Friday, May 23, 2014

Pint-Sized Picassos and Human Identity

by Justin McRoberts

A pair of brilliant young girls in my neighborhood (ages 6 and 8) set up an art gallery in their garage. Hung on packing twine with clothespins and paper clips, most of the art is their own, though they also featured a few contributions from siblings labeled "guest pieces.” These young artists also made invitations, tickets and gallery-member wristbands to distribute throughout our neighborhood. My wife and I immediately took our tickets down the way to pay a visit. We made sure to go during the hours posted on the “Gradn Openig” sign outside. 

Handing in our tickets at the front desk, we received paper bracelets that allowed us gallery access throughout the day. Our bracelets, we were informed, also afforded us a 10% discount on featured pieces, 20% off guest work. We purchased one pencil drawing, one watercolor and then commissioned a second watercolor for my 4yr old son. He had noted a lack of truck-themed artwork and we decided to rectify that oversight.

Though they could have spent their free time consuming countless hours of children’s television, these girls chose instead to beauty to their neighborhood and their world. They chose to devote their time to the work and the wonder of creating.

I think these kinds of expressions, these deep desires that resonate within us, represent the best of who we are - in our better moments, and as our better selves, we use the raw materials around us and within us to make something truer, better and more beautiful.

We are makers, you and I.
We are creatures who create.

Unsatisfied with what is, we dream of better things and then we build them.
This is the best of who we are.

“The world is full of noise,” says author Andy Crouch, “but only humans make music.”

In his essential letter to artists in 1992, Pope John Paul II suggests, “The human craftsman mirrors the image of God as the Creator.”
Professor David Dark writes, “Something often excluded from our definition of being human is that we are makers.”

I see this truth about us at play in an endless list of creative expressions...

- the way our hands can take paper and steel and ink and fire to create a piece of art that evokes powerful emotions and thoughts in its viewers.

- the way our hands can rebuild a city twisted and broken by weather or war or tectonic shifts…

- the way our hands can take hold of a life crushed and defeated by chemicals or abuse and slowly, patiently, reshape, and restore a person to health.

By its very practice, the story art tells about us seems to echo the religious narrative of human life: that there is more to life than what we can measure or see. And not only do we get to experience that “More," we also get to participate in it… should we have the courage. The measurable, material world is exactly and only that: material -like unworked clay... a beginning, pregnant with potential in the hands of a powerful, creative being. In other words, both art and religion intrinsically proclaim that it is the act of making (and even unmaking) that defines the human experience of life rather than our matter or our circumstances.

My materialist friends tend to balk at my religious reading of the human experience, believing I add an unnecessary, Christian filter to everything, like the Instagram user who just can’t let well enough alone. I understand their concern, but I struggle to find anything in a materialist worldview that fully accounts for (much less affirms) the vibrant and vital story of a humanity unsatisfied with the world as it is. The instinct for survival just isn’t a large enough story. We clearly want and work for more than simple survival. We are not content with what simply is. In our better moments, we want to make better things from the lesser things we naturally have in hand.

“The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden, to till it and keep it.” - Gen 2:15

Being in the garden was a beginning.
The soil and the seed was a beginning.
That we were asked to do something with the things we were given is the beginning of human history, the beginning of the world.

For the artist, it isn’t enough to have clay and steel and paint. Holding these things doesn’t make one an artist; making something of them does. I’ve come to believe the same thing about being “human.” It is not enough to hold chemistry and history and circumstance in our hands - our humanity is dependent upon what we make of what we are given.

My blessings and abuses, wealth and lack are a beginning - a start.
What am I making from what I am given?
What am I building?
My materials might be paint or pixels, notes or measures, steel or clay…
Or they might be the fragments of a shattered past.

Regardless, I believe it is what I make, rather than what I have, that defines who I am, that tells my story true. 

Justin McRoberts is a singer, songwriter, blogger, pastor and teacher living in San Francisco He is also the mind behind the CMYK Project. You can follow him on Twitter @justinmcroberts and find more information about his other endeavors here.

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