The Portable Art

Unlike the stuff we writers produce, art and music seem to make no demands of those who encounter it.

The artist puts it out there—hangs it on the wall, pours it through speakers—and the public responds. They see it. They hear it. They get on with their day, likely the better for having encountered these sights and sounds.

Writers, not so lucky.

The writer asks: Will you engage? Here are some words—will you read them? Will you perform my piece for me? 

We are craven and pathetic.

I admire artists and musicians. I envy the accessibility of their work. It seeks only to be considered. It engages rather than requiring engagement. So imagine my surprise at coming upon these lines from Returned Peace Corps Volunteer and award-winning novelist Carol Severance:

I was an artist when I entered the Peace Corps, and I took my paints and brushes so that I could document my stay. I hadn’t counted on the ants eating the sealant off my carefully stretched canvases, or on the vivid tones of the tropics. My pallet included colors better suited to landscapes near my Colorado home.

So I began writing down the scenes I wished someday to paint—describing the giant breadfruit tree outside my house, the low sweep of green surrounding the pristine blue of Ettal Lagoon, the faces of laughing children.

In the meantime, I listened to the stories the islanders told. As my language skills grew, I began to recognize how they turned simple news into anecdotes to capture their listeners’ interest and, when a story proved worth retelling, added more and more colorful details. In my journal, I began adding details, too—souds and smells, tastes and textures. My tales grew more complex. By the time I left, my words provided a much clearer image of the islands than my paintings ever could.

I found these lines in a collection originally published in 1997 (midway through my own Peace Corps service in Malawi), called The Great Adventure. It’s a booklet, more like a prayer-volume than a paperback, slim enough for the back pocket. Thirty-two passages from all around the world, from all decades of service through 2002, fill its pages. It’s available for .10 at Amazon, and free from a Peace Corps recruiter.

Because of its convenient size and weight, I turn to it now and again, in off moments between meetings or on the train. Some new inspiration always awaits. This time it was writing as a substitute for painting.

I fall in love again with the mobility of our craft. Our words are our shades, our sentence structure our tones. We may be demanding, but we offer our own rewards: the world in a .10 prayerbook.

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