“Make Good Art.” That phrase, coined by Neil Gaiman, is the one I keep hearing. I am an aspiring art student, so this makes sense. To be honest, it seems a tad obvious. It has required great self-control to hold back the quips that my sarcastic brain offers up. “Oh, yeah, I was actually going to go make bad art, but now that you’ve said that, I’ve changed my mind.” When I think about it a little more, “Make good art,” transforms into a more intimidating mandate. The simple command is vague and does not inform me on how I should begin to accomplish this. What does “good art” even mean, and according to whose standards? What other kind of art is there?
I assume this statement is intended to be inspiring. On some level, it is. Mostly though, it makes me wonder what “good” art, or any kind of art, really entails. The conclusion I have come to is that what truly makes art good is what the artist puts into it, not what anyone else gets out of it. In other words, many people could and did claim that Vincent van Gogh’s work was trash, but no one would be able to deny that he drenched that canvas with all of his beautiful, bleeding heart. The worth of the final product is always going to be subjective, but the skill, the determination, and the soul never will be.
Art is all about expressing a feeling and a perspective, right? The results certainly are not always going to be pretty; however, they should always be honest. Talent and grit are hailed as the most effective tools in life, and certainly, they will take anyone far. But what truly turns my life into art is awe. A profound sense of wonder, a love of beauty, makes me a better artist and a better person.
I hear about talent a lot. People talk to me all the time about the “incredible gift” I have as if being able to draw is some kind of superpower, like flight, or always having a zit-free face. They mean well, and I am not complaining, even though no one seems to listen to me when I assure them that it is just practice, many years of practice, but practice is all it takes.
My mother first let me loose on big sheets of spare paper, armed with pots of paint and a brush when I was two years old. I would sit at the kitchen table and draw for hours. Considering the average attention span of a toddler, this is impressive. Since then, I have not stopped. I began with stick figures like everyone else: cow-like unicorns, parents with bulbous heads, and hands sprouting so many fingers from their disc-shaped palms that they resembled pincushions. Time passed, and my colors became a comprehensible composition, my lines became more confident, and my fingers became tools that easily smudged the boundaries of shadow and light.
I do not believe God gave me any super ability. The special thing God gave me was the love of it, love for the process. Yes, I possess a natural adeptness at noticing shapes and patterns. I am able to translate what I see onto paper using textures and values, but the desire is my true talent. The only way I can describe it is an itch. When I take a break for too long or when I get an idea, my fingers get itchy. I have an irresistible compulsion to draw something, anything. My fingers ache to curve around a pencil and dance. The “getting good at it” part is just an added bonus.
They say to practice for ten thousand hours to become an expert at anything, whether it is drawing or making cabinets. Certainly, things come more naturally to some (I can confirm that math has never come to me, naturally or otherwise), but maybe, it is the other way around. Maybe, the passion to practice and learn is what draws us to success, instead of the success coming down to us with a neat bow on top. The passion, the magnetic purpose, that trembles inside my ribcage is love, and that is its own kind of superpower.
In American culture, grit is revered as a supreme ability. Grit is defined as determination, stubbornness, tenacity, and pride. A blank refusal to give up or back down, however stacked the odds, is what legend is built on. I love to hear the stories where the underdogs work without quitting, beating the arrogant ones who had everything going for them. Supposedly, all success requires grit, sometimes more than anything else. I do not exactly disagree. In a world where I will certainly be rejected and discouraged, I will need to be stubborn. In a world where degrees cost more and mean less than ever, I will need to be hard-working. In a world of fierce competition, I will need to be tenacious. In a world where there will always be someone better than me, wearing a thick skin will protect me against the crippling arrows of doubt. For an artist, grit is necessary. However, it is even more necessary to have something to be gritty for. Grit, determination, stubbornness, tenacity, and pride all alone would be a damn shame. Hard edges and thick skin can very quickly become cold eyes and a chipped shoulder.
