot of rejection as we enter juried shows and try for various opportunities that come our way. I’m learning to accept rejection as part of the artist’s life; but I am relieved and excited to share that I made it through the jury process of the Louisville Artisans Guild, and therefore was invited to show my work at the KORE Gallery in downtown Louisville, along with the other new juried members of the guild, during the month of March, with the opening reception happening this Saturday, from 6-8:30pm. Hope you can come join us!
Sometimes–no, all the time–I want be aware of the sacred all around me. We tend to separate life into categories: sacred versus secular, art versus life, one category or discipline versus another, and we seldom connect things in our minds. Yet, in reality, it is all connected. Academic disciplines overlap, art influences life, and all of creation is sacred.
My art grows out of special times when my eyes are opened to beauty, which for me is a gift from God. The above pastel painting was inspired by a time when the sacred danced into my ordinary day, and demanded my attention.
It was one of many summer days that I kept my granddaughters, who, though they look like little angels, do not always behave like angels. We went out into the backyard to play, and the sun was streaming long yellow-green stripes of light across the grass, and these tiny yellow flowers were shooting up straight and thin, up to the blue-violet sky, and the tulip tree was spreading its delicate, pale pink blossoms.
The invitation to bask in the glory of the moment was not lost on the girls, who ran to gather the tiny yellow flowers for their mommy. It struck me that this was a sacred, beautiful moment, and though I was tired, this time I noticed, and I started taking photos.
How many times have I not noticed and just kept pushing through my day? Too many, I’m afraid. This year, open my eyes, God, to more and more of the beautiful and sacred around me, and help me listen and see You at work in all of this painful, yet glorious existence.
Originally, this portrait was created for the KRM We Create events in celebration of World Refugee Week in Louisville, KY. KRM provided the We Create artists with videos of interviews with refugees that had come to Louisville to find a home here with us. The young lady in the portrait above had been through so much suffering. She grew up fleeing from violence and living in refugee camps until God made a way for her to escape the constant fear and danger, and come to the US, and finally to Louisville. Her name means “blessing,” and when she settled here in town, she said, “For the first time in my life, I have a place to call home.” This lovely young woman has a heart to serve and help those in need, to be a “blessing” to others. This oil pastel portrait is currently on display at the 1619 Flux gallery as a part of the Provocative Perspectives Exhibition that runs until January of 2019. For gallery hours and events, go to https://www.1619flux.org/calendar.