Drawing people is a jigsaw puzzle. You look at the photograph of the woman with the pixie cut and the flowing dress, her arms improbably easy as she falls through the air, and then you look past the whole for the parts. I start with the head, the slim cap of her hair, the eyes that command attention but take much less space than you’d think, the ear with its golden hoop. Carefully, I put each piece on the paper with my felt-tip pen, wincing when I realize her jaw is wrong. As I move lower, I concentrate: armpit, waistband, a pertly arched toe.
As with a jigsaw, you know what the overall picture is, but not how the pieces fit together. Unlike a jigsaw, however, you have to figure out how big each piece is relative to the others. In my case, I often mishandle torsos, turning my carefully executed heads into tiny bobbles on top of a giant bodies.
A few days ago, I decided to draw one hundred people in a week. This works out to fourteen a day. Let me assure you: this is as daunting as it sounds. I enjoy drawing people like some people enjoy bungee jumping: the challenge fills me with equal mixtures of fear and exhilaration. Is there anything as difficult to really see as a hand, an eye, the coral formation of an ear? Human beings are both so familiar and so hard to get right that I have to push back panic as I’m sketching.
I am an artist. I say that the way a woman pregnant for the first time says I am a mother, both with a little pride and a little bit of fear that she’s fudging the truth.
For years, I knew I was not an artist. That post in my family had already been filled by my sister, Katie, who first impressed me with her talent when she kept all the red crayon well inside the lines in our Strawberry Shortcake coloring book. I was the reader, Katie was the artist, and my brother Steve was good with machines.
When I say I am an artist I mean that I feel out of sorts if I do not regularly make things. I mean that I have acquired artistic skills. I have a deft hand with a brush pen, a working knowledge of how a Gothic capital E is formed, and the ability to make a two-dimensional representation of a person’s face.
When I say I am an artist I also mean this in the way that a child dons a superhero costume and runs around shouting To Infinity and Beyond while mostly realizing that they are not Buzz Lightyear. Artist sounds powerful, confident, in control. Artist sounds like a paid position, and also as if a person could pick up oil paints, acrylic, or charcoal and instinctively know what to do.
All this to say: it feels both entirely authentic to tell you I’m an artist and also like I’m being wildly optimistic. I have claimed the word writer since my twenties, and now mostly say that with conviction. After all, I have been paid to write, I have appeared in a nationally distributed magazine a few times, I have acquired a literary agent.
As an artist, my qualifications are liking making things, having people compliment me on particular pieces, and possessing cabinets full of supplies.
So much of making things is about permission. Permission to claim words that describe who you want to be, to try, give yourself assignments (like drawing bodies) for no other reason than you yearn to improve. Making things is about taking your imperfect face drawings seriously, and showing them to people with pride in your heart.
Is not all faith a kind of art, all worship giving ourselves permission to hope? We reach up to God with no reassurance that any Power is there. We name it Love, telling thousands of stories about that Name. Closing our eyes and praying in the dark, we will our emotions about Jesus to be true. We read the Bible and Gilead as if the Presence we speak about is scanning the pages with us. We gather in groups and sing about hope, claiming the new names we’re given.
Reading NT Wright’s biography of Paul, I was struck by his definition of faith. Loyalty, he called it, the choice to belong to the Kingdom against all odds. Choosing to love well, to turn the cheek, even in the face of a brutal regime that does not countenance loyalty to anything but Caesar.
Naming ourselves is a kind of loyalty, a kind of faith. Mother. Christian. Artist. Writer.
And the bedrock of all of those names: Beloved.