My rural hometown had an incredible art program, but my family moved when I was a junior and, at my new school, visual arts were grossly under-appreciated. Art class was where uninspired and underachieving students were sent to make up their humanities credit - much to the chagrin of my long-suffering art teacher, Mr. Britton…which is probably why he granted me the senior art award. It came as a total surprise. I had taken all the available art classes by the end of my first year there, and with so many other interests, had filled my class schedule with other electives. But he knew I wanted to be an artist as well as a writer, and hoped to encourage me.
Graduation season is upon us once again, with all of it's pomp and circumstance, and I am pleased to pay homage to Mr. Britton by passing his encouragement along. Having given public art lectures and numerous book talks and readings as an author, for the first time was invited to speak at a high school National Art Honor Society induction ceremony honoring talented young artists. These are some of the words I shared with them:
My first public speaking gig was at my own high school graduation… and I totally blew it. For some odd reason, though I wasn’t valedictorian or even salutatorian, I was nominated to be our class speaker. It may have been that I had a reputation for being outgoing and well spoken. I had rocked my pre-college English courses - today’s equivalent of AP English – and was just coming off a successful run as the lead in our spring musical, The Sound of Music. I oozed confidence. Whatever the reason - and really, it does baffle me now as to how anyone could have thought it was a good idea - I decided I would speak off the cuff. Extemporaneously. In front of almost a thousand people.
Trust me; it wasn’t pretty.
I had written a short poem, a motto, which I’d committed to memory and thought would be the perfect launching pad -
Let me live now and never regret losing a second
For let no second go by that I am idle,
No thoughtless moment mar a day filled with the opportunity to do,
Or to be.
...pretty ambitious, isn’t it? And naive.
From there, I expected inspiration to blaze like a lightning bolt out of the sky, and hit me with sage words that would electrify my listeners. When that didn’t happen, I almost resorted to belting out Edelweiss, but instead, meekly asked my fellow classmates to remember that their parents and educators also deserved a round of applause for their heroic efforts on getting them to this point, and - very humbled, as the confused audience twittered and clapped anemically - I sat down.
You don’t get off that easy today. Neither do I.
These days I am obsessed with getting it right.
Whether I’m at the computer or easel, attention to detail is my own personal superpower. I love to layer the aesthetic with functionality, to make the ordinary extraordinary. Taking a simple idea and developing it into an alternate universe complete with its own language is my idea of fun. Spending hundreds of hours working on a single illustration thrills my heart.
The act of creating is one the most meaningful and joyful aspects of life. I believe it is what we are made for. Art makes a difference, in fact, it makes all the difference. It is what elevates life from the mundane to the sublime. As a lifelong avid reader and now author & illustrator, I don’t just get to exist in one world, I live in thousands; some of my own creation, others that I visit only sporadically. Art and literature make these worlds possible, and I am eternally grateful to the creative contributions of so many throughout the ages. They are my heroes.
You who are sitting here being honored for artistic excellence today have been given the gift of art. Will you develop and nurture that gift to enrich your own life or share with the world… or squander it, lock it away in some secret cupboard out of fear that it isn’t good enough?
Most people stop drawing about the time they realize that what they are putting down on the paper looks nothing like the real thing – at around the age of eleven. That is when drawing becomes work. You are the lucky ones who pushed past that stage and can now enjoy it again. You are the ones who can bring art into a world that craves beauty. Yet not all of you are destined to be artists. Some of you have other, stronger loves and interests, skills I can only dream of having. You will spend your creativity in other ways. But that doesn’t mean art won’t play an important role in your lives.
Living artistically doesn’t have a set look. It might mean designing architecture, teaching a classroom of music students, running a restaurant or corporation, making furniture. A creative life doesn’t always wear a face you can recognize. Sometimes it goes incognito. Sometimes it means wearing sweatpants and driving a mini-van. But it is still a superpower.
Consider, if you would, the movie The Incredibles.
