Waiting for the Artist

"We tell the Old, Old Story over and over again--but we introduce the moments of Now." ~Walt Wangerin

There is no such thing as art. There are only artists.

Ernst Gombrich, The Story of Art

I had that driven home this past weekend at The Rabbit Room’s first-ever gathering in the flesh, saw it living and breathing, laughing and even getting choked up at times. Felt its electricity tingling in my veins and an answering call piercing my heart. In company of some of the most passionate music makers and story tellers and painters and theologians I am ever likely to encounter, I tasted the good bread of Community and drank deep of the wells of Truth.

I was privileged to sit in on lectures that made me dizzy with excitement and stimulation, ranging from the works of George MacDonald and C.S. Lewis to Annie Dillard and Flannery O’Connor. I took copious amounts of illegible notes and I told secrets to friends of an hour. I laughed till I cried and I made a fool of myself more than once (always a good thing) and I felt the sweet sting of tears in my eyes as God plunged His words deep with that pain that heals and sings.

And I saw Gombrich’s maxim above excavated and built up by an even greater truth, a higher, nobler beauty:

“There are no such things as ‘artists’ and ‘non-artists’,” Russ Ramsey told us, sitting at the front of a small classroom with candlelight playing almost symbolically off his face. “There is only lit and unlit.”

My apologies to Russ that I cannot for the life of me remember if that was an original or a quote from Annie Dillard (and, you’ll recall, my notes are not going to help me out much). But regardless of their source, he spoke the words into the room and they entered into my soul. I fairly beamed with the joy of them and winced under the longing that welled in me like a vital spring.

Lit. Illumined; awake; aware. It’s what my heart desires, even faints for: this kindling touch of Light and Life that is outside of me entirely and yet, miraculously, inconceivably within me by the presence of Jesus Christ in my life. The age-old Incandescence that sets souls aflame with life and selfhood; the Light which is there whether I am or not, loving the world without stint, and without which I cannot live. I want to see it in its glory, be made brave by it for the nameless sufferings and unbearable beauties it reveals.

I want to be available, like a painter with brushes in hand or a midwife assisting at a birth, should it please God to strike His flame over my head. And He will: He does it every single day upon every single person on earth, for He has chosen to imprint His likeness, His image, on humankind. And when one of us happens to bow the head and accept the fire, to receive a signal flare of eternal realities in their little corner of the universe, the world calls them ‘artists’. God calls them image-bearers.

“When the candle is burning, who looks at the wick? And when it is out, who needs it?”

(Now that one I know to be Annie, for there’s a tiny ‘A.D.’ scrawled next to it in my notebook.)

Not only did I receive such verities, I experienced them. I saw them in action, in life, in the artists around me. One of the shining moments of the weekend was getting to talk to Ron Block, halting and stammering as I was over how much I loved his music, over the fact that the first gift Philip ever gave to me was an Alison Krauss album. He grinned like we were old friends and my nerves scurried away, silly things. And when he spoke there was that same electricity I had been encountering all weekend; the same sense of ignition that draws one irresistibly to the Source of the warmth and the light. Here was someone admittedly (and deservedly) famous in the world’s accounting. And through his conversation, and later by the treat of his music, he left me with the indelible impression of his selfhood submerged and utterly re-created by redemptive Love. Of his identity in Jesus Christ.

And by that mysterious exchange of heavenly courtesy, of my identity in Christ.

“Don’t you understand? The Glory flows into everyone, and back from everyone: like light and mirrors. But the light’s the thing.”

“Do you mean there are no famous men?”

“They are all famous. They are all known, remembered, recognized by the only Mind that can give a perfect judgment.”

C.S. Lewis, The Great Divorce

That’s what artists do. As Walt Wangerin charged in his keynote address (worth the trip alone) artists “weave the world around those who have no world or personhood or name”. They create a world out of the raw materials at hand and invite others to experience it in order to make sense of their own. To “interpret” what could never be “made sense of”.

