The last two days, I’ve taken our students to the River Arts District here in Asheville to visit with local artists in their studios and even do some painting on canvases and walls alike.
It’s rare that I get to go out with the students, as I usually aid them with math or writing in the classroom throughout the school week. To become “Weekend Tom” every now and then is good for my soul. I think it’s good for the kids’, too.
Art is made for those broken by life.
Our first artist, Stephen, quoted Vincent Van Gogh in his introduction for the students. Stephen is the world’s most preeminent duct tape and sticker artist, painting vibrant patterns on sticky paper that absorb and reflect and reveal secrets when you shine some light that direction.
“Who here is OCD?” Stephen asked the students, and he raised his hand. A couple hands went up.
“Who here has ADHD?” He asked, keeping his hand up, watching another couple hands extend.
“Who here was abused?” He asked. “It’s all right, my hand is still way up.”
Stephen kept his hand raised throughout, and he told the students to find your talent and dive all-in. “Try a thousand different things and find what you like to do and treat it like your job. That’s what I did, and now I get to make stickers for a living. I show up 9-5 every day, and I sell two paintings a week. Talent is a muscle; you have to stretch it.”
By the end of Stephen’s talk with the students, I was ready to quit my job and open my own art studio next door. To paint rocks or used tissues or something and become the world’s most preeminent artist in some yet formed field.
Stephen had found his passion and now works hard every day, getting better and better at what he does. I wonder if I care as much about blogging and book-writing and photography as much as he cares about stickers and duct tape.
Actually, I do know the answer:
And that’s a problem.
Jonas Gerard is a 75-year-old artist born in Morocco, world-renowned for his vibrant splashes of color on white canvas. I’ve entered his studios multiple times with visiting friends and guests, and I’ve always wondered: what’s the point of this guy’s art? Couldn’t a 7-year-old splash some colors on a 4×4 canvas and call it art and yet not pocket $4700 for it?
We met Jonas at his studio, and he staggered out with his sagely gray beard and a black sweatshirt rimmed with paint streaks along the bottom.
“Hello there,” he called to us, his voice shallow and hoarse from throat cancer, I believe. The students and staff gathered around him in his studio, and he pointed at two of our students with their arms crossed.
“Put your arms down,” Jonas said. They did. “Crossed arms are for listening; open arms are for feeling.”
Jonas told us about his upbringing with an alcoholic father and a crazy mother. “I could’ve gone crazy,” he told us. “Instead, I painted.”
He walked us down the hall to show us a video of his art technique, splashing colors onto a canvas as he uses brushes and spatulas to spread and smear the colors in ways that both seem random and entirely purposed.
“Who gives a crap what it looks like in the end?” Jonas said to us. “As long as it feels good. If it’s not fun, it’s not art. Repeat after me!”
He shouted the phrase again, and everyone responded: “If it’s not fun, it’s not art!”
To our delight, Jonas walked us into his little workshop where four or five assistants had already prepared a table full of paints and jars and tubes and canvases. “We’re gonna paint something,” Jonas said, instructing an assistant to turn on some upbeat, folky tunes, wiggling his arms back and forth and doing a little jig for the group.
He squirted some browns and oranges and whites onto a small canvas and started smearing and spreading like the video, and he had a smile on his face the whole time he did it. Then grabbing a larger canvas, he handed a brush to a student and told him to have fun.
For the next twenty minutes, the students and even yours truly plopped pinks and purples and oranges and greens onto a canvas, and it made no sense and yet all the sense in the world as nobody in the room frowned or fretted or worried about tomorrow.
There was only today, only this moment. Only fun.
I never imagined I’d graffiti a wall. Or supervise a bunch of children graffitiing a wall. And yet for the last two days, I’ve done just that, connecting the students with a local muralist and his artist friends as we took over two walls in the River Arts District.
“INSPIRE!” the students painted on one wall.
“MH CREW,” they signified as their calling card on another. I got to be part of the crew and even planted my TMZ on that wall. It may very well reside there until the end of time.
Graffiti is another art form I don’t pretend to entirely understand. Asheville is helping me “get it,” though, the more I walk and drive around this town. Sure it can be sloppy and gross.
And it can also be beautiful. The intricate designs and the message indwelling.
The message is fun. The message is proud.
The message is ours and anyone’s who chooses to hear it.
For more artsy goodness, check out this incredible recap on Jonas’s blog, featuring pictures and even some video of the creative process.
This is Day 2 of #MakeNovemberTolerable. Keep checking back every day this month for new stories and discoveries of beauty where beauty may be hard to find.