I have a couple different responses to that incorrect (or at least inadequate) observation. My most comprehensive response is too long to share here. But a quick and convincing response is just to direct the critic’s attention to a Mormon artist like J. Kirk Richards.
I went to high school with Kirk but never knew him well. And I don’t want to post pictures of his work on this blog without permission. But please take a moment to look at it here. When you do, you’ll likely find all the things that I find: a complex body of work that uplifts me while also challenging me. Nothing is easily judged, quickly grasped, or emotionally neutral. This is art.
He recently reflected on his art and wondered if it—or in any fine art—was doing any good in the world. It’s art, but is it useful? He wrote, “What good is art? What value am I bringing to the world? Is it worth it? Is it making any difference?”
For someone like me, someone who struggles even with drawing stick figures, the answer is easy: this art is worthwhile and makes a difference. But my response to his rhetorical questions ended up taking me further than that. I was surprised that as I mulled things over, I ended up flipping the question around and putting it back to myself: I know the work I do is useful, but is it also art?
I am a nurse. I am a business administrator. I am a father. I am a Mormon. I work hard in all these roles. And I’m blessed to know that much of my work is meaningful in the world. But is it art?
Last night I re-read some parts of my favorite novel of all time, A River Runs Through It, by Norman Maclean. Early in the story, the author describes his strict, loving upbringing with its heavy emphasis on the artistry of life: “My father was very sure about certain matters pertaining to the universe. To him, all good things—trout as well as eternal salvation—come by grace and grace comes by art and art does not come easy.”
Thus art is not a medium, but a status. You work hard and long at a thing, whatever that thing might be, until you’re graced with success at it. You work at it until you find that you do it with integrity, passion, and beauty. That’s art.
I couldn’t help but be reminded of my own Dad, a man who does everything in his life with integrity, passion, and beauty.
As a young man, dad was an accomplished wrestler. This was the kind of art that people could see and appreciate. It was the sort of thing people cheered for when it went well and lamented when it didn’t. I know he’s proud of those days. And more than any other specific accomplishment, I know he’s glad to have worked so hard at something and to have accomplished real beauty in his performance.
But I’ve seen him show that same passion, integrity and beauty on hundreds of other canvases that attract much less fanfare. When Dad retired as an Army officer and started his second career as a high school teacher, he did all kinds of extra work to help bridge the income gap you’d expect with that transition. And in his mind, none of these jobs was too lowly to deserve being done well.
As one example, during the summers, he’d manage the local public swimming pool. For him, that meant strict attention and clear processes for cleaning, testing, and safety. The water was tested, adjusted, and retested daily so that it always had the perfect pH and chlorine balance. Every detail was important because this was art and art wouldn’t come easy.
And it worked! I can still distinctly remember the way the water felt to swim in, the way it tasted and smelled, and the perfect glassy shine it gave as the sun reflected off of it. Every pool I’ve swum in since then has been a disappointment!
It’s been the same story with everything else he’s undertaken. Just a handful of additional examples come to mind: writing the ward Road Show, being the scoutmaster, being the bishop, building a tool shed, building a shelf, building a podium with a secret compartment so students don’t steal your pencils, building pretty much anything you can imagine out of 2x4s, building a fort out of blankets, getting a small private school accredited, getting a large battalion ready for combat, writing a speech for someone else to give, making oatmeal cookies, and sharing a testimony.
Dad could be moved to tears just by explaining the “right” way to do any one of those activities. And heaven help you if he finds out you’re trying to finish a paper that’s due tomorrow. Because any paper worth writing is also worth staying up all night for so that you can get the punctuation, grammar, voice, and references all just right. Even if you’re in 7th grade. Seriously.
The Mormon Prophet of my Dad’s childhood was David O. McKay, who frequently referred to an inscription he discovered as a young missionary in Scotland. It read: “What e’er thou art, Act well thy part.” My Dad exemplifies this saying, and I’m so grateful for that example in my life.
I’m at an interesting point in my career. Over my last year, I completed my slow transition from bedside patient care to the business administration side of healthcare. My caregiver privileges and licenses are slowly starting to expire, and I’m not moving to renew them. I haven’t touched a patient as a caregiver in several months now, and I may never do so again.
Through this career change, I’ve been uneasy with my new role as a desk jockey. I have felt like I surely must be a sellout or a corporate stooge for moving away from the front line. But the reality is that I’m finally doing exactly the work I think I’m supposed to be doing. My talents and interests are better aligned with my work than they ever have been before. And while I’m quite a long ways from discovering my own artistry, I am starting to get glimpses of what it may someday look like.
I can see that someday, if I can keep pressing forward, all these spreadsheets and emails and evaluations and process improvements and talent developments are going to coalesce into something beautiful.
I’m grateful to know that I can perform this work in a way that it will eventually become art.
I’m grateful today for what my Dad taught me.