How do you handle Art that doesn’t measure up?
Recently I attended a play that was well done but the backdrop was nothing but a poorly drawn tree standing in a poorly painted field. It filled the entire stage. It did nothing for the production. Fortunately, the actors were good enough to detract from the eyesore of such scenery.
But it made me sad and embarrassed for the person who made it. I found out later that it was painted by one man. I wish somebody–or several people–had come alongside him and worked together before it became what it was. Or maybe someone else should have been appointed to paint the scenery.
But I don’t know the full story, and maybe I judge too harshly. Especially in light of this next story.
I’ve mentioned before how my mother was an excellent knitter. She also played the organ for church, played the piano (including Mozart and Beethoven), cooked, gardened, crocheted, and sewed a lot of my clothes when I was growing up. She did all of these things extremely well.
In her 40s, she developed multiple sclerosis. Gradually, over the next twenty years, she lost her ability to play the piano, sew, and knit. She lost energy to cook and garden. Sometimes double vision hindered activities, too.
By the time her first grandchild came along–my daughter Kaia–she was walking with a cane at age 56. With not even enough strength or coordination to hold a baby or push a stroller.
But since we lived five hours apart, I wasn’t aware of her daily losses.
Mom was able to come to one of my baby showers in Wisconsin. Only a few people knew her. She handed me a gift she was so proud of. She smiled the whole time I was unwrapping it.
I pulled it out of the box: a handmade yellow baby quilt with a hot air balloon applique, trimmed in eyelet.
It was not well done. The fabric colors didn’t even go together well, an odd arrangement of brights and pastels. The stitching was uneven. Some of the stars had ragged edges, cut instead of hemmed. If I washed it, it might fall apart.
A tag was sewn in the hem: “Made with stitches of love.”
I was embarrassed for Mom, but she wasn’t. She was beaming. I passed the blanket around, like all the other gifts, and watched people’s reactions. Among the guests were superb seamstresses, including a quilter.
They looked at it, touched it, but nobody said anything. Nobody made even one comment, good or bad. The room fell completely silent. Chit-chat continued about frivolous things, probably to cover up the awkwardness.
Sad to say, I wish I’d handled the situation better. But I was sitting there thinking, “Of all the beautiful things you’ve made, of all the knitting you’ve done, why did you bring this to give me in front of everybody?”
All I said was, “Thank you, Mom.” I didn’t realize until later that day how much work had gone into it.
After the shower, Mom told my sister and me more about the quilt. She’d seen the pattern in the newspaper months earlier and wanted to make the quilt because of Battle Creek’s annual Hot Air Balloon Festivals. As she shared, I learned just how much muscle control she’d lost the previous year.
She could no longer knit.
Sewing she could handle, a little at a time.
But every movement brought pain.
And, because of little coordination,
most movements had to be repeated.
Remember the double vision.
The project took months to complete.
She told us how she’d basted all the pieces on the fabric first, but after doing so, realized they were off center. So she had to take them all off and start over. Re-stitch everything. In pain.
But she was so happy and proud. Even though the color combinations and stitching didn’t measure up to previous accomplishments.
She just wanted to make something unique for her first grandchild.
The amazing thing is, I don’t think Mom was bothered by the ladies’ lack of response. If she was, she didn’t complain. She knew how much she had put into this quilt. She wanted her grand-baby to have it. She was so excited about giving it to me.
This was truly a labor of love like no other.
She’d already contended with so much loss in her life.
Perhaps that enabled her to focus on the joy of giving,
not on others’ affirmations.
Yet I wish I could rewind the clock and respond differently when I first opened the gift. I still don’t know exactly what I would’ve said, since I didn’t want to point out her frailties to the group.
But her frailties were what made this gift so meaningful.
I wish that the ladies would have responded differently, too. Instead of the awkward silence. Though they saw her cane, they didn’t know Mom’s experience with the disease. They didn’t know her knitting and sewing history, either.
But maybe they could have said the things we should say to our kids about their artwork. Describe, don’t judge. Or ask a question: “Where did you get your idea?” Or “You must like hot air balloons.”
I really was afraid of washing the quilt, and didn’t want it to get dirty. So I hung it on the wall in Kaia’s nursery. Over the crib. A focal point. A daily reminder of Mom’s love in action. A grandmother’s love.
Kaia loved the quilt. Though she had no idea what it represented.
Experience is the best teacher of all.
And for that, there are no guarantees
that one will become an artist,
only the journey matters.
–Harry Callahan, photographer
I believe this quote captures the spirit of my mother and the hot air balloon quilt. And anybody else out there who creates but doesn’t measure up according to the world.
Have you heard Dolly Parton’s song “Coat of Many Colors”? This captures the same spirit as my mother’s baby quilt. When Dolly was a child, her family was poor. Her mother made her a coat of colorful rags sewn together, and Dolly was pleased to wear it to school. Though her classmates ridiculed her for it, she wore it proudly and considered herself rich, for it was stitched with love.
Incidentally, Dolly wrote a picture book about this incident and recently donated it to the Library of Congress. It represents the 100 millionth book she has donated through her organization Imagination Library, to promote children’s literacy around the world.
When have you taken a risk to share something you made that wasn’t perfect? Or were you with someone else who did? What happened?
I’d love to hear from you!