I went for a run last night to the high school and on behind it and to the nature trail simply known as the Prairie Wolf Slough. It’s a little slice of nothing that starts in a nondescript back corner of a soccer practice field and winds its way along a stream, behind a few unrecognizable office buildings, before ending in a loop around a well developed and cared for slice of native prairie and wetlands. As a student in high school, I remember the time our gym coach caught a garter snake skirting across the path when we were running the loop for class. Or the few times we nearly kicked soccer balls over the chain-link fence and into the dirty stream. The stream that we worked to clean up by clearing overgrown nonnative trees and planting native grasses. During biology class as a freshman, we researched the Big Bluestem. We captured grasshoppers and spiders to put in miniature bio-domes we made out of 2-liter pop bottles.
The sun had long since set, and I was running with a headlamp, because although the drone of cars on the nearby highway filled the air, no streetlamps could penetrate the thick growth and light my path. But when I think of the Prairie Wolf Slough, there’s just one memory that always floats to the top.
As a senior in high school, I took AP Environmental Science (APES), which everyone knew was the easiest AP science class, but I enrolled in anyway in lieu of taking something that would be truly useful in my college career, like AP Physics. Not that APES wasn’t useful in the long run, but it was not a course that challenged me. I dropped out after the first semester, because the lure of a few extra free periods as a second semester senior was too great, and then I took the AP test at the end of the school year anyway and passed it without breaking a sweat.
But what I didn’t understand at the time was that it was really an early introduction to the liberal arts. The one day in class that I remember most is the day our science teacher took the time to turn over the class to the art teacher. She gave us paper and pencils and charcoal, and we went outside behind the new wing of the high school and sat on the ground, facing the stream that runs behind the school and she told us to draw. Just draw.
She gave us a few pointers inside before we ventured out, which I boiled down and interpreted as “put charcoal on the paper where there are shadows, and leave the highlights that you see alone”. Really pretty basic advice, but for my mind that was wondering more about what the Kyoto Protocol is and why we hadn’t ratified it, and had never really tried sketching or drawing or painting before, doors to a whole new world opened up. Instead of outlining objects, like I was used to in the past, I shaded the paper where the trees in the background sat in front of the sky. And the stream – that was darker yet – where trees still hung over the banks and didn’t allow for much life to grow under the canopy. The narrow bit on my paper where there was little charcoal was the bridge built from railroad ties that led to the football practice fields.
Nothing I came away with that day was destined to be framed, or even hung on the refrigerator at home, but objects were no longer simple outlines meant to be filled in with a box of 64 crayons.
Every Sunday morning that I’m in Michigan and able to, I go to Jack and Julie’s house (aka the monastery) for their “open studio”, which is at its core, a chance to get together with other like-minded folk and make things. Watercolors, handwritten letters, music, portions of novels, poems, art, maybe just an email to a friend. So we sit and chat and doodle and drink Jack’s coffee and think about the world and watch the seasons change, and make stuff. If you let it be, it can be little intimidating to see others around the table idly chatting and yet still nonchalantly creating beautiful paintings with the other half of their brain, but that’s to miss the opportunity. For every perfect sheet of art ripped out of a notebook, there are a dozen pages filled with scribbles and tests and “I wonder what it would look like if I just put my pen on the paper and let it take its own path”.
And therein lies the beauty. The creation. The making of stuff is how we grow, and somehow along the way, between high school and this year, I forgot that even though I’m not an innately gifted sketch artist, there’s really no such thing as a “failed” drawing.
Not to say that I don’t continuously make other stuff – like the thousands of photographs I share with the world, or words in a blog post, or a funny joke in less than 140 characters, or a chapbook with a friend, or just a fire in the fire pit on that back patio – but I was too self-conscious about my drawings and music before.
I’ve been taking my pen to paper more often lately when words won’t find their way to the page, even just to draw the cup of coffee in front of me, or the pear in the fruit bowl for a still life challenge, or a mountain landscape I just imagined in my head. Paper is cheap. Pens and pencils are cheap. Stop worrying about “wasting” a page in your notebook. Let’s make more stuff.