An Artist Again

self portrait with snowman January 2015

Twenty-five years later, I am an artist again.

Way back in the spring of 1989 I graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. For the better part of five years I created art, studied art, talked about art, was surrounded by art. After that day when I was robed and mortar-boarded in order to receive my diploma, art virtually disappeared from my life. With no sense of where all this art was taking me, I had begun looking into other avenues for potential careers. I felt no burning desire to continue on the path to a Masters degree in Art or to make my way to New York City or grab the first job that came along to fund my creative Jones to draw and paint. Instead, I felt like I needed to “do something” with my life; make it count; serve people and serve God.

My decisions and choices began to veer away from art. Having grown up in a family that highly valued Christian ministry, I dabbled in missions for a bit, traveling overseas to test those waters. After that I dove into the heady world of Calvin Theological Seminary, plunging into a crucible that almost incinerated me. From there it was an accidental internship at my first church in Wisconsin, a premature ordination before my Masters of Divinity was completed, and then a leap of fancy into church planting in Ottawa where I experienced a different kind of crucible altogether, which ended in taking that particular ministry off life-support and letting it die. Emerging besmirched and bewildered, I wandered from job to job, desperately seeking something not related to Christian ministry. My search proved successful and unsuccessful at the same time: a man unsure of his calling to be a pastor met up with a community of faith unsure if they wanted a pastor at all; perhaps not a match made in heaven, but just the place I needed to begin the slow process of understanding what-the-hell-my-life-was-all-about-anyway.

Attached to this move back into church work was another move that seemed at first to be a sidebar, an add-on to what was really important to my life: I began to work part-time for an organization that serves people with developmental disabilities. For very practical, monetary reasons I had to take on a second job. Being a Christian organization, they weren’t confused by my CV and I was soon working at a group home in the Ottawa area. For the better part of three years, I worked the pastor job and the personal support worker job side-by-side. I was doing something with my life, making it count, serving people and serving God.

But where was art in all of this?

As a child, if I had a spare moment, a pencil and some paper, I was drawing, drawing, drawing and drawing some more. My dear Mom, bless her insightful soul, used to sneak papers inside a Bible she brought to church so I could draw away during my Dad’s sermons. Being a huge fan of comic books and superheroes, I even created my own line of characters. My stapled-together pages of typewriter paper would be filled with panels of adventures of the Pilot, Son of Samson and, my personal favorite, Mass Man. At school I was simply “the artist”, both praised for my fortunate ability to create and bullied for the sensitive person I had the misfortune to be. I was not a great student or a stud athlete so I came to define myself solely on my abilities as an artist. No great surprise, then, that when it came time to continue my education beyond high school, I chose to pursue a Fine Arts degree.

A lithography print from my college days

A lithography print from my college days

My childhood identity was art. More than some kind of “happy place”, art was a place where I found joy and purpose; art was so much a part of me that I likely could not have imagined it ever not being a part of my future.

It comes as a big internal shock to consider that twenty five years have passed in which the art part of me was pushed far, far to the margins. Certainly, creativity played a large part in my life over those twenty five years. I had many opportunities to write and present messages, act and sing, dabbling now and again in graphic design or some cartooning for a church advertisement, Sunday school lesson or powerpoint display. The creative process in its many forms kept me going in life, without it I would wither away. But truly devoting myself to art, for all intents and purposes, completely faded from my understanding of who I was and how I was gifted.

Then, lo and behold, along the path of my life I took a side-road less traveled by, and it has made all the difference. Feeling unchallenged and frustrated in the group home context, I pursued a change of the “sidebar” job by applying to an adult day program serving people with special needs. It is a place that is part vocational training, part school, part business and part something completely undefinable.  But within this context there came an opportunity for me that would never have materialized if I hadn’t taken this second job for practical and monetary reasons. After a few months, I became the instructor/facilitator of the art division of the day program. Charged with helping the people we care for learn about art and make art, I am now, once again, surrounded by art; quite literally, in fact, as my art room walls are covered with many creations of mine and the other artists there.

Tree House, colored pencil on construction paper, 2013

Tree House, colored pencil on construction paper, 2013

I am “the artist” again. I am drawing and painting again. I am getting my hands dirty with charcoals and tempera paints and markers and oil pastels. I am feeling the joy of seeing something emerge on a piece of paper in front of me, something that wasn’t there before, something that was crafted by my hands and is now my own.

After twenty five years, it is very difficult for me to adequately describe how this feels. But a truth in it all is that I feel I am fully and truly developing into who I really am after all this time. I am the person who has been involved in the bizarre ups and downs of Christian ministry, yes, but I am also the person who longs to create art, to express myself that way and to give that part of myself, too, to the world around me.