To be an artist is to be vulnerable, allow things inside, and let them affect us. Being hard and gritty is a good method of not letting anything get in the way of a goal. Grit is being able to outlast rejection and loss. Sometimes, to let things hurt is to let things heal. The stereotype of the tortured artist is not for nothing. Artists have to feel things twice as deeply to craft emotions into art, the pain along with the joy. In my head, grit is the gravel that lines streets and the painful rocks that get lodged inside my shoe. Sometimes, it is good to be the grit that goes on being grit no matter what, but only if it is balanced with being the bare feet that walk on dewy grass, wade in cold streams, and get bloody and blistered. Only to be soft means that survival will be unlikely. Only to be hard means that living will be impossible.
What is more necessary than talent or grit? What is the secret, the key ingredient for really good art? For me, it is a sense of wonder at the lovely, rotten world in which we live and the astonishment at how it can be both at once. If I never had a sense of awe and insignificance when I stood among mountains and looked even higher towards the stars, I could never make good art. If I never paid attention to petals strewn like spatters of ichor across a sidewalk, or had never listened to a beautiful song and felt its truth echo inside me and raise the hair on my arms, or had never been amazed at the weightiness of a silent blizzard, I do not know if I could ever make good art. If I cannot be dazzled by the way the sun turns its eyes from endless midnights to pools of amber fire, or be captivated by the cities of texture and color on a mossy log, then how could I truly value the way a palette of chaotic paint fills me with joy, or the way the terrifying expectance of an empty canvas fills me with fire? If the photos on the news of children baptized in ash and blood did not fill me with sadness, I do not think I could make good art. If the injustices of thousands of powerful men did not fill me with rage, I do not think I could make good art. If the spear of unutterable separateness had never pierced me, I do not think I could make good art.
Years ago, I lay down upon the grass and spread my arms over a tiny piece of the world, and as I let myself sink just a tiny bit, I felt the Earth spinning. I felt the massive, unexplainable thrum of gravity holding me down as we all tumbled blindly through nothingness, and I looked into the sky and realized I was looking up forever to the edge of the universe. After all, just because I could not see it did not mean it was not there. I was stunned to be so small and to be a bright thread with a purpose in the tapestry of the world. I was filled with numinous awe at the fact that I was a necessary brushstroke in a cosmic masterpiece dripping scarlet with love. Our lives are art, and we can paint with kindness, hatred, and wonder.
In my humble opinion, a pair of wide eyes and a heart that can be moved by the most insignificant whisper are more important than a hundred years of grittiness and a thousand proofs of talent. Art is lurking around every grimy street corner, waiting for someone who is searching for it. Beauty is hidden inside every pair of lungs, waiting to be breathed into the world. The space between the infinite dancing atoms can be the canvas, so I think I know how to make good art, whatever that might be, whether it is doodles on a textbook or a perfectly baked cake. Find the talent. Find the obsession deep inside. Follow it. Forge every last ounce of determination into a sword that is sharp enough to cut through doubt. Pry that vulnerable, sparrow-quick heart from its cage, and let it feel every damn thing. Feel the joy, the pain, the anger, the beauty, and the swirling current sweeping up to the stars. Feel the perfect love that hums in the very core of the planet, and let that frail heart sink into the horizon-wide embrace.
That is what I am going to do. When I say goodnight for the last time, my bright thread will have touched the lives it needed to and woven around the ones who felt alone. My life, my brushstrokes, will have made something beautiful. My fingers will never stop itching or dancing. I will never let myself give up or let my heart harden to rock. My eyes will always be open, and I will never get tired of staring out of plane windows. I will never become numb. I will make really, really good art.
Check this out! Should be interesting stuff.
Editor’s note: This “Mondays with Martin” originally ran back in 2006. It’s still important reading today.
In 1990, one of my English classes was filled with downtown, street-wise, tough high school teenagers who were one step from expulsion. All of them failed English class before, at least once, some of them several times. They did not want to be in school, and they couldn’t wait to leave those classroom walls. They did not do homework for other teachers, when it was assigned, and they stared at me like they dared me to teach them anything. Half of the class was black. The rest were Caucasian, Latino, Vietnamese, and Native American, but the meanest looking and most physical was a white boy named Jack.