I adore animation. I appreciate the time it takes, even now with improved technology and CGI - computer generated images. I love the attention to detail, the little things the audience doesn’t notice consciously, but that would seem off if they weren’t just so. The backdrops, the mannerisms, all of that. It takes years and millions of dollars to make a film like The Incredibles. The Incredibles #2 is soon to be released, and I can hardly wait! But what I love most about The Incredibles isn’t the animation; it’s how real the characters are. They are flawed. They are normal despite their amazing super powers. They are human and make mistakes, just like all of us. They also want to be their best selves. That is their main motivation. It isn’t showing off, or making the world sit up and take notice that drives them, even though they might enjoy the limelight. Craving the limelight for its own sake is the trait of super villains. Heroes just want to do what they are good at, to live honorably and make the world a better place. That can be done – and is – everyday by countless individuals just going about their lives.
I love the scenes where Mr. Incredible - aka Bob Parr - is sitting at his desk, shoulders hunched, endlessly bored and overly capable, nearly broken. It’s not that he can’t help people in that capacity – he proves he can with his sympathy toward a weepy, older lady who he assists with an insurance claim. But he is unhappy because he isn’t being all that he can be in that job. We see that he doesn’t fully come to life until he is back to doing what he loves: hero work. And even then, while he’s sneaking around, doing it on the sly so that his wife, Helen - aka ElastaGirl - won’t know what he’s up to, he is unfulfilled because he isn’t being fully honorable. She, on the other hand, has been doing hero work all along – spoiler alert – as we’ll find out in the sequel when Bob has his turn staying home being the full-time parent.
I am a parent myself – to five wonderful & talented children. For much of their lives, I was their hero, and maybe for some I still am. Along with writing and making art, they are my passion. For years they were my top priority – and still are, though it is a little less time consuming with only our bonus baby left at home. But remember that little poem I wrote about not being idle? Well, with five kids there isn’t much time for being idle… or anything else for that matter. So, I haven’t always been what you would call a “producing artist”.
At times, I admit, I chafed at not having enough time to pursue my art while raising children, not fully recognizing the opportunity they gave me to share it in new and creative ways. You see - living an honorable life isn’t dependent on circumstances; it is what you do despite them. It wasn’t Mr. Incredible that was a hero to that old woman, it was Bob Parr. And in my case, in passing my love for the arts along to my children my gift has been multiplied many times over, and in a variety of ways that wouldn’t have been possible had I just kept it for myself. Two of my kids went on to be theater majors; our son intends to pursue voice and stage acting, while our eldest turned her love of language into a career in marketing consultation, and is developing a book of her comic strips. Another daughter graduates this weekend a full-fledged pastry chef. Our fourth child let her fascination with neuroscience take precedence – much to her scientist father’s delight – yet writes some of the deepest, most eloquent poetry I’ve ever read. Our youngest is still an unknown quantity, but I am confident that art has, and will continue to enrich her life.
As time allowed, I returned to making art and writing, and in retrospect realized that living an authentic, honorable life doesn’t always mean it turns out exactly as we envision it. It might be smaller. It might appear unnoticeable, but it is in the everyday details - the work that is involved - that the most important part of life plays out. We can become Super Uses when we live honorable lives. We can endow the everyday with greatness and make it sublime when we give it our best, regardless of our circumstances, with or without accolades or recognition. We can be incredible. You can be incredible. It’s a decision.
Today you are being honored not only for your outstanding abilities in art, but for your efforts to attain the highest standards in art scholarship, character, and service. Such honor may be bestowed, thrown over your shoulders like a mantle - a varsity jacket, a medal, a certificate of accomplishment, a grade, an induction into the National Art Honor Society, even an election to be class speaker – but can only become part of your character with your consent and participation. Honor takes effort. To live honorably is to live without worrying about how you are perceived, to not dwell on mistakes and imperfections, but to strive to give your best. When we give our best, it speaks volumes.
I hope that you will always give your best. The world needs your best. The world needs heroes. Heroes like Mr. Britton... and your teachers, parents and supporting adults.
So let’s give all of them a round of applause.