After twenty five years I am becoming okay with the thought that being an artist is also doing something with my life, making it count, serving people and serving God. In fact, being an artist may be the deepest and most profound way I could imagine living my life. It took me a long time to get here but, in the end, it all makes sense. I have a heart to serve people and I have a heart for art. I am blessed to see those two things come together for me now, a quarter of a century and a lot of living later.

Chalk pastels on paper

Pitcher with Roses, Chalk pastels on paper, 2014

Please check out the Facebook page dedicated to my artwork:


Faking It

554150__the-wizard-of-oz_pIs it better to be able to do something well or to just look like you are able to do something well?

There are times I feel that I have no idea what I’m doing but I’m really, really good at faking it. A great part of my own personal angst in life centers on this theme. I have been and am now involved in many things that I feel completely under-qualified for and under-skilled in. In the unlikely event that I might write my autobiography, I have a ready-made title: Pay No Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain!

Of course, you recognize that reference; “The Wizard of Oz” is permanently embedded in our communal pop-cultural cortex. There are many subversively profound adult issues hiding in this unforgettable children’s story. All the Big Questions are there: “Who Am I?”, “Why Am I Here?”, “What is the Meaning of Life?”, “Why Do Flying Monkeys Freak Me Out?”. Likely there is something in the tale of the Yellow Brick Road that resonates with you; maybe it is the search for personal courage; a longing for home; a life journey with unlikely fellow travelers. Certainly, there are many aspects of the L. Frank Baum classic that draw us in and reach us on a deeply personal level. For me, it is that moment when Toto pulls the curtain back to reveal the true “wizard”: the Kansas snake oil salesman who is feverishly working levers, pushing buttons, spinning the whazzit, pulling the thingamabob. We find out then who is behind all the impressively Technicolor pyrotechnics, booming voice and freaky floating green head.

As a child, I was always disappointed by this pedestrian man and his pathetic circus tricks. Just like I could never accept that Dorothy’s adventures were just a dream – that my favorite character, the Scarecrow, was just a lanky farmhand – so I never came to terms with a common shyster pulling off the Great and Powerful shtick. I didn’t get it. He certainly never became one of the beloved denizens of Oz in my imagination.

Isn’t it ironic, then, that as an adult I find myself more and more able to relate to the most uninspiring character in “The Wizard of Oz”? Like the pseudo-wizard, I have often found myself transported into situations where I have had to rely on an ability to make things up as I go along. The first time this happened to me is when I was less-than magically transported to Wisconsin to serve as an intern pastor for a small church in a small town. Arriving there for the year, I came with two – count ’em, two – sermons under my belt, written for a seminary course. I agreed to serve there knowing I’d be expected to craft two sermons every Sunday! So from two to potentially 104 (52 Sundays x 2… do the math). My first message for that church was handwritten on notebook paper as I sat at a picnic table at the local park. I had no office, no computer to work on, many books still packed… Making it up as I go along, indeed!

This should have been an omen for my so-called professional life to come. Amazingly way back then all the way up to this very day – as I continue to put messages together to preach to the current church I serve – I have the same thought running through my head as I had almost twenty years ago when I get up to speak: “What Am I Doing Here?” I never finished seminary, do not hold the coveted Masters of Divinity degree, often have never had a proper study, am lacking in many commentaries and other resources, yet I’ve prepared and preached hundreds of sermons over the years. You’d think all that experience would make me self-confident and assured of my abilities. Instead, I remain convinced that one day a little Toto dog will appear in my life and reveal That Man Behind the Curtain and people will see that it’s just unimpressive, pedestrian me: someone skilled in the fine art of faking it, that is all.

Why do these thoughts assail me? Maybe I just have a terminal case of the humilities. Yet I feel a lot of the same things in my other job, as a personal support worker for an adult day program in Ottawa. We serve adults with a variety of developmental disabilities. I work with many gifted people who bring a great deal of talents and experiences to the table. Over the last few months I have become the designated guitarist and song leader in the place. To me, this is another example of the ludicrousness of my life for the simple reason that I cannot play the guitar! There are a couple of exceptional guitarists at the program, guys who can really, really play. Yet there I am, a few times a week, chugging away in my own extremely unexceptional way on that guitar. I know about 12 chords, my strum patterns would make a guitar teacher cringe, and I could teach someone what I know on the guitar in about a half an hour. Again: “What Am I Doing Here?”

What causes me anxiety in these situations is that people seem to really enjoy what I do. They are genuinely moved and gratified for what I do for them. Yet in the back of my mind is an image of myself putting on a show for people – pulling levers, pushing buttons, spinning the thingamajig; wowing folks with a pretence of competence and skill; a patina of shiny impressiveness covering a poorly-made pot with feet of clay.

