Sunday, March 4, 2018

Art: It's so necessary cave people did it (and you should, too)

Dad's wave art made from wood scraps.

In science class recently I was passing out giant pieces of newsprint to students for a group activity and I had this flashback of being in elementary school.
All those times a teacher would hand out a blank piece of paper or that newsprint that was half lined and half empty- reserved for writing and illustrating a story. I recalled that feeling of anticipation and possibility I had for those blank pages. The teacher providing nothing but quick guidelines- use the space to do a rough sketch of a figure or an object of your choice, or to do a story web. Use it to empty your brain of incomplete ideas that can’t quiet be articulated. Use the space to think or to plan. To imagine. To dream. To start the framework of your creation.
Here’s a prompt. Open to an empty page in your notebook and write.
I always loved that part of class.
As an adult though, I find myself running from blank paper though. Dodging empty spaces. Avoiding eye contact with creativity.
What happened? I wonder.
Because the desire is still there. There’s a long and abiding yearning to make things from nothing. It’s a feeling I can’t quite explain. Only that I love raw materials- a box of ribbon in all different patterns and textures, a rainbow of embroidery thread, caches of pastels and watercolor paints, stacks of tissue paper and construction paper and scraps of wrapping paper and fabric. For the past several years I’ve been saving plastic bottle caps and sorting them by color in gallon-sized Ziploc bags thinking that they could be a mosaic one day.

My bottle cap collection. I know. Weird.

But for the most part though all these materials sit day in and day out in the drawers, boxes and bins in which they are stowed. Remaining unchanged, unmanipulated.

And maybe it would be perfectly understandable why I haven’t taken to creating Etsy-worthy creations. You know, I’m raising two children who sometimes treat me more like a pack animal than a person and working full time at a job I’ve had next to no training on. I’m obsessively checking Zillow and Redfin for houses.

Oh yeah. And I’m growing a whole other human (something I like to remind my students when they’re whining to me that school is too hard or they’re too tired or everything is too awful for words - “Really?” I say. “Well I have to suffer through all this, too. And… I’M GROWING AN ENTIRE HUMAN BEING ON TOP OF THAT!” My rants generally have no effect on the kids. In the battle of what’s harder, middle school or pregnancy? Middle school will always win. It’s just fact.)

Where was I? Oh yes, there are excuses! Of course there are. There’s just no time. No time for creation.

Which re-reading I just kind of think is bullshit.

Because we’re human. We’re wired to fill blank spaces. It’s buried deep in our DNA. Even before we were actually human.

National Geographic recently shared this:

“Long before Picasso, ancient artists in what is now Spain were making creative works of their own, mixing pigments, crafting beads out of seashells, and painting murals on cave walls. The twist? These artistic innovators were probably Neanderthals.”

Sixty-five thousand years ago before there were even modern Homo Sapiens, Neanderthals in Spain were hanging out in their stony houses, interpreting the world around them with symbols painted on walls.

And here I am in 2018 with a that’s brain wired for interpreting the world around me using symbols. And I’m not doing it.

What I am doing is looking for and creating obstacles to creation. You know- the dishes in the sink and the dog hair on the carpet and the socks in the hallway and organizing the smelly part of the laundry room and scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, scrolling, scroll…. You get the picture… through Facebook and Instagram watching videos of cats doing weird shit and disembodied hands making babka bread or tables out of old crates or wall art out of paint samples, or reading the endless back and forth between owning all the guns and destroying all the guns.

I mean, in a way, I suppose I’m a patron of the arts- if social media could be considered digital cave art. The place where we scrawl our interpretations of the world around us in 1s and 0s. The picture of my dog with just the tip of his tongue sticking out. That thing Lily shouted as she ran to the bathroom the other day (Lily: ACK! It’s a poop emergency!”). What that author I love wrote about else said about our purpose on this Earth:

