My mother tells me that one of the real benefits that I offered to a weary parent (I was the last of four children) was that if you put me in a room with a pencil and paper, I could amuse myself for hours and could even be heard laughing at what I had created.
I can appreciate what a boon that must’ve been, even though as an adult, I’ve got some reservations (Um, just how long were we leaving little Gracie in a room by herself? Couldn’t we have spent just a little of that time working on her social skills?).
But I can see that the signs were there that I was going to be one of those oddballs that the world sometimes celebrates and sometimes frets over. I was going to be someone who beheld a wonderful world full of airplanes, bumblebees, ice cream, cuckoo clocks and other delights and then felt an irrepressible urge to capture it, futile though that was. My heart would nearly burst with it: How do you draw sunshine? How do you spell the sound a hummingbird’s wings make? What notes sound like a day in October?
And, more importantly, how did everything fit together — what was the Story? What was the point of Life and what were the rules? As you grow, you get some tantalizing clues, and you get to see other people’s answers on the subject. And you encounter the engine of all our guesswork — our culture — and that can be a wonderful and terrible thing in its storytelling. I had no reason to believe that I had any really vital part of the story to relate, but there’s nothing for it, for the ones whose hearts lead them that way. I wanted to re-tell that Great Narrative, or at least as much of it as my life expressed. I still do.
I wish I could say my creative life as an adult was one big happy story, but it’s been rather bittersweet. At the same time that I converted to Orthodoxy and began one of the best times of my spiritual life, I started a series of frustrating attempts to find the creative outlet that would give me work to do that was close to my heart. I appreciate my years as a graphic artist, and I hope that I’ve helped others tell their stories, but it hasn’t helped me tell mine.
About 15 years ago, I got bitten by the bug to create a comic strip. After a couple lukewarm attempts, I got an idea out of the blue that put me on one of those roller coaster rides that every prospective artist and writer knows too well. Initial interest from a major syndicate made me think I was on my way to a life that seemed like a dream come true. But the syndicate dropped me, and after a year of self-syndicating (for the princely sum of $6 a week), I had to admit defeat. I think I still grieve sometimes for what I thought it would lead to, though I can see a lot of reasons why it might have been better in the long run that I failed.
I could skip this unhappy episode, but I think there’s value in expressing the part of being both creatively-inclined and Orthodox that we like the least– that is to say, the reality of wanting what is difficult (arguably impossible) to acquire. Failure is a distinct possibility and success can be very elusive. Struggling makes for a good narrative if victory is assured, but the Church has known its share of sorrows, and each of us has our own to reflect upon as well. I would’ve liked easy success in both my creative and spiritual labors; instead, I have to deal with reality … and I struggle.
Not that I’ve given up on writing and drawing. Blogging doesn’t pay, of course, but it does allow me to work on some skills with words and images. I get some design assignments from time to time that indulge my sense of whimsy (as with a superhero potato character I’m doing right now for a storage facility) (don’t ask). And all the while, my church life has kept me grounded and helped me to break out of the confines of my five senses, my narrow aesthetics and my enslavement to the realms of imagination.
As for my next trick, who knows? I start to wonder if, as Melinda says, I’ll find that the next project is more of a joint endeavor. It would seem to reflect more about who I am now if it was less of a one-woman show and more of a team effort.
I’m interested in a lot more of our popular culture than I used to be, and I see a lot of opportunity for Orthodoxy to find expression there. Cultural offerings have certainly gotten more vulgar and secular in my lifetime, but suddenly the opportunities to create mini-cultures have exploded. I would like to see a flowering of Orthodox themes in self-publication (as Barbara Shukin did), and also in videocasts, CD recordings, graphic novels, computer games–who can say? Technology is increasing the number of people who get to tell a story, and Orthodox have a voice in the Christian narrative that has been sorely lacking. We’re more earthy, but still attached to the sacred. We’re less sentimental, less rationalistic, more scientific and fully invested in the mystery of the Church. I’d love to hear more stories offered from an Orthodox-informed perspective.
But I haven’t won the lottery this week, so I suppose I can’t be a patron of all the change I’d like to see. I’ll have to dust off whatever skills I have and see where I can start.
Where did I leave those crayons? And does anyone have an extra blue one?
Grace Brooks is a freelance graphic artist and cartoonist living in Phoenix, Arizona, with her gracious husband Greg and a coonhound named Clementine. She has a BA in Fine Arts from UC Irvine, and has been a graphic artist for 28 years. She hosts a blog at www.this-side-of-glory.com