For whatever reason, I never could draw or paint anything beautiful. I had thought that I loved to, and when I was in middle and high school I would work hard on my drawing and painting during art classes, but they never seemed to be good enough - I barely passed my art classes. I am sure many of you have also tried to draw or paint and subsequently decided to give up on it because you didn’t feel that you have the ability. Alternatively, some of you may have picked it up as a hobby later on in your life, as something to do to pass the time, or express yourself in a new way. Former U.S. President George W. Bush wondered about his own life after public office in this way. Towards the end of his term, he found one activity that intrigued him, which was to take some painting lessons. Those lessons grew into a passion, his painting skills improved quite a bit, and soon he was pleasurably painting for countless hours and days. His paintings usually capture the lives of wounded soldiers, and the proceeds for his work goes to help out veterans. There’s presently an exhibition of his paintings at the Kennedy Center. There’s an incredible freedom that comes with the ability to fashion a thought on a canvas or on a piece of paper. In fact, painting can give life to that thought that sits within you, a thought which has been shaped by an experience.
I visited The Louvre in Paris many years ago, and had the unique opportunity of seeing the Mona Lisa. I thought to myself, "How beautiful!" I have since wondered about what an exceptional artist Leonardo Da Vinci was, and I am certain that, of the millions of people who have seen this painting, they are as enchanted by their own beauty as they are about the Mona Lisa. Quite recently, there was a story about Banksy, an anonymous artist whose painting of Chimps in Parliament sold at auction for $12 million. "What is so special about this painting that it would cost that much?" I wondered. There are other paintings that cost significantly more than that. The human expression underlying any form of art can be so powerful and, in fact, any art can fully express all of life’s ambiguities and contradictions. Two other people also come to mind: Vincent Van Gogh, and Emily Zamourka.
Vincent Van Gogh, one of the significant people whose work went on to influence Western art, lived a life of poverty and debilitating mental illness. In spite of these, however, he was able to transmute his various hardships into some of the most visionary art humanity has ever produced. One story has been told of Van Gogh setting out on a walk in order to clear his head and his heart after finally splitting up with Sien — the alcoholic prostitute with whom he had fallen in love a year and a half earlier. It was a deeply ambivalent breakup — and Vincent recognized that they couldn’t make each other happy in the long run, although he was deeply attached to Sien and to her children, as was she to him. Seeking to quiet his mind, Van Gogh headed out “to talk to nature for a while.” From this turbulent inner state, he witnessed a violent storm which, paradoxically, reconciled him to his sorrow and helped him rediscover in it the elemental beauty of life. His work, Pine Trees Against An Evening Sky, is a powerful representation of that moment in his life.
And perhaps you have heard of Emily Zamourk, an opera sensation who serenaded a subway station in Los Angeles with her impeccable voice. The video, which has since gone viral, catapulted this homeless woman into stardom. Her story provides an insight into a life of a person who is only a paycheck or so away from ending up on the streets - or, in her case, already there. Lots of people are trying to help her in any way possible because they genuinely want to give life to her talent. I wouldn’t be surprised if she gets herself a record deal. I am so happy for her. Emily’s life is on a different kind of canvas, the sort which radiates with life beyond its four corners. Perhaps she'd imagine herself on a canvas, but with a different storyline, one far removed from being on the streets. I have no idea how Van Gogh would paint such a story on a canvas, but we can all imagine ourselves in such a painting.
It is quite impressive how we can articulate human beauty, life's ambiguities and contradictions, and life's possibilities on a canvas, or a piece of paper, or a stage. The reality is that people write, paint, compose, and choreograph in attempts at understanding their private motivations and passions. Real life can be inconsistent and unsatisfying — but in art, there’s control. The mess can be made beautiful. You can finish it as you want - perhaps you'll step away to reassess, or maybe tear the whole thing down to start fresh.
But the mess can always - always - be made beautiful because it is within our control.
image: Pine Trees Against An Evening Sky (detail), by V. Van Gogh