Making Art While the World Appears to Fall Apart
The spirit of creativity is the spirit of beauty, the broken and the whole.
Art is a mirror unto the soul. ~ Stephanie
As World War II came to an end, a young soldier stationed in Germany, took photos of what was left of the city streets he patrolled in Berlin. Small black and white images, framed in white borders with scalloped edges show piles of rubble and people wandering. In one picture, a man carries a chair, a single stick of furniture with which to begin anew. Another shows a woman digging in the debris for something that used to be, but no longer is. An entire country, the one time great destroyer, now destroyed, was the subject of the young man’s photographs. The aftermath of that war and all its horrific suffering must have been grief and bewilderment as to how the world would ever again know good. The soldier documenting the story with his camera was my father and the year was 1945.
The pictures of life beginning to rise up from the burnt out shell of survival were not the only things that the young soldier brought back from the war. Among his belongings, he had wrapped in blankets and carefully tucked away a cocoon of memory, sliding it under the bed to collect dust until his death. Within that walled off slice of his life, were a series of drawings done in pencil and charcoal -- beautiful, serene scenes of deer grazing in the shelter of the forest. I had seen the drawings when I was a little girl and I knew that they were my father's treasures. He told me how they represented a brief relationship with an artist that led to the purchase of the drawings, which he paid for with packs of cigarettes and chocolate bars.
He loved them so much, he told me, that he carried them back over an ocean and into his life. But they were never framed or displayed. He hid them under the bed, along with other things from the war that I would never see, or understand. When he died in 1980 I pulled the wrapped drawings from their unclean tomb and brought them home with me, framing them and finally giving them the display that they deserved. I know that in spite of the art being hidden, he looked at the drawings from time to time, remembering a friend whose fate was unknown.
Each time I walk by the framed drawings now, I wonder how it is that an artist living in the face of such horror could create such beauty? In these unrelenting days of pandemic and blood sport politics, the drawings reach out to me from another terrible time, whispering that I should not forget that there is always something left in the ashes of loss.
That’s what art does. It keeps good alive in the worst of times. That’s what Amanda Gorman did when she stood on the steps of the Capitol building and recited her poem – she was a light, enlivening inspiration in the human heart, broken by so much ugliness, pain and death. What she gave to us was one long, deep breath that exhaled the healing imagining of new possibility.
The works of an unknown German artist who preserved the beauty of his heart, and the well-praised poet who will surely experience fame for her work, did the exact same thing. They did what artists are called to do in atrocious times. They affirmed life with their creations. They provided nourishment for the dried up well of deep goodness for which we are now longing.
Divisiveness and lies, death and destruction can threaten to strangle our efforts to keep creating. How can creativity be meaningful or significant in these challenging times? How could that German artist even think of drawing when he took in the magnitude of horror around him? How could Amanda Gorman create such a profound moment from the steps of the capital where darkness had been unleashed only days before? These artists created boldly out of grief and the mud of chaos, the cramping labor of what it means to birth love.
The emerging archetype of midlife women is the Creatrix, a word that means a woman who makes things. There has never been a greater calling in our lifetime, to make things as a life affirming action, because that's what lets in the light. The great poet Jonas Mekas said, “In the very end, civilizations perish because they listen to their politicians and not to their poets.” I take his words as a warning to not be daunted by the power hungry, to find a way to share what is both painful and beautiful in the human condition.
There are piles of rubble everywhere in our collective heartbreak. To write, to sing, to dance, to be playful and silly, to make things, to gather things and arrange them, to praise, to pay homage to grief upon an alter in the corner of our garden, to plant the seeds of gratitude -- this is the beginning of how we contribute to the clean up and the rebuilding of our nation’s soul. This is our time to make things.