On the arts and their value

Ensconced in a transparent plastic chair with file cabinets of sheet music on one side and a colorful array of instruments on the other, with bleats and squeaks and scales and low frequencies radiating from studios all around, I turn a page in my book and smile. Mozart, the resident dog, ambles over for a scratch behind his ears.

Although I've little musical ability, in Middle C each weekend, as I wait while Jack and Oliver finish their lessons, I feel at home. The test notes and amiable chatter and warm ups and expanding lung capacities are individuals at practice in a place that both challenges and nurtures them. I gravitate toward places like that and the people who both work and learn there.

I felt a similar homeyness during the AWP conference earlier this month, despite the fact that literally thousands were in attendance, and I knew approximately five. Armed with my schedule, badge, and a bag of books -I never go anywhere without reading material; do you?- I made my way from panel to panel, toggling between the convention center and the elephantine Marriott across the street. Lost among friends, really. And happily so.

This is not to say that all musicians and writers and artists are nice, expansive people. Good grief- of course they aren't. Some are egotistical and competitive, and others are pathologically shy. Some are troubled while others prefer words or paint to people. Many have wrestled with periods of feeling awkward or different. Many still do. Some have experienced abuse or trauma or stunning loss. Many are delightfully eccentric, some fit every stereotype.

I've often wondered just how mental health, creativity, and intelligence co-exist, for many have written of "madness" as creative fire, of angst as a torturous fuel, of tragedy and loss as a sort of generative phoenix. A spherical spectrum seems to fit the bill of any synchronicity better than a linear one. 

Most every artist I've ever encountered relishes or at least feels the utter need to get at the root of who they are, who we are, and to express those selves in some way. Communities of artists are like multi-celled organisms undulating toward kernels of truth and understanding, toward justice and inclusion. The arts push the boundaries of what is and should be accepted, what is and should be normed. They teach us empathy, allow us to better understand the beauty and strength in difference, usher in respect and tolerance, and diminish fear and hate.

It is not hard to understand why dictators seek to control messaging and especially artistic expression. So really, stay sharp right now in the face of alternative facts (bullshit), lies messaged as news (also bullshit), the spread of fear versus hope (carnage, anyone?), and attempts to quash the humanities (the Trump admin's desire to cut the National Endowments for the Arts and the Humanities, disallow peaceful protests, etc). 

Politics aside, this post is actually a piece about me and the gratitude I feel for the arts.

When I was a young child, my parents (who both studied art history in college and have collected art for decades), sister, and I often played two games: one was an artist and artwork flashcard-based gig (more fun that it now sounds), and the other was a sleuthing game in which the player whose turn it was donned a blindfold, reached into a paper bag to pluck a cardboard object from a large assortment, felt its curves and angles, size and stature, and ventured a guess as to what it was.

I attended summer arts camps and took drawing and painting lessons for years. I have spent more than a night in Corning, NY, because my father wanted to see the glass museum there and specifically a piece, Jay Musler's Cityscape, in it. I remember that our B&B smelled like tequila and lime and that the proprietor was a zany woman who sang "Customers, come here!" when we knocked on the wrong door. Cityscape remains vividly seared in my mind, a stunning piece of glass rendered meaningful in a gifted man's hands.

Courtesy of the Corning Museum; isn't this magical? Although sadly, I read it so much differently than I did when younger. Now, though still beautiful, it strikes me as environmental doomsday.

Courtesy of the Corning Museum; isn't this magical? Although sadly, I read it so much differently than I did when younger. Now, though still beautiful, it strikes me as environmental doomsday.

And yet, with all that steeping in the arts, I wasn't comfortable expressing myself artistically until my thirties. The general aging process has helped, but I wouldn't be nearly as complete a person as I am (and let's be clear, it's a real work in progress with more work to do; likewise it's not painless!) without open artistic expression which began with cooking, segued into photography, slid easily into blogging about those things, and has evolved into so much more.

I don't consider myself a Writer yet (though I aspire to be such), but I do know that writers and artists and those who truly appreciate them are my truest tribe. The sensitivity and openness, the shared experience of some struggle and the gentle embrace of what has challenged each of us, the multitude of identities lived and loved and celebrated...all of those things are treasures, gifts, and each time I experience, witness, or grow from relationships forged in and around arts communities, I become more me. More of the me I want to be. More of that fully unhusked kernel of self truth.