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.
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.
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.
Please check out the Facebook page dedicated to my artwork: https://www.facebook.com/RSKadoodles