Wednesday, September 29, 2010
An Inky Pinky
Vincent Van Gogh (who died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1890) wrote copious letters to his adoring brother, Theo. About a year before the above-noted self-inflicted death, and right around the same time he was painting his contemplative "Starry Night" while in the asylum Saint-Paul-de-Mausole, he wrote the following:
"Perhaps death is not the hardest thing in a painter's life...[L]looking at the stars always makes me dream, as simply as I dream over the black dots representing the towns and villages on a map. Why, I ask myself, shouldn't the shining dots of the sky be as accessible as the black dots on the map of France? Just as we take the train to get to Tarascon or Rouen, we take death to reach a star."
My one practical studio art class this semester is Pen-and-Ink Drawing, which incorporates lecture and lab periods on Tuesdays and Thursdays. It's a good thing I have it; insanity could prevail without it as an expressive outlet. On the other hand, insanity might prevail anyway just because I have it as an expressive outlet. Something I have always found liberating about art is the expressiveness that develops the more one gets familiar with a set of skills in a particular medium. Something that drives me insane is the frustration of failing repeatedly while learning to be expressive in an unfamiliar medium.
So it is with pen and ink. I met the Speedball pen and crowquill pen, which have to be dipped or filled from a bottle of what once was known as India ink. I practiced calligraphy as early as the seventh grade, and earned ten cents a piece by lettering all the junior high achievement certificates for our year-end assembly while I was forced to stay at home, recovering from red measles. In later life I have inscribed countless bibles given to countless Sunday school students with Schafer cartridge pens. Ditto baptismal certificates, deacons and elders ordinations, and sundry volunteer recognition certificates.
I never particularly gave much thought to drawing with pen and ink as an artistic expression. Artists like Durer or Daumier used it to great effect, but I mistakenly thought that a serious artist would only use the medium to sketch or plan the great paintings which would make the mark in history for that artist. After all, how many times was I told throughout years of artistic struggle that a drawing was only a plan, never a finished piece of art?
I am coming to discover that this assumption is not true; not true for artists or the viewers of art in post modern times. Not true for me, either, and thank you to Isabel Shaskan for teaching a motley group of community college students that dipping a pen into a pot of ink can take an artist to dots on maps like trains take us to Rouen or cars convey us to a picnic in the Sierras.
Even to the stars if we so choose. That's what happens when we fall in love with an outlet for our inner Creative, that part of ourselves that is the truest representation of God. I think that may be a pale insight into what happens when God creates, as well.
In his lifelong struggle with art and with religion, Van Gogh is often remembered for his pain, much of which was due to pushing himself against the limits of the art of his day, and trying amazing new things in expressing himself in a medium that he never felt he mastered. Shooting for the moon.
Unfortunately, he could never have heard Les Brown's advice a century later:
"Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss it you will land among the stars."
It's hard to tell, when embroiled in the struggle against our own limitations how landing among the stars could be even remotely possible. Yet it is done. The possibility keeps me going back to the pen and ink bottle, in motley communion every Tuesday and Thursday, hoping to land among the stars.