I do take comfort in one thought, however: That pseudo-wizard of Oz turned out to be a nice guy trying to do his best in a very unusual situation. In fact, he helped Dorothy, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, and the Lion find exactly what they were looking for. Somehow, even though he was not who they thought he was, he turned out to be exactly what they needed. In fact, it was his ability to fake it that drove the heroes of the story on to confront their fears, take the risks, deepen their understanding of themselves, and gain self-confidence. Ultimately, he may have been a bit of a disappointment but what came of all his pseudo-wizardly machinations was profound.

He didn’t really have the chops to be the Great and Powerful Oz but what he did have still motivated people towards something Great and Powerful in their lives. Considering this gives me some insight into the answer to the question: “What Am I Doing Here?” I am a common man with common abilities, nothing more. Yet, when you think about it, it is the common people who have all effected us the most in our life journeys. We all have humble and unexceptional examples in our lives who have had a lifelong and exceptional impact on us and our growth as human beings.

Maybe, instead of being filled with anxiety about being exposed as That Man Behind the Curtain, I should embrace that role. Maybe instead of considering  it as “faking it”, I should realize that it’s more like taking what little skill you have and using it to the max. Instead of angst and self-loathing, maybe there should be joy and wonder that someone so common can still be used for uncommon purposes.

Here’s a link to classic “Man Behind the Curtain” scene:


Rattled By a Raffle

SPEC2081908-1Recently, my wife was declared one of twenty finalists for a $10,000 prize towards the purchase of a new car. Spearheaded by our neighborhood car dealerships, local businesses had gotten together and placed ballot boxes around town promoting this event. When we received our call we were invited to attend the giveaway raffle: a modest soiree with some food and balloons and promotional pitches from the car salesmen. We had never gotten within sniffing distance of any prize of this value, so this was a unique moment for us. We very much needed an automobile upgrade and to win would be a huge boost for us. Let’s just say that we are not in the kind of income bracket where buying a new car is a possibility. In fact, we’re not in the income bracket where buying a used car is a possibility.  Frankly, I’m not sure what you’d call our income bracket; “Middle-Impoverished” comes to mind.

As the time approached to attend this raffle, I noticed that my love-hate relationship with my current car was veering dangerously close to a loathe-hate relationship. I was dreaming of a new car without old-fashioned roll down windows – Imagine that!  As visions of something built in this decade raced around in my head, I puttered painfully uphill in my 2001 Ford Focus. Would my new car have heated seats? Would it have the guts to get me up this hill? Would it not leak inside when it rained? I allowed myself the fantasy or two involving a newer, sleeker ride to call my own. I envisioned a vehicular life of bliss in the near future.

You can probably guess what happened at the raffle, can’t you? Someone won the $10,00o prize; someone not my wife. Basically, we got a free meal out of the event and then trudged our way back through the cold February night to our measly-mobile in the parking lot. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel like kicking my car as I walked up to it. But I’d also be lying if I said something  very important did not happen for me that evening.

Being a part of that raffle, going through the days leading up to it, dreaming of something new, something better, an easier way to get the thing I desired, put me in a detestable mood; I found that my focus over and over was on what I did not have, not on what I have. Agitation, discontent, annoyance – these feelings dominated my mind, all because I had a tantalizing carrot dangling in front of me. The possibility of gaining something I perceived as far superior to what I currently had was causing me to despise not just my wheels but my lot in life as well. My mindset became less about getting a new car and more about getting a new life, as my current life looked dull and pathetic next to what I could have if I only had more money, more stuff, more, more, more…

I was becoming increasingly more disenchanted with my life as I approached this raffle evening. Yet something amazing happened to me after I realized I’d be going home with nothing: I was overwhelmed with the reality that in fact I was going home with precisely what I needed – I was going home with my wife, my friend, lover and partner through so many adventurous, monotonous and ridiculous days of life together. I was headed home to my two children, the daughter and son who I love so much that it actually hurts at times. I was headed home with the realization that I didn’t need anything, actually. A new car would be nice, sure, but that would never alter what is deepest and truest about my life; it would never find its way into my “Top Ten” list of Greatest Blessings. Not a chance.

Not winning turned out to be an awesome thing! Maybe that’s why we went through all of that in the first place. Certainly, the Lord works in mysterious ways and sometimes He even uses balloons and car salesmen. It’s not likely we’ll ever come that close to a big prize like that again but, honestly, I don’t care. What I have that can never be taken from me is priceless and it will be mine forever.

So stuff that in your ballot box.