Dad Next Door: For the Sake of Art
I recently cleaned out my basement. It turned out to be as much an archeological dig as a weekend chore. At one point, I unearthed a pile of pictures my older daughter had drawn, spanning three or four years when her artwork completely covered our refrigerator and flowed out onto our kitchen walls. But after a certain age, the drawings simply stopped. It left me wondering why so few of us are able to keep our inner artists alive.
I thought of the day my father came home from the library with an armful of books about drawing. He was a deeply practical man, given to predictable habits and routines, so something like this was both curious and unexpected. I watched him pore over the books at our kitchen table, carefully sketching people and animals and trees. But after a few weeks, he stopped. When I asked him why, he simply shrugged. “I’m not that good at it,” he said.
Our culture has a peculiar relationship with art. On the one hand, we regard our artists with great reverence and awe. We see them as uniquely gifted and inspired — almost as a different species altogether. And yet we often regard the art they produce as impractical, extraneous, and ultimately irrelevant to our everyday lives. We cut back art, music, and drama in our schools and replace them with computer classes, or something else our children “really need.”
Predictably, kids absorb this attitude by osmosis. In the beginning, they scrawl and color and create with a joy and abandon that we grown-ups have long forgotten. But soon, without trying, we hobble their creativity with our well-meaning praise and critique. We tell them what we do and do not like. We correct their choice of colors, and keep them from wandering outside the lines. We have them sign their work, and hang it on our walls for all to see, until the end product and the attention it attracts become more important than the experience of creating. And little by little, we taint them with the idea that some art and artists show talent — and others do not. Eventually, if they are not among the anointed few, they lay down their markers and crayons, and turn their attention to more practical things.
I thought of this recently, when I visited a friend whose love of art has never disappeared. She’s a painter, a stained-glass artist, and a seamstress, not to mention a musician and a writer. All this despite being a full-time physician and the single mother of a 5-year-old. But if you ask her how she manages to make art such a priority, she looks at you oddly, as if you had asked her how she maintains her passion for breathing air.
Her home isn’t filled with her daughter’s artwork. What you find instead are high-quality art supplies, organized and accessible in open bins beside the dining room table. She and her daughter create art side by side, and sometimes work together. They did a series of paintings where the 5-year-old’s imagination and exuberance blended seamlessly with her mother’s artistic vision and skill. The results are enchanting and startling at the same time.
I once read that in Bali, artwork was never signed until the 1950s, when the idea of artistic authorship was introduced by Westerners. Art there is not a product — it’s a way of life. Most households begin the day by assembling flowers, palm leaves and rice into beautiful, delicate offerings for the gods. After a few hours in the tropical heat, these little masterpieces wilt and scatter, and are eaten by feral dogs. But that’s the point. The Balinese understand that beauty and meaning are things we must re-create every day, and place in our lives with our own two hands.
As our world grows faster and more complex, it’s harder and harder to carve out a place in our lives for art. But we must, because nothing less than the soul of our culture is at stake. After the terror attacks on Paris, the first convulsive lurch toward healing was art. An artist created the Eiffel Tower peace graphic that went viral. A man played Imagine on a grand piano in the streets outside the destroyed Bataclan theatre, and a crowd of hundreds wept. When our worth as a species is most in doubt, it is art that pulls us back from the brink. It elevates us beyond just eating and crapping and working our way to our graves. It makes us human again.
Not long ago, I started taking drawing classes. It’s probably a little late to begin making art with my kids, but I’m not doing it for them. I’m doing it for myself — and for their kids, and their kids’ kids, too.
But also, for my dad.
Jeff Lee colors outside the lines in Seattle.