There was a busyness to the quiet that filled the art room like a hypnotic aroma. Brushes rattled on the sides of water cups as bristles rinsed, paint squirted from tubes of watercolor and swirled into new colors, and pencils gently scratched bumpy canvases. No one spoke. Only the teacher moved about, slowly meandering to each easel, cocking her head and surveying. A radio hummed Hootie and the Blowfish or Lisa Loeb softly in the background. Twenty students were in their personal creative zone within a larger zone in the art room. I don’t know about the other girls, but I longed for those 85 minutes. Beyond its walls was algebra, scantron tests, book reports, and a pressure that wouldn’t be released by how well I blended the colors of a sunset. Outside of the art room were great expectations, but in the resting joy of creating an ombre sky that wouldn’t decide my future, I could relax.
I took art for three years in high school. Not once was I approached to study it in college or showcase my work on some coffee house’s amateur walls; and among my family and friends, no one uttered a word about my portfolio. It was my great pleasure to keep it private, a passion for the thing itself, and leave expectations to what I proudly shared: drama club performances, English AP essays, and speeches for which I’d win trips and trophies. I allowed those expectations to define me. Some panned out; others didn’t. I harbor no resentment and very little regret for the reasons why. I’ve learned to let the bold-as-brass eighteen-year-old in me settle into a life less illustrious; moreover, I’ve learned that I quite love that life’s simplicity.
However, recent digs into the cavernous motivations of why I’ve held onto some expectations, have reminded me of the preciousness of the art room and why I longed for 85 minutes of anonymous creativity.
I didn’t work much while I was in cancer treatment last year, but I did hold onto a couple of freelance writing gigs — cherished reminders of what the chemo couldn’t take from me. My love of words and my curiosity about people – like how a couple of guys from small town Mississippi came up with a cheesecake recipe that made New Yorkers ask for seconds – was a part of me that didn’t die off in the struggle to live with nonstop nausea and feet that couldn’t feel the ground. This blog, as irregular as its publishing became, remained a place to tinker and make sense of how I changed. Now, freed of cancer, I have to move forward. I have to wake up in the morning, make breakfast, shuttle my kids to school, and take care of business.
I have to work – a reality that brings with it a world of chaos.
Few people actually manage to make what is considered a successful career out of their passion. Most of us compromise. We say things like, “My day job is being a paralegal, but I craft on the side.” Or me the last few years: “I write content and copy, but what I really love is reflective essays and profiles of interesting people.” It’s an innate need we have to get the truth out because what’s the alternative? I don’t want to be defined solely by persuasive ads about bread pudding anymore than you want to be remembered just for your organized files of court documents. There’s more to us than what’s on our resumes.
This is what I’ve chewed on every day as I’ve started the full-time job of finding a job. It’s that all-too-familiar tug-of-war between necessity and passion that only derives additional self-loathing from inspirational quotes like “find something you love to do and get paid to do it.” Listen, @inspirationalquotes. I get it. Stop reminding me. Unfollow.
This is exactly where I had positioned myself when tasked with an assignment for one of my contributing jobs. It was a piece on Walter Anderson, the notorious watercolorist of the Gulf Coast and the kind of assignment I pray for. It required hours of studying paintings, sketches, and techniques so that I could properly capture the artist’s work. It involved a book and film review and a pilgrimage to the very places where Anderson drew his inspiration. It was one of those articles in which I invested more time and energy into the piece than it probably warranted, but I just couldn’t help myself because the task didn’t just speak to me; it sang to me.
So when I sat down to interview Walter Anderson’s son, John, and Anthony Thaxton, the filmmaker behind Walter Anderson: The Extraordinary Life and Art of The Islander and author of its accompanying book, I basically had to hide the fact that I was pinching myself over my sheer dumb luck that I was actually being paid to talk to these guys. It wasn’t that they were creative people who knew the difference between impressionism and abstract art, and I was able to bask in artsy-fartsiness. Nor was it that Anthony’s film was going to be picked up nationwide by PBS or that John’s father was who John’s father was. It was more that all participants in that conversion had a collective admiration for that which causes someone to take a second look, to reconsider, and to maybe even change for the better. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t a Pulitzer winning journalist. I was a storyteller and was going to create something beautiful from their words.
After those 90 minutes, I was in the art room again. My wheels were turning; something was burgeoning from deep within me; and time seemed to slow down as I gathered all my tools and set to work.
I was so flipping happy.
Then I got really sad.
Why can’t I do this all day every day?
Why, after so many years, have I still not bridged the day job and passion into one climatic career?
Am I God’s new Job?
After that hugely depressing rabbit hole (and after unfollowing another inspirational meme account) I returned to my notes and saw the word, Oldfields.
Oldfields was the family estate of Walter Anderson’s wife, Sissy, and where he recovered from a mental health crisis brought on by having contracted malaria. At Oldfields, he recovered by rediscovering everything that first drew him to art in the first place and ended up producing some of his most acclaimed works that we admire today. There, he became a deeper version of himself because he established a new reality for himself. It was a renaissance by every definition of the word, and what was so new about it all for him was that he wasn’t trying to create for fame or prestige. That race was over. He just put paintbrush to paper and did what he loved because he loved doing it and nothing more. It led to the last twenty years of his life when he was the Horn Island Hermit, spending days upon days on the barrier island off the coast, painting and writing and then returning to his cottage where he would paint and write some more, locking up thousands of watercolors, oil paintings, and sketches.
“He resisted recognition and fame,” John explained. “His priorities were love, freedom, art, and beauty. Money, power, and prestige were meaningless. For him, success and recognition would have made him give up his freedom. In his eyes, fame would have developed a following, which would have created a demand, the kind of demand that would have made him step backwards in his work and not forward.”
Rereading that quote felt like Walter Anderson rose from the dead and slapped me.
What defines any of us — that for which we are paid or that which we contribute regardless of how many people will see it?
Anderson’s wife described him as a man with “an extra spark of divinity.” Indeed, he looked at the natural beauty of the world with wonder — how palmettos sway in a south breeze and the orange glow radiating beyond silhouetted trees at the magic hour. For him, they were remarkable each time. Many others considered him eccentric. Perhaps what was most eccentric about him was that with all his talent, if you asked him what his job was, he’d say that he was a pottery decorator. That’s what paid the bills. He supported his family through a third party’s needs; however, he supported himself through making peace with the idea that perhaps what he truly loved to do was worth more because it remained pure in its purpose, untouched by human consumption.
Anderson once said, “Order is here, but it needs realizing.”
He was referring to nature, but it could easily have been anything random, disorderly, or perplexing. So he was basically talking about my life and yours. I think he was more spiritual than religious, but I also think he would have appreciated these words from Hebrews: “By faith we understand that the universe was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was not made out of things that are visible.” (3:11)
What seems out of control is really just an uncompleted process. There is order there. We just can’t see it.
We will recapture the art room where we will rest in joy every day.
We just have to go to Oldfields.
To read my story about Walter Anderson and other profiles I've written about fascinating people, subscribe to Mississippi Magazine. To watch Walter Anderson: The Extraordinary Life and Art of The Islander or to order a copy of the accompanying book, visit Thaxton Studios.