The Art Connection - Part 1

Naomi Shihab Nye is a Palestinian-American poet who began writing her own poems at the age of 6! She is often asked how she became a writer. She put her response into a poem entitled, “Please describe how you became a writer:”

"Possibly, I began writing as a refuge from our insulting first-grade textbook. “Come, Jane, come. Look, Dick, look.” Were there ever duller people in the world? You had to tell them to look at things? Why weren’t they looking to begin with?” "

My guess about you is that no one has to tell YOU to look at things! My guess is that you have been looking all of your lives. You know no other way to be in the world. Looking brings you both joy and pain. But you will not turn away. Feeling the need to look and to record what you see is why you write and why I paint! Those of us who are compelled to look wish we could take a break from it. Turn it off for a while. But we know that the price of NOT looking is too high. We want to see the world's beauty, diversity, humor, irony, and pain.

Henry David Thoreau said, “The question is not what you look at but what you see.” What is the difference between looking and seeing? When you see, are you fully present in mind, body, and spirit? When you look, are your eyes working, but your mind is several steps behind or several steps ahead of where you are?

For artists and writers, that just won’t do. Poets and artists need to be fully present to what they see so that they can be awake to connections, analogies, and metaphors that help explain and to give meaning to life’s journey. This kind of seeing can bring needed insight to a difficult situation or it can take something simple and see in it a thing of transcendent beauty.

A poet who is a well-practiced seer is Mary Oliver. In her book of essays, Upstream, she recounts her lonely and difficult childhood. She took refuge in nature and in the world of literature and writing. Her lifetime of quiet and patient observation in nature has opened deep insights that ring true.

In her poem, “When death comes…” she sums up her life’s goal: “when it’s over, I want to say: all my life I was a bride married to amazement. I was the bridegroom taking the world into my arms.” Writing and the visual arts connect in their creators’ desire to be married to amazement! To not take a single thing or a single day for granted. We want to see those things that bring us an “aha” moment or cause us to draw in our breath.

If we allow cynicism, anger or indifference to what we see dull our amazement and shut us down, then we forego the opportunity to contribute an insight, observation or story or image that the world can have only through us and only if we share it. Only if we share it. It is one thing to see. It is another thing to put what we see “out there.”

Here is another point of commonality between artists and writers. We desire to put what we see “out there.” “Out there” can be very scary. Self-disclosure involves risk. We have to detach from our desire for approval, recognition, and credit and become immune to rejection. We have to validate our own vision and learn to accept constructive criticism. That is so difficult! When you have a drawer full of pink slips or a closet full of paintings that were not accepted to shows, it is tempting to withdraw into a cocoon of self-protection.

NOT giving voice or vision to what we see is also scary. We risk squelching that spark that makes us each uniquely who we are. When the temptation to withdraw comes as it will, we can tackle it by focusing on process over product. Process over product. We can find enjoyment in the act of creating not just the results. Morning pages, doodles, poems in the margins, sketches and silly rhymes are all part of the process.

In 1995, after twenty years in the professional church ministry, I came to a point in mid-life and mid-career where I really felt the need to do something radically different. Sure, I had put myself out there as a woman in a profession traditionally dominated by men, but I had not given my artistic desires any room to breathe and grow. I had always loved art and had always drawn and done creative projects but I had not fully blessed those inclinations with devoted time and practice. As happens with many, I had let my career take over my life.

After a year of contemplation and planning, I resigned my job which at the time was as a regional consultant for our denomination with the 300 Baptist churches in Massachusetts. I took an unpaid personal sabbatical and returned home to New Jersey with my former husband.

All but my closest friends were shocked. “What about your career track? You will have a gap in your resume," they warned. All those voices wanting me to change back were very loud. You have heard them too. I needed to heal from my overwork and begin to correct the perfectionist tendencies that constantly told me I needed to do MORE. Instead, I needed to listen to my deepest inner voice that said, “You are enough.”

I left my unopened moving boxes and practically ran to sign up for my first art class. At that first class, I got out my new supplies, put my paper on my easel and FROZE. I just sat there immobile, staring at that blank pad of drawing paper. I imagine all of you know exactly how I felt.

I will never forget the kindness of that first teacher. My fragile new art self could have been dead in the water at that moment in the hands of the wrong person. That kind of life-draining teachers or “shadow artists” as Julia Cameron calls them in The Artist’s Way are out there and we have all run into them. But this teacher did not scold or scoff or berate.

After giving our instructions, he casually walked around the class. He saw my dilemma and came up behind me and quietly whispered in my ear, “Start.” What a gift! And…I did! Of course what I drew was tight and didn’t nearly fill the page. And I erased a lot. Over the next weeks and months, as I did the exercises he taught and started to feel less self-conscious, I could relax more, take more risks and start feeling the freedom of learning new ways to record what I see.

As writers and artists, we need to overcome our hesitancy and simply start! We can’t feel worse than we already do! I got better at seeing and recording what I saw, too. I had doubted my ability to make my hands create what my eyes saw. My vision in my left eye is poor due to a birth defect and I have terrible depth perception. I felt embarrassed about it as a child who wasn’t good at sports and ashamed when I was a klutzy teenager. How could I be an artist? We all have internal messages of self-doubt that we mentally rehearse. We can let them hold us back and define us or we can put mental brackets around them and stop listening to the negativity.

Writers by the Sea, the local chapter of the Florida Writers Association, hosted a talk by Linda Hart Green, a local minister Shady Ladies art cooperative member. She spoke about the connections between creating visual art and writing. She agreed to allow us to share her thoughts and provided the written version. Part 2 of her article is here.