catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 23 :: 2007.12.14 — 2007.12.28


By quiet example

Tole painted shoe form 

Looking closely at the objects in our living room, one particular item might seem out of place to the careful observer.  It’s not the Indian batik friends brought us from their travels or the old window whose glass I painted with an autumn tree.  And it’s not the embroidered Christmas stockings from the store where I first learned about fair trade or the mosaic mirror a friend made for Rob’s graduation.  It sits patiently on our windowsill, toe pointed to the setting sun, never again to fulfill its created purpose.

Over the past several years, my mom has been purging the house of old knick knacks and clutter, an endless project for a four-bedroom ranch in the process of recovering from its maximum capacity of two parents, four kids and all of their attendant pets and possessions.  Ironically, some of this “clutter” was created by my mom’s need to find space for herself.  Around the time I was in second grade, with two younger siblings and a third to come, my mom started taking tole painting classes.  (Of course, because she had to pay to take these classes, I always heard them as “toll” painting classes—much like kids this Christmas season will be trying to figure out what “Angels We Have Heard on High” has to do with “in egg shells he stay, oh.”)  Tole painting was on Tuesday nights in Barb’s basement and my mom attended with a variety of women I knew—including a few of my teachers and my grandma.  Every once in a while, a new project would appear on a shelf or on a wall in our home.  They even came into the family as bookends and tooth fairy boxes.

In the past, my mom has also sewn, quilted and done counted cross stitch, but I don’t think any of these activities was undertaken with quite as much well-deserved self-indulgence as tole painting.  Unlike dresses and quilts, the tole painted pieces she created served no functional purpose.  On a persistently tight budget, she invested money in this hobby not because the house needed more knick knacks, but because she craved the company of other adult women and because she so strongly desired a means of creative expression.

Now, even as my dad encourages her to keep the things she’s made, the last vestiges of my mom’s tole painting days slowly make their way out the door and into thrift stores and garage sales.  But a few remain a part of the family.  One is the antique shoe form, rescued from Barb’s junk pile, painted a rusty orange color and decorated with flowers, which now lives in my living room.

I can say now that tole painting wasn’t really my style—and I think my mom is figuring out these relics of “country” décor aren’t her thing anymore either—but I do believe she was quite good at it.  Her painted projects brought an element of craft into our home that in many families is too easily relegated to the kids’ art projects that bedeck the fridge. They also bring to mind a text that has been formative for *culture is not optional, the organization from which this very magazine emerges:

Unless the first chapters of Genesis are simply a handy preface to God's revelation to refute macro-evolutionistic theories, Christians must hear what the Spirit is saying there to the churches, if they want the life perspective of biblically straightened-out believers. Culture is not optional. Formative culturing of creation is intrinsic to human nature, put there purposely—God knows why. (Calvin Seerveld, Rainbows for the Fallen World)

To the list of mandatory “c” words that come out of the first chapter of Genesis, we can add two more: creativity is not optional.  Community is not optional.

In working with college students, I’m conscious of the effects of parenting methods that have created overly dependent children.  As we attempt to engage them in discussions about art and meaning and discernment, sometimes their glazed eyes reveal that they’re yet under the spell of helicopter parenting and don’t know what they want, much less what they think.  When I think about my childhood however, I’m grateful for the lessons that were taught just by my parents’ being, which provide a rich adult experience as we all sort out who we’ve become and why. 

My mom never sat the four of us down to explain her inclination to paint, but I get it now.  I get it when I while away a Sunday afternoon taking close-up photos in my yard or when I salvage old windows from the trash or when I sing.  My sister got it when she started writing poetry in junior high and she gets it when she leaves the kids at home for the evening to go out with her friends.  And isn’t that something of what creating art is about?  It involves an inexplicable welling up of desire to communicate an experienced truth in symbol that both the artist and the viewer might learn more about who they are in relationship to bigger things.  If art tells a story about what the artist believes, then I see on my windowsill not just a painted shoe form, but my mother’s conviction of the need for community and creativity and of the Spirit’s non-linear knack for teaching holy things when we aren’t even looking.

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