"Dear Young Artist:
Remember your first love—how much you enjoyed creating as a child. If you ever lose that sense of joy, you will need to reflect on why you lost that spark. Of course, the craft of expression takes much “dying to self” and much discipline. A discipline of any form takes perseverance. But when we are going through a period of training, we must remember the reason for our training. Our journey needs to have a specific direction. Our direction need not be toward being successful and being famous. We need to start from your first love; what we cherish, what we are, and what we value. As T.S. Eliot wrote, “our exploring/Will be to arrive where we started/And know the place for the first time.” "
Several months ago, "artist, writer, and creative catalyst" Makoto Fujimura posted "A Letter to Young Artists" (go on, read the whole thing, totally worth it). He begins with the above address, reaching out to a community of young artists who may have forgotten why they're doing what they're doing. Fujimura goes on to reaffirm that the creative journey is not an easy one (those of us who are artists have known this since we were born). He quotes a beautiful passage from C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity that I love:
“God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man. It is not like teaching a horse to jump better and better but like turning a horse into a winged creature...But there may be a period, while the wings are just beginning to grow, when it cannot do so…The lumps on the shoulders…may even give it an awkward appearance.”
The lumps. I know those lumps. Fujimura implores the young artist to be patient with the lumps, to seek great opportunities of wonder and mystery, but also, to experience much failure. Failure has become such a taboo word in a world that is driven by success, always striving for better, faster, more. I had a teacher in art school who loved my failures. You know, those paintings that should never leave the studio, the endless works in progress. She'd tell me it was a so-so painting or needed work or was a good start, all those teacherly ways of saying I had failed, but then she would hang it up in her office. Consequently, she has a collection of bad art in her office, but am I ever grateful. Typically I knew when I had kind of dropped the ball on a piece, but she would break it to me gently, hang it on her wall like a Renaissance masterpiece, and tell me to get back in the studio. I love that about her. She helped me get through my first big exhibition. And she helped me learn how to love my lumps.
Most days I still feel pretty lumpy. And most days I still wonder what the hell I'm doing. But I appreciate artists like Makoto Fujimura who remind me of my first love and give me hope, as an artist and a Christian. I had the opportunity to hear Fujimura speak at an event here in Chicago several weeks ago. He shared about his latest (and greatest) project The Four Holy Gospels, featuring several major paintings and illuminations for a new publication of the four gospels of the Bible (our copy just arrived in the mail: an absolute masterpiece). It was Fujimura's discussion of his chosen theme for the project that marked me most. He settled on the well-known verse from the Gospel of John, "Jesus wept." Why did Jesus weep? What purpose did that serve? He already knew he would raise his friend Lazarus from the dead, so why weep? And herein lies art. Fujimura plainly stated that his artwork has no purpose, it is useless and unnecessary (how often I have thought that about my own work). But it is because of Jesus weeping that art-making is utterly essential.
Charis-Kairos (The Tears of Christ), Makoto Fujimura
In his "Letter to Young Artists", Fujimura goes on to note Mary, the rule-breaker and perfume-waster from the Gospel of Mark. She anoints Jesus' feet with an expensive perfume, shocking everyone but Jesus, who says, "She has done a beautiful thing to me..." Here Jesus recognizes Mary as an artist. Like Jesus' own tears, Mary's perfumed act is extravagant, unnecessary and an expression of love and grace. Jesus' tears and Mary's perfume give reason to my making. This, this is why I am an artist and why we must all journey on.
I am incredibly grateful to Makoto Fujimura for this seed of hope. And to Jesus and Mary for their creativity and rule-breaking.
May you also embrace the lumps, seek opportunities of mystery and wonder, and keep a good heart.
(Also, go listen to Suite Bergamasque, Clair de Lune by composer Claude Debussy. I'm listening to it now and wishing that it could be broadcast across the universe, especially in Libya and Christchurch, NZ, because I just know it would make things a little bit brighter.)