“I want to be an artist because I want to make the world beautiful and everything in it.” I found this written on a slightly crumpled piece of notebook paper that my mom saved in a stack of other school papers from my childhood. I wrote this at eight years old and it seems that by that time I’d come to an understanding that art was not limited to school projects. I had started to believe that it could be epic–something that might blow you away if it affected the right sensibilities.
At ten, my family visited Washington, D.C. and the National Gallery of Art. We passed through room after room of paintings that were to me, at maybe sixty pounds and four foot five simply huge. Viewing the paintings required one to look up… and up–the scale, gigantic–the imagery esoteric to someone like me who wouldn’t yet recognize Napoleon or many other historical figures. The images were costume. Men and women stood and sat frozen with tenderly painted faces and stoic expressions posing in decadent fabrics. Somehow I knew that someone had preserved these lives in paint; and to me, when my gaze passed from the darkest part of their pupils to the reflection of light on the moist edge of the lower eyelid to the soft corners of the nose that were surely cartilage covered by oily skin, and down to the edges of the lips which were really only the careful transition of color and texture, and plane… and back up to the eyebrows that left a nearly imperceptible shadow on the skin beneath their arch… it was as if their very breath and the warmth of blood underneath their skin had in a series of sittings in an artist’s studio been preserved forever in amber.
This summer trip marked the point in my youth that I developed a natural awareness for art that went beyond arts and crafts in school. Arts and crafts were accessible and could be taught. One started, toiled, finished, and upon completion, the piece would ultimately look similar to the other 19 projects in your fourth grade class. But then… then there were the books from the local library and the books my parents bought for me that kept me drooling. Now that I think of it, at Christmases and birthdays they must have loved watching me rip the wrapping paper off of the heavy item that could be nothing but a book, gingerly tearing at the patterned paper in anticipation of the library of images that must lie inside. One Christmas, inside the book I ripped open, there were Michelangelo’s monumental figures in melodramatic poses on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. And one time there was a painting of a couple by John Singer Sargeant on a leftover tin that had once housed cookies–an empty tin that smelled faintly of butter and sugar was an item I prized, displayed in my bedroom on a shelf. I recognized the image alone as something extraordinary and was either unaware (more likely) or had forgiven the fact that someone had printed that image on the tin of some crappy cookies.
Even so young, I understood that art objects were not necessary objects. Wasn’t it obvious? The mystery behind this reasoning never bothered me. I liked it instantly. The National Gallery, the first significant gallery I’d been to, helped me to understand that the very fact that brick and mortar housed those objects in guarded places meant that those things had earned themselves a place in our culture. Had they not–had we not come up with prized, fragile objects from out of our human existence, we would experience a collective void. Those museums and galleries became destinations, meccas of sorts where we went to encounter the rare and beautiful. Art was brave. Its presence exerted itself. And seeing some made me want to see more.
In these formative years, things as simple as handwriting became an art if I decided it was precious. And I did. Sitting at the kitchen table, I made ample work for myself with my dad’s calligraphy pen and stationary, learning to form the script in turquoise colored ink while my sisters and I watched the Cosby Show, the pads of my right thumb and index finger stained blue from the bleeding ink for weeks. The way I cleaned my room, the way I arranged my stuffed animals, and the way I placed my collection of ceramic clown statues became purposeful. As soon as I learned to use my mom’s sewing machine, I began to use my allowance to purchase fabrics I selected in a color scheme to make pillows, curtains, and patchwork blankets for my room. All accents like these were chosen deliberately.
I began to crave the creation of things that transported the onlooker. I wanted to make things that provoked dreaming, because that is what art was to me. And wasn’t it apparent to everyone else? When I experienced a piece that made me nod, or shake my head, or loosen my jaw a little, or when I saw something that interrupted my breath, I wished to be the author and maker of a similar object or image. I wanted to be that shaman–I wanted to make that magic.
No one had to teach me to be interested in art objects or images. I was born with an acute sensitivity that left me turned on by what I saw, as if my eyes were hardwired to my heart. I think others are sensitive to art too. It doesn’t mean they can create the work, but connoisseurs are born all the time. And others–art appreciaters and curious ones flock to museums and exhibitions. I was one of the ones that was set apart. I did not have an affinity for art. No, I started in the middle. I was called by art the way that Amelia Earhart was called to the sky and Jacques Cousteau was called to the ocean. They couldn’t stay away. I was and still am compelled to create, as if it is my duty to do so and my eyes, heart, and hands were born connected.
Would things stay broken and people stay sick if I didn’t fulfill my role? No. I wasn’t called to fix things or to heal people, but what I was called to do is to fill a vacuum. Empty walls are vacuums. We put objects and images on them so they don’t feel “empty.” Floors are filled with decorative rugs. Expanses of cloth are filled with patterns. The non-contextualized images without homes have special buildings built for them called museums and galleries and they are collected there. It is a thing we must do, and aren’t we compelled? And doesn’t this compulsion manifest itself in children that do not discern between a piece of paper and carpet and wallpaper and walls when they take the crayon and scribble without much forethought? Why was I personally prescribed with an impetus this strong? Perhaps this is how we get our surgeons that don’t mind parting masses of sinew and vein with their scalpels, and our men and women that put out fires, and the arborists that climb and care for our trees. I spent so long dodging my calling that the anatomy of the call fascinates me. I love to see it in others, in the people I work with, in the kids I know. Somehow we all settle into place, respective tools in our hands, faces pointed towards our own north.
Behind every great book adaptation is a forgettable first try. — By Ryan Covey