“We are shapers”, he told us, taken literally from the Old English word for artist. “We come upon the mess and apart from our own wisdom we make order of it.”

It made me think of Catbird Seat’s Waiting for the Artist, a song much beloved to Philip and me in the early days of our romance:

Hold me close now I’m
Waiting for the artist
To paint all my feelings of you, my friend.

It’s beyond us, really, this naming of things that either break our hearts or set them free with joy—or both. We need artists to interpret them, to re-create them with an experience we can understand. I need that every day. And if the artist in question is a famous banjo-theologian or the 19th century Scottish grandfather of fantasy or the rather shy four year-old that lives inside of my own heart that isn’t really the sine qua non.

It’s the One Transcendent; the One with the match in his hands, holding his flame above these heads as they’re bent over manuscript or canvas or musical instrument. The Creator.

Early Sunday morning I was able to carve out some time for coffee and conversation with my heart-friend, Sarah Clarkson. We capered from topic to topic, hardly chasing down one theme before we were off on the scent of another. We laughed over all our shared loves and we clinked our coffee mugs to Oxford 2011.

But when she asked me about my writing and my hopes for the future, of my own telling and shaping, I dragged my toe through the mire of insecurity and inadequacy. I fumbled something about being born into the wrong century and never being able to say what I want to say. And she beamed at me across the table, her eyes full of light, and placed her hand on my arm.

“Courage, dear heart,” she said low, in the words of Aslan to the timid Lucy.

It’s what the whole weekend did for me, encapsulated in one lovely moment of friendship. It put me in courage. It reminded me, exquisitely and rousingly, that I am not alone.

And that, of course, makes all the difference.

18 Responses to “Waiting for the Artist”

  1. LauraP says:

    Lanier, you make me cry. Thank you for that. (Seriously)

  2. Jessica says:

    *happy sigh* I’ve been waiting for this post…thank you SO much for sharing! It sounds like a thoroughly amazing time…

    And this post was also very encouraging as I embark on blogging again…so thank you for that as well.

    Looking forward to any more reflections you have to share about the time…

  3. You just made me cry. Bravo.

    It was a real treat to meet you and Philip this weekend and I’m sooo glad you and Sarah had a chance to talk. You keep writing and I’ll keep reading.

  4. Janna says:

    Ah. . . “the light’s the thing.” I believe this passages is close to the one I was thinking of during the story panel. I need to go find and reread. Thanks for summing up your experience here. It was so nice to meet you and I hope we will get to visit more next time. I also hope you’re enjoying the Evie piece, you bought my favorite one. Maybe you could post a picture once you get it hung. Take care.

  5. Sarah says:

    Oh Lanier, there aren’t many lovelier things in the world than meeting heart friends, are there? Thank you for that luminous hour. The courage came right back to me in your friendship. And thanks for the poignant post – something that has caught my heart all this year in Scripture is the urgency with which God offers himself. Especially in the Gospels, I see Jesus almost desperate for people to realize the LOVE Himself is willing to fill and friend and walk every step of the day with them. I see this in writing and artistry of any kind; He simply waits for us to hold up our spirits and come alight with Him. Let’s keep on!

  6. Me too. Totally crying. I’m so glad this weekend was restful, yet exhilarating to so many of you. I plan to attend next year.

  7. […] Waiting for the Artist, from Lanier Ivestor […]

  8. Ron Block says:

    Lanier,

    I needed to read that. Hutchmoot was a wonderful experience, and then life gets back to what we mistakenly call “normal,” a way of living that is essentially sub-Christian. A gathering like that of like-minded believers seems protected, a place to breathe the atmosphere of Heaven – love, acceptance, grace, power, and a group of people who faithe not only in Christ, but also faithe in Christ within each other.

    We get home on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday come and something starts to flag. We’re back to being lone sheep, and the Wolf comes along with all his hot air and broken teeth. We buy into the lies, and then back out on what we knew as Fact.

