This is artwork by Seb Agresti, who has had work published in The New Yorker and elsewhere. I think I saw this image in the Dense Discovery newsletter.
The icon for this image has been sitting on my computer desktop for weeks. My six year old son, sitting in my lap and observing it asked, “What’s that?” I opened it and said, “What do you see?”
He said, “Those people are sitting on a phone!” I then asked him what he thought the artist was trying to convey, which led to a discussion of interactions with technology. Our exchange boiled down to this: “People spend so much time looking at their phone that they miss a lot of what is beautiful in life.”
So, as you likely are reading this from your phone, turn it off. Put it away. Look at the ocean, the mountains, the sunrise (all three appear in the image above). Hopefully in the company of a friend. Have a conversation. Climb. Go on an adventure. Or sit still.
The past several years I’ve had the itch to draw and this year I took a step forward and enrolled in two art classes at McLennan Community College. I’m taking an art appreciation course online, and attending an entry level drawing class. I’m loving it.
As my kids have matured they have both expressed an interest in art, as we all tend to do, and from an early age my daughter impressed me with her ability to conceptualize ideas and put them on paper. She was very fortunate to meet a few of our young adult friends who were skilled in drawing and painting and making, and, when we invited them to babysit, they’d create alongside our kids, inspiring them to do their own work. When my son entered the picture he jumped right in and started expressing himself with pencils and markers. The past two years we’ve enjoyed doing stuff together at Art for Kids Hub.
It has been a blast to watch them make. I know everyone’s kids are virtuosos and geniuses, math whizzes and little artistic masters from the moment they crawl out of the womb. But mine are exceptionally exceptional. Mine are the best one’s I’ve ever had. So I’ve tried to encourage them. The biggest way I think I can do that is to do the work alongside them. As Austin Kleon writes, “If you spend more time in your life doing the things that you love and that you feel are worthwhile, the kids in your life will get hip to what that looks like.” That’s translatable to sports, faith…anything really.
In order to be the best teacher, I decided that I would become a student. The best teachers are usually those who never ceased to learn. I was asked by my friend Matthew yesterday why I’m taking a drawing class. Here are my reasons.
1. Pleasure. And I Have the Time.
When I think back to my growing up years, I can remember making stuff with my hands and being interested in drawing, even though I didn’t think I was very good. I would take comic book images, like Spider-Man and the Hulk, and I’d break out an old notebook and take a pencil and some colored pencils, and I’d do my very best to replicate what I saw. Then I’d step back, think it was horrible, and then quit, all because it wasn’t realistic. It wasn’t “right.” It wasn’t true to what I saw. And though my parents had enrolled me in a couple of art classes, and my great grandmother was a painter, and my mom and aunts and grandmother made stuff , I got to the point where I stopped drawing, stopped coloring, stopped painting.
Except I didn’t. I’d doodle in class, and when I had my own computer, I’d draw cartoons using the rectangles and circles. My friend Jason can probably remember me spending more time in seminary classes creating panels than I did taking notes. Most of my cartoons had something to do with the class.
So I have always enjoyed drawing, even when my work hasn’t been “good.” But the more I’ve practiced the better I’ve become. When stepping into the classroom, it helps to take pleasure in the work, it aids the learning process, and helps me to keep going even when it is tough.
In addition to enjoying it, I have the time to take the class, to learn. Both kids are now in school, and my writing schedule allows enough flexibility where I can complete my coursework, keep my volunteer commitments, and complete my writing projects. So far, I’ve found that drawing engages another part of my brain and helps me see things a little differently. I don’t know. It’s a nice complement to other things I’m doing.
2. For My Kids
As I mentioned before, I’m taking a drawing class for my kids. Now, I have work to show. This has led to my kids wanting to show their work, so in the future you may be seeing what they’ve created on this website. Art has basic concepts and principles that guide the work. By learning those ideas and principles, I can teach them to my kids and help them grow. Simple, really.
I also think I got kind of inspired when I made this tank for David last Halloween:
3. Because of My Influences
Members of my family were creators, makers. There are several paintings by my Nanny, rural landscapes and farming scenes, that are still with us, hanging on the walls. So when I take photographs and share them, or when I make something, maybe I hope it’ll be around after I’m gone. Maybe I hope that the work of my hands will be established, at least for a little while.
But I also had a seminary professor named Howard Hendricks who encouraged us to be creative, to draw, to make, to find ways to express ourselves and to tell stories that pointed others toward the glory of God. He understood that God was a creative being, and that people, created in God’s image, were made to create, to reflect the glory of the Creator in the things that were made.
Hendricks did not limit this idea to crafting words, preaching sermons, or making presentations. He saw that the arts could powerfully convey truth and encouraged his students to use their gifts. Most of the things I made for his courses involved photography or poetry. But I drew stuff, mainly on my computer. I own Betty Edwards Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain (and the Workbook) because of Hendricks, and worked my way through some of the exercises. He inspired me to draw.
