But what about the joy? by Jeff Albert

Film director Tim Burton said “Anybody with artistic ambitions is always trying to reconnect with the way they saw things as a child.”

I’m never surprised when an artist reveals that some small childhood experience was a sparking point for their artistic interest. For me it was finding a box of tissue under the seat of our family station wagon. On the bottom of the box was printed a photograph of a bald eagle plaque and some wood carving tools. The chisels and gouges looked nothing like my pocket knife, and they somehow held the magical ability to carve this magnificent eagle. I bombarded my parents with questions like, “How did they do that?” “Where do you get those tools.” And most importantly, “Can I get some?” A few months later, on my birthday, I became a wood carver.

Even in my young mind, woodcarving was a craft and not real art. Artists were those rare and lucky people who were born knowing how to draw and paint, and although I loved to do that as a child, by late elementary school I had learned my adult lesson- Making art wasn’t for your own joy, others decide what it’s worth, and shame on you if you make something that is not good. So I stopped. Thankfully, since I didn’t see carving as real art, I kept a hand in it throughout most of my life.

In later adulthood, as the artist in me reawakened, I transitioned to rotary carving tools to help achieve the curves and flowing of my own style that was emerging. A woodcarver purist might say it’s cheating, but I say I didn’t know there were rules, and that I would use an old egg beater if it produced the effect I was seeking.

I have been overwhelmed by the support, encouragement and downright love I have felt from most fellow artists, and I wish 1000 Georgia O’Keeffe blessings upon them. Yet, as I watch critics, business, wealth and academia interact with and sometimes infect art, I see the same ego, shame, and fear issues that persuaded me to abandon my box of 64 crayons with the built-in sharpener when I was a child. And I sit broken-hearted and ask, “But what about the joy?”

Maybe I’m too sensitive. And maybe I’m venting because I have seen the battles waged between craft and art, between sculpture and painting, and even the shaming by those (insert your favorite curse word here) who dare to view wood as an inferior medium. And when it gets too serious, too sad, too adult, the beauty is that I still want to run away to my childhood room… and smell Play-Doh.

Although I haven’t done actual research, my observation tells me that about 80% of all the art in our culture is produced by tiny hands who haven’t reached their 8th birthday, another 10% by those 70 and over, and only 10% by the rest of us. And the latter group contains not only professional artists but all those who returned to art as part of some form of treatment or recovery. In other words, most art is produced by people who don’t care what other people think, and they do it for joy! Picasso expertly summarized my whole point in one sentence when he said, “Every child is born an artist, the problem is to remain one once they grew up.” Amen.

I’m one of the lucky ones. Although I still struggle mightily, I am making my way back to my artist child.

So, to everyone reading this who “isn’t an artist” my suggestion, my request, my take-you-by-the-shoulders-and-shake-you-’til-you-listen plea is to go to your local department store. To the kid’s section. To the arts and crafts isle. Buy a $5.00 kit, the messier the better. Go home, pull down the shades if you want, lock the doors if you must. Open the box, touch and smell the materials. And play.