Monday, April 18, 2022

Art Lessons: Part 1

 I first published Art Lessons: Reflections From An Artist's Life in April 2013 and will be sharing a section per day for the next seven days. Information about purchasing the book can be found on my website.

I first heard this traditional carol on the album Just Say Nowell by the group Nowell Sing We Clear. They are my favorite musical accompaniment to the solstice season with their beautiful melding of voices and knowledge of, and love for, traditional music and custom. Tony Barrand of the group first heard the carol played on BBC radio in a 1932 recording by the Mabe Choir from Cornwall.

“Sound your instruments of joy!” If I had to come up with five words to describe our purpose on earth, I might choose these. This is the task for all of us, whether we are artists or not. It starts with a question: what is your instrument? For some, the answer is so obvious that the question need not be asked. They seem to leave the cradle with a desire and facility for playing the piano, or writing stories, or drawing and sketching. I was not that person. 

I grew up in a house full of creative activity with a mother who knitted, sewed, cooked, and engaged in craft making of all kinds—melting wax for floating candles in bowls with flowers in summer and gathering milkweed pods for the wings of angel ornaments in winter. In my high school years, I was a serious student and a determined athlete. In college, I studied English Literature and exercised my creative impulses by embroidering every wearable surface I could find—bell bottom jeans, work shirts, knapsacks, and army jackets. 

Somewhere in the years after graduation, as I tried to figure out what it was in fact that I wanted to do with my life, I remember thinking that I could either learn a lot of different things and make them part of my daily life (this was the back-to-nature 1970s and I envisioned dining on clunky pottery plates and wearing hand-stitched garments while having a job of some sort) or find one thing to get good at and have that be what I did for a living and a life. Although I had no idea what I wanted to do, I think I was, deep inside, searching for a life’s work of some kind. 

At age twenty-seven, the answer to the question arrived with a request from a friend from high school. She had a friend who wanted some lettering done in her wedding album and remembered that I had dabbled in calligraphy. After the wedding page was done (I would cringe to see it today), I was hooked. Learning calligraphy became my new job. Unemployed at the time, I spent most of my time at the dining room table practicing. 

Here is where the second phase of the sounding comes in—getting to the point that our understanding of and competence on the instrument becomes so much a part of us that we can feel joy as we work and create something in which the ease and effortlessness shows through. One of the first things every instructional book and every teacher of calligraphy addresses is how to hold the pen—loosely, gently, and without pressure. I would start with that intention and, two lines later, realize that my pen was in a death grip as I battled to make a “g” that looked like the model. Although I was entranced with every aspect of calligraphy, the strain of learning showed in every letter I made. 

As the years went on and I moved from calligraphy to bookmaking and beyond, I became more comfortable with my work and felt the joy more often. I like to think that the joy can also be seen in the work. My wish for us all is that we be blessed with the desire to create and the fortitude and discipline to do the work necessary to sound, boldly and freely, our instruments of joy.

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