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Thursday
Apr282011

Believing the Seeds of Wonderland

The last time I received formal recognition for being "creative" was in fourth grade; my painting was one of a handful of Maryland winners in the Crayola Dream-Makers competition. It depicted my "dream": to catch a fish. My family traveled from Paintsville, KY to Baltimore where, with the other winners, we enjoyed an art opening in a gorgeous two-story gallery. My painting went on to display in two other major cities that year. That artistic recognition set the tone for me to operate creatively for many years, encouraging me to write poetry, act in plays, and learn to throw pots. I loved every second of it.

When I moved to Music City nearly twelve years ago, I started to doubt the validity of my artistic spirit. During my first summer in Nashville, I lived with two extremely creative roommates and spent the entire summer feeling like I did not have a single creative bone in my body. In contrast to the gorgeous new paintings springing up in our living room and the new songs being played in late-night circles in our kitchen, my sparks of wonder and beauty seemed minuscule.

I ended up at a gathering of artists including one of my roommates, Katy Bowser. We were asked to introduce ourselves and tell what we made. As I sat listening to each careful description of beauty, I wondered what I would say. I thought of the piles of editorial files I’d been asked to archive and organize that summer, and the twelve youth-group kids I’d shaped into a little community during the two years prior. After thinking it over, I came up with something like, “My name is Alice. I make connections between people and order from disorder.” 

Two winters later, a snowstorm came through one night while a crew of twenty or so friends hung out together. Around 1:00 a.m. as conversations about music and story continued, I looked around and realized I was the only person there with a “day job.” There, and in nearly every setting I found myself during those new years in Nashville, in contrast to the artists surrounding me, others viewed me as highly organized, "type A," and detail-oriented. Sadly, this often made me feel uninspired and somehow "less than" my artistic friends. That feeling persisted for years.

Then three years ago on my thirtieth birthday, my husband put together the most creative gift I’ve ever received. While our son napped, he asked me to join him on our front porch. In his hand, he carried his iPod and a little speaker. I assumed for a moment that he’d written me a song. Instead, he’d asked family, friends, and neighbors from my past and present circles to leave voice messages for me with blessings, memories, and encouragements for the journey. He compiled them into a playlist and we sat through nap-time listening to the voices of eighty-three people tell me who I am and what they celebrate in me.

Elizabeth Hatchett, the other roommate from the summer I first lived in Nashville, wished me a happy birthday and then said, “One of my favorite things about you is the way you talk about other people. It is just completely evident that you are a connoisseur of the beauty in others . . . That, my dear friend, is absolutely gorgeous.”

What she said that day gave me freedom and permission to look into the eyes of a friend and see a painting in progress, to be surprised by the melodies of memories triggered at perfect moments, to tease out the poetic rhythms of any given day. I began to realize that while many of my friends make art with guitars or paintbrushes, my preferred medium is the fabric of human relationships: making lasting connections between people and seeking to illuminate the image of God that each person bears. Whether it be the slow process of trying to introduce two women to each other (knowing they’d become fast friends and simply must connect) or the sweet, unlikely friendship with a formerly homeless, dying man whose story I will never forget or the careful work of mowing a baseball diamond into our backyard for play with my four-year-old son, I know that what I make is part of the kingdom God is making.

More encouragement to be fully myself came recently, just days before a road trip with three of the most lovely and creative women I have the pleasure of knowing and loving. Just at the right time, my mom shared a quote from Wendell Berry that gave me what I needed to fight the creeping insecurity that had been building inside my heart as I anticipated time with my artistic friends. He writes, “Good artists are people who can stick things together so that they stay stuck. They know how to gather things into formal arrangements that are intelligible, memorable, and lasting. Good forms confer health upon the things that they gather together. Farms, families, and communities are forms of art just as are poems, paintings, and symphonies. None of these things would exist if we did not make them. We can make them well or poorly; this choice is another thing that we make" (from “Life is a Miracle: an Essay Against Modern Superstition,” 2000).

Poets recite. Songwriters sing. Photographers capture. What do I do? I feel. I imagine. I love. I’m never going to compile a portfolio of the intricate glories I see in the people around me, the ideas I nurture carefully to fruition, or the stories I help to take shape. But I know that if God is inherently creative, then I am called to be creative as a woman. He crafted me in His image. I know this but I forget it. I need the help of all the artists making tangible art and writing glorious stories to remind me that the intangible art and undocumented stories in my life are also worthwhile.

Next week, I fully expect that the dream I had to catch a fish will become a reality many times over. I’ll join my dad and brother on a walleye-catching adventure out on Lake Erie. I wonder if, like the Wonderland collection of Yeondoo Jung, there will be a moment of clarity and joy that is even better than the dream I painted twenty-three years ago. My painting didn’t necessarily receive that award for being an excellent work of art, but rather for being a window into a little girl’s unlikely desires. It expressed the dream I had of more good times with my dad doing something we both love. It came from a deep place inside me and, though I don’t know for sure, I wouldn’t be surprised if the timing of all these memories, the gathering of my thoughts as I write this, and the planned fishing trip are meant to show me how immensely creative God’s design for my life really is. While out on the lake, and every day afterwards, I hope to embrace the wonder of living out of a creative core.


Alice Smith is a wife and mother living in East Nashville, where she looks for truth and beauty in the friends and neighbors around her. Alice studied Journalism and Christian Ministries & Missions at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky. After graduating in 2000, she married her high school sweetheart, Matthew, and moved to Nashville, where she worked in the music business for six years. Matthew and Alice are founding members of City Church of East Nashville and have two sons, Evan Edge (4) and Asher Hart (2). She also currently serves on the board of a neighborhood non-profit (International MOMS Club) that seeks to support moms who are at home during the day with their children while serving the community together.

Occasionally, Alice blogs at alicemarysmith.tumblr.com and sends tweets out into the ether at twitter.com/alicesmith. But she mostly just prays in fits and starts, between changing diapers and making meals for little people, that Jesus would come quickly to renew this world.

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Reader Comments (9)

Alice, I love this. You have articulated the heart of creativity--bringing order out of disorder, and in so doing, making connections between people. You have given me a way to talk about my own wife's lavish creativity, which expresses itself in a thousand ways besides the artifacts we call "art."

Walt Wangerin gave a talk in Nashville last summer in which he spoke of the artist as a "heaper of heaps and piler of piles." Which is another way of saying what Wendell Berry said in the passage you quoted. And another way of talking about most day jobs. We are all sub-creators.

So thanks, Alice, and here's hoping you and the boys catch a whole mess of fish.

April 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJonathan Rogers

Tears running full on and down.

April 28, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterKathleen

Thank you so much for this! I've been wrestling in the last couple of years with the role that creative expression plays in my life. For a large part of my adolescence and early adulthood I was highly creative--custom sewing business, winning awards for art quilts, getting a degree in creative writing, etc. I had the freedom to create because I lived a very isolated life with few relationships in the middle of nowhere. Now I live in an urban center, work in the office of a nonprofit and am preparing for graduate school. My life overflows with fruitful relationships, but not much artistic expression. Your article is a great encouragement to me! I plan to share it with a friend who is not a Christian, but struggling with similar issues of identity and creativity.

April 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

Thank you so much for this piece. Such a perfectly timed encouragement for a fellow type A, often-doubting creative!

April 29, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterAli Williams

Beautifully written and inspiring!
Keep creating Alice :-)

May 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLindsay

"I began to realize that while many of my friends make art with guitars or paintbrushes, my preferred medium is the fabric of human relationships: making lasting connections between people and seeking to illuminate the image of God that each person bears."

YES! Alice, thank you for helping me think about what I do as a creative art. I had not thought of myself "as a "heaper of heaps and piler of piles", though I longed to be. Now I see that is exactly what I have been doing in all of the moments of my life that have felt most whole and most holy. My art may not be tangible, but it flows from the Creator through me, and I want to embrace that.

May 3, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLauraP

wow. thank you so much for sharing your story....and i'm so so very thankful to be a little part of helping you see your true brilliance. wow.

isn't it beautiful that we need the arts to remind us of the meaning in our days AND without inspiration from those meaningful pieces of life, art would be completely trite, vain, purposeless? So it's the intangible portfolios that give life to the tangible ones.

and, reading your thoughtful, well chosen words here, i think you make both kinds. much love to you, dear friend.

May 4, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth

Beautiful, Alice. Thank you for writing! (And obviously your creativity extends to the written word in addition to relationships) :)

May 26, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterBethany

I am a new reader at Art House America and just now linked to this essay through another blog. I'm so glad I did!

Thank you so much for pulling all these threads (people, community, creativity, art) together in words to say something true. This is truly edifying.

July 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca Martin

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