One of my granddaughters turned five this past month. Repeatedly, when asked what she wanted for her birthday, she insisted she wanted red pants. One night shortly before her birthday, she told her mother, “Life would be better with red pants.” Her mother called me to share that bit of wisdom verbatim. “Life would be better with red pants.”
As I did research on religious art and the church in preparation for a PBS radio interview about my church’s 175th anniversary celebration, I couldn’t help but think about that comment. To a five year old the wish for red pants represented a sublime desire for happiness. And what has that to do with religious art? Or the color red?
“Color has a huge impact on our emotions,” writes a blogger, “our perceptions, and our spiritual and physical well being.” An artist uses colors to capture a moment or an object and preserve it as meaningful. It will be interpreted differently by different people based on their experiences, ethnicity, or beliefs.
Years ago in New Orleans, I saw the work of Clementine Hunter, and I was taken by the way she captured life on the plantation. I now judge most folk art by what I learned from her work. Clementine Hunter started painting when she was about forty. Grandma Moses began painting in earnest at the age of 78. Both captured religious scenes such as baptisms, weddings, funerals, and going to church. Whether it is folk art or works found in cathedrals and galleries, the arts are used in religious services.
Study Renaissance paintings; wander through ancient cathedrals; listen to the richness of Bach or Beethoven; consider stained glass windows that narrate Bible stories. Whether it is interpretive drama based on Job or the Nativity or Handel’s Messiah or the simplicity of folk art or a Shaker hymn, art speaks to the soul, to the yearning people have for meaning, order, design, and beauty. Makato Fujimura put it best, “The arts are a cup that will carry the water of life to the thirsty. It’s not the water itself; it’s the vessel.” In this sense, then, religious art is sacrificial.
In many works of art created for the church, the color red figures predominantly. It represents courage, danger, vigor, leadership, anger, rage, strength, joy, determination, will power, as well as romance, radiance, and sexuality. Some of us can only appreciate what art provides. Some of us can’t play musical instruments, but we appreciate what music says. Just as writers must have readers, musicians need audiences. John Milton may have said it best, "They also serve who only stand and wait."
To a child, having red pants answers an internal desire. To mankind, religious art answers an internal need.
Tomatoes are falling off the vine. The green beans keep coming. The beets are ready. Long ago the lettuce went to seed. The green peppers are turning red. I love this time of year in the garden. It is lush, full, and flavorful. Inside there is fragrance of garlic and crushed basil leaves.
In a writers’ group when various member critique one another’s works, often someone will comment, “I’d like to have more ‘smells’ in that passage.” She might be referring to someone’s description of a murderer hiding under a dark pier…. or the spookiness in a dusk-coated attic room…or a bouquet of flowers a lover might put together for a sweet rendezvous.
Hummm. It makes a writer pause. The five senses often figure in descriptive passages, and each rounds out and fleshes out the mystery, romance, the nostalgia --or a combination of all--in a story.
Lately I have been remembering my long-deceased parents. I recall how it was when I was a child, watching my mother working with the bounty of the garden… canning tomatoes in a hot, non-air conditioned farm kitchen. Recently I had lunch with a woman of that generation. She recalled when she was little how it was when her mother had to “go out in the yard and kill a chicken for dinner. What do young people know now,” she remarked. Her comment made me remember a poem I wrote called The Red Hen.
I first came to my writing career by way of poetry—my father reading it aloud, my writing it in high school, my studying it in college and graduate school, my teaching it in college and workshops. It has to be lush, spare, and tight, the poem, that is. Evocative. It has to tell a story. Sometimes, it is the story.
The Red Hen
When Mama went to kill a hen
So we’d have chicken on Sunday,
I’d hide behind the woodpile
Not wanting to see the way she clucked around
Picking just the right one, old enough, fat enough.
I’d see it though, peeking through the woodpile
Thinking I would not see, knowing I would.
There she’d stand in sturdy shoes, faded apron,
Hair tight in a bun, hard at her task,
Rejecting the rooster for being too stringy,
The pullets and fