Last night a former student suggested I get into the political arena. I responded that art, not politics, was my new life and then I reminded myself of a quote from the poet John Keats: “beauty is truth, truth beauty, /that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Art, however you define it, is a well that never runs dry. It quenches a thirst that no day job could ever do. It expands your world in every dimension, even those we haven’t named. We can’t eat art, or if we could, most of us couldn’t afford it. So, if we can’t breathe it or swallow it, what good is it?
After forty something years of day jobs, all of which were intellectually rewarding, I finally get to get down to truth and beauty. Research and teaching are some of the finest moments a person can spend on this earth. New knowledge or knowing that you have changed a student’s life forever are memories to treasure. Last week I got an e-mail from a student who was in one of my classes more than ten years ago. She was writing to thank me for my statistics class. She is currently in a Ph.D. program, and in her words:
You may not remember me because I took your sociology course more than ten years ago. I wanted to write you a quick thank-you message because it is thanks to you and your class that I am doing well in a Quantitative Research Methodology course I’m taking this semester. I am currently a PhD student at CU Boulder. I’ve been thinking of your course the last few weeks and what a great teacher you are, because after more than ten years I’m able to build upon what I learned with you. Even though I didn’t use the information for the last eleven years I taught elementary, everything is coming back! I thought you’d like to know. THANK YOU. Some of my classmates seem to be struggling a little more. I hope you are doing well.
My best wishes, Adriana
But when you can ditch the day job, no matter how satisfying, you have time to appreciate the shape and color of things, the light of the sun and the moon, the shape of a stone, the sound of a hummingbird, the scent of the Mexican bird of Paradise. You bring yourself into a space where you aren’t sure what’s going to happen, open to all possibilities, working, or rather playing, with whatever materials you have chosen.
I always give my materials a voice, whether they be stones or metal or paint or words. They seem to know a bit about what they want to become, and what they want to be next to. If I am making a piece of jewelry for someone in particular, that person also gets a voice. There is a place where I go to find what it is she wants. The physicist, Albert Einstein, noted that “play is the highest form of research.” I say you don’t have to rush. It isn’t for money or a grade or a Nobel prize; it is for pleasure, your own and someone else’s, for play’s sake. Einstein also said, “I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.”
Art, like love, allows us to recover pieces of ourselves we never knew were missing. Art is a solitary endeavor that resembles love because you discover new aspects of yourself in its presence. We do it because we want to, with our hearts, with our minds. Like love, art is not always easy. Invariably there are difficulties. My greatest one is technical. I can’t always create what I can imagine.
One of my earliest school memories is of a painting I wanted to make of a flower, but I couldn’t make all the petals the same size. The teacher refused to fix my problem and I ended up in tears, first grade. I still have the painting, framed; it won a prize at a county fair, and now I can appreciate the shapes and colors and abstraction. Back then, I just wanted it to look like a flower. I thought I once read that all trouble with art was technical trouble, but I’m not sure, and now I can’t find a quote like that through the search engines. At any rate, I am not nearly as rigid and stunted by reality as I was then. Nevertheless, I still have technical problems.
Maybe it’s as Malcolm Gladwell suggests in Outliers; we need 10,000 hours to master complex skills like art or love. In my last watercolor class a couple of years ago, the teacher, clearly a master, told me I could “get good” if I did it every day. Since then, I decided that I would not take any more watercolor classes until I could devote time to painting every day.
The possibilities are endless, but time is not. Ten thousand hours is a lot of hours. When you are 65, it takes almost ten years of three hours every day to get to 10,000. By then you are 75! If you work a 40 hour week for nearly five years, you get there. But maybe the destination is not what is important. Maybe it is the journey itself. After all, what is the destination of love?