I haven’t written a blog for a while because I am in, what my family refers to as, ”mad scientist mode". Mad Scientist Mode means I don’t do my hair or makeup, I wear paint covered clothing every day, I paint, I sleep, occasionally eating when reminded, and leave the studio only when necessary. I send the briefest texts and emails to friends and shorten the phone calls with family. I’m not available for lunch dates or play dates. I am not sad or mad at you, I hope I am not rude or hurtful, I am just a mad scientist on the verge of an artistic break through in my lab and I cannot be bothered until there is success or an explosion. (The above image is the bottom right hand corner of the all-consuming 4'x6' painting I'm working on.)
In March I got the idea for a painting that I thought might land a spot in Art Prize. I started work immediately because I have to convince someone that this painting is awesome before June 28th so I can be part of the show in September. So, every day I plug away at the painting and each day it looks more awesome. I can easily pass a day lost in the joy of the minutia of the painting. Don’t get me wrong there are other times when I have to walk away because something isn’t working and I'm frustrated, but that’s what happens when you’re creating something that doesn’t yet exist. It takes time to figure out this world and its conventions. It amazes me how my brain seems always to be working the painting in the back of my mind as I do other things. Suddenly in the middle of making dinner I’ll get an idea for how to fix something and then I can’t wait to get a paint brush in my hand and see if I’ve actually solved my problem.
This painting is definitely testing me. It's exhausted working as a slave with or without inspiration. I like the instant gratification of drawing and really haven’t painted anything this big and detailed and personal…well…ever. I find myself hearing in my mind the advice I often give my students….keep adding information, add shadows and highlights, add the next level of detail. Don’t give up, the more information you add the more the painting will make sense and come alive. Sure enough, while a sand beach will do, I’ve learned that a pebble beach is magnificent. While a vague impressionist style contains all the necessary information, realism can be a more powerful communicator. It's okay that no part of the painting is finished until the entire painting is finished. Tweaks are necessary to keep large paintings cohesive. It’s exhausting infusing a painting with yourself and your experiences, but the painting takes on a new level of believability, intimacy, and power when we’re brave.
So, I’m afraid my blog and instructional You Tube videos will necessarily be interrupted by Mad Scientist moments. As an artist, I am a slave to inspiration when it comes and calls my name. I must answer. If I don’t, inspiration will leave me and find someone else to bring it to life. So, I beg your patience as I pour my heart and soul on a canvas and try to capture for you to see what inspiration has whispered in my ear. Once the painting is finished, I will return to blogging and YouTubing, hair and makeup, cooking and cleaning and lunches with friends. Until then, I'm in a different kind of good place. I hope you too will listen for, and surrender to, inspiration in your life and see where it leads.
"While discussing the growing antipathy toward Christians, a friend remarked to me, "There are three kinds of Christians that outsiders to the faith still respect: pilgrims, activists, and artists. The uncommitted will listen to them far sooner than to an evangelist or apologist." Although nonbelievers do not oppose a spiritual search, they will listen only to those Christians who present themselves as fellow-pilgrims on the way rather than as part of a superior class who has already arrived. Activists express their faith in the most persuasive way of all, by their deeds. And art succeeds when it speaks most authentically to the human condition; when believers do so with skill, again the world takes note." Philip Yancey, Vanishing Grace p. 89
As artists, we have the opportunity to be grace dispensers. We can add to the truth and beauty of the human experience. It is important that we are the best artists we can be so that our lack of skill does not impede the image we feel compelled to share. If we do our job well, we should bring hope, clarity and a curiosity about what we believe and why we live our life the way we do. Artists are not needed to add to the chaos and noise of our world. There is plenty of ugliness on display in the nightly news. Sadly, I can’t undo the tragedy that happened at a Florida school last week, but I can accept the invitation to share in the task of dispensing grace and hope to a hurting world. How will you be a grace dispenser today?
My husband met Philip Yancey at an event last year and received a copy of his book Vanishing Grace. Justin enjoyed his dinner conversation with the author and suggested I might enjoy his book. I finally got around to reading it and this part really grabbed hold of me:
While discussing the growing antipathy toward Christians, a friend remarked to me, "There are three kinds of Christians that outsiders to the faith still respect: pilgrims, activists, and artists. The uncommitted will listen to them far sooner than to an evangelist or apologist." Although nonbelievers do not oppose a spiritual search, they will listen only to those Christians who present themselves as fellow-pilgrims on the way rather than as part of a superior class who has already arrived. Activists express their faith in the most persuasive way of all, by their deeds. And art succeeds when it speaks most authentically to the human condition; when believers do so with skill, again the world takes note.
As a Christian artist I have a responsibility to dispense Grace. To do this effectively, I must become the best artist I can be so that my skills do not interfere with the message. I must spend hours practicing and refining my art in order to present the most clear and understandable images possible.
I am often quoted as saying, "Just because you're a Christian doesn't mean you can suck at your job". As Christians, we must be better at our jobs than the average person because we are representing the King. Christian art should never be synonymous with second rate, just okay, cliche, or predictable art. If we do our job properly, Christian art should mean inspired, beautiful, truthful, insightful, excellent. I may not be there yet, but I have a life time to perfect my artistic skills and leave something that outsiders of the faith will hopefully respect, admire, and stir them to investigate the source of my beliefs and their own. In the end, I hope to be remembered as a dispenser of grace-filled art for a hurting world. What are you dispensing?
Everything in our lives does not need to be a masterpiece. Everything in our lives does not need to be perfect, have purpose, or change the world. Sometimes we just need to play. Sometimes we just need to be present and enjoy being alive and available to the magic of the moment.
From my last post you know I’ve gone through some relational difficulties. It has been emotionally exhausting and caused a background illness to rear its ugly head. This kind of thing can kill art. Or, I should say, I let it kill my art. I was too much in my head. Everything I was working on was too precious, it had to be perfect, it wasn’t communicating what I wanted, and I was frustrated. So, I stopped drawing and painting. Quitting is easy, but dangerous. Like exercise, it takes a long time to get into shape and only days to fall out of shape.
This is why we have to be part of a community. A friend from one of my art groups has been flooding my inbox with YouTube videos for various acrylic painting techniques. Some of the images piqued my curiosity and after watching every YouTube video she sent I could not wait to paint again. But, this playful painting style did not come naturally to me. My first two images were very controlled, and beautiful, but not quite play.
I’ve been reading The Good and Beautiful LIFE by James Bryan Smith and he says, “Play cannot be controlled, no matter how hard we try. Sports teams try to keep the game under control, but that is impossible. Every ‘play’ that happens during a game unfolds in unexpected ways. This is what makes play so entertaining. Spontaneity is one of the spiritual benefits of play. We learn to let go. We relax, let ourselves become vulnerable and open up to whatever happens.”
The next dozen images were truly play. I hadn’t created abstract/expressionist paintings since high school and I forgot how much fun I can have painting. The hours flew by and I covered every canvas in sight and used up 8 bottles of 10 year old paints that weren’t good for much else.
If you’re stuck in your art (or your life), stop and play. You can’t afford not to. It’s not a distraction, it’s not a waste of time, it’s not a waste of art supplies. It’s good for the soul and that’s good for everything. Ask yourself, what would it look like for me to play today? I give you permission to play and invite others to join you…I bet they need it too.
Sherry Barrett is an active artist who takes inspiration from great works of literature, historical figures, and wise people.