This group of “at-risk” juvenile delinquents was quiet, like the silence before a storm. If they misbehaved, they knew their days as students in that urban high school were over, and the street was the only thing they had waiting for them. Most of them knew what that meant: gangs, hard work, prison, and an early death from drugs. They all had friends or family in one of those places.
Jack never talked to anyone in class, including me. For all I knew, he was mute. From the first day of class in August to the week before Thanksgiving, he did not talk to anyone. He turned in enough work to maintain a passing grade, but when I asked him a question, he shrugged his shoulders and refused to reply.
He never took his eyes away from mine. Whenever I turned around, after helping another student or when I looked up from my desk, his eyes were on me. After a few days, I was leery to turn my back on him. I started doing things in class, so I always faced him. He sat in the next to last seat in the second row from the door, and I planned all my classroom activity, so I had one or two rows between us. Jack only let one student sit behind him, George, who was everyone’s friend and always seemed happy. George was slow and had behavioral development issues, but he tried to read and write, even though he was four grade levels behind his peers.
Some of the girls in class had children. Carlotta was nineteen-years-old and had three. It was forbidden in school to flash gang signs, but when she wasn’t paying attention to me, I could see her give a sign to another girl across the room. She was pretty and smart, and all the boys spoke to her every day, except Jack. When she spoke to him, he glared at her. After awhile, she ignored him.
Some of the boys were scarred by fights, and they never relaxed, even in class. They were always looking over their shoulders, like the worst thing that could ever happen to them was be caught off-guard or surprised, and where they came from, they were probably right.
The first day of class, I walked through the door and looked at this collection of races and attitudes, of dark sunglasses and darker souls, of defensive body language and silent despair, of low motivation and lack of hope. I said to myself, “Oh, Lord, why me?”
The next day, when I saw the principal, I asked him, “Why me?”
His answer was, “No one else would take the class, and we thought you could make them work. You’ve coached seven sports. You get along with any student who tries. Give them a chance. They all know that if they don’t do what you tell them, they will fail the class and won’t be allowed back in school.”
I agonized about how to teach this unusual collection of young adults who did not fit into any group in the school. How would I get them to write essays, learn poetry, and read the standard curriculum? They didn’t do those things before, so I knew I had to try something different. I threw the school’s traditional way of doing things out the window, metaphorically. I decided we would write every day and keep a journal of our own work. Our writing notebooks became our textbooks, and I graded their work by the pound. In this class, the sweat that appeared from pushing a pen across the lines on the paper would earn credit. Three days a week, I would bring ideas for us to write about, and two days a week, different students would bring ideas from their personal lives for the class to write about. In effect, they would share in teaching the class. We sat in a circle, and everyone was equal.
Chemistry started to build between us. Slowly, trust crept into the room, silently and unseen. I would not let students enter class, if they didn’t bring their journals every day. I brought photocopies of chapters from many classics, and we read those, often out loud. Text books scared these students, but they would read, discuss, and study anything that was photocopied. One reading I handed out that created the biggest stir from these young, angry rebels was “The Song of Hugh Glass” in A Cycle of the West by John Neihardt.
I introduced Neihardt’s epic poem and talked about defeat and victory, rejection and acceptance, revenge, and forgiveness. I thought I saw Jack’s lips move in response to something I said, but when I called on him, he shook his long hair that touched his shoulders and refused to speak. I knew he wanted to ask a question, but he would not verbalize it. He sat there in his long, black, leather coat, years before Columbine, and I thought, “Will I ever reach this one?” When I read his journal entry about Hugh Glass’s true story, I felt a strong passion come out of his pen that started to show a different aspect of his character.
