But unless we are creators we are not fully alive. What do I mean by creators? Not only artists, whose acts of creation are the obvious ones of working with paint of clay or words. Creativity is a way of living life, no matter our vocation or how we earn our living. Creativity is not limited to the arts, or having some kind of important career.
― Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water
Back in the 1970s, there was a crafting craze called “foiling.” It caught on mostly with women like my mother who stayed at home to clean, cook, take care of children, and volunteer at church and in the community. But still, these women had time on their hands and some of them began to foil. My mother had a talent for sewing, but she was quickly caught up in the art of foiling. Things around our house were suddenly covered in foil: book covers, picture frames, and finally, a lamp base. This was not pretty art. In order to protect the foil from tearing, a sealant was applied, which turned the creases in the foil to a rusty brown color. No one would look at my mother’s magnum opus of foil art – her lamp base – and sigh with pleasure at its beauty. The lamp remained with us for decades, centered on the nightstand in the guest bedroom as if on display. I watched the brown creases deepen in color until the shade became something more like trash to be thrown out. I don’t know why my mother chose foil art as an additional way to express her creativity. It was basically a craft of covering things: cover the item with foil and then cover the foil with goop. Was this art? Craft? The answer is probably subjective, but I’m not interested in what to call the piece. I’m more interested in the creator, and what took place within her during the time she was creating.
For most of my life, I’ve been a writer. And for most of my life I would have cringed to type those words The little voice inside me would have whispered back, You know that’s not true. You’re not a real writer. I’ve been a newspaper reporter, a freelance editor, a magazine editor, started and maintained a blog, written a few articles that were published and ghostwritten two books. But still, it would have felt like I was skirting the truth a bit to proclaim myself “a writer.” I needed credentials, a mountain of published works, a platform, a big following, possibly an agent. Those were the real writers. They were the artists.
I muddled along with that belief, still blogging and finally finishing a manuscript after several years, but I put it in a folder on my desktop and left it alone. Suddenly, my writing changed course. I started a non-profit on a shoestring, which meant that for several years I couldn’t afford to hire a marketing director or any staff that might help me communicate to the masses. Immediately I began doing the work of convincing potential donors that ours was an organization worth investing in and that their money would be used to do good for vulnerable, under-resourced people. I learned a different way to write, but still, I wrote. And still, I refused to think of myself as a writer.
And then, on one of our trips to visit the people we work with in Ghana, something happened that began an evolution in the the way I think about creativity and the act of creating. Our organization works with twelve students who have been orphaned and live with relatives. These are the most vulnerable people in the villages where we work. They are children, which immediately puts them in the margins, and they have been thrust into the homes of relatives who didn’t ask for the responsibility of raising them, but took them in because of cultural obligation. They are the lowest in the familial hierarchy – often kept from attending school and given the last and least of everything in the family. Our staff in Ghana provides an after-school program where the students do crafts, receive one-on-one mentoring, tutoring, and encouragement. Our team hosted the students at the guest house where we were staying and provided an art session for them so they could experience finger-painting for the first time. Each student created a piece of art and signed their name to it, and we carried the pieces to the veranda to dry. Blank, white paper had transformed into splashes of vibrant color that was both abstract with a few recognizable elements: a flag in one corner, a heart in the middle, and always a thickly scrawled name at the bottom. I stood looking at the the pieces scattered across the table and cement floor. I envisioned framing the pieces, or mounting them on canvas and how they might look adorning the walls of the Ghana office or the homes of the students. I could hear the children inside the house, clamoring for another piece of paper and more paint on the table. And for another hour, they continued to create. They proudly held up each finished piece, staring at their own creation. They were artists. It didn’t matter that these pieces would never hang in a gallery or be purchased by art collectors. The children had made something from nothing and they proclaimed their creations to be very good.
Since that afternoon in Ghana, I’ve been thinking about art and the act of creating. If you believe that God is the creator of the universe, then he must be an artist. Oceans, cosmos, seasons, and the creatures who inhabit the earth testify to a creative being. Creation is an act that put everything into motion and generated the forward movement of millions more years when nothings were made into somethings, or somethings were transformed into new things. The initial act of creation has been replicated by the created ones. The writers of the book of Genesis told a creation story that enlightens us about one of God’s attributes: He delights in creating. It is who God is. Creator. In the midst of this story, an an idea is spoken before creating the most precious work of art: humans. “Let us make them in our own image.” Whether you believe in the literal version of this story, or see it an a poetical analogy that points to a bigger story about God, don’t miss the climax: the artist created his finest work of art as an image of himself.
As I think back to the works of art created by the children in the village that day, I am certain this matters. We’ve spent enough time with these twelve children in their schools, homes, and walking the dusty streets of their villages to recognize when they are experiencing something that makes them come alive. It doesn’t happen very often, but it did that day and we got to see it happen. We were witnessing a natural act of creativity by children who were hardwired, but not necessarily encouraged, to create.
Here is a thought: maybe we are all artists, and because we were created by an artist who has placed creativity DNA is us, we are unfulfilled if we do not continue the act of creation and then offer it out into the world. This sounds easy to dismiss, but maybe we should suspend the pragmatic and practical and broaden our definition of art. A simple definition: the act of making something. Whatever it is that you’ve been wanting to create from nothing. Foil art. Finger paint art. Poetry. A new business venture. A recipe. If it’s in you, give yourself permission. So let’s all take a deep breath and proclaim ourselves artists (even if we don’t believe it yet), because there is a world out there that needs us to create something beautiful today.