The stories that turn up in The Quarantine Tales have highlighted many of the themes threaded through my work. I’ve discovered that one of my favorite topics is ART (as July’s posts indicate). Art therapy touches our hearts. Even my books are purposed to tease beauty out of barren places and broken people.
“The earth without ‘art’ is just ‘eh.’” –Anonymous
With the many kinds of art, today I’m going to sideline the literary, musical, and performing arts (perhaps for another day) and focus on the visual and manual arts.
Though my own artistic ability in those areas is limited to collection and admiration, I live in a family of amateur artists. Years ago, when we first arrived in Chile’s Chiloé Islands, a gallery of antique artifacts surrounded us: wooden dough-kneading trays, stone mortar-and-pestle sets, homemade cabbage shredders and net bread bags, wicker-clad wine carafes used to deliver…milk! It was like inhabiting a history museum.
A later move to the capital opened up other vistas to my growing girls. Santiago’s cultural heritage burst to life for them at the National Fine Arts Museum and the artisans’ stalls at Pueblito Los Dominicos. But along with treks to the Japanese gardens, Renaissance costume displays, and photography exhibitions in the metro (subway), they became artists at La Barraca—“The Shack.”
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once we grow up.” –Pablo Picasso
La Barraca consisted of a walled village of shacks—an entire art therapy community. Some huts were dedicated to languages, dance, and cooking, too, but my girls traipsed several times a week to the classes in painting, ceramics, macramé, beaded bonsai. Hands-on art in all its glory.
The Missing Masterpieces, Part I
Like Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Keli Peterson (and I) conceived The Quarantine Tales as a frame for a fireside storytelling competition. The stories range widely, but today’s double-header reveals a common art motif and mystery/suspense genre:
The first narrator, Lucas Serrano, 17, relates “The Mystery of the Marble Statues.” With his story prompt in hand, a swan-shaped planter encrusted with seashells, he recounts a myriad of mishaps during his summer visit to his great-grandparents’ Zapallar cottage. The misadventures culminate when he and his cousin Nach discover a pair of marble urns and then an entire assemblage of valuable sculptures, recently heisted from a Santiago church–in the neighbor’s back garden.
The boys’ investigation exposes a cleric whose family members had persuaded him to procure some unique religious art to adorn their country estates, using the social upheaval as a diversion. (Half-true story!) And the moral is… “You all remember Padre Gatica que predica y no practica—the padre who fails to practice what he preaches.”
The Missing Masterpieces, Part II
In our fallen world, art seems to invite theft, lust, and greed as often as appreciation. As we see again in the following tale…
Anastasia Valencia, one of the younger narrators at just 12 years old, chooses a box of watercolor paints as her lead-in to “The Puzzle of the Nazi Painting.” She tells how her mother reviews an acquisition for her studio/gallery on Cerro Alegre—Happy Hill—in Valparaíso, only to realize that it’s the long-vanished middle canvas of a former trio that Jewish Aunt Cornelia had smuggled out of Nazi-occupied Austria.
“Mamá always cared for the other paintings of the set como hueso santo, like holy bones,” Stasi says. But the centerpiece was stolen first, more than eight decades before…and the Nazi thief’s heirs have no clue as to its true value or significance. They auction it for a few pesos. The stunning work is reunited, providing joy and art therapy for trauma victims on the Hill.
Beautiful “magic objects” layer artistic creativity into most of my books. In Destiny at Dolphin Bay, Melissa not only gives away her grandmother’s precious teacups, she also accepts the challenge to spin wool and embroider ponchos.
Angélica arranges flowers, crochets curtains, and weaves baskets. Leonel carves animals and boats and builds houses and more. Art teacher Coni inspires her isolated students to embark on a cottage arts-and-crafts industry.
“Blessed are the Weird People: the Poets, the Misfits, the Artists, the Writers and Music Makers, the Dreamers and Outsiders…for they force us to see the world differently.” –Anonymous
And in my newest series Winds of Andalucía, art student Valeria Serrano (Stasi’s mother, later on) shines on an internship in Spain. First she catalogues salvage from a recovered shipwreck. Then she hones her painting skills as she restores a ravaged mural to better than its original grandeur. All leading to a gallery of projects which will eventually define her life’s calling.
Her path, like ours, isn’t always laid out clearly, though. In a conversation with her mother that narrows in on one theme of the story, Valeria laments not finding her niche yet: “All I seem to care about is having fun and making things pretty.”
“I’m sure it’s not all,” her mother says, “but is that so bad? Creating beauty is great art therapy. It uplifts the sad, enriches the poor, helps heal wounded spirits and shattered minds. Make your happy voice heard, through your brush.”
“The job of an artist is to offer a sanctuary of beauty to an ugly world.” –Jeff Goins
Both Valeria and her mother grew up immersed in the vibrant cultural traditions of Chiloé, among folk artists who built launches, rowboats, and churches using centuries-old techniques, knit sweaters and blankets, and shaped platters and shingles out of old-growth forests.
On the other hand, even as they partake fully and recognize the value of this kind of art therapy for the struggling denizens of the islands, they enter in as missionaries to their own people, to a certain extent. They know the limitations of the setting and the worldview in country hamlets where the farmers and fishermen prize jobs and a livelihood considerably higher than the vague benefits of art galleries and high-brow tastes.
“Art is something that makes you breathe with a different kind of happiness.” –Anni Albers
But for Valeria, having delighted in Seville’s Royal Alcázar and Madrid’s El Prado only sparks more respect for the locals’ rustic crafts. Rather than bashing their unsophisticated designs, she cherishes the simplicity itself as an art form—and surely therapeutic. All creativity is part of God’s good creation, for the happiness of humanity and the glory of God. Cross-stitching feed sacks and concocting dyes from berries serves as art therapy too.
Our faith as believers cannot but shape the work of our hands and inspire our creativity in a way that’s organic and authentic to our own lives and situation. My home in Maine is about as culturally distant from Chile as you could imagine. But the same might be said comparing Chiloé and Coquimbo or Valparaíso.
Yet each mini-world nurtures its own concept of beauty. Whatever kind of art we make, the variety and innovation can open a door for the gospel. So it’s not Rembrandt and Van Gogh? It still wields power over hearts.
The Apostle Paul tells us that “we are God’s workmanship” (Eph. 2:10). The Greek word is poema. In other words, we are our Father’s masterpiece—His poetry, painting, weaving, sculpture, or symphony. His work of art, His pride and joy!
And because creativity also expresses part of what it means to be made in the image of God, true art can’t self-focus. Neither Valeria’s personal art nor mine (which isn’t even visual or virtuoso) is meant to establish our own little kingdoms of “selfie” culture for us and our besties to revel in.
Who does my work serve if I alone enjoy it? But if God has given you or me a knack for bringing out the beautiful from ugly and unwanted cast-offs, shouldn’t we use it? If our touch with brush or pen or skein or string helps others learn to laugh and live again…that’s art therapy.
“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” –Edgar Degas
When the character Coni Belmar articulates regret that perhaps her pursuit of beauty amounted to nothing but a chasing of the wind, Valeria counters: It’s a good wind blowing, the wind of the Spirit that finds access into heart spaces where nobody else could reach.
Because the beauty of art so often stirs and moves our hearts, God uses it. Art therapy—a mighty tool for heart-work.
“May your…splendor (be shown) to their children. May the beauty of the Lord our God rest upon us; establish the work of our hands” –Psalm 90:16-17