Riding on the Fingers of God

How is it that I call myself an Artist while others do not? When I ask this question, do I mean that others do not call me an Artist? Or do I mean that others do not call themselves Artists? It’s a matter of interpretation, isn’t it? Who gets the authority to define who is an Artist and who is not? ‘

On the day I was conceived – when that mysterious Energy caused atoms to join with other atoms to form molecules, to create cells, which then split and/or multiplied according to a specific plan that some call DNA – was it written into that plan that I am an Artist? Or that I should someday call myself an Artist? Is it a Choice, or a Destiny? And if I should choose to call myself an Artist, will others agree? And if they don’t agree, will I choose to bestow upon them the authority to remove that quality from my identity?

Each morning for more than two years, I sat on a stool before a mass of Roma Plastilina clay, an assortment of wire and wooden tools, photographs of my first-born daughter, and an intention to be totally immersed in the practice of Seeing and coordinating my fingers with my eyes to manipulate the clay to represent what I see – to be totally present in every moment that I sit in this practice.

After many years of painting portrait commissions – artistic “products” with deadlines and expectations of perfect likeness of someone’s beloved – I wanted to explore portraiture as a “practice” with no deadlines and no expectations. Never having done a three-dimensional portrait before, I judged that it would be a challenge, but that I would be able to approach it with a degree of innocence – as if I were a beginner.

My paintings capture one view, one angle, an illusion of a three-dimensional, living, breathing person – a moment in their life, a likeness which will be recognized by others as an accurate representation of their personality, as well as their physical features. A sculpture is also an illusion, but it must capture an infinite number of views and angles. While I have many photographs of my daughter, each one represents a different emotional moment in her life – a different mood, and a different view and angle and a different period of her physical development. The challenge, I thought is to use these photographs as reference, seeing what is really there and filling in the missing parts – the infinite views and angles – from assumed information, without assuming too much about what is actually there.

According to the art supply catalog: “Roma Plastilina will never harden, crust or deteriorate. This modeling clay has uniform plasticity that improves through use and with age. It’s smooth, even texture and consistency respond perfectly to every touch of the sculptor’s tool.” And I find this to be true.

But what I’ve learned from my practice is “This clay is dust of the earth, mixed with oil and sulphur, held together by that mysterious Energy which causes atoms to join with other atoms to form molecules – basically the same atoms that we’re made of held together by the same mysterious Energy that holds us together, with just a slightly different molecular structure. “Dust to Dust!”

Each day I come to the sculpture with my baggage of the day — thoughts, doubts, judgments, distrotions, emotions, inadequacies (real or imagined) and fears of inadequacies (real and imagined.) If I am able to put all these aside, to tune in to the perfection of what IS – what I am shown without the clouds of my baggage – I am then able to ride on the Fingers of God – Creation itself – and watch form follow form. I am no longer an individual using clay and tools to manipulate mass. I am the Observer of my fingers following the Flow of Form!

I am shown the genetic inheritance of my grandmother’s cheekbones; her father’s mother’s lower lip; my mother’s hairline; her father’s jawline – all from faint remembrances of photographs and visions remembered. I am shown, in her form, the fleeting resemblance of another artist’s painting of the Virgin Mary. Her clay eyes seem to follow my fingers in amusement as I catch myself struggling to make her pretty, when she knows that she already is. She is the ultimate creation of the Ultimate Creator and I, simply by being present, am privileged to know what that means. I am allowed to feel the bone structure beneath the flesh and I am given hints of both sad and happy memories that cause the muscles around the mouth to form the smile I recognize as hers. I learn that there are no straight lines, no hard angles, only one form flowing into another in a way that is so graceful and elegant it cannot be expressed except with tears of joy and awe!

And I come to know that we, the living creatures – Creations! – are only one form flowing into another in a way that is so graceful and elegant it cannot be expressed by childlike imitation of the Ultimate Creator – each individual one of us as unique and minute as an atom!