Over the next few weeks, everyone helped read Neihardt’s long poem in class, except Jack. We slowly read every word, and I took my time, like I was walking beside Glass and giving a “play by play account” of this unusual, adventure experience. Outwardly, Jack gave the impression that he was too good to participate or too cool; however, his journal relayed another story. After each verse, after each page, we stopped and talked about what we read. I helped interpret many words and put the lines in a context everyone could grasp. Each time I looked up, Jack’s eyes met mine.
When he turned in his notebook to me, as the others did, every Friday, I made sure to write something about his thoughts on every page. All my comments were positive. I believe in the power of positive reinforcement, and he had so much rejection in his life that I did not want to add to that long, negative list of “downers.” I was surprised to find out that he was a deep thinker. No one could see what he wrote but me. I was amazed. His words were philosophical and intellectual. The sentences and paragraphs were not filled with the anger he generated with his body language and glacial stares in class. There was a good mind leaking out between the lines of his writing. Was there a heart in there, too?
I read to the class from “The Song of Hugh Glass”:
“Alas for those who fondly place above
The act of loving, what they chance to love;
Who prize the goal more dearly than the way!
For time shall plunder them, and change betray,
And life shall find them vulnerable still.
A bitter-sweet narcotic to the will,
Hugh’s love increased the peril of his plight;
But anger broke the slumber of his might,
Quickened the heart and warmed the blood that ran
Defiance for the treachery of Man,
Defiance for the meaning of his pain,
Defiance for the distance of the plain
That seemed to gloat, ‘You can not master me.’
And for one burning moment he felt free
To rise and conquer in a wind of rage.
But as a tiger, conscious of the cage,
A-smolder with a purpose, broods and waits,
So with the sullen patience that is hate’s
Hugh taught his wrath to bide expedience.”
Jack shifted in his seat and rocked back and forth. He leaned forward and squeezed his pen so hard that I thought it would snap in half. While I asked other students how they interpreted those words, Jack stood up, slowly, left the group, and went to the windows and looked outside, quietly. He stood there for twenty minutes and only left when the bell rang to end the period.
The next day he wrote about rage and anger for ten pages. There were no paragraphs, just a stream-of-consciousness writing, like Holden Caulfield on steroids. He told of the injustices he witnessed, a death in the family, depression, fear, no strong male presence at home, loneliness, all the “phonies” he met in his short life, unable to control his anger, and why his court probation was connected to fighting.
The next day, I asked the students for permission to print some of their work in a four-page pamphlet that I would bring to class and share with them. Each person would get a copy, and they could take extra ones home for their family and friends. I got a verbal acceptance from everyone in class, except Jack. When I looked at him, he simply nodded. That was the first, positive gesture he made since school began months ago.
In 1990, our school had ten, old Apple computers, and they were always in use with a waiting line of teachers hoping to use them, so I bought my own and planned to do the layout of the student writing at home for our first, little publication. I didn’t mention my ideas to the class again, because I was preoccupied with learning how to turn on my new computer so it would not explode in my face, teaching myself how to run a desktop publishing program, not swearing loudly while my own children were at my desk, grading papers from school, doing lesson plans for all of my classes, getting enough sleep to stay awake in class, and staying sane.
Many weeks later, I walked into class, and without saying a word, I started passing out our first class newsletter. All the writing came from students in Jack’s class, and I could hear a few gasps and “Wow’s” as they started reading their own copies. By the time I got to the next to the last row passing out the copies, I heard Jack yell out loud, “What is this?”
All the students and I jerked around like we had been shot. Jack talked, and he was on his feet and walking toward the front of the room. He was 6’ 4” and weighed 225 pounds. He should have been on the football field daily after school, because he was such a good athlete, but he had such a poor, grade point average, the head coach would not let him come out for the team.
As he strode down the aisle, I thought he was coming for me, but when he got to the front of the class, he turned and walked directly through the open door out of the room into the hall. He stopped out of sight of the other students, turned around, and motioned for me to come into the hall with him. I told a student in the front seat, “If I am not back in five minutes, go to the office for help.”
