As Artists, We Don’t Know

As Artists We Don't Know

One of the first art teaching jobs I ever had was as an Art Educator at the Cleveland Museum of Art.

I was 19 years old, a freshman in art school, and one Summer my assignment was to teach the “parents class”.

In other words I had to keep a group of moms and dads who didn’t want to drive-home-and-then-turn-around-again to pick up their kiddos from art class busy.

I, like all the other teachers, didn’t want to teach this damn class.

Everyone knew that these folks were there to simply past the time.  Very few of them were interested in art. Plus on top of it, it was quite scary to be 19 years old and have a class full of adults twice your age staring back at you.

But after a few minor melt downs and a brisk pep talk by my supervisor, I showed up and gave it my all.

I opened the first day of class by sharing with them my art journals. At the time we called “art journals” “sketchbooks”,  because I don’t think anyone was calling it an art journal yet!

As my requirement, everyone had to have a sketchbook. So each Saturday we would sketch, paint, collage, and do sweet little contour drawings based on the many amazing pieces in the museum collection

Eight weeks went by. The class went well.  Everyone was happy. And I was thrilled to learn that I wouldn’t have to teach it again the following semester.

Fast forward to a couple months later when I was walking to meet a friend for lunch when suddenly a silver mini-van did a screeching U-turn in the middle of the road and stopped diagonally in front of me – half hanging over the sidewalk.  Seriously, it felt like a scene from the A-Team when the side door swung open and out popped a grey haired hippie lady waving her sketchbook at me.

Connie! Connie! Connie! I’m so excited to see you. she said as she grabbed me and smothered me in a hug as I stood there still in a state of shock.

I want you to meet my family.  You won’t believe this, but we’re headed out on our weekly family road trip with our sketchbooks!

By that time her husband had maneuvered the car to a side street and her three boys and himself were all lining up politely to show me their sketchbooks.

As I flipped through watercolors, colored pencil drawings, and scribbly sketches I stood there in complete amazement.

I was only 19 years old.  A freshman.  And my class had this type of impact that a whole family now had a new way of bonding with each other every week: Saturday Family Sketchbook Day.

As Artists, we don’t know the ripple our work, our passion, and our willingness to share creativity with others is going to have in the world. 

We just don’t know.

This past Monday I had everything ready to open registration for Painting The Feminine.  Then the horrible event at Charlottesville occurred over the weekend and a large dark cloud moved in. Sunday night came and I knew I couldn’t open registration the next day.  It didn’t feel right.

These are hard, hard times we are living in and as artists we might find ourselves wondering if what we care about and what we do as artists even matters?

In 1966 one of my dear beloved teachers: Thich Nhat Hanh was banned from Vietnam by both the Communist and Non-Communist regimes because he was accused of undermining the government.

During that time the Vietnam War was happening and Thay (as people affectionately call him) and his followers would hide in the fields and on small boats as bullets flew above them and bombs dropped around them.

When the battle was over, Thay and his friends would emerge onto the battle field and quickly scamper to heal any person they found.  Didn’t matter to them if they were Vietnamese or American.

I have read almost every book Thich Nhat Hanh has written, but this fact about his life alone is what I turn to again and again for inspiration almost daily.

This past weekend, when my heart was heavy and full of sorrow, I went inward and asked Thay for help.  I laid there on the boat with him and plead for guidance.  How can I be of best service now? What healing do I have to offer?  What am I to do?

And this story is what came to me.  I saw that hippie lady and her sweet family again all lined up next to their mini-van, eager to show “the teacher” their work. I saw how art can tie people together — how creativity can be a glue — how healing is a wave not an ocean.

As artists we are like Thay.  When suffering is present — art scampers around and mends hearts, spirits, families, — even communities. It doesn’t discriminate.  

But we have to get out of the boat.  We have to step out of hiding.

Now is the time to be bold and all inclusive with our gifts.

Because as Artists, we don’t know what impact our work makes in the world.

We just don’t know.

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