Every Sunday, a few of my friends gather in a coffee shop and talk about things. Lately, we tried to define Art. Are chairs art? Are urinals?
I would like to propose that things which are similar to pine cones might be, or perhaps washing dishes. The Resurrection might be as well.
For me, art is the equal and opposite reaction to fire and things like it.
I don’t see fire as cleansing or purifying. Heat, certainly. I love the cleansing power of warm water. I love washing dishes.
From a psychological angle, I probably like washing dishes because I like control. In the few square feet of the sink, I can make things better. (There is always the possibility, when plunging one’s hands into any everyday thing, particularly foggy water, that one will unsuspectingly lay hold of psychology, or a Tupperware container from the back of the fridge which had taken on evolutionary airs and mutated before being cast into the sink.)
Usually, washing dishes—pulling stock pots to the surface like continents in a soapy sea, sloshing up storms in bowls, turning torrents on and off—has its echoes of Creation. Anything to do with water makes me think of Creation.
If water is Creation, fire is its opposite, at least to my mind. Fire is a dirty thing. Petulant, wild, prone to fits. I’ve spent lots of hours cleaning up after it, scrubbing coal stoves and shoveling out soggy campfire ash.
The first time I remember cleaning up after fire, though, was on a chalk-dust-flavored day when we drove to the church on molten roads, rippling with heat. We were all breathing easier.
The Waldo Canyon Fire of 2012 had roared down the Rockies toward the city of Colorado Springs, where I had lived my whole life. The winds urged it along, treacherously switching directions, threatening firefighters and destroying 346 homes. The forest fire ate up not isolated mountain cabins but subdivisions until it was finally stopped a few feet from the parking lot of Front Range Alliance Church. My church. I stood in the blazing sun and looked at a neat line between black earth and unharmed yucca plants.
And then my family and fellow church members and I went inside and scrubbed down toys in the nursery and wiped fine veils of ash off of windowsills.
My city, and particularly my church, processed the fire for a long time. I particularly remember the art exhibits of photographs filtered to showcase the rich red tones of burning pines and sculptures of burnt wood and home appliances. The creative impulse surged forward to make meaning of the loss and destruction.
It was like the pine cone which will only open its shell and release seeds to regenerate the forest in the presence of incredible heat, like a forest fire. Or so I was told. We all liked that image.
And it’s true, isn’t it? Destruction and tragedy so often bloom into a creative impulse.
I have too often joked that “I only write when I’m miserable.” But I feel guilty when I say it because, on principle, I resist the notion that the legitimate artist is self-destructive, erratic, haunted. The “artist’s temperament” seems a very problematic idea to me. A stagnant water in which we have cultured reason-resistant strains of narcissism and hopelessness.
And yet, necessity is the mother of invention, suffering of empathy, injustice of heroism. The greatest act of love is sacrifice. And we define everything by its opposite. Contrast and contradiction is the skeleton on which we string with the ligature of thought, and paradox might be the realest thing which nearest approaches magic.
Beauty, order, hope surging through, even bought by suffering is possibly art’s oldest theme. It is the myth of Osiris…and Luke Skywalker.
I thought about that quite a bit as I watched shaking footage of Notre Dame burning this week, remembered Waldo Canyon, and wondered what could I possibly say for my Easter post that would be new or meaningful.
Everything I started seemed contrived. So much of the creative process feels contrived, doesn’t it? Or maybe that’s just me with this creative impulse that looks at every tragedy and tries to make it mean something.
I fail, I hurt, I weep, and I tell myself, “I’ll write about it. I’ll put it in a story.” I look at the umber and blush smoke rising from Notre Dame and my very first thought is: “It looks like a Turner painting. I should paint it.”
I reflexively create. I remind myself of the pine cone, opened by fire.
I wonder: is this why there are so many books about WWII? Is this why drama movies feel like higher art to us? Because, for us, creation is the act of making meaning out of pain?
This makes creation seem more like resurrection. It also makes creativity look like dish-washing—an eccentric delight taken in reordering chaos. Perhaps, they are nearly the same.
I find myself thinking the significant part of Easter is that Christ died for us. The Resurrection is mere proof of that, not a salvific or significant act in itself. Jesus’ death saved us. That was the important bit, right? I think of the whole salvation thing as a correction, a reordering of history.
But the Resurrection is not a patch job. It’s not toothpaste crammed into the holes in time and painted over to save the security deposit on humanity. I need to stop thinking of it that way. And I need to stop thinking of reordering, rescuing, rejuvenating as less than creation.
The Resurrection is an act of creation. Something new springs forth. But it not something which springs raw from an ego. The Resurrection completes that higher task of grappling something hideous and twisted and reshaping it into Beauty. It should not be confused with a reaction, sympathetic sentimentality, or a patch job, such as our human attempts at making meaning often are. It is more intimate, more powerful. In the instant that Resurrection touches Death, Pain, and Destruction it breathes loveliness into them makes them mean Love. It is an alteration of nature in the same way that nothing, by one artful Word, becomes everything.
What I can do toward imitation of that, I’m not sure, but art that approaches the pleasant charm and practicality of a clean dinner plate cannot be bad. Washing dishes, or any task which contributes to the wholeness of the world, might, indeed, be art.
Emily Stroble is a writer of bits and pieces and is distractedly pursuing lots of novel ideas and nonfiction projects as inspiration strikes. As an editorial assistant at Zondervan, she helps put the pieces of children’s books and Bibles together. A lover of the ridiculous, inexplicable, and wondrous as well as stories of all kinds, Emily enjoys getting lost in museums, movies old and new, making art, the mountains of Colorado, and the unsalted oceans near Grand Rapids. Her movie reviews also appear in the Mixed Media section of The Banner and her strange little stories of the fantastic are on the Calvin alumni fiction blog Presticogitation. Her big dream is to dig her hands deep into the soil of making children’s books as an editor…and to finally finish her children’s novel.