I walked into the hall and said, “Hang on, Jack, you can’t leave our class.”
Jack surprised me. His eyes got wet, and he began to cry. Tears came down his cheeks. With much anger, he asked, “Why did you put my writing on the front page?”
I didn’t know if he was going to hit me or what. I said, “Jack, your writing is consistently the best writing in the class. It deserves to be on the front page. You have talent. I hope you write a lot more, and I am proud of you.”
Then, the tears flowed heavily. “No one ever said I had talent in school before. What do I do, now?” He hung his head and stared at the floor, as water splattered on his shoes.
I felt him change in front of me. I placed my hand on his shoulder. “Go down the hall, and get a drink of water. Take ten deep breaths. Then, come back into class, because this is where you belong. From Monday to Friday, from 2:00 to 2:50 p.m., this is your home. Hold onto that notebook, and tonight, write into it like you are writing to your best friend. Tell it what you are thinking. Hold onto your pen, like it was your life-line. Don’t let go of it, until you are so tired of writing that you have no energy left. Whatever you do, tell the truth with your words. Make every word ring with honesty. It doesn’t have to be pretty. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Just write. Tell the truth. When you are done, let your “new friend” talk back to you, and all you have to do is listen. Write everything down. You don’t have to show it to anyone, unless you choose to do so. Now, go get that drink of water.”
As he turned to leave, he stopped and moved toward me. I froze. He looked at me. I will never forget those black eyes looking down into mine: part animal, part divine, part confusion, part determination, part anger, and part pride. Those eyes haunt me still. Then he hugged me and said, “Did Hugh Glass ever survive?”
Tears came to my eyes, and I had to look at the floor. I said, “Come on, I will go with you. I need a drink of water, too.”
As we walked down the hall and back to the classroom, several students looked out the door, trying to find where we went. When Jack and I entered the room, the other students wanted to know where we went. Jack smiled. It was now the week before Thanksgiving, and none of us had ever seen him smile in class.
As he sat down in his seat, he said to the other students, “Come on you guys; relax. I want to see what happened to that mountain man. Can you imagine crawling 100 miles after being half-eaten by a grizzly? That is some kind of courage. I don’t think I could do what he did.”
After that day, there were many more class newsletters. Jack’s writing was in most of them, and he was the primary inspiration who sparked that anemic, classroom pamphlet to grow into Fine Lines, now a quarterly magazine for new writers of all ages. What started as a classroom motivator to encourage marginal students to write more after they saw their work in print and read by other students, teachers, and administrators became a publication which is used today in all grade levels: elementary, middle, high school, college, and graduate school.
Jack’s grades slowly began to rise. He came in to see me after school and asked for help with his homework in other classes when he needed it. He still had to check in weekly with his probation officer, but he did graduate from high school. I found out, years later, that he stayed out of jail, worked his way through a two-year community college, graduated from a small, four-year college in another state, majored in journalism, and got a job with a small newspaper in South Carolina. He moved on from there, and I do not know where he is today.
I remember the last entry of Neihardt’s All Is But a Beginning: Youth Remembered, 1881-1901. An old man tells of his youthful vision quest and how he felt like a failure after experiencing the three-days and nights of fasting on a lonely hill praying and hoping Wakon Tonka would appear then provide a spiritual message as he entered manhood. The old man admitted he had no great dream to tell when he returned to the tribe.
“If I have no vision to give me power and guide me, how can I ever be a man? Maybe, I shall have to go far off into a strange land and seek an enemy to free me from this shame.”
Then, just as he had this bitter thought, a great cry came from overhead like a fearless warrior hailing his wavering comrade in the heart of battle. “Hoka-hey, brother – Hold fast, hold fast; there is more!” Looking up, he saw an eagle soaring yonder on a spread of mighty wings, and it was the eagle’s voice he heard.
“As I listened,” the old man said, “a power ran through me that has never left me, old as I am. Often, when it seemed the end had come, I have heard the eagle’s cry, ‘Hold fast, hold fast, there is more.’ ”