And I wonder at the expression I have heard all my life from others who do not call themselves artists: “I can’t draw a straight line!” And how did that get to be a reason when there are no straight lines in the works of the Ultimate Creator?

And I wonder. Does this experience, this practice, then make me an Artist? If I never pronounce the sculpture “Finished?” If I continue to practice for the rest of my days and never present it to the world and allow another to judge it, and me, and to proclaim that I am, or I am NOT an Artist? What then?

This very thought is representative of the “baggage” I bring to the practice every day. I suspect that thoughts such as this is what keeps some from knowing that we are ALL Artists.

I also learn from my morning practice: To be an Artist is both a Choice and a Destiny. It is written into the DNA of every individual. The Ultimate Creator created us “in His (Her) Image.” Her/His Image is without form, yet every form is an expression of His/Her Image.

We were given our senses to appreciate and learn from the Creation of the Ultimate Creator. We are able to hear the great symphonies of life in the songs of the birds, in the roar of the waves, the rustle of the wind in the trees and grasses, and the percussion of a thunderstorm; to see the dramatic colors in the sunset, the intricate patterns of a snowflake; the delicate, iridescent wings of a dragonfly . . . the examples are also infinite! Each variance that makes each one unique, we are wise enough not to judge as imperfections, until the baggage of the judgmental mind comes in.

We are given the Choice to imitate the Master – to sit with tools and materials (any will do) and listen and watch the Master Creator at work. Michaelangelo said that he merely released the forms from the stone. Mozart wrote down the music that he heard. And you know the rest . . . we call them geniuses. I’m guessing that during the course of our day to day lives, we all sometimes succumb to Attention Deficit Disorder. And sometimes we remember what it’s like – to listen, to watch. These are moments of inspiration!. And sometimes we forget. These are moments of “Writer’s Block,” “Artists Block,” “Absence of the Muse.” But we’re always creating, whether we do it consciously, or unconsciously. When we do it consciously our writing, our paintings, our sculptures, our music, our dance, our business, our relationships, our food preparation – everything we do, our very Life itself, makes us all Artists, because it is no longer the I, the Ego, who does the work. We are merely privileged to watch, to listen, and to ride on the fingers of God!

Down on the Farm

My little brother’s name is James.  I wanted to name him Pete, but Mother and Daddy didn’t like that. “Where did you hear that name?”  Maybe he told me before he came to us from Heaven, but I didn’t tell them that.  I just shrugged and wondered why he couldn’t be Pete.   Mother says both our names come from the Bible and they both start with the letter “J” -James and Judith. Only they call me Judy so I guess I could call him Pete if I wanted to, but I won’t.  Not out loud, anyway.

1949 Oklahoma Judi Jim

My little brother James is building a road for his little cars with the help of his dump truck.  We are playing in the cool morning shade of the house.   His dump truck is filled with sand scooped up with one of Mother’s metal spoons.  The dump truck is still shiny blue except for the few rust spots where the paint has worn away. The dump truck has a little seat on the top, just the right size for his little 3-year-old hiney,  but he’s too busy building roads to ride on the truck.  There was a thick wire handle attached to the front for steering, but right now he’s using it as a hammer to smooth away at the clumps of clay where the sand got washed off by the rain.. “Rood’n, rood’n” he says.  That’s what he thinks a dump truck sounds like.  “Rood’n, rood’n, rood’n” the dump truck gets louder as it climbs the little hill where another load of sand was dumped.

I’m busy making mud pies, like Nannie taught me.  I mix the sand and powdered clay with water in my little toy mixing bowl. I pack the mud into my little toy pan.  The mixing bowl and pan are part of a little toy cooking set I got for my third birthday.  It’s pretty fancy.  Besides the bowl and cooking pan I have a little toy egg beater with a red handle and a little rolling pin  Poor Nannie.  She only has coffee cans and mason jars to make her mud pies.  But she has lots of pretty flowers in her yard that we use to decorate the pies after they’ve baked.  And I have my very own pretties that I can use for decorating!  Yesterday when we went to get the cows, I filled my skirt with treasures!  I have three smooth acorns with the tops still on them, and two locust shells that were stuck to the tree, but I got them off without breaking any of their legs! And I found four shiny rocks by the creek!

