Pick Up The Paintbrush

Every child is an artist.
The problem is how to remain
an artist once he grows up.
— Pablo Picasso
You want to know how I think art should be taught to children? Take them to a museum and say, ‘This is art, and you can’t do it.’
— Steve Martin

METEORS AND MEANING

I dig art. 

That’s an understatement, I love art. Artistry and being an artist is ingrained as one of my core values, and I’ve worked to make sure that I am surrounded by people who share that passion. I have friends who have won Grammys. I have friends who have produced and edited films that star A-List talent. I have friends that work in canvas and paint and words and sweat. But I don’t surround myself with these people so I can be invited to red carpet events or drop names. I want to soak in their wisdom and insight. I want my talented friends to guide me as I carve my life’s work from my own hunk of marble. 

When you wake up in the morning and think about the coming day, do you get to do the thing you love? 

I’ve been lucky. Extremely lucky. Early in my working life, when I was a senior in college, I had the opportunity to do work that I enjoyed, work that I loved doing. I would go to classrooms of high-school and middle school students and speak to them. I loved it. Every morning that I woke up with an opportunity to share my story was a good morning. I love inspiring people. 

Of course, there’s a twist. My first job, the job that I loved so much, was speaking on abstinence - to high school students. Selling beachfront property in Idaho is probably easier than convincing high school kids that waiting to have sex can be rewarding, healthy, and courageous. But I found that even though it was a challenge, I loved it. It brought me to life. It created moments for me that mattered. And the ghetto kid in me loved being able to mess with these kids from time to time. 

There was a specific day in our curriculum when we would talk about STDs. It was, let’s say, “interesting,” hearing from the students on those days. You wouldn’t believe the questions that would come up!

We would set up a slide projector and show the horrors of STDs. 

We’d show a slide: HPV.

“Does anyone here know what HPV means?”

One kid shouts confidently, “Yeah, sun tan lotion.”

“My man, you’re talking about SPF. That’s a little bit different.”

In another classroom, we show a slide on Hepatitis-C.

“How many of you know what Hepatitis-C is?”

One girl, out of nowhere, out of the blue, she’s so excited, “Uh, yeah, that’s like a vitamin!”

I was like, “Babygirl, Vitamin C is different. You don’t want Hepatitis-C in your orange juice!”

One of my favorite moments, one that really stumped me - I’m in an 8th grade classroom, and had learned quickly that you can’t just assume that the students you’re talking with know the information you’re sharing. My job would have been unnecessary if they did! I learned that because I would move to a new topic and tell them, “Okay, next we’re going to talk about the Media.” I assumed that students knew what I was talking about when I said the Media, but I quickly found out that wasn’t the case. 

So I adjusted, and I would start by asking, “How many of you know what the Media is?” One little girl, shouts from the back of the room, “That’s like a big ol’ ball of fire!”

I was stumped. I had no idea. How did she get from The Media to a big ball of fire? But one of her friends clued me in, “No stupid, that’s a meteor!”

She really thought, in abstinence class, we would be talking about astronomy!  

Those moments were so amazing, and I love looking back on them. When you work with young students, you see moments where things start to shift for them. They start to wrap their minds around a new idea, and perhaps it makes sense to them. Perhaps this can be a great new direction for them. Maybe they can start to believe in themselves, and they can be inspired and encouraged by their own story. 

I would leave the classrooms and sometimes I would have lunch before the next session with the teachers. I would have conversations with them and sadly, some of them would say, “You know they’re not listening to you, right? You know that you’re not actually making a difference, right? You know what you do doesn’t really matter?”

Hold up. What happened to these educators? Aren’t we supposed to be on the same team? I know that at some point (I hope) these were people who dedicated their lives to education because they believed they would make a difference in a young person’s life. But somewhere down the line, that shifted. Somewhere down the line it was no longer a calling, it was just a job, a task. A thing that they were clocking in for but never really being present. Punch. Work. Leave. 

Is that why they grind through years and years of education before being hired? 

 Do you find yourself in that space? Do you reluctantly go to school or work, even though you hate it? That’s not living out a calling. Where is the longing to do something that is truly meaningful? Do you feel like what you do everyday is simply: Punch. Study. Leave. Do you feel like what you do does not matter, or that it does not do good?

Some of us are trying so hard to find our life’s work. That’s why everyone tells us we need to go to school, right? Some of us may have thought that we had found it, and then lost sight of it. Maybe we had it at one point, but it has become drudgery. Some of us do what we have to do, but we pursue our dreams on the side.

 

WATER INTO WINE

The voice of the artist is in every one of us. Bear with me. We’re all called to be a source of beauty in the world. 

Hey friend. Yeah, you reading this. Do you consider yourself to be an artist? Okay, for those of you that said yes, let me ask this: Why?

