When Creating Beauty is an Act of Defiance
In recent days I've had an epiphany about creations that are simply beautiful in some way. It constitutes a substantial re-framing of the way I've thought about some of my own work and the work of others, in just about every medium, and I don't know why it had not occurred to me before. I guess we all evolve, sometimes in gradual and imperceptible increments and at other times in a noticeable turning of the personal evolutionary wheel. This has been the latter.
It happened yesterday when I had my first listen to Ray LaMontagne's new, and eighth if I'm counting correctly, record, Monovision. I have loved Ray's work since before he was "discovered" by RCA records, since the time I knew his wife, my friend, Squam Art Workshops roommate, and poet, Sarah Sousa, as our librarian here on Paris Hill, through my serving their family as their real estate broker when they were still in Maine, and to this day. I mention this only to underscore that what I'm about to say should have occurred to me a very long time ago in listening to all of Ray's previous work in its infinite variety, but it didn't.
Ray's last record, Part of the Light, released in 2018, felt like social commentary to me in a lot of ways, although I want to be careful here to say that I never presume to know an artist's intent, even an artist I know. But to my ears, there were things said on that record that needed to be said in times when too many people don't seem to have any interest in being "the light" in this world. So, I wasn't sure what I would hear with this new record, recorded and completed in some of the most turbulent times in recent history.
The record is simply beautiful. That's it. It's breathtakingly beautiful. Sure, a song titled "We'll Make It Through" is what we all need to hear and know right now, but overall this collection of songs is not heavy handed or overt in messaging. Rather, it gently gives rise to an awareness of the totality of life's experiences, the difficulties and insecurities, the overcoming of obstacles, the ever presence of love if we seek it, the natural landscapes and vistas that surround us, and more that is simply within the realm of being human.
In the midst of being swept away by this particular piece of art, the epiphany arrived. Even in the worst of times, art does not have to carry an overt message, does not have to constitute an explicit protest piece. Its very existence in the midst of chaos and cruelty, connecting its recipients to what it means to be human in the best ways, makes art powerfully subversive. The creation of something beautiful, something with eternal themes that can not be eradicated or even substantially diminished by the woes of the world, is in itself an act of resistance and defiance. It becomes a monument to survival.
This made me think quite a bit about my own work and the work of others. Deanne Fitzpatrick's tagline - or perhaps rallying cry? - is "Create beauty every day." I have never thought of that before the way I do now. What does it mean in a world off the rails to still persistently sit down, or perhaps metaphorically stand up, and create beauty every day?
In the past weeks I have felt compelled to make some protest pieces and, indeed, I have some designs sketched out that relate directly to systemic racism. One is inspired by an interaction I had with someone I've known for a very long time who became quite angry and defensive with me on social media when I pointed out that "color blindness" is not what we're shooting for in this fight. There's nothing gentle or subtle about the resulting sketch or the forthcoming piece, although I do hope it is beautiful in some ways too.
However, I am also finding myself drawn to working on the large landscape of my neighbor's field, a view that has not changed significantly in centuries. It hasn't changed through Civil War, World War, the 1918 pandemic, the 1960s high profile assassinations, Watergate, or anything currently. The mountains still stand, the Redwing Blackbirds still dive bomb the pond, the weather still comes in from the west, and the sunsets still astonish. Additionally, as I stared at the peach colored blank wall in one of our newly renovated guest rooms, it occurred to me that what is needed there is a three-foot by three-foot hooked rug of orange day lilies, riotous with color and texture and accented with robin's egg blue and deep greens. A week ago I would have felt guilty about being drawn to these projects, but not now.
I will make the protest pieces I have sketched. I will make the series I've sketched about my experience of complex trauma. I will make the production pieces I am committed to for Beekman 1802 and the kit protos for Darn Good Yarn. But I will also make the eternal landscapes and the homages to the flowers and plants that faithfully return each year to the Parris House. Nature is simultaneously oblivious - because it doesn't think like we do, after all - and yet symbolically defiant of the evil that awaits our rejection and correction in this world.
Find something beautiful and carefully consider its impervious nature. Better yet, make something beautiful and recognize in yourself that imperishable creativity that nothing and no one can take from you. This is the generative place from which resistance and meaningful change are possible. This is the heart of what it means to be human. When we connect with that in ourselves and one another, we are stronger to go out in to the world and be the change.
- Elizabeth Miller