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When the ordinary becomes art

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By Paul Graves

Dear Andy, Claire and Katie,

All three of you have shown us some artistic talent in your drawings.  I sometimes envy your skills even as I rejoice in them.  But you, Andy, seem to be developing those skills as a possible vocation.  So this letter is focused on your passion for art and how it embodies so many life-values.

Grandma and I came to Spokane on Christmas Eve day 2019, ready to fly to Portland for Christmas week with you. That afternoon, we wandered through the Norman Rockwell Exhibit at the Museum of Art and Culture.  We grew up enjoying Rockwell’s unique artistic look at everyday American life through his artwork in the Saturday Event Post and Look magazines.     

As we enjoyed the 300+ displayed illustrations, we paused at one, “Charwomen in Theater.”  Two cleaning women were huddled together in an empty theater after a performance, studying the evening’s program.  Your grandma said something like, “Rockwell could make the ordinary become art.” 

How Does the Ordinary Become Art?

Oh yes, he could!  My question:  How does the ordinary become art?

There are countless forms of art in our world, Andy, and you’ve been experimenting with some of them in your young life.  I hope you never stop. There is no single definition or even description of art, is there.  But in a broad sense, art is a significant form of communication.

What does art try to communicate?  One thing art tries to communicate, I think, is value of some kind.  An artist has something he or she values and wants to share it with others.  When art becomes a commercial commodity, its perceived value determines its price.

Art’s Value

But what determines if the “ordinary” has value?  We do, of course.

When you do your art, Andy, you aren’t paid for it; so by definition you’re  amateur artist. You create art for the love of creating art (maybe even when it’s a class assignment!).  There is joy in the creating.  There may also be agony in the creating. But it all has value, at least for you. 

The other day, I saw a painting of a woman squatting outside her home and mixing something in a bowl on the street.  A simple, ordinary picture.  This early 20th-century painting is called “Algerian Woman Preparing Couscous.” Vincent Manago saw an ordinary scene in Algeria, and created a beautiful picture.

You admire your grandma’s artful passion for quilting.  It involves taking some ordinary fabric and finding new ways to help us see how — when fabric is arranged differently — it creates a new value, a new look, or a new thought. 

Ordinary Transformed

The value of the “ordinary” is somehow transformed through all art forms – fabric art, drawing, painting, music, sculpting, graphic design, jewelry, knitting, and the list goes on.

When your dad was a little boy, like all enthused children do, he would proudly show us what he had drawn in pre-school or at home. When we couldn’t tell what his picture was, we quickly learned to say:  “Tell us about what you drew, Brian.”  We invited him to tell us about his valued drawing.  So we listened.

Ordinary listening to another person, kids, is an art.  Ordinary loving another person is an art.  Listening and loving honor the values of another person as well as our own.  Art happens then!

Ordinary living is an art form for the same reason!  Being human daily creates a “body of value” that sometimes works well, and sometimes poorly.  First, that body of value is created by God; then it’s shaped by us in partnership with God. It’s a sacred art form. 


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About Paul Graves

Paul Graves is a retired and re-focused United Methodist pastor and a long-time resident of Sandpoint, Idaho, where he formerly served on city council and mayor. His second career is in geriatric social work, and since 2005 he's been the Lead Geezer-in-Training of Elder Advocates, a consulting and teaching ministry on aging issues. Since 1992, Graves has been a volunteer chaplain for Bonner Community Hospice. His columns regularly appear in the Spokesman-Review's Faith and Values section and he also writes the Dear Geezer column for the Bonner County Daily Bee and is the host of the bi-weekly Geezer Forum on aging issues in Sandpoint.

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