Art Appreciation

ThomasCouture_AmericanPupilPaintingThe question of why we are drawn to the page popped up this week in my writing workshop. It comes up at least once every session. We could be anywhere else right now, I tell my students. With a few free hours we could be taking a walk, playing tennis, cleaning a closet. Okay maybe not cleaning a closet. But here we all were, in a room with no windows, talking about personal essays and the process of writing them.

Why do we do it? I’ve thought a lot about this. I remember the moment I realized I was one of those people. Eight years ago, when my eldest daughter and I were driving into the city to visit liberal arts colleges, she noticed a city wall covered with graffiti and remarked on its beauty. Her response wasn’t a surprise. She had been drawn to art all of her life. But when I reminded her of this and asked why she wasn’t con­sidering art schools, she said, “Mom, I’m an art appreciator, not an art maker.

It was an interesting distinction. There are people — like my daughter — who utilize music, for example, as a soundtrack for their daily activities: dressing and undressing, driving and falling asleep at night. They cover their bed­room walls with collages of magazine cuttings, stop to study a sculp­ture or abstract painting and note the loveliness of graffiti on a wall. My daughter is a gifted improvisationalist who is very comfortable on stage. Though they surround themselves with the creative artifacts of human beings, art appreciators are not necessarily compelled to make art themselves. They prefer instead to allow the art to shift their mood, to bask in the emotions it stirs, to immerse themselves in the beauty or powerful messages.

I, too, am moved by the art I experience — but I am drawn and pulled toward the process of making it. Artists see the world through a possibility lens, asking themselves: What if I took that idea and stretched it this way or that using sound or paint or clay or film or texture or landscape? They are insatiably curious and want to dig deeper to explore an idea or a feeling. Often they are not so good at letting these go. They get stalked by them. Sometimes haunted.

Making art is what some people do in response to living. Artists are interested in the act of expression. Making art is how they make sense of life. I believe that virtually everyone is creative – but I’m talking about the overwhelming desire to respond to life by taking a Sharpie to a hard-bound journal or yellow pad; use horse hair dabbed in paint to spread onto textured cloth; to make words and images pop on a page, to plant seeds or transplant plants into a configuration to bring out the best in a piece of land, to visualize a handbag or blouse from piles of col­lected fabric. The artist seeks quiet to absorb life’s stimuli. Time to process events so that she can re­arrange them in her imagination and respond in some form and then put something artful and tangible back out there for others to absorb. It’s a dynamic thing. An in and an out. A back and a forth. I’ve often thought that artists seek something very much like a conversation with the Divine; they want to visualize, to make something that isn’t there yet. To imagine something different. And leave their own personal mark.

My daughter’s comment stirred something inside of me that day. I remember that it brought up a feeling that I’ve had ever since becoming a mother who is also a writer: That the need to make art was sometimes so strong that it felt as powerful as another child calling, tugging, cajoling, wanting to be attended to. And when I ignored the feeling, it felt something like a tantrum. Because the artist answers to a powerful voice outside of her loved ones: the one inside.

A (Not-So) Modest Proposal

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If you haven’t heard of Elizabeth Gilbert, you have most likely heard of her best-selling spiritual memoir Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything Across Italy, India and Indonesia. It’s the story of her yearlong search for pleasure, spirituality and balance after she discovered that a married life  — with the possibility of children in the suburbs  — was not for her. She set out for gastronomic pleasures in Rome, Italy; communion with the divine in an ashram near Mumbai, India and a balance between the two in Bali, Indonesia.

The fact that all of the countries’ names begin with the letter “I” was not lost on her as she was in search of herself.

It’s a wonderful book. Honest. Insightful. Funny. But as a married woman with children who lives in the suburbs – one who also has spiritual curiosity and an adventuresome spirit – I wondered why she felt that the two worlds had to be mutually exclusive. I began to fantasize about writing a book of my own based on Gilbert’s model but with mothers in mind. And so, acknowledging  (and apologies for lifting) Gilbert’s idea, I present the following proposal:

I’d title it: Eat, Pray and Sit Down for a Minute, Will You? My readers would be busy mothers because I believe this population is hungriest and neediest for pleasure, spirituality and balance. The book would be far fewer pages than Gilberts’, honoring a mother’s lack of time, and would be something I could produce if, and only if, a combination of the following events and support mechanisms coalesced:

  • a stretch of time that doesn’t collide with my husbands’ or two children’s work and school schedule;
  • my husband’s support and time;
  • a reliable sitter, driver or neighborhood mother materialized to fill in for emergencies;
  • a working car;
  • a tank full of gas – and a stretch of reasonable gas prices;
  • and a good GPS system.

