There is no such thing as art. There are only artists.
—Ernst Gombrich, The Story of Art
I had that driven home after attending The Rabbit Room’s first-ever gathering in the flesh, saw it living and breathing, laughing and even getting choked up at times. Felt its electricity tingling in my veins and an answering call piercing my heart. In company of some of the most passionate music makers and story tellers and painters and theologians I am ever likely to encounter, I tasted the good bread of Community and drank deep of the wells of Truth.
I was privileged to sit in on lectures that made me dizzy with excitement and stimulation, ranging from the works of George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis to Annie Dillard and Flannery O’Connor. I took copious amounts of illegible notes and I told secrets to friends of an hour. I laughed till I cried and I made a fool of myself more than once (always a good thing) and I felt the sweet sting of tears in my eyes as God plunged His words deep with that pain that heals and sings.
And I saw Gombrich’s maxim above excavated and built up by an even greater truth, a higher, nobler beauty:
“There are no such things as ‘artists’ and ‘non-artists’,” Russ Ramsey told us, sitting at the front of a small classroom with candlelight playing almost symbolically off his face. “There is only lit and unlit.”
My apologies to Russ that I cannot for the life of me remember if that was an original or a quote from Annie Dillard (and, you’ll recall, my notes are not going to help me out much). But regardless of their source, he spoke the words into the room and they entered into my soul. I fairly beamed with the joy of them and winced under the longing that welled in me like a vital spring.
Lit. Illumined; awake; aware. It’s what my heart desires, even faints for: this kindling touch of Light and Life that is outside of me entirely and yet, miraculously, inconceivably within me by the presence of Jesus Christ in my life. The age-old Incandescence that sets souls aflame with life and selfhood; the Light which is there whether I am or not, loving the world without stint, and without which I cannot live. I want to see it in its glory, be made brave by it for the nameless sufferings and unbearable beauties it reveals.
I want to be available, like a painter with brushes in hand or a midwife assisting at a birth, should it please God to strike His flame over my head. And He will: He does it every single day upon every single person on earth, for He has chosen to imprint His likeness, His image, on humankind. And when one of us happens to bow the head and accept the fire, to receive a signal flare of eternal realities in their little corner of the universe, the world calls them ‘artists’. God calls them image-bearers.
“When the candle is burning, who looks at the wick? And when it is out, who needs it?”
(Now that one I know to be Annie, for there’s a tiny ‘A.D.’ scrawled next to it in my notebook.)
Not only did I receive such verities, I experienced them. I saw them in action, in life, in the artists around me. One of the shining moments of the weekend was getting to talk to Ron Block, halting and stammering as I was over how much I loved his music, over the fact that the first gift Philip ever gave to me was an Alison Krauss and Union Station album. He grinned like we were old friends and my nerves scurried away, silly things. And when he spoke there was that same electricity I had been encountering all weekend; the same sense of ignition that draws one irresistibly to the Source of the warmth and the light. Here was someone deservedly famous in the world’s accounting. And through his conversation, and later by the treat of his music, he left me with the indelible impression of his selfhood submerged and utterly re-created by redemptive Love. Of his identity in Jesus Christ.
And by that mysterious exchange of heavenly courtesy, of my identity in Christ.
“Don’t you understand? The Glory flows into everyone, and back from everyone: like light and mirrors. But the light’s the thing.” “Do you mean there are no famous men?” “They are all famous. They are all known, remembered, recognized by the only Mind that can give a perfect judgment.”
C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce
That’s what artists do. As Walt Wangerin charged in his keynote address (worth the trip alone) artists “weave the world around those who have no world or personhood or name”. They create a world out of the raw materials at hand and invite others to experience it in order to make sense of their own. To “interpret” what could never be “made sense of”.
“We are shapers”, he told us, taken literally from the Old English word for artist. “We come upon the mess and apart from our own wisdom we make order of it.”
It made me think of Catbird Seat’s Waiting for the Artist, a song much beloved to Philip and me in the early days of our romance:
Hold me close now I’m Waiting for the artist To paint all my feelings of you, my friend.
It’s beyond us, really, this naming of things that either break our hearts or set them free with joy—or both. We need artists to interpret them, to re-create them with an experience we can understand. I need that every day. And if the artist in question is a famous banjo-theologian or the 19th century Scottish grandfather of fantasy or the rather shy four year-old that lives inside of my own heart that isn’t really the sine qua non.
It’s the One Transcendent; the One with the match in his hands, holding his flame above these heads as they’re bent over manuscript or canvas or musical instrument. The Creator.
Early Sunday morning I was able to carve out some time for coffee and conversation with my heart-friend, Sarah Clarkson. We capered from topic to topic, hardly chasing down one theme before we were off on the scent of another. We laughed over all our shared loves and we clinked our coffee mugs to Oxford.
But when she asked me about my writing and my hopes for the future, of my own telling and shaping, I dragged my toe through the mire of insecurity and inadequacy. I fumbled something about being born into the wrong century and never being able to say what I want to say. And she beamed at me across the table, her eyes full of light, and placed her hand on my arm.
“Courage, dear heart,” she said low, in the words of Aslan to the timid Lucy.
It’s what the whole weekend did for me, encapsulated in one lovely moment of friendship. It put me in courage. It reminded me, exquisitely and rousingly, that I am not alone.
And that, of course, makes all the difference.