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The Artist’s Life

My little sister and her husband are painters. They’ve dreamed of careers in art since they were children. And it’s with much more than a sisterly bias that I can say they are both extremely talented. With an enviable ardor they packed up and left everything they had ever known not six months after they were married to go and study at the legendary Art Student’s League in New York City. There they managed to get into a class taught by one of the world masters of realistic painting, a class which usually has a waiting list years long. And so, living happily and simply in a tiny apartment, working part-time jobs and prowling the Met all they can, they pursue what they love every single day. All under the banner of their indefatigable motto: Hard Work and High Spirits.

Liz and I love to flesh out the various likenesses of our passions. Between my writing and her painting we have found much to identify with in the other. Where I take my journal, she takes her sketchbook, but the motivation is the same. We long to capture and process what we see and feel, to produce a tangible bit of our own inspiration that pays homage to the originality and beauty of our God. I don’t feel that I am living fully unless I am sorting it all out in my journal; to deprive Liz of her drawing would be to take the color out of her world. And it’s all the groundwork for something greater, something beyond ourselves. Something that we can present to God as our own offering, a testament to the unquenchable, universal desire to create that He has instilled in us all. As Edith Schaeffer expounds in her jewel of a book Hidden Art, we are created in the image of a Creator. And, as such, we are created with a passion to create.

I have never had the slightest doubt that my sister would succeed as a painter. I know her—her drive, her zeal for true beauty, her precision and skill and devotion. She’s never been afraid of the work involved. She’s never retreated before the scorn of critics who were too enamored with the new and edgy to appreciate the divine, ‘old masters’ look of her paintings. But it has always taken me off guard to be reminded of her confidence in me as a writer. She was the one who listened with shining eyes to those first fanciful, overly-eloquent stories and loved the bit of my soul they revealed. And she is the one today who treats me as a fellow artist, and views my scribblings and yearnings with the same gravity as she does her own portrait work and gallery pieces.

Introducing me to someone at a party once, she said, ‘This is my sister, Lanier. She’s a writer.’ In one moment, in one small sentence, she declared her faith in me. I was so overjoyed I wanted to hug her on the spot. She had called me what I had been afraid to call myself, and it somehow made it true. I was a writer—not because I had published books or won awards, but because the unique stamp of God’s image on my personality was ‘the pen of a ready writer’. Because I wrote. She told me that night without a word: “You want to be a writer? Then the first person you have to convince is yourself.”

It was Liz who finally persuaded me to make my writing a daily part of life. A priority of the highest order, not a treat to be relished when every other possible task had been attended to; a ritual as regular and dear as my devotions and my homemaking. But it was her husband, Marshall, who first suggested ‘The Contest’. Part of the self-generated ‘Art Revolution’ that he and Liz were championing in their own lives involved a minimum of thirty minutes’ drawing per day. Focused sketching for the purpose of honing the foundation of their painting. Recognizing the natural human tendency to strive for excellence when the stakes were high, he made me a proposition the summer before they left for New York. If I would write for half-an-hour a day, he would sketch for the same. At the end of the month we would tally up our hours, and the winner would be entitled to a favor of any description from the loser.

I laughingly accepted the challenge. But at the end of the first month—during which I had written more than all the past several months put together—I was amazed. As Marshall said, “It really is surprising how prolific you can become with even a short daily commitment.” He was right. And with those faithful, daily doses, goaded onward by the spice of friendly competition, writing had become the priority that I had always wished it to be. No more dreaming of some magically uncommitted time in my life to hole up and dash out the next great novel, but real, integral writing intentionally squeezed into a full life simply because I couldn’t not do it.

We exchanged all kinds of daring banter that summer. Marshall laboriously glued back together some impossibly delicate demitasse cups of mine. I toiled over a pair of dress pants tailored to his specifications. Early on in our challenge Liz reminded me of the great motto emblazoned over the door of the Art Student’s League and they became my standard: Nulla Dies Sine Linea. Not a day without a line. The prerequisite for the artist’s life.

Before they moved away, Liz and Marshall took a week-long camping trip with my husband and me in our 1962 Airstream trailer. It was a precious time made all the more dear by their impending departure—looking back it seems I savored the best moments with a lump in my throat. In the late afternoons we’d settle in our camp with the sunset gathering beyond House Mountain to the west and spilling its radiance over the temperate corner of the Shenandoah Valley we were privileged to call our own for the week.  Enveloped in a silence so perfect it seemed enchanted, we would give ourselves over to artistic pursuits. I remember typing madly in my sling back chair, a cup of tea close at hand. Liz was beside me committing her own thoughts to paper and Philip was stretched out in the trailer with Walden or a notepad of what Liz dubbed ‘life thoughts’. Marshall set up his easel facing the beloved view that greeted us each morning: the old barn, the vegetable garden bejeweled with tomatoes and peppers and tasseled with golden corn, the winding drive with the willow at the bend.

I will never forget the sweet compatibility of those hours as we strove together for expression in words and in paint. Silently minding our endeavors as darkness fell; an almost holy pause before the hilarity of the evening ensued, when sparks would fly heavenward from our campfire and laughter would ring out upon the uncanny stillness of the night.  It was a solitude of perfect unity, a joyful seclusion in the haven of true understanding. It hardly seemed possible that such harmony could exist this side of heaven.

Not long after we returned I went over Liz and Marshall’s apartment to help them pack. It was so awfully surreal to be wrapping their wedding presents and books and stashing them in boxes for a destination I couldn’t even picture. I fumbled about for words to tell them how proud I was, how much I admired their faith in their calling. But I kept tripping over how dreadfully I was going to miss them.

Don’t!” Liz warned me, catching sight of my brimming eyes.

I swallowed hard and started bundling paintings in towels and sliding them into long boxes. But there was one painting that I couldn’t package with the others. It was a small one, six by eight, of a tin-roofed barn, a garden tossing with corn, a bend in the road and mountains beyond. I was still holding it rather hesitantly when Marshall came in.

He grinned. “That’s one of Beetle’s favorites.”

‘Beetle’ is his term of utmost affection for my sister, and I remembered plainly how she had appropriated that painting when it was hardly dry, mounted on an easel in the Shenandoah Valley.

“You still owe me one—for August, you know.” I held the painting a little closer. “Call it even?”

Marshall shrugged and looked at Liz. “It’s up to Beetle.”

Liz stopped piling clothes in a box and frowned slightly. “Permanent loan,” she decreed. “Until he can replace it with another one.”

I was happy and carried my little painting home in triumph. I propped it on the bookshelf, where I’d see it more often than any place else in the house.

That was almost five years ago, now, and Liz and Marshall each have distinguished themselves with a résumé of awards and scholarships and residencies as long as their respective arms, not to mention a body of work literally heartbreaking in its beauty and humanity. But their challenge rings just as true as ever: the bone and marrow of the artists’ life is lines. Words, notes, brushstrokes. One after another.

Every single day.


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