My wife enjoys gardening.
The other day she made a small arrangement of black-eyed Susan’s in a small vase. The flowers sat by the window near the kitchen sink. I thought they were stunning. Like tunes that will sometimes play repeatedly through my head, I kept seeing the flowers in my mind’s eye. I wanted to photograph the arrangement; to give expression to the feeling that the flowers inspired in me. The feeling is hard to describe. It’s like being surprised by beauty; it lifts the heart and inspires the spirit. That hunger for being inspired and uplifted is as real and compelling for the soul as food for the body. We can survive without it, but we won’t really be living.
The next day, after making several photographs of the arrangement, I spent most of the day in the darkroom working with the negatives. Using chemicals, photographic paper and light, I attempted to coax out on print paper what my mind had found so endearing.
Artists of all stripes do this routinely in their several mediums. Creative processes, however, aren’t exclusive to professional artists. They’re a part of being human; it’s what we do all the time ––we create.
Creativity finds expression regularly in daily life: the way meals are prepared, how they’re presented; deciding the clothing we wear or how the room gets decorated; how our hair is cut, the colors we choose to paint walls, furniture arrangements, and planting gardens.
This atavistic creativity is latent in all of us. Watch children at play. You can see it.
For many years we kept an ‘arts and crafts’ play table for grandchildren. Craft material consisted of water colors and crayons, colored craft paper, scotch tape, and cores from toilet tissue and Scott Towel rolls. Styrofoam boxes were a favorite and there were a variety of clear plastic containers, scissors, glue, paper pads, one or two tin cans and plenty of cardboard. No sooner would the children arrive than they’d head straight for the table. What followed I can best describe as a creative feeding frenzy. They’d go nuts; making castles for their favorite princesses, houses for mythical frogs, surrealistic paintings, portraits of parents, sibs and grandparents. This and chattering all the while. The energy was palpable.
One Saturday morning over twenty-five years ago, my wife and I went to visit the Baltimore Museum of Art. It was children’s morning that day and there were kids everywhere, accompanied by enthusiastic parents. The venue was painting and drawing. Easels and tables had been arranged throughout several rooms for the children to be initiated into the mysteries. When we arrived, children were already well into their paintings and drawings, while facilitators roamed among the tables encouraging the children in their projects.
I noticed one little girl. She was enthralled executing her assignment. She was a beautiful child and her expression made her appear as if her entire being was at one with the drawing she was making. I saw her as a portrait of what transcendence looks like. There were people milling around, but her attention didn’t deviate from her task. I stood close by and began photographing her. She didn’t notice me.
What was curious to me was how her expression and body language communicated the presence of enormous energy. She was totally focused, bringing to the paper in front of her whatever she saw in her mind’s eye, or more properly, what she had conceived in her heart. I stood watching her for a moment and then moved on. We left the museum in about two hours; when we did, I could see she was still at it. I never saw what it was she was drawing. She was inspired, in an intense creative mode.
It was something like that for me the other day, when I photographed the flowers. For at least three hours I played with the shadows and corresponding highlights attempting to realize the image as I had recalled the first moment I saw it. It’s not as if I’d never done this before. I’ve been at this process photographically for about 75 years. That day in the dark room I utilized all I knew about managing shadows and highlights and still it would not come out the way I first saw the flowers. I stayed with it until the picture emerged as I wished. The process was incredibly energizing, all consuming, driven by a hope of realizing an image of beauty that lived in my heart. Time stood still.
Art, professional or otherwise, is an inspired activity. The etymology of the word ‘inspire’ suggests that when we are inspired, we are being influenced by God. In a sense, divine guidance informs creativity.
Sadly, in our consumerist culture art is often trivialized. The arts in education are the last to be funded, and meagerly at that. The arts are valued mostly as a commodity, a marketing tool, something to be bought, sold, or possessed as a status symbol. Collectors enjoy wealth and social status while artists, as the old saying goes, starve. But not really . . . the creative act will always lift the spirit of its creator and inspire other souls yearning to be fed.
I don’t know how long the little girl took to complete her drawing. It took me, overall, three days to complete a picture of the flowers. God took six days to create a universe. I have this thought; when, for all three of us, our work was completed, we thought to ourselves, as God did “when he saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good.”
Creating is good, and it’s fun, too.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.