When school ended, I thought I would be abuzz with creativity. I was expecting a summer of discovery after a winter and spring spent coming to terms with my own chronic illness. What started to happen was a buzz of mindless activity.
It was as if I was afraid to be still with my own thoughts — afraid of the answer to a question that was evermore on my mind.
“What if I’m not actually an artist?”
We had planned an overseas trip for last week and this to see family and sightsee. Thing1’s chronic illness had other ideas, so I took my sketchbooks and watercolors to Boston (where he’s working all summer) so we could visit our firstborn in the hospital.
The change in plans was disappointing at first (once we knew Thing1 would be okay), but if chronic illness has taught all of us anything, it’s how to find the silver lining in any situation. Thing1 got his release papers after two days, and the four of us had an mini-staycation so he could reintroduce us to our old stomping grounds.
Having lived there as newlyweds, the Big Guy and I have seen our share of sights, and, except for wanting to see a Turner exhibit, we were happy to walk around our favorite haunts. Thing1 and Thing2 made it clear that, no matter how air conditioned it was, they would not be going inside any museum while there was still street food to be sampled, so, on the last day, we turned Thing2 over to his brother and went, child-free for the first time in 22 years, to the Museum of Fine Arts.
The Turner exhibit was going until July 10, giving us one more silver lining for the week. Joseph Mallord William Turner has been one of my favorite artists for decades, and, while we had been to a few exhibits focused on his work, nothing prepared us for this one. Boasting room after room of watercolors, drawings, and, of course, oils, the exhibit focused on Turner’s artistic and philosophical evolution against the backdrop of the Napoleonic wars, the end of the British slave trade, and the beginning of the industrial revolution.
His masterworks were awe-inspiring, but about halfway through the second room, I stumbled on to something much more humble that, for several hours, quieted all the toxic questions in my head. In a glass case by a doorway sat a 4″ x 5″ dog-eared sketchbook next to a faded pencil and gray-wash drawing. The sketchbook was laid open so that the viewer could see several entries.
Studying them was like walking through a forest for the first time.
The first sketch looked as if Turner had been sitting near a soldier — it was a quickly drawn impression of some detail of the uniform. It was by no means perfect. The next drawing appeared to be inside a tavern of some sort. It, too, was perfectly imperfect. It was never intended to be a masterpiece or even part of one.
It was Turner bearing witness to life around him. Good or bad wasn’t part of the equation in any of these sketches. There was no questioning of who he was, there was only doing work he was driven to do.
So much of the noise in my own head is created by the question of “is it good?” I worry about the better artist at the next table seeing my inferior work. The irony is that when my own students worry if their writing or art is good, I make sure they know that creating, working — good or bad – is what helps them grow.
As we moved from gallery to gallery, I began to see more of the same theme in his masterpieces, as well as his sketches and “practice” watercolors. Even in his most celebrated work, different elements highlighted Turner’s strengths and minimized any “weaknesses.” It finally occurred to me more than once that the only thing that would have kept him from being an artist would have been if he had worried about the artist or creator at the next table in that tavern and let that sketchbook stay empty.