As I begin to talk about all the reasons we’re made to be artists, I realize that it sounds like a bit of a hippie statement. We’re all peace-loving, patchouli-smelling, free-love artists. Do you still think you’re an artist?

There are so many other areas of our life that fit into these easy to read instructions: Vote, get a job, pay your bills. When the founding fathers laid down the Constitution, there was no, “We have the right to make movies.”  The 28th amendment is not, “We have the right to nae nae.” (That’s a dance, for all my slang-averse people.)  Maybe it should be, some of us could benefit in lessons in rhythm, but that’s not the case. Being creative isn’t something that is written into law. We don’t have to do it to live. It does not show up on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs.  

Yet, we must. To create and to make is a basic human need, the same as food or water. You follow me? Peeps in Brooklyn didn’t have to start break dancing, but they really did. Orson Welles didn’t have to make Citizen Kane (well, he kinda did). The Beatles didn’t have to get that “Ticket to Ride,” but they got on that bus anyway. 

Why is it that these things that aren’t mandated by law seem to pour out of us - even though they don’t have to? 

But it seem that this would be true for only a select few. Not everyone can be an artist, right? Only the special, the elite, the educated, or the gifted get to make art, right?

Not so. We all are artists, whether we believe it or not. It is my privilege to inform every person reading this: You are an artist. Do you know why? Because there’s a little voice inside of you that implores you to create, whether that be a painting, or a family, a symphony, or a home. You can make a film or a new friendship. Just the same, we all want to be a part of creating something beautiful and worthwhile. 

Are you okay with that? Simply because you don’t get paid to be an artist doesn’t make you exempt--you’re an artist. I’m an artist. 

Sure, it’s a pretty big idea. There are so many ways that we can apply it. So, I want to talk specifically about how we can be sources of beauty in a world that can be so boring, and also so broken. We can be people that create beauty in the midst of the boring and the broken. 

I want to share a passage from one of the oldest books known to man that stuck out to me as I was soaking in this idea.  It’s the story of a carpenter from Nazareth named Jesus who turns water into wine. 

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, and Jesus and his disciples had also been invited to the wedding. When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.”

“Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.”

His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”

Nearby stood six stone water jars, the kind used by the Jews for ceremonial washing, each holding from twenty to thirty gallons.

Jesus said to the servants, “Fill the jars with water”; so they filled them to the brim.

Then he told them, “Now draw some out and take it to the master of the banquet.”

They did so, and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew. Then he called the bridegroom aside and said, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guests have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.”

Disclaimer: You don’t have to believe in the Bible to join me on this journey. You may be an atheist, buddhist, or Patriots fan. You may believe the Bible is fanciful fiction. No matter what the case may be, I think we can learn something from this story. How about we suspend the debate about whether or not the story is true? If it’s true, it’s pretty epic. If it isn’t, it’s a cool metaphor that we can learn from. 

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, let’s dig in. 

Here’s what I think is cool about this narrative: Obviously there’s a need in this moment. People need more wine to keep partying. And sure, it’s a miraculous event. There’s a wedding happening, there’s a little bit of a situation, Jesus’ mother notices so she calls on Him to do something about it. To me, what is artistic and beautiful about this specific occasion in Jesus’ story is that he gets creative. He shows us his artistry. He takes this every-day element, water, and turns it into something people love, wine. He turns it into something that can make this event that much more compelling. He takes that thing that is everyday and ordinary and makes it into something extraordinary. He takes the mundane and turns it into something that’s meaningful. He takes the boring and turns it into something beautiful. And that, my friends, is something we all can do. 

There are people who believe Jesus is God. That may be you; that may not be you. You may call GOD -  The Universe/Divine/Allah/Supreme Being/Yahweh/Vishnu/Love/The Great Spirit, there’s a myriad of different ways to say there is a force in the world that is bigger than all of us and is somehow active and involved in human history. Like I said, that may or may not be you. If you are someone who believes in the Divine feel free to fill in the blank with whatever word you see fit. If you don’t, please bear with me as I build this metaphor. 

And now, back to our regularly scheduled program: There’s a part of this story that makes me say, “That’s cool and all but is this the type of stuff that the Divine, with all the problems in the universe, is really concerned about?” 

Wouldn’t the Universe want to perform miracles on a grander scale? You know, stuff like ending poverty and world peace, that type of thing. But then we look at this story. He turned water into wine. What good does that do in the world? What good does that do for the wedding? Sure, Jesus said “Yo, let’s keep the party going and get wasted!!”  Is this couple suddenly more in love with one another? Does it lower the cost of the wedding? Liquor can be expensive--even back in the day! Maybe there was a spiritual element; perhaps he was planning on having communion after the wedding. What was His agenda?

Perhaps the only thing the Divine was concerned with in that moment was adding a touch of beauty to a day. He created a flare of excitement. He sprinkled the day with a small moment of joy. What if that’s a part of what the Eternal cares about?

