Recently, a new character has intrigued me. I explore who she is, for this is my art: an excavation. I eavesdrop into Claire’s life — her conversations, her daily tasks, even her thoughts. Like an archaeologist, I sift through artifacts of her life, unearthing her chipped coffee mug from San Francisco and her “#1 Grandmom” trophy she received ten years ago. I dust off the electric guitar she never got around to learning. I kneel beside her as she sticks seasonal plastic bulbs in her garden. Claire is gentle, quick to laugh, and lonely. She’s learning chess. In this everyday, ordinary life, I learn something about humanity. In this sense, art is anthropology.
I take up a pen and craft a story, a snippet of Claire’s life. She does not stand alone but is informed by a woman I encountered in a Rembrandt painting; by a melodic theme I heard in a Sondheim musical; by someone I met a few years back. In Claire’s small gestures, I write to both discover and engage with the art and life around me. For this is also my art: a response. Motifs weave through this story and others, refrains echoing and echoed by Greek choruses and chain gangs alike.
With my voice, I join the everlasting song, crooning old verse, writing new. Sometimes tentatively, other times boldly, I present this story, this character, this woman, to the world, or at least, to my corner of the world. For finally, this is my art: an offering. I extend it so that others may take it up, interact with it, discover, critique, create.
Mikhail Bakhtin, philosopher and literary critic, said, “To be means to communicate.” Perhaps this is why Daniel Defoe gave Friday to Robinson Crusoe or William Broyles, Jr., writer of the movie Cast Away, gave Wilson to Chuck Noland. When my husband once asked me why I write, I responded, “So others will know they’re not alone.”
We create art to communicate, to be known and to make known. Art may begin with self-expression, but it doesn’t stop there. We discover, we respond, and we offer it up to the world. In this, art creates community. It collects the misfits of the world and gives them a home.
Oddly enough, “communicate” and “community” share a root. As we communicate via art, we make tangibles and intangibles common so that others as a community may participate in the discussion.
When I take up the art of another — say, a painting by Marc Chagall, a book by Richard Russo, or a YouTube video by Cory Arcangel — I enter into this community that transcends place and time. Then I discover, respond, and perhaps offer a new creation, a variation on a theme.
I’m reminded, for example, of Gunther Schuller’s Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee, a work inspired by selected paintings of Paul Klee, an artist who, in turn, was inspired by music (and was himself a musician). Schuller chose works that Klee had improvised on a musical theme. So here we have a piece of music reinterpreting visual work created from music.
Artists play communal fugues. We take a theme sounded by one and invert it, reverse it, transpose it. We play with this theme, echoing it and transforming it. We mark it with our unique personalities and cultures, then hand it on to the next artist.
Perhaps a better metaphor would be a great big feast, a fondue feast, of mechanics and businessmen and janitors and, yes, artists, too. For art is not just for artists. Neither is it informed only by art. We bring our pots of chocolates and cheeses and oils, our seasoned meats, our vegetables and breads — local flavors for a global banquet — and feast together as one community, a community that transcends work, generations, and cultures.
So lies the paradox of art: it is intensely personal yet shared. It communicates with and through a specific context yet in the presence of a great cloud of witnesses.
When I finish Claire’s story, after rough drafts and revisions, I’ll send it to friends and to various journals in hopes of publication. Perhaps for some, writing is only a personal endeavor, a means of working out their lives in an intimate space. But I write to enter into the public conversation of what it means to be human, created in the Imago Dei yet fallen, looking toward glory and practicing resurrection. I play with these themes, inverting them, reversing, transposing, syncopating; then I pass them along to the next artist.
Heather A. Goodman's short stories have been published in Relief Journal, Ruminate Magazine, Generate Magazine, among others, and can also be found in audio form at NoiseTrade. She enjoys tea every afternoon and has a penchant for breaking out into song and dance. Heather resides in Dallas with her husband and son, and blogs at L'Chaim and The Master's Artist.