In worship this morning, Leon abruptly had us all draw something on the 4″ square of paper we were handed at the door. Abruptness was key, as he was trying to surprise us out of (most of) our default, “Oh, no, I couldn’t possibly…” responses. I drew one of my doodle-trees, My Sweetie a mountain landscape with sun above and river below, and B began a portrait of Leon (!). Leon only gave us a few minutes, told us ‘pencils down,’ and acknowledged that most of us were doing this under some level of mental protest. “I’m not an artist!” we say. He pointed out that kindergarteners, when asked, universally identify themselves as artists. He’d even tested this on a class of pre-Ks at one of the churches where he’d worked: every hand shot up immediately and unequivocally when he asked, “Who here is an artist?”
We’re studying the start of Genesis, and this week we tackled God creating humans (version 2). So Leon pivoted away from our art-creations by regretting the influence of limiting adult nay-sayers on all of us, and stepped forward into us as bearers of the image of creator-God.
That’s the usual explanation for why enthusiastic and amazingly prolific small artists dwindle along both dimensions as they age: other people tell you your work’s bad, so you quit. And it’s a true thing that happens—so much so that “creative injury” is the technical term for those incidents.
It’s just not the thing that happened to me. And still I, too, tapered off in enthusiasm and volume with my visual creations.
I remember specific moments when my mom described what was interesting in my drawings, and noted the challenges of finding art classes that would work alongside my internal visions rather than making me reformulate them. Or when she discussed my sculpted works. I can tell you what techniques I learned when, and draw you a timeline/map of my art instruction opportunities. I did a lot of visual art on a regular basis. And then… not so much, and now only rarely.
Middle school was when I started to taper off. And while one could make a case that perhaps I was too busy to keep up my art classes, I don’t think that holds up — I continued to do a crap-ton of a wide array of things throughout middle and high school. Something else pushed my self-selection.
What if the shift from kinder-artist to adult non-artist also happens when your expectation of skill closes in on your potentiality? In middle school, we start to shed some concepts of self and strengthen others. And while no artist I’ve ever encountered believes that the work they produce matches the original imprisoned within their mind, some gaps are larger than others. Some gaps fit inside, “Eh, that’s not quite it, but it’ll get what I want over to others,” some gaps fit inside, “I can practice perspective techniques, and that’ll get me closer,” and then other gaps fit within, “Is that a dog? Or a table? Maybe an ironing board?” I had consistent success keeping my writing output aligned with my intent, but my visual work diverged much more. I can still do a twee child with their hands behind their back in sort of an Anglo manga style. I can dash off the aforementioned leafless tree. But my skill-repertoire isn’t a lot larger than that.
Plus as I did more writing and less drawing, my imagination shifted ever more firmly into words rather than pictures. Or perhaps it went the other way around—as I grew into my grown-self, the deep gift I have for writing stretched deep roots and spread wide branches, while my everyday visual artist-ness stayed about where it was. My potential and my skill with writing yielded bigger and juicier fruit as I cultivated. My visual art skill plateaued; my visual art potential remained beyond reach. Words are what I do. Pens are where I play, with the kindergarteners.
Most of time I’ll stand quietly next to my faith-full compatriots, and point to how creating things—whether they’re good, awkward, or indifferent—is part of our moving through the world as images of God. Is part of our responsibility to illuminate creator-God’s wondrousness: God makes, we make.
But occasionally I want to dig down deeper into our relationship as artists with the Artist. “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. / Wonderful are your works; / that I know very well.” Uniquely made. Uniquely made as a human—not an angel, and certainly not Godself. As a human, I’m bounded… uniquely, but created to exist within parameters nonetheless.
Good art is good in part because it exists exquisitely within parameters. Knowing the parameters and then exploiting them to their utmost is where the best artists’ gifts glow.
Humanly, or divinely.