Creating a Masterpiece in the Empty Places
‘Tis the season…’tis the season for Christmas shopping, getting your kids ready for Christmas recitals and Christmas programs, addressing Christmas cards, attending Christmas parties and events…and for going out of town. For Jason and me anyway. November is the month that holds both my birthday and our anniversary, so almost every year for the past sixteen years, we slip away either to a retreat in Houston or nearby San Antonio, and every few years, we actually hop on a plane.
This year we decided to hop on a plane and spend a long weekend in New York, only made possible by the amazingness of Mia, Nana, and Cara, my mom, Jason’s mom, and Jason’s sister. We booked our trip back in the early part of September (I think it was a knee jerk reaction to recovering from Hurricane Harvey and wanting to get the heck of out town), only to realize our trip was the weekend of our daughter’s ballet performance in the Nutcracker and of her full hair and make up dress rehearsal for her musical theater performance. Yikes. Translate all-hands-on-deck-thank-you-Lord-for-family.
Once everyone’s bags were packed and Lizzie’s two performance bags were ready (what in the world was I thinking saying “Yes!” to both performances when I signed her up for those in September?!?) and we were on the plane, I began to exhale.
I know this sounds crazy, but I love to go to New York with Jason because when I am there, I can exhale. Because when we are there together, we walk and talk. And eat. We walk and talk. And sip coffee. We walk and talk. And wander through museums. We walk and talk. And see shows and wander through shops and think and talk about things greater and bigger than ourselves, things we don’t have time or space to do when we are at home.
So yesterday, we walked and talked a full mile up the east side of Central Park bundled in our coats, breathing in cold air, savoring views of the reds and golds of the trees, and stepped into The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Once inside, we stood under Byzantine arches, beheld a faded but tender statue of Mary holding Jesus, and stood in front of the famous French Christmas creche. But our favorite thing we saw was the exhibit, “Michelangelo: Divine Draftsman and Designer.” Containing 133 of his drawings, all done in red chalk on white paper, and three of his marble statues, the exhibit gave a unique glimpse into the creative process behind the creator.
We lingered long over drawings detailing arms, legs, the contortion and twisting of muscles in shoulders, backs, and even feet. Many of the sketches were practice rounds for figures he painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or statues he carved for Pope Julius II’s’ tomb. His sketches seemed to be living, fluid, full of movement, and I was almost prepared for them to leap to life off of the paper, even five hundred years after they were drawn.
I was struck by many things that spoke through his sketches, but two things seemed to speak the loudest. One was how much he practiced. Michelangelo is known for his masterpieces, but the majority of his time was spent preparing for his masterpieces – drawing after drawing, stroke after stroke, round after round of try and try again.
As someone who works to create as well, this was encouraging. While my creative ability is nowhere near the celebrated genius (obviously), I understand a little bit of the strain and stress of the creative process. My tendency is to think that artistic giants did not have to try; they just drew or carved or composed or wrote and in one fell swoop – boom! – masterpieces came out.
But more and more, I am seeing that is hardly if ever the case. Even the best of the best have to spend many, many hours devoted to practice and cross outs and try agains before the finished product is ready or even ready to be attempted.
I needed that reminder as I attempt to start the first chapter of a book…for the fiftieth time. I have draft after draft of failed beginnings, and page after page of books that will never be finished or studies that will never reach an end.
But the second thing that spoke loudly to me was a comment made by one of the commentators on the audio guide Jason and I were listening to. She said, “If you look closely at Michelangelo’s drawings and sketches, his point is made as much by what he leaves out as by what he accents and fills in.”
Meaning this – as you stare at the cross hatching and swift, sure strokes that came from his chalk to create the anatomy of a leg, or a man’s biceps and broad shoulders, his anatomy comes to life not only by the strokes he choose to make on the paper but also by the areas he choose to leave blank.
And I was arrested by that comment.
Because in a season of life as a creator of the lives and schedules and rhythms and school routines of four young children, as a sometimes writer and blogger and teacher, as a friend, and daughter, and wife, as an advocate of ministries I love and people I want to help, the pictures I am drawing on a daily basis are made effective by what I choose to leave off of the paper as much as by what I choose to put on.
That was a relief to hear. Because I can only put so much on the paper. I only have time and room for so many marks.
And sometimes, my drawings speak the loudest by what I am leaving off of our schedules, off of our plates, off of our routines, by what I am putting on.
This time of year has the potential to be so special – there are opportunities to create family memories and family traditions and spend extra time together during the school break that the normal school year does not afford.
But there is only so much space or room allotted on the paper. And while I want to draw some things this Christmas season, I cannot draw all things. And the things I leave off have the potential to make the overall drawing more beautiful, not less. The key is figuring out which spaces to leave blank. Because when it comes right down to it, that is the difference between a master artist and a mediocre one…a master artist not only knows what strokes to put on the paper but knows what strokes to leave off.
So this week, the first week of Advent, the first week of the Christmas season, think long and hard about the strokes you will make to fill the paper of the next four weeks before Christmas.
Maybe it means some parties go unattended, certain gifts aren’t bought or wrapped, meals aren’t prepared perfectly, or homes aren’t picked up regularly. But it does mean your space and my space is filled well, and to those who are watching closely and to whom it matters most, what they will see is…a masterpiece.