    I needed to hear that: “Courage, dear heart.” The temptation to compare our talents to others and then shrink back from what we are called to is like the voice of Saruman. It sounds like good sense, sounds reasonable, sounds right. Satan masquerades as our own voice, “How can I be sure I’m supposed to be doing this writing, or songwriting, or singing, or playing music? So-and-so can write circles around me; this other guy can write songs way beyond me, and these other folks have voices to die for. Wouldn’t it be better just to enjoy my life at home and hide out? Why bother with all those people, why bother with potentially getting criticized or puffed up with pride? Why not just shrink back…er…I mean sit back, and be comfy?” That’s the voice of the Liar. Like Neo, when Agent Smith yelled “Why, WHY, Mr. Anderson, why get up? Why DO YOU PERSIST? ” And Neo says quietly, “Because I choose to.”

    I want to stay lit for the rest of my life. Thanks for the post.

    Best,
    Ron

    • Lanier Ivester says:

      Thank you, Ron–you did it again. Pointed me to the Source and spoke the Truth. Thank you.

      I met with a dear local friend and fellow ‘Hutchmooter’ today to discuss how we can keep the things that were entrusted to us this weekend, to resist the inertia of the everyday and to carve out spaces in our lives to keep one another ‘in courage’. I remember what you said in the context of how much we need each other: “We have to keep telling each other who we are”. That’s the best definition of fellowship I have ever heard.

      Blessings, friend,

      Lanier

  9. If the encouragement and stirring in my heart is but from a blog, oh how wonderful Hutchmoot must have been in living, breathing real life.

  10. Laura Peterson says:

    Lanier,

    WOW. Thank you for these lovely words. I’ve just spent a few minutes poking around your blog and bookshop and regretting that I did not get a chance to meet you at Hutchmoot. Next year?

    GOSH. So wonderful.
    Blessings.
    Laura

  11. Elisabeth says:

    I know this comment is late, but I want to say thank you so much for writing and sharing. I’m printing your post to read again. Its so full of … goodness!

    The conference sounds amazing – I’m so glad you were able to go! :)

  12. Lanier,

    I’m loving all these Hutchmoot reflections. It helps clarify all the memories running around my brain. Cherie and I stayed at the same hotel as you and your beloved. I sat behind you and Sarah at breakfast Sunday morning. I saw that you both were engaged, so I didn’t interrupt and I’m glad I didn’t, the moment itself, two friends sharing life was enough.

    It was such a joy to meet so many folks that up to that point had been names and gracious words on a screen but still 2-D. Hutchmoot was an inevitable consequence of the process of sharing our lives online. It was good on many levels.

    You forced me to finally track down that wonderful Dillard quote that Russ shared with us:

    “There is no such thing as an artist: there is only the world, lit or unlit as the light allows. When the candle is burning, who looks at the wick? When the candle is out, who needs it? But the world without light is wasteland and chaos, and a life without sacrifice is abomination.”

    – Annie Dillard, “Holy the Firm”

    Yet another great recommendation from the Rabbit Room is the work of Annie Dillard. I’ve not gotten to her work yet, but I will eventually.

    Ron Block? I was tickled to finally give that guy a big hug. He and I go at it in the Room, but in a good natured way like two old chaps knocking back a pint or two and saying “Now see here my good man! You’re looking at this thing all wrong!” To which he replies “Bah! You are daft dear fellow! It’s like this…”

    The sweetness of the community that Andrew Peterson birthed was born out literally with Hutchmoot 2010 and I look forward to all the wonderful works that will result from it.

  13. Rachelle says:

    Love this. Thank you!

  14. ebbyanne says:

    “Lit. Illumined; awake; aware. It’s what my heart desires, even faints for…”

    This is where I am at right now so thank you for sharing your call to courage. It’s so Encouraging to know that one is not alone in this “artist” journey. :)

  15. […] beloved friend Lanier summed it up so beautifully, so clearly: Lit. Illumined; awake; aware. It’s what my heart desires, even faints for: this kindling touch […]

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