Lastly, I’ll loop back to comics. I used to enjoy trying to recreate the heroes I encountered in the Marvel and DC stories. I collected comics in middle school. I’m so thankful my parents hung on to my collection. As comic book stories have come alive as movies, I’ve gone back to them, checking out the bound collections from my public library, reading backstories, checking out the evolution of the artwork. And I’ve become a patron of Bankston’s, a local comic books store. Right now I’m reading Detective Comics (Batman), Miles Morales: Spider-Man, The Batman Who Laughs, and Wolverine. The art is incredible.
I’m reading Jeff Tweedy’s memoir Let’s Go (So We Can Get Back Again) because of my decade long listenership to Wilco. The book was a Christmas gift. My fascination with the band began with a friend named Clint Newlan, who was a shift manager and fellow barista with me at Starbucks in 2005-2006. I saw a Wilco show with Clint at the Uptown Theater in Kansas City on March 21, 2006, saw them again at Crossroads KC with my friend Mike Hibit on October 6, 2009, and then went to see them with Molly at Bass Concert Hall in Austin on October 1, 2017. I’m a fan.
In the book Tweedy comments on the purpose of art, and expands his thought by reflecting on art’s restorative power. He writes:
I think that may be the highest purpose of any work of art, to inspire someone else to save themselves through art. Creating creates creators. When I was in the hospital going through treatment for addiction and depression, they would have everyone in my group do art therapy. One of the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen was watching a catatonic sixty-three-year-old woman who had been hooked on heroin for close to thirty years become human again by holding a pencil and being asked to draw. I’m an agnostic by nature, but seeing that made me believe in staying close to the notion of a creator. The one we identify with most easily by finding it in ourselves.
I think that is about right. Art puts us back together; creating heals, connecting us with something that is elemental to being human. Art is not a self-salvation project, as Tweedy suggests, but it does have restorative potential.
There is a theological dimension to Tweedy’s observation as well, one Christian theology affirms. The Apostle’s Creed begins with the words, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth.” Genesis 1:1 says, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth,” and when God gets around to creating humankind in Genesis 1:27, we read, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
While Tweedy is an agnostic, his impressions point him toward a truth that Christians agree with: “Creating creates creators.” Human beings, created in the image of their Maker, make.
The creative impulse is stamped upon us, and creativity takes many forms. When it finds outward expression it is not only revelatory of something within, but also something without–the existence of a Creator who first created, making creatures who then, in turn, create.
In his essay “Equipment for Living,” Michael Robbins asks, “What are we doing with all these films and songs and novels and poems and pictures? Why keep making them? Don’t we have enough, or too much?”
Robbins wrote a new essay to pose that question to us, and then makes his argument with the help of old poets, philosophers, writers, singers, and filmmakers. We make art, dearly beloved, because it helps us “get through this thing called life.”
The composition of verse is part of what it means to be human. It is, in one formulation and according to Robbins, “a response to threat.” It is a consolation in the face of suffering and our eventual death. It crosses chasms and creates bonds. It renders meaning and brings forth a shared language. Art appeals to the affections as well as to our rationality. It evokes a visceral response, one we cannot help but attempt to articulate, no matter how vain those articulations might be toward accurately conveying our experience.
Drawing from an insight of Harold Bloom, Robbins agrees that a text is “good for something.” Robbins writes that “we can make them do things for us.” We keep making texts and poetry and other works of art because they are “of use.” A thing that is of use is otherwise known as “equipment.” Robbins forwards this idea with a phrase from Kenneth Burke, who wrote “Poetry…is undertaken as equipment for living, as a ritualistic way of arming us to confront perplexities and risks.”
Robbins cites examples from Boethius and Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen. He draws from Nietsche and Cameron Crowe. He shows how poetry and song provide forms that offer both consolation and community. He is carefully to say that “Poetry does not kiss the boo-boo and make it all better.” Poetry does not solve or minimize our problems, but it does provide “strategies” for us as we confront the human situation. Poetry offers us ways of responding. “It’s like in the song…”
Robbins notes how the various forms of poetry and pop music also serve to distinguish one community from another, citing the example of different Christian communities. Robbins writes, “The televangelical JAY-sus, the sober Jesu Christe of the Latin Mass, the radical Jewish peasant Yeshua of Nazareth of Guy Davenport’s translations, and the Gee-zuhhs of Norman Greenbaum’s “gotta have a friend in” are not the same sort of equipment.” And he’s right. They are not.
In this very same essay Robbins notes pop music captures and relays some “ideal” that is commonly known to everyone, which I understand to include notions about love, friendship, sorrow, adventure, tragedy, and others. Or, that is the intent. Some artists succeed, and others fail miserably.
