Those of you who follow me and my antics on the alternate-reality space called Face Book know that this week I have begun a new project- I am sculpting a ½ size self-portrait bust out of clay. Yeah, that’s right. In a moment that could only have been inspired by the Holy Spirit herself, I got myself over to the local arts & crafts store and picked up a 10# box of gray Craft Smart modeling clay and a small cellophane sleeve of wooden modeling tools.
I’m not an accomplished artist.
In fact, the last art course that I took was in 1970 (46 years ago!) when I was in the 7th grade. I remember being simultaneously shocked and delighted when the art teacher passed through the room snapping our new, slender, neat crayons in half and telling us to “be free!” Well, it was 1970, after all. In high school I eschewed art class for music class because, apparently, those who were college-bound had to make a choice between Art and Music in order to get all of those other important college-prep classes into our schedules like French and Chemistry and World History. It seemed a shame. But, Music it was (long live altos!) and so Art went out the door.
This is to say that I have no idea what I am doing when it comes to sculpture.
My birth-father - whose life and times are constructed in my mind by well-worn stories handed down through the years (he died when I was a tot)- my daddy was a creative, funny, inventive, daring, handsome, crazy chap. (I know that this is a romanticized version of any human person, but it’s what I’ve got.) My daddy was an artist. He did old-tymey graphic arts (pre-computer days) for an advertising agency in NYC to feed his family, but he loved to sketch and do cartoons and paint and even whittle. For a long time I kept a miniature moose that he had made, about 2 “ tall and carved out of cedar. When, in an accident, it fell off of my dresser and the delicate rack of horn was broken off, I went out and tossed it into the woods, I was so angry that I had broken it. But that’s fodder for another, darker blog someday about the sorrow of this lost, primal relationship and how I’ve muddled through. Anyway, my daddy was an artist. And yet, it is not his artistic talent that I believe I have inherited as much as his inherent, crazy freedom to take on just about any new project with a certain amount of gusto, throwing caution to the wind. (My mother had her own spin on this, as you might imagine, including a hilarious story about the time that my daddy got her to lie on the kitchen floor, covered her face with Vaseline, shoved paper straws up her nostrils and layered plaster over her face in an effort to create a plaster mask for a masquerade party. Apparently after each of them had modeled and painted each others’ likenesses in plaster, they went as each other to the masquerade party. Young, creative, tolerant, love.)
So, on Monday, my day off, I sat down at the kitchen table with a giant hunk of clay, a few stick-like tools, a sponge, a bowl of water and nothing but the sound of my husband, upstairs in his office, clicking on the keyboard of his computer, diligently doing his “work-from-home” thing.
To describe the next couple of hours in detail would, no doubt, be excruciatingly boring, but since you’ve managed to read along this far, let me describe some of the emotions and thoughts running though my head as my hands began to shape a likeness – my likeness- out of clay:
“This is harder than I thought.
This is the most self-absorbed, arrogant, egocentric thing that I’ve ever done.
I’m terrible at this.
The clay is soft, and lovely to move.
Is my head round… or oval?
Are my ears really that big? Yes. (I had a mirror on the table to assist me.)
I like this. It’s fun.
I never noticed how tiny my mouth is. (I make a lot of noise with that tiny mouth)
I have a lot of wrinkles.”
And so it went, for a couple of hours- loving it, not loving it, learning about how much water on the end of a sponge can help to soften a big chunk of clay or wash away an entire ear or eyelid…. There was a certain power that I felt, anchored in the role of “creator:” I could make this be anything that I wanted it to be… and there was a certain frustration in trying to replicate what I saw in the mirror and, failing.
Without trying to be egotistical, let me say that there was, in this short exercise, a wonderful appreciation for parts of me that I don’t spend a lot of time noticing: I had great fun sculpting my shoulders. Who ever spends much time thinking about their shoulders, for Pete’s sake? And, in that, a groundswell of wonder and appreciation for the marvel of the human form and the Creator who made us.
Here’s the oddest thing, though. I had some pretty profound sense-connections as I was working on this sculpture, to my children in their infancy. The bust, as I mentioned, is half-size. That’s not intentional; it’s more of a function of how much money I was willing to spend on a hunk of clay. A 10-dollar, 10# box of clay was about all that I was willing to venture on this experiment. And, as it turns out, a 10# box of clay makes a head about the size of a baby or toddler’s head. And so, as I sat at the kitchen table on Monday afternoon, cradling a hunk of clay in my hands and working to shape it into a head, I had a flood of tactile reminiscences of my own babies’ heads- carrying them around the house, lifting them out of their cradles, pouring water over their little crowns and working up a lather of Johnson’s baby shampoo. It was a strange and lovely sensation as I worked with my clay head, remembering their heads, and reflecting on how their heads- and selves- were another creation of mine- and Glenn’s- and God’s. It was one of those meditative-contemplative-Spirit-filled musings that was just lovely.
Needless to say, I didn’t finish the sculpture in 2 hours’ time.
Right now, it looks like a gargoyle that should be cemented onto the side of a medieval cathedral. The eyes are bulging, the ears askew, the forehead a bit too sloping and there’s a lot of work to do, yet, on softening the folds and wrinkles that I have modeled to an extreme, giving me a slightly disfigured look. Okay, I know that I have wrinkles- I’m pushing 60- but not to the point of disfigurement.
So there will be no great “reveal,” here, yet. I’m going to give it a few more sessions before I share the results. I expect that, in the upcoming season of Lenten introspection and self-examination, that this might be a good project over which to linger. In the back of my mind, I think that’s what the Holy Spirit had in mind in the first place.
And so- consider for yourself, as we edge closer to Lent, about how you will engage a season of self-examination. I seem to have done this quite literally, and wonder how you, dear readers, will follow the Spirit to your own course of spiritual and holy work.