I can’t sing. I can’t dance. I write a bit, and like to. Occasionally I’ll scribble something resembling a cartoon; my kids tell me they can always recognize a sketch as mine when a pirate or a cat shows up on a note or inside a greeting card. It makes me happy to see my daughter’s own cartoon cats beating mine into Grandma’s birthday card (cats are easy and fill up the space, she explains to me, my rationale as well, though I haven’t yet admitted that to her).
My wife is the real artist, a painter whose time in art school showed that she could also sculpt, make books, and create with wire. At one point a life sized model of me made from metal mesh knelt on the balcony of our apartment in Oakland. What the neighbors must have thought.
I have a good friend who is a classical guitarist, and while I’ve never learned an instrument myself, I recognize his playing as magical. That said, I feel my heart swell when I listen to my daughter practicing the piano at home, and the other night, long after sensible parents had put their kids to bed, I’ll confess to being delighted when I heard her quietly plucking La Vie en Rose on the ukulele.
This appreciation extends to every live performance I’ve ever seen in the theater. The last time I acted on stage I was in the third grade, a weasel in a school production of Wind in the Willows. It was the 1970s and costumes were very homemade. My tail, which I remember being as round as a mason jar and longer than my leg, literally knocked over scenery during the weasel dance in Toad Hall. I never acted again.
But, “O for a muse of fire…” how I wish I could memorize lines, or play the violin, or knock out Misty on the piano. To be able to paint an autumn field alla prima, or throw a pot on the wheel, or tap dance… these are skills that leave me in wonder.
I remember a time, now decades ago, going in to the Hipbone Studio in Portland with my wife for an evening of life drawing. Her sketches in charcoal on newsprint looked like something by Raphael; thirty minutes in I’d resorted to caricaturing my fellow artists.
And what does this long reflection (confession?) on my own artistic shortcomings have to do with anything? I suppose some of it is just a love or words. As Stephen Fry wrote:
While I am fond of the condensed and economical use of [words] in poetry, in song lyrics, in Twitter, in good journalism, and smart advertising, I love the luxuriant profusion and mad scatter of them too.”
So as someone who appreciates art, and art of all kinds, and who has the pleasure of earning a living by being the principal of an art school, I relish the chance to madly scatter a few words of praise and wonder at the arts and artists I spend time with every day.
This extends beyond the gallery or performance hall, and peeks behind the curtain or glossy cover of the literary magazine.
Beyond the swell of inspiration that comes from watching performances and seeing finished work on display, there is something fundamentally profound in seeing the process of artists creating.
The hours a filmmaker invests setting up shots, coaching actors, editing and adding music; the days a sculptor devotes before a piece goes into the kiln; the endless rehearsals a jazz musician muscles through to make a piece feel easy to the audience; this making of art is, as often, where the true magic lies.
Watching the sawing, hammering, and painting of sets before the play opens, or listening as the costume designers talk options with their director, these are the moments when art is alive.
Poets mulling over words, short story writers wrestling with their characters, playwrights polishing dialogue, this is art.
Choirs harmonizing, orchestras coming together to bring a score to life, the work it takes for large groups like this to make music together is the challenge of art that brings with it the possibility of bringing us closer together.
Dancers, dedicated beyond belief, pushing themselves mentally and physically to make their art appear effortless to an audience who doesn’t see the hours in the studio, the starts and stops, the grinding work they throw themselves into in the collective embrace of music and marley.
And knowing I can’t dance, or play the cello, or step into the darkroom with a roll of film and come out with a work of art, I do my best to be the most appreciative audience I can be.
I applaud ferociously. I celebrate unceasingly. I post images of student art on Instagram, video clips of choir on Facebook, and posters of the upcoming shows on Twitter.
I do my best to remember what it was like when I was a youngster and my dad taught me how to take photographs. He was patient, methodical, and caring. My wonder at seeing the world through a viewfinder, just as my dad did, is something I see in the many young photographers on campus. And I think about what it was like to be young and artistic and have an adult believe in me and want me to succeed.
I aspire to be that adult, one of many adults at our school with that caring and belief, who strives to be that supportive force for all students.
Art transforms the world. Making art transforms the artist.
Thank heaven for places like ACMA, where art and artists are given the support and opportunity to transform us all.