I set my pie in the sun to bake. By tomorrow, if it doesn’t rain, it will be hard and I can gently take it out of the pan so as not to break it, and then I can put frosting on it.  Nannie gave me a piece of her old red brick that I can grind into a powder by rubbing it against a big rock, then mix it with water and spread it on top of the pie with Mother’s spoon. It surely makes a pretty frosting.

Mother only has four little spoons – one for each of us – and four big spoons that she uses to stir things, or to scoop mashed potatoes out of the big bowl.  We have four plates and four cups and four saucers.  My Aunt gave them to us because she didn’t need them any more and we did.  Mother is a little embarrassed because the dishes don’t match.  I like the bright yellow ones and James likes the blue ones.  Daddy gets the green ones and Mother gets the orange ones.  She says the dishes have a name and that’s “Fiesta” because Fiesta means “Happy!”  And they’re all happy colors so it doesn’t matter that they don’t match. Anyway, we don’t have company for dinner very often.  Our house is too little for company and anyway, where would they sit?  We only have three chairs and James’ high chair.

In the front room is where we sleep.  Mother and I sleep in the big bed on one side of the room and Daddy and James sleep in the other big bed.  In the winter we have a stove in the middle of the room.  Daddy gets up early in the morning and puts wood inside the stove and makes a fire and soon it’s warm enough that the rest of us can get out from under the heavy quilts and put our warm clothes on. I can stand close to the stove to make my clothes feel warmer, but not too close or I might burn myself.

I like to peek out the window when it’s cold because Jack Frost leaves pretty pictures on the glass while we’re sleeping.  If you blow your breath on the pictures they will melt into water that runs down the glass and ruins the other pretty pictures. I tried it a couple of times but decided I like the pretty pictures to stay as long as they will.  We can’t see him do it because of the quilts hanging in front of the windows.  But we have to have them because it would get too cold for us to sleep at night after the fire goes out. But in the summer Mother takes the quilts down and we can see outside again.  I have to stay inside a lot in the winter because I might get the croup.  Sometimes I cough so hard I can’t sleep so Mother puts liniment on a rag (it’s really one of James’ old diapers) and pins it around my neck with a big safety pin and it burns my eyes but feels good on my chest and I can breathe better, but I still have to sleep propped up with a pillow because if I lay down I’ll start coughing again.  Anyway if I run outside in the winter the cold air gives me the croup.

Our other room has a much bigger stove because it has to have room for Mother to cook our food. In the summer she has to go outside to get wood to build the fire in the cook stove, but in the winter we keep a pile inside so she doesn’t have to go out in the cold so early in the morning. One time in the winter, Daddy found a snake in the wood pile!  He must have brought it inside while it was sleeping, but when the room warmed up the snake woke up!  You can be sure he put that snake back outside where he belonged!

There’s a tall table by the back door where the water bucket goes.  Mother draws water out of the well to fill the big bucket.  Sometimes she lets me let the well bucket down the round pipe that goes down into the water. If you drop a little rock down the pipe you can hear it splash when it hits the water.  You can also holler down into the well and Little Sir Echo will answer you!  I have to be careful to hold tight on the rope because if it slips I’ll get splinters from the rope in my hands.  When the bucket is full it’s very heavy so Mother has to help me pull it back up.  Then we empty it into the house bucket and take it inside and put the dipper in it so we can get a cold drink of water whenever we’re thirsty.

This morning when Mother made biscuits and gravy for breakfast we had fresh butter that she churned yesterday and it was fun watching it melt into the hot biscuits.  it took a while for it to melt because it was in the ice box and the big block of ice that the ice man brought kept it nice and cool and fresh.

James has been using the spoon for a long time and I think it’s about my turn  “No!” he says.  “It’s my turn!”

“No!” I say.  “It’s my turn!” and I grab the spoon from his chubby little hand and right away start mixing my frosting.