What if God cares about poetry more than piety? 

If you don’t believe in God, do you believe in that? Can you subscribe to a world where an unexplainable force God/The Universe/The Divine wants us to play a role in turning everyday moments into something elegant? Where a smile is just as important as a sacrament? A place where bringing joy is as crucial as giving tithes? 

We’ve made life about religion, about rules and regulations, about systems of control and manipulation. We’ve made it about all these things that bog us down instead of realizing that real living  is about falling in love with the poetic. The point isn’t just singing a song it’s the songs of our lives. It’s the scenes that we get to create. That’s a life of artistry. And sometimes we create in the midst of moments that are boring.

The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow, for heaven’s sake. Sing in the shower. Dance to the radio. Tell stories. Write a poem to a friend, even a lousy poem. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created something.
— Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country

BORING IS BEAUTIFUL

Do you like Instagram? I’m kind of in love with it, and I want to share a little of my Instagram journey with you. Here’s the thing, my first few photos... they’re really bad! It’s like when you hear Kanye do an interview, “You ain’t got the answers Sway!” That kind of bad. That’s what my pictures were like. I’m so ashamed of what I’m about to show you, but here goes...

 This is the first one, I didn’t even know how to crop it correctly.

This is the first one, I didn’t even know how to crop it correctly.

 Here’s another one, all out of focus. My friend Jeremy let me know, “You need an iPhone 4.” Something is really wrong with this picture. 

Here’s another one, all out of focus. My friend Jeremy let me know, “You need an iPhone 4.” Something is really wrong with this picture. 

 Have you ever done one of the photo challenges? The challenge for this one was “front door,” so clearly I got real creative with this one. 

Have you ever done one of the photo challenges? The challenge for this one was “front door,” so clearly I got real creative with this one. 

But something happened along the way. I started to recognize, man--I’m really bad at this! I’m horrible. I started to open myself up, and I’m fortunate to have many many friends that are photographers. I started asking them questions: What makes a good picture? What’s composition? What’s lighting? What’s a subject? What’s aperture? I saw it as an opportunity to get better at this small thing, and I started to grow. 

 This is my city, Chicago. 

This is my city, Chicago. 

 In Spain with a friend, I started to build a love for this art form.

In Spain with a friend, I started to build a love for this art form.

 Here’s a picture of my friend’s daughter. She has a hashtag, actually. She’s kind of famous, #planetolive. I taught her my go-to pose, that’s what she’s doing right there. 

Here’s a picture of my friend’s daughter. She has a hashtag, actually. She’s kind of famous, #planetolive. I taught her my go-to pose, that’s what she’s doing right there. 

 This is a picture from a trip to Germany. It’s the concentration camp in Dachau. I just wanted to share this moment and the potency of the words that were on that wall. They say:  “May the example of those who were exterminated here between 1933 - 1545 because they resisted Nazism help to reunite the living for defense of peace and freedom and a respect for their fellow man.”

This is a picture from a trip to Germany. It’s the concentration camp in Dachau. I just wanted to share this moment and the potency of the words that were on that wall. They say:

“May the example of those who were exterminated here between 1933 - 1545 because they resisted Nazism help to reunite the living for defense of peace and freedom and a respect for their fellow man.”

 Here’s a picture of my little brother. I love the heck out of this guy. We were hanging out in the WB lot and I snapped this picture of him.

Here’s a picture of my little brother. I love the heck out of this guy. We were hanging out in the WB lot and I snapped this picture of him.

 These are a few of my camp kids. I was sending pictures to a friend while I was working at this camp that I return to every Summer in Chicago. I’m a big time extrovert, so I often share and ask people what they think of my work. That helps me create. Her initial feedback was, “You’re being a little bit lazy. Work a little harder.”

These are a few of my camp kids. I was sending pictures to a friend while I was working at this camp that I return to every Summer in Chicago. I’m a big time extrovert, so I often share and ask people what they think of my work. That helps me create. Her initial feedback was, “You’re being a little bit lazy. Work a little harder.”

 So I sent her this follow up. What I love about this one is the quote, “God made us for a reason and that reason is having fun.”

So I sent her this follow up. What I love about this one is the quote, “God made us for a reason and that reason is having fun.”

Part of what happened to me as I took on the everyday, ordinary, boring stuff of Instagram, was that I started to look at the world a little differently. My soul started to grow because I would pause. Moments that I would have walked passed without a second notice, I would now pause and contemplate. Something beautiful was happening. I could see people connecting. Or the light would be on someone’s face and I would be excited, because it showed the majesty of the moment. That boring stuff that happens every day, started to become more and more beautiful. And I could see more and more of the transcendent and my soul would grow through something as mundane and boring as Instagram.

