Artist and Action

Morris Ertman
April 7, 2011

One of the central tensions in A Bright Particular Star is the notion of doing something that matters versus doing something just for the beauty of it. I was stewing about this on the long ride home from Rosebud this week.

I love gardening - flowers in particular. In fact, the only things growing in our two gardens are flowers and trees - nothing practical. Maybe that’s why I hide out in the theatre for a living. I love the care with which a fine props builder creates a piece of period furniture. I love staging that speaks metaphorically. I love paintings that pierce the heart.

Almost all of these words were stated in a similar way by the central character in a show I directed several years ago by Wallace Shawn called The Fever. The story of the play was the story of a call to action, so familiar words celebrating beauty were beginning to ring hollow. It was as if a monstrous plant of an idea had taken root in the greenhouse of a heart and was pushing through the glass, lifting the foundations of a well protected spirit and thrusting it outwards, with all the tearing agony that entailed. S/he discovered that this giant plant held within it the capacity to feed starving mouths, if only it was allowed to grow beyond the walls of the greenhouse. We discovered in rehearsal the character’s call to action - a call to feed and engage the lives of the poor. St. Francis, Father Damien, Mother Theresa and Mahatma Gandhi invaded our rehearsals, and I came to the conclusion that the play was about the making of a great soul. I also realized that the same plant had taken root in my own heart, seeded in my youth and covered by the accumulated soil of a lifetime, and now it was responding to light and water. The time for resting in the admiration of its spring blossoms; photographing them, breathing in their remarkable fragrance, even sharing the wonder of the Creator’s touch with others as we collectively admired the play of light and shadow on the roots below it, was over. The time to tear down the house surrounding that great tree had come. The time to expose its blossoms to the open air and the pollination that would come with it, rendering fruit that could actually feed starving souls had come. So the lover of art is called to produce fruit in the Kingdom of God. The artist is called to tend and harvest fruit that can be put into the mouths of the poor in spirit.

In Wallace Shawn’s play, the fevered character makes a confession of sorts laying on the floor of a bathroom in a third world hotel:

“I’ve always loved people who enjoy good meals, people who look forward to good performances. Of course I have. Everyone I’ve ever known is one of those people, I’ve always been one of those people myself. I’ve always thought that it’s so much nicer to love people whom are happy. But the funny thing is that everyone might be.”

“The funny thing is that everyone might be.” There is a selfishness in the painter of spring blossoms who will not tend to weeds, till the soil, or harvest fruit, so keeps the plant growing in his/her heart pruned within the confines of a well kept greenhouse. It is the selfishness of the aesthete who holds the Spirit of God captive in his/her heart, thwarting and stunting it, afraid to let it become something unmanageable.

There is an image romantic and compelling of the painter sitting in the greenhouse, rendering spring blossoms through the subtlety of water-color on paper. But there is an image even more romantic of the artist sitting at an easel in the clearing of an orchard, capturing the work of harvesters pulling fruit from branches. But the most compelling image of all is the image of the artist on the ladder, participating in the life of the community, harvesting fruit that will feed the hungry in the coming winter. It is an image of an artist whose love of what is true compels him/her to climb into the upper reaches of the tree, pushing past branches that scratch at arms, reaching beyond reach for fruit that can be tasted, and in that tactile activity, discovering the true artistry in a basket of apples, the artistry of a Divine order where none need starve. Could it be that the paint applied to a canvass at the end of a day of harvest holds a promise of artistry more profoundly metaphorical and more acutely understood by spirits who view it? Could it be that those brush strokes hold an infusion of spirit that is understood more fully because they are made by hands scarred by the task of harvesting the fruit of the Kingdom? I do think so, because those same hands have delivered fruit into the mouths of those whose spiritual sustenance it has become.

“Your hands are full of thorns, but you can’t stop reaching for the Rose.” - Bruce Cockburn -

Pope John Paul in an address at the turn of the new century called artists to the full expression of their gifts in the Kingdom. This playwright/actor turned Priest and Pontiff understood the true aesthetic of the Kingdom - the transforming artistry of the Holy Spirit at work in the lives of the poor in spirit.

Oh to be articulate in the fullness of the voice that God has given us. Oh for the humility to see ourselves as the embodiment of a story that is more than fiction, a story where metaphor is truly a glimpse of grace, a voice coming through fog calling people to clarity and light, a hand offering the fruit of the Kingdom to starving spirits.

Artist and Action

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Morris Ertman