The Value of Color

Earworm by author

Embracing Art as Meta-Metaphor

I’ve always loved color. I have no other perspective than mine, about 61 years in the making, changing. So I’ve no idea, for example, how many people in this world would be out-of-their-minds happy to sit down with a Pantone color book for two hours, sipping coffee, as light streams through a picture window onto each page.

That’s literally where I was a year ago at my cousin’s house in Indiana. Kelly O’Dell is an artist, as was her father, my uncle. As I remember, she was at church and so was I that morning.

Whether this particular two-hour communion with color led me to pick up my first brush and buy a starter watercolor kit after Covid-19 hit, I don’t know. It doesn’t matter.

What seems to matter is that I’d been telling myself a lie. That I was no good at art. That I could write decently, that I could play the piano (so-so) and the flute and that long ago I could sing. That was the extent of my artistic capabilities as I understood them.

But this was simply an uninformed lie. I’d never tried anything visual arts-wise. I had settled into what Carol Dweck calls a fixed versus growth mindset. Ironically, I’d been teaching Dweck’s work for years but I hadn’t seen that I had a fixed notion of my artistic capabilities–without even attempting them.

Except there was that one collage I’d made in a fit of anxious anger. I had kept it among some old posters, now living under my bed like a little ghost of Christmas past. Christmas Eve 2003, my then-husband told me he was leaving me and the children in the morning. (He did.)

First collage, Christmas 2003, by author

But that didn’t seem like real art.

This year, while sheltering in place, I decided to give collaging another go. I’d found an old letter written by a girl I’d sung with in several school performances; we even sang in a short-lived band. I loved her voice, her spunk, her energy. After high school, we kept in touch through letters well into the Eighties and then 20-some years later we became Facebook friends.

For about a minute.

In 2012 I posted that as I was canvassing for Obama I’d been harassed by two white men in my neighborhood. I expressed a little fear but mostly concern that the men did not want to have any conversation, just yell at me for supporting our President, a Muslim terrorist.

“Linda,” my long-lost friend with a great voice, wasted no time telling me how unAmerican I was, pronouncing within her comment that she wanted nothing more to do with me.

In March this year I found dozens of her letters, most of then typed on an IBM Selectric typewriter which made sense because she worked at a fancy law firm in California at the time.

One letter, however, was hand-written and recounted what it was like to have a baby. I think his name was Shawn. With scissors, I began to cut the lines apart and reorder them. This is what I came up with:

Still Sore After Four Years by author

Pam, a multi-talented Facebook friend, invited me to a collage group there, and I made more pieces, fewer of them as angry. Some of those collages I reposted to my own wall. I was surprised that one (see below) generated some anger of its own (Was I stealing from African American culture? Was this appropriation especially insidious because I called myself an ally?)

Resisting my tendency to apologize or manage others’ feelings, I kept it up and thanked the person who said I was wrong for giving me something to reflect on. When I reached out on Messenger to ask her for a conversation, I’d been blocked.

Generational Garden by author

Here’s where a spectrum of color comes in to remind me my choices don’t have to be black or white. I don’t have to be right; she doesn’t have to be wrong. We can each see certain values clearly, perhaps similar but not precisely the same ones from the same angles.

I didn’t want to tell myself a lie that would shut down or censor my new creative outlet for the sake of someone else’s feelings or some notion that I deserved to feel shame. Conversely, I didn’t want to label this passionate young woman an over-reactor, to brush off her comments that could help me better understand her and others who saw what she did.

And I’m glad that I stayed with a more complicated truth, which IS truth. It’s not black or white, native or Asian, not a donkey or elephant, not cis or gay or bi or trans or asexual, not millennial or boomer. It’s all of the above and none of the above. All the time. At once.

Why black and white
thinking when a whole
spectrum of color
informs our senses? - 14 Words for Love

Before Linda unfriended me for supporting President Obama, I asked some poets to help write a few dozen 14-word poems or aphorisms to hand out in public spaces on Valentine’s Day 2011. Racism was ramping up, or so it seemed by the news, statistics, and the intensity of some of my family and friends who dismissed racist and violent acts as something created and therefore deserved by people of color.

I purposely chose 14 as the word count because white supremacists and other hate groups share a “14 words” motto that won’t be repeated here. I wanted us to reclaim those 14 words for love. To remind others that kindness exists.

The utility of art and metaphor

Most of us have seen that pithy meme, “Art saves lives.”

This seems true but I think it’s a complicated truth. Think of Amy Winehouse, Robin Williams, Jean-Michele Basquiat, Ernest Hemingway. Art may have extended their lives but they exited on their own terms.

What we all share with artists and factory workers and porn stars and meth addicts is this: our spirits suffer when the only choices we can see are binary. Our spirits need a home, a respite of creativity and beauty and the ability to make mistakes but to learn as we practice.

Black and white are beautiful but they’re not enough when it comes to complex truths, like one million different colors seen from seven billion different perspectives.

This is why I need art. I need it as much or more than others need church. In fact, it feels like the only church where I can see truth in all its complex glories.

And I don’t have to become a virtuoso before my spirit soars to Picasso, Kandinsky, Klee.

Art by Kelly O’Dell Stanley

Regardless of our different identities, if we could remember that we are forever and always noticing different shapes, lines, values, details. That for certain images, words, and ideas, we have been taught fear. That “give an inch, take a mile” has never worked for collective good. Or that by acknowledging inequality and advocating for equity we are in fact not giving police officers or Jesus Christ the middle finger.

In between black and white are about 256 gradients of grey. That’s only between black and white. Can you imagine the possibilities when we move onto the full color spectrum?

Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I will meet you there. – Rumi


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