Back to the Drawing Board

Back to the Drawing Board February 20, 2015

colorbookTo say I can’t draw myself out of a cardboard box is to assume I know how to find the opening in the first place. I’m not spatially oriented, to say the least. I’ve always struggled to transfer any sort of mental vision to physical form, whether it be drawing, floral arranging, or applying a streak of eyeliner. I’m stymied by reading (as well as refolding) maps, folding sweaters, or closing Chinese takeout containers.

Just the other day, when trying to help my son’s first-grade class stack 100 paper cups, I asked the teacher, pretending it was on the students’ behalf, what strategies they should use to make the pyramid work.

“Teacher, how many cups do we need to put on the bottom row?” I had no idea.

I’ve always considered my mother, on the other hand, to be a visual genius. She won a national scholarship to art school in the 1950s, and although the direction of her life didn’t make a career in art feasible, she has spent her life living it.

As a child, I watched her design quilts and build Victorian dollhouses that rival those in museums. She surrounds her home and garden with beauty, down to every carved fretwork corner and glittering mosaic steppingstone. Her handwriting is perfect. My sister inherited many of these talents.

Then I came along.

Grammar school requires a profusion of visually creative output, and as a quite verbal but nonvisual child, I hated book reports. The reading wasn’t the problem, of course. It was the “report,” the poster, puppet, or—horrors—diorama, supposedly proving my engagement with the book, that filled me with dread.

It’s difficult for a perfectionist, artistic mother to sit by and watch her daughter bumble with scissors, glue, and a shoebox. So naturally, she got involved. Designing a scene from Charlotte’s Web would begin with my mom drawing a pig. Then she would end up cutting it out because I couldn’t get my scissors around the tail. At most, I would fill in the pig with a pink crayon while my mom set upon making a web reminiscent of a Chinese paper cutting.

Most projects went this way. It was a fine arrangement.

The downside was that it perpetuated my lack of confidence with visual creativity, causing me to avoid it whenever possible. Even now, my husband is the official gift wrapper, cake decorator, and streamer hanger.

When redesigning my living room or putting outfits together, I elicit help from friends. While there’s nothing wrong with some good advice, I’ve allowed myself to become completely dependent on others in this area of my life.

A couple years ago, my flowy-bloused, bead-bedecked friend Linda brought me a leather journal from her westward travels. “Draw in it,” she suggested.

“But I can’t. I don’t do art. I don’t like it.”

“Then that’s why you should do it.”

I ordered some aquarelles (watercolor crayons) by her suggestion. When they arrived, I scratched out some colors then put the book away. For a year or two.

This Christmas, my daughter got some art supplies and started painting—just simple tulips, suns, and birds—as a way to unwind. She’s declared no intentions of taking classes or getting “into” art; she just enjoys the feel of the brush on paper.

Since I’ve been in the midst of trying to accomplish so many writing goals, I thought it might be a good idea to take a break, even if just for a few minutes each day, from my “real work.” Why not give myself the freedom to, well, relax and really suck at something?

On the first day, I meditated on Matthew 7:11: “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”

I reached for a few shades of brown and gold and sketched some sort of a lump. The more I colored, the more I realized I was drawing a piece of chocolate. The revelation of the subconscious. I stopped with just that blob on the page, oddly uplifted.

The next day, I read this quote from Augustine: “You were written, but I was without. You were with me, but I was not with you. So you called, you shouted, you broke through my deafness, you flared, blazed, and banished my blindness, you lavished your fragrance, and I gasped.”

I drew swirls, flames, and eventually a swath of color that I streaked with water, a scent of wet purples and greens, like lilacs in the rain.

One morning I was beset with parenting difficulties and stared at the journal, numb. Finally, I wrote the word Hope with a bright grass-green. I didn’t know what to do after that, so I went over to the next page and wrote the letter H again. I couldn’t even bring myself to complete the word, so I traced over the H. Again and again.

There was a comfort in going over that letter for several minutes, just staring at the pigment catching on the rough texture of the pages. In fact, for the next couple days, even when lying in bed far from my journal, I imagined the motion of tracing over that letter and fell asleep to the green H inside my lids.

At this point in the story, someone usually steps in, sees the pictures made in private, and discovers the unsuspecting artist’s latent talent. This is not that story. The pictures are hideous, and I have no intention of showing them to anyone. They appear to reveal the developmental stage of a toddler. But perhaps that is the point.

I’ve taken some time to come before God as a child with no goals, statements, or spiritual gifts. Just paper, color, and a tired heart, finally making a report, all by myself, of what I’ve learned.

With so much pressure to define our personalities, niches, and goals, can we allow ourselves the luxury of doing something badly? Can we botch a pie, fumble a sonnet, or plant a chaotic garden for the simple pleasure of trying something new with the creator by our side? Can his flaring, blazing, lavishing grace be sufficient?

I color on, the gift of wax beneath my nails.


Tania Runyan is the author of the poetry collections Second Sky (Cascade Poiema Series), A Thousand Vessels, Simple Weight, and Delicious Air, which was awarded Book of the Year by the Conference on Christianity and Literature in 2007. Her book How to Read a Poem, an instructional guide based on Billy Collins’s “Introduction to Poetry,” was recently released by T.S. Poetry Press. Her poems have appeared in many publications, including PoetryImageBooks & CultureHarvard Divinity BulletinThe Christian Century, Atlanta Review, Indiana Review, and the anthology In a Fine Frenzy: Poets Respond to Shakespeare. Tania was awarded an NEA Literature Fellowship in 2011. She tutors high school students and edits for Every Day Poems and Relief.

Photo by Iris Aldeguer, used under the Creative Commons License.

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