I couldn’t take a whole year off like Gilbert did. I could only spare a long weekend. Four days tops.

Like Gilbert, I am in search of pleasure, spirituality and balance, especially as I look ahead to my empty nest years. Because of time and budgetary considerations, a cross-continent trip is simply out of the question. Since I am a Midwesterner, I would travel to Illinois, Indiana and Iowa for this adventure. (Note that these states begin with the letter “I.”)

In Chicago, Illinois — my Rome — my first stop, I’d visit the best hot dog joints and deep-dish pizzerias and ponder their flavors, aromas and digestibility. I’d consume large quantities, just like Gilbert did in Italy, and be forced to unzip the top of my pants at the end of the day. I’d interview the folks at the Vienna beef factory and ask them what makes their dogs different from Oscar Meyer’s and I’d save room to compare Malnati’s pizza to Giordano’s and Uno’s. I’d talk to locals with the most authentic Chicago accents and befriend one so I wouldn’t have to eat alone.

Stop two would be Richmond, Indiana — my Mumbai —home to Quakers and their quiet meetinghouses. I would attend Meeting for Worship and interview Friends about how their silent worship and emphasis on a simple life keeps them so peaceful and calm. I would ask for advice about how to apply these ideals to the life of a busy suburban mother’s and I would quote them liberally just like Gilbert did of her ashram friend in India, and one, maybe two, might become oft-referred icons of spiritual advice.

The final stop – my Bali – would be Iowa City, Iowa. There, in search of balance between the orgy of taste buds and expansion of my waistline and the peace from silent worship, I’d feast my eyes on the Iowa flatlands and finger the hard and soft cover reading material generated by the writers on the campus of University of Iowa. I would lose myself in the inspiring and thought-provoking sentences and soulful readings and vow to read and write more.

Upon my return home to my red brick and slate gray Georgian in the suburbs, I’d write about my journey during the available working hours when my children were at school and after-school activities. At this pace, and with this schedule, it would only take a few years to get the manuscript into presentable shape, but I believe that once pulled together, like Gilbert’s memoir, it could be a potential best-seller and may also have the added benefit of doing a little something for Midwest tourism, too.

And the end of her journey, Gilbert found love. After her memoir was published, she married him, though I am pretty sure she did not return to the suburbs.

I may discover something equally as surprising at the end of my journey. For instance, I may uncover a previously buried desire to farm the land and I would move to Idaho to become a potato farmer. (Wouldn’t this make a great epilogue?)

Eat, Pray and Sit Down for a Minute, Will You? would answer the question: Who says suburban mothers can’t find pleasure, spirituality and balance in a four-day driving trip through the Midwest? It would address the idea that you never know where you’ll find a pearl of wisdom or a moment of clarity.  Not so surprising, really, that Gilbert experienced  transcontinental epiphanies after back-to-back Italian meals, conversations with a Balinese healer and long periods of meditation at an ashram in India. Isn’t it more compelling to find spiritual clarity in the middle of the United States? Having left one’s family to fend for themselves, interrupted by frequent cell phone check-ins? Gilbert’s aha moments would pale in comparison to the ones I would certainly have after chowing down a Vienna hot dog or deep dish pizza, sitting silently on a wooden bench in an Indiana meeting house and standing in the back of a crowded university auditorium in Iowa City listening to writers who would do almost anything to exchange places with me and my big advance.

This is something adventure-hungry mothers could get excited about. Something with which spiritual seekers could resonate. Something that both editors and marketing departments could work around. The book could not only be marketed as a hot new memoir, but as a how-to manual for localizing one’s own low cost, do-it-yourself spiritual quest … recession version.

And then, for the sequel (because you know there would be one),  I would travel in a similar but expanded manner to the east coast to Maryland, Maine, and Massachusetts, then south to Mississippi, and perhaps onto Missouri, Michigan, Minnesota, and then west to Montana. Because with my previous book’s success, it will be all about me.

First published June 2008. Copyright Ellen Blum Barish