How many of us make excuses as to why we aren’t artists, why we can’t create anything artistic - is it because our lives are simply that boring and nothing exciting ever happens? Can we only create when exciting things are happening? Or can we take water, something every day and boring, and turn it into wine. 

Our life is saturated with water. It’s full of the boring. Let’s make it beautiful. 

 

GO FOR BROKE

There’s another part of the Jesus story that I really love. They’re at the wedding and Mary realizes, something’s up. Oh no, they have no wine. And, in that time, weddings were supposed to have a steady flow of wine. Mary, being the solid mother that she is, goes into fix it mode. She sees that something is missing  and off  about the moment. It’s BROKEN and she knows who can fix it. She pinpoints it and she tells Jesus about it. She pretty much looks around at the wedding and says, “Turn down for what?!” 

What does Jesus say? “Woman, why do you involve me?” 

Jesus must not know what it’s like to have a Puerto Rican mom! My momma would have whipped out her chancleta and busted me upside my head! 

What I love about this moment is that even though Jesus is saying, “What does that have to do with us,” she knows to tell the servants, “Do whatever he says.”

To me, this is a very human moment. Jesus just got treated! You see the tension between mother and son. There’s a moment that I think will get lost if you just read the words quickly. Jesus speaks to his mother and says, “What does that have to do with us?” He’s trying to enjoy the party, my man is in straight up in chill mode. He isn’t trying to work. You ever give your mom lip and she completely ignores what you said as she gives you that look. You know that look; the one that says, “I brought you into this world and I’ll take you out.” That’s the look that happened between Jesus’s response and Mary saying, “Do whatever he says.” She wasn’t trying to give her son a hard time. He just needed a little push. She’s a wonderful mother who knows what’s best in that moment and says, “You need to rise to this occasion. Something is missing, something is broken, and it can be made better through who you are and what you can provide.”

In other words, it’s the perfect opportunity for art instead of apathy.

How many of you have heard of Humans of New York? It’s a photoblog that captures portraits of people and a part of their story. I fell in love with this blog a couple of years ago. I was pulled in by the stories and the images. 

Last year, I learned about one of their stories when a friend tagged me in the post. (There was a reason why they tagged me specifically, I’ll get to that later.). This was the story of a boy named Vidal and the principal at his school. Brandon Stanton, who runs the blog, approached Vidal on the street. He started asking him questions, one of which was, “Who’s influenced you the most in your life?”

He responded, “My principal, Ms. Lopez.”

“How has she influenced you?”

“When we get in trouble, she doesn’t suspend us. She calls us to her office and explains to us how society was built up around us. And she tells us that each time somebody fails out of school, a new jail cell gets built. And one time she made every student stand up, one at a time, and she told each one of us that we matter.”

My friend tagged me because he knows my story. This was vastly different from what I experienced as a kid. When I was in 8th grade, I was told I would be in jail. The young women in my class were told they would end up pregnant. Most of us were supposed to drop out of high school. There wasn’t a moment in the conversation where we were told that we mattered. 

I realized something about being an artist: When an artist sits down and sees a blank canvas, they don’t just sit and point out the reality of what is in front of them. They don’t just call out what they see, cotton linen, stretched across wooden boards, stapled, plain. They don’t tell the canvas that there are millions of canvases just like it around the world and that there is nothing special about that canvas. 

That’s not what artists do. Artists pick up a paintbrush and they start to see the possibilities of this simple thing that might have many things missing from it in that moment, but it has space for a masterpiece. The guy who created Humans of New York was unemployed when he started that blog. He didn’t have a job. Not only that, he wasn’t a good photographer. He had two weeks of experience taking pictures. But he set out to take 10,000 portraits. He set out to walk through the streets of New York, where people are notoriously not-nice, and ventured into a broken world, a broken city, in his broken situation. Though all the things that were missing, he tried to create something beautiful. 

Because of what Brandon set out to do, Vidal's school has raised well over a million dollars. Brandon was interviewed by Ellen, he met with President Obama, and his book, Humans of New York, is now a best seller. Time Magazine has listed him as one of its 30 under 30 that is changing the world. 

An artist looks at a blank canvas and sees the Mona Lisa. An artist looks at unemployment and sees Humans of New York. An artist looks at Vidal and sees a Nobel Peace Prize winner. That’s the mind of an artist.

Do you feel the pressure of the world around you? Do you feel overwhelmed by the humdrum of  everyday life - the boring, the mundane, the family baggage, the pressure at school/work?  What if we could take that broken, tattered, messed up situation and create a masterpiece? Whether that magnum opus is what you can do in the lives of the people around you or just in your own life; right now, create art. Be a source of beauty. 

Pick up the paintbrush. Be someone who takes every-day ordinary situations and paints something extraordinary. Take the mundane and color something meaningful. Take the broken and mold something beautiful. Be an artist.