My thoughts as I read this essay turned to the Psalms, which come to us as both poetry and song, and then more: prayer. They convey meaning; they create community. The psalms bind one heart to another in their recitation, in their singing, in their praying. Monastic rhythms are built on the Psalter, as are liturgical rhythms. Poetry becomes song, which then becomes prayer, or perhaps it is prayer that becomes poetry which then becomes song, or song becoming prayer that is then experienced as poetry. You get my drift.
For the Christian person, the wider testimony of Scripture is also text, a work of literature, God-breathed, around which a community has been formed. It contains wisdom and narrative that provide “strategies” for life. It is also a text, read differently by different communities, that has spawned multitudes, offering diverse forms of “equipment” for understanding the Divine and best stewarding the creation. This is why we continue to need the theologian, the prophet, and the critic, who can help us to discern the good, true, and beautiful from the wicked, false, and ugly. Useful tools can be taken up toward destructive ends, as we sadly know.
We also know that Christian communities continue to bring forth something new, all while drawing from the old. This is for good reason. We continue to live. We continue to face reality, and it continues to bring forth joys and sorrows. Most human beings want to live well. They continue to ask, “Who is well off?” and “What does it mean to be virtuous?” and “How do I become a person who is well off?” They make their best run at the answers, while holding out hope that the answers they find are good ones. Thomas Merton understood, “The spiritual life is first of all a life. It is not merely something to be known and studied, it is to be lived.” This is why all theology, in the end, is practical. It is to be “of use.”
Which is why I think Christians continue to write, and preach, and to “work out” salvation. We must continue to make, to create. Life offers us no other choice.
It is one thing to proclaim that God has given us all the equipment we need for living. It is another to put it to use.
I don’t think there’s an artist of any value who doesn’t doubt what they’re doing.
– Francis Ford Coppola
This is reassuring. Or perhaps not! Maybe I should spend more time doubting what I’m doing!
The problem with any endeavor that is worth doing, artistic or otherwise, is that showing your work can be terrifying. One of the greatest challenges I’ve faced in writing, speaking publicly, or in leadership has been the fear that my work will be rejected, that it won’t be received well, and that I’ll be labeled a flop or failure.
But paradoxically, that same fear has often led me to work harder, to pay greater attention to detail, to be open to correction and change, thus making sure my future efforts are of more value, not less. The result has been improvement and growth. Growth requires risk, vulnerability, boldness, daring, and courage. A little bit of doubt can foster humility. There’s always the chance that even your best efforts will fail. The odds are you have failed , and you will again. Keep going.
While viewing a documentary I saw a sign above the desk of a journalist which said, “True is better than done.” I searched the web for the phrase and the top results were a series of links offering and explaining a different saying: “Done is better than perfect.” The former fits well with journalism and other forms of knowledge work. The latter jives better with creative enterprises like the visual arts, creative writing, or graphic design.
In creative work, it is possible to become so obsessed with imperfections that one never ships and never shows. Fear and doubt prevent completion, even if the work itself is excellent and all that is lacking is the click of the word “publish” or “send.” The artist holds off on sharing, believing the work could be perfect with one more tweak, a little more time, and one additional, elusive dash of inspiration.
But the work may be done. It may never be perfect. Done, rather than perfect, might be the state of affairs. All that is left is to unveil the work, take criticism, and refine your craft before telling the next story, composing the next image, or shooting the next subject. Creative work involves the viewer, the reader, as a critic. The critic helps the artist take the next step.
In knowledge work, such as journalism, you desire to write in a way that coheres with and explains reality. You want it to be true, not perfect, and not just done. There is only one way to be confident you are done: the story you have told is true. A true story does not have to be perfectly told. Journalism is meant to inform the citizenry, to put the truth to the public. It involves the citizens. The citizens help the knowledge worker take the next step, offering new leads, a new chapter, a follow up, another project.
Both the theologian and the preacher can learn from the knowledge worker and the creative worker (speaking of the arts; all work involves creativity). Theologians are like journalists, in this instance an example of the knowledge worker. They labor hard for the truth, and they help preachers and the whole of the church to familiarize themselves with the best of the tradition, the times, and their text, which in the Christian tradition is the Bible.
Preachers are theologians. Yet, there is a sense in which their vocation involves elements of the creative worker. Every sermon, every new venture, if it is led by the Spirit, will have a mysterious element, an element that is hidden and yet to be revealed, an outcome and a reception that can only be discovered in the sharing. Work may be presented as done but not perfect, yet also true. Once the Word of God is proclaimed by the preacher, delivered prayerfully and humbly, it is hoped that there is an illumination, a revelation of what God is up to in the midst of the world.
The theologian and the preacher, both, are doing work that involves the congregation, the church. The church helps the preacher and the theologian take the next step, using their voice to discern truth from error, and their lives as a testing ground for that which is offered, a place to explore and to discover the mysterious and manifold ways of the Spirit.