Today, coming out of the co-op, the raucous clacking of starlings made me look up. A huge flock of them, like visual Morse Code, dot-dash-dotted the power lines across the street. A young girl, no more than seven or eight, popped out of an SUV and made her mother wait while she stepped to the curb to take a picture. As I drove away, I wondered if she was a budding photographer or naturalist? Did she pause to think about the birds or their behavior, or did she just think about the image, a pic to add to her online gallery?
I wonder how it must be to grow up in a world so inundated by images. Even as an adult with a healthy grounding of reality from childhood, I find it intoxicating. When I was that girl’s age, images were so rare, I think I learned to draw just so that I could make my own. But, of course, I didn’t ‘learn’ to draw–it was just part of my DNA. In grade school, I was always called on to paint holiday scenes on the cafeteria windows. I was the artist on the high school newspaper. Imagine–no photographs, no graphics, no scanned images, just typed text and hand-drawn cover art reproduced using stencils and a hand-cranked mimeograph machine. That was small-town America in the Sixties. You can see how Life Magazine was such a big deal. But today, even the kids at Podunk High have digital cameras. Everyone is a photojournalist.
I sometimes think that the proliferation of images correlates to the disappearance of plants and animals from the Earth. The Earth’s species are dying out at an alarming rate. According to the Rainforest Action Network, up to 1000 times faster than their natural rate of extinction. Some scientists estimate that as many as 137 species disappear from the Earth each day, which adds up to an astounding 50,000 species disappearing every year. What happens when our love affair with images eclipses our love of nature? Or has it already happened? And is that terrible or just the natural evolutionary path for humans, for the Earth? But how to put all one’s faith in images? I’m reminded of Plato’s shadows on the wall (“The Allegory of the Cave” from The Republic). Images, he reminded his companion, are illusions and not reality.
Images are seductive, and for people with a strong artistic sensibility, they are as necessary as food. If you removed all the tools of art, they would find unconventional ways to create images, whether visual or imaginative, i.e, storytelling via words or music. My creative instinct can lie dormant for long periods but usually always revives in Spring, maybe because my birthday is in the Spring. It also returns like some faithful tutor to see me through difficult times, leading me to the table with the pencils and paper. Art therapy and nature save me every time.
The most amazing art therapy story I ever heard was about a Knoxville, TN, woman whose husband committed her to a mental hospital in 1948. She was schizophrenic and said to be beautiful with long red hair. Her name was like something out of a Norse legend–Myrellen. For years, using thread unravelled from whatever cloth she could find–rags, sheets, clothing–she embroidered obsessively. Of the many garments she embellished, only two remain–a scarf, which is housed in the Lakeshore Mental Institute, and a coat covered in colorful images and writing as dense as tapestry which travels around US museums and is permanently housed in the Tennessee State Museum in Nashville. She stopped sewing in 1955 when she was given the new drug Thorazine, described by its inventors as a “chemical lobotomy” and by its detractors as a “chemical straitjacket.” Unlike Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot, she never left her tower but died there, silent, soulless. Her coat was lost for ten years then pulled from a trash bin and given new life.
The poet Elizabeth Bishop once asked a compelling question: “Surely there is an element of mortal panic and fear underlying all works of art?” I am reading A.S. Byatt’s latest novel, The Children’s Book, an epic grounded in art. It opens with the discovery of a street kid living in the bowels of the Victoria and Albert Museum. He survives on crumbs left on plates in the tea room and spends his days drawing art objects. Compared to the horrors of life on the street, living amid so much beauty is a phantasmagorical dream. When asked to explain himself, he can only say, “I want to make something….” I can finish his sentence for him: “I want to make something that lasts, something to outshine the terrors of the world, something to be remembered by.”
Out of recent grief I illustrated a pocket edition of Emily Dickinson poems, which are themselves micro images relating predominantly to grief, fear, mortality. Lately, I have been ‘making’ cranes, first origami and lately drawings which I incorporate into collage cards. Birds, as Emily told us in one of her most famous poems, whether cranes, phoenixes or starlings, are the perfect metaphor for hope. But can we survive on the metaphor alone?
I hope that little girl with the digital camera learns to love the bird more than the image, and if she grows up to a world bereft of birds, I hope she will be able to “make something” out of what remains.
Make me a picture of the sun –
So I can hang it in my room –
And make believe I’m getting warm
When others call it “Day”!
Draw me a Robin — on a stem –
So I am hearing him, I’ll dream,
And when the Orchards stop their tune –
Put my pretense — away –
Say if it’s really — warm at noon –
Whether it’s Buttercups — that “skim” –
Or Butterflies — that “bloom”?
Then — skip — the frost — upon the lea –
And skip the Russet — on the tree –
Let’s play those — never come!