Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Faith and Creativity

I'm surrounded by hard-working people who believe they can do anything. It took awhile for me to realize that this has always been a requirement for me to thrive. Resources, money, time--these have never spurred me towards vision. Looking at them alone always just seems to make me aware of what is not there. Being surrounded by people of faith, the kind that fed five thousand rather than the kind that builds churches for that many, has been the hallmark of my most creative and productive endeavors.

I think I first became aware of this while having dinner with a Texas matriarch. My host was Margaret McDermott, a beautifully grounded native Texas woman with georgeous white hair and a collection of Picassos and Monets that museums covet. She was the sponsor of my internship during my first year at the Dallas Museum of Art. I knew a friend of hers to whom I mentioned in passing that I hoped someday to have the chance to let Margaret know how grateful I was for the opportunity to work there. When Margaret heard this she invited me to her north Texas ranch for dinner in order to meet me.

As we ate dinner on her screened-in back porch a thunderstorm lumbered to the south of her fields, ignoring us as if it was a herd of passing elephants. We talked about what had brought us to the places we were. In museum circles Ms. McDermott was always discussed as the wife of Eugene McDermott, founder of Texas Instruments. That night I learned that she didn't meet her husband until after her career as a journalist and reporter. She worked during the 1940s and 50s in parts of Europe and India, the latter being a place to which she said she still felt a great connection and where she began to develop her passion for art. The moment we talked in grew silently as I listened to her accomplishments. She eventually turned her attention to my history.

"How did you become interested in art?" she asked. I'd never considered the question before. I thought back over what might have spurred me in that direction. No art classes as a child, no museum visits. I was not raised with books on the subject.

After a few moments I told her that when it came to art, I was most interested in looking at it and really seeing it--what was obvious about it and what was not so obvious. And when I stood in front of a work of art, I cared about what relationship I might be supposed to have with it. And the only person I can think of who trained me to look at things that way was my grandmother. She was a flower person, a trait I was to learn later that she shared with Ms. McDermott.

Whenever I visited her as a boy my grandmother would put her bonnet on right before dusk and find me wherever I happened to be. She would say, "Come'on James Troy (James is my first name). Let's go to the garden," in a sweet and demanding way that always convinced me I would miss something if I didn't go with her. We would walk into the dense and randomly planted half-acre thicket of fragrance, color, and bees, brushing up against plants that were so tall and close it was impossible not to be covered with pollen. You never realize poppies have a scent until you are surrounded by hundreds of them as high as your chest.

Once her blooms were fully grown my grandmother never cared if you accidently stepped on a few. They would never be missed in that crowd. But after tromping with abandon through the maze of flowers she'd grown from seeds or bulbs, she would demand that we walk gently through the grass between the gardens--places where she had planted nothing. This is where the wildflowers grew. She would stop and make me get on all fours in order to see the tiniest blue ones. While we were down there she would always say, "Oh James Troy! Aren't these little things pretty? I wonder what they are?" We would look at them awhile longer, frequently too long to my boy's mind. I didn't mention this last part to her (a rare moment of good judgement for which I am now grateful).

I told Margaret that I thought it was looking at flowers both ways over time that caused me to pay attention to art in both ways as well--to enjoy and respect the deliberately created, but to pay especially close attention to the things that may not have been as intentional. I'm still overwhelmed when an artist can combine the two.

Later that night I thought about how alike my grandmother and Ms. McDermott were. Neither of them felt limited by who they were or what they had. Both had rich lives. They created. They valued what they did and saw great beauty in it. They had faith in their work and their abilities. They both made a point of passing these on to me in their own ways. For whatever reason, I find myself surrounded by more and more people like my grandmother and Margaret. I suspect it is this blanket of faith and God's grace that will help me move whatever mountains may show up in my way, or else I'll just make something new out of them.


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