“You do have a purpose. But it’s probably not what you think. Your only purpose here is to be Loved.That’s it. And I spell 'Loved' with a capital L, because I’m talking about being Loved by creation itself. I’m talking about knowing that you are Loved by divinity, that you are Loved by the universe itself, you are made out of Love, and that you will return into Love...and that this Love does not give one single solitary shit what you do or don’t do with your life; It just LOVES you.There is no part of yourself so dark or so flawed that Love cannot find it and surround it and Love it.”
I think many of us use our social media to create our digital footprint. To remind the world, “I’m here, I’m here, I’m here, I’m here.” Like birds at the tops of trees in the spring.
Sometimes it’s really beautiful and self affirming. Sometimes it allows us to throw ropes down to friends or followers who are stuck in ditches. Sometimes it allows us to feel as if we’re not crazy after all. Or maybe that we are crazy, but then so is everyone else. Sometimes it inspires us.
But then. Sometimes it doesn’t.
Sometimes it’s just this filler in my life. The absent-minded thing I do with the precious seconds I’ve been given here.
The thing that stands in the way of me using this brain wired for creation and these hands wired for making.
I suppose that filling an empty blog page with ruminations and questions about life is making something where nothing was before. But it feels impermanent, insignificant, maybe wasteful even given the number of web pages that were filled before and all the ones that will be filled after. Like I’m only contributing to an ever noiser wasteland. Like everything I’ve written online and all the things everyone else has made will one day be in an enormous digital garbage heap that’s cheerfully sorted by a Wally-E-esque robot. Destined for a compactor.
Also, I guess sometimes (even for a writer) words just aren’t enough to tell the story. Or maybe we just get tired of using them. Like they start to feel hollow. Particularly if the story you’re writing is the one in which you’re picking apart what it means to be in this place at this time. You know the purpose of it. The why of it all.
Sometimes your brain needs different symbols, you know. Color and shape. Tones and rhythms. Movement. There are so many ideas that can’t be ascribed words. That our language doesn’t quite have the depth for.
I mean, we try.
The Japanese have a word for the way light filters through the leaves of trees. Komorebi.
They have a word for that, which I love, but that word can’t encompass the feeling of the way light filters through the leaves of trees. It doesn’t capture the layers of colors and filigree of the leaves and the peace that staring at light filtering through leaves fills you with. That requires all these clunky descriptions.
But the image- the image speaks for itself.

What that blank newsprint reminded me of was being a child. Not being self conscious about creating. Just coloring and coloring and coloring. Going through stacks and stacks of construction paper or printer paper. Singing and skipping and dancing around. Being loose and being unusual and unpredictable in space and time.
Your whole life centered around the next outfit you were going to make for Barbie, the next thing you were going to build with Legos. The city you were going to construct in the sandbox.
Why is that still not a priority?
Instead, it’s always about tidying the living room or reacting to a comment. Making dinner or scheduling an appointment. And the spaces in between? Flopping on the couch or collapsing in the bed.
I don't prioritize it because the lame, practical grown-up in me tells me there are more productive things to do with my time. Because I'm not a professional artist or a professional musician or a professional dancer or a professional anything, so then why on earth should I pursue creativity? It's not my job to, right? Not the thing I'm destined to do probably. Who do I think I am, trying to be an artist? Should I just stick to my lane: mother, writer, substitute teacher.
But our ancestors thought it was important. You know, they put aside whatever it was Neanderthals did with their days- hunting mammoth or gathering nuts and berries or making fire- I don't know. They took time to make paint and spread it on the wall in the shape of the things they saw in life. And I'm guessing the first man or woman to do that wasn't fretting about whether they'd be the next Micheangelo- for all intents and purposes they were the first Michelangelo. And they also probably weren't worried about what other people might think or whether they were any good at it or whether it was going to make them famous or noteworthy. 
Dad's Colorado-Inspired mirrors.
I always look up to the people around me who allow space for creativity. Brad’s cousins living in Shanghai dancing and making music. My Dad who sent me this picture the other day of bathroom mirrors he made. Or who takes scraps of wood from his workshop and turns them into waves. My Mom who makes quilts. My sister who draws. Acquaintances who take photos or paint portraits or make paper sculptures. My friends who knit and crochet. The kid in 7th period who compulsively makes origami. The girl who is perpetually doodling on her lab notes, like all these adorable little creatures in a rainbow of colors. Geez.

This is humanity at its most wonderful, I think.

When we are building something. Adding beauty to the world. Capturing the loveliness around us. Showing what it means to be alive. To be living and breathing on this weird little planet.

That’s the tribe I want to be in.

P.S. I started writing this post like, a week ago. And I kind of stalled out on it. And then the wind storm came. And then I had kind of a depressiony day and thought maybe I shouldn't post anything ever again because what's the point and who do I think I am? And then today someone sent me a photo of themselves that was just ... so beautiful and human that I had to do something with it. So I drew a picture - which I'm not going to share because it's sorta personal- but it felt good to make art. And also I decided to post this enormous bit of mumbling anyway because this is my little space on the stupid internet damnit and I'm going to use it.

In closing, art by my nephew Finn currently hanging in my dining room:

Mixed media: melted candy corn,
a plastic spider, two screwdrivers and a pocket knife. 

1 comment:

  1. "if social media could be considered digital cave art" is one of the most insighful commentaries I have read in a very long time. Thanks for that.