What Does Art Do For You?

Side of Palmist Building
William Christenberry: Side of Palmist Building, Havana Junction, Alabama

​What does art do for you? I was recently asked that question as it pertains to my writing. The assumption of the person asking the question was that my writing somehow qualifies as Art. Capital A. And therefore I should be able to articulate some easy correlation between what and how I write, and how my life intersects with Art, with a capital A.

My first inclination was to immediately deny that what I do is Art, and that would mean this interview question could become problematic, pretty quickly. I am not widely published. I don’t manage to write full time. As a way to deflect the question from me, I considered forming a response about the authors I love, the literature that I find meaningful, the books that I turn to when I indulge myself with time to read. My favorites, the women writers who achieved the literary greatness that I can only dream of: Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, Flannery O’Conner, Toni Morrison, Virginia Woolf, Zora Neale Hurston, Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings.

Despite my attempt to provide a weak, predictable response—here are the writers I love, here are the books I love—the question was asking something else of me. It would not be satisfied with a watered-down answer. What does art do for me? Surprisingly, I kept coming back to how much I am particularly moved by visual art. But this was an interview about my writing. How does visual art have anything to do with my words? Words, language, lines of tidy symbols on paper—these are the tools with which I am most comfortable when I meagerly consider what I do to even approach Art. Why did my brain keep sliding sideways, over to visual art, try as I might to force it to stay focused on words, lines, language, books, authors? My brain insisted on another train of thought: what was my experience with visual art, visual Art?

I grew up in a tiny southern town with loving parents of modest means, not educated beyond high school. There was an art museum in the city thirty miles away, and my parents, the post office clerk and school bookkeeper, put my brother and me in the car several times during our childhood, and drove us to that museum. There were large, quiet rooms, paintings on walls, proper adults in fine clothing. Nothing specific comes to mind from those visits, but they did happen. Our parents took us out of our small rural town to an art museum.

I have taken art museums for granted during my adult years, without thinking back to how that early experience must have been formative. I’ve been to the British Museum in London, the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., the Art Institute of Chicago—probably my favorite. When I go to an exhibit at a museum, no matter if it is a grand and famous institution, or just a small collection on display, often something happens inside of me, a welling up, a deep resonance. It presents itself in physical ways: a chill, tears in my eyes, an expansiveness in my chest cavity. And it’s not necessarily when I visit exhibits of artists who are famous, so I don’t think it is some type of bias toward well-known artists and their pieces. Not a star-struck reaction. There have been plenty of times I have walked out of an exhibit at a museum, a library, a public hall, and fought off the desire to lie down on the lawn out front of the building and weep. My parents planted that seed, and I never acknowledged it, not until this interview in 2019. What did art do for my parents that I never realized? What does art do for me? 

​I saw the William Christenberry exhibit at Reynolda House Museum of American Art in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, in 2010. I had never heard of Christenberry before visiting this exhibit. He was an artist and photographer whose lifework centered around simple photographs taken in the rural South, primarily in Alabama. He documented the decay of roadside scenes with an old Brownie camera. His art frequently called out racial injustice, violence, and bigotry. Shacks and tumble-down buildings surrounded by overgrown weeds, cemeteries with primitive grave markers, rusting metal signs on roadside poles. I remember walking around and around in the empty exhibit hall that afternoon, looking at every piece intently, feeling the need to burn all of it into my memory, and the near-panic that I felt, knowing that I would need to leave. That I could not stay in that hall and continue to exist in the space that held those prints on the walls. That my time in the presence of those pieces was finite. This was Art, made from the love of simple and often-overlooked scenes, but elevated, and speaking a message, a truth. Those images aligned with something in my soul that day, fanned a flame within me, because the direction for the writing about my Southern home, my heart-place, emerged soon after that. I wrote essays, I dropped deeply into old memories of home, I opened my eyes and soul to a more compassionate rendering of the stories I was weaving together. 

What does art do for me? More than I realized, and it has more to do with my writing than I imagined. Visual art fills my heart. It challenges my thinking to connect abstract ideas. Invites me into the soul of the artist, then pushes me into the souls of others, encouraging me to go with the perspective of the artist. Makes me laugh. Makes me think, hard. Makes me want to write. Makes me cry.

What does art do for you?

 

(Some of the content of this entry came from an interview published in the May 2, 2019 edition of the Winston-Salem Journal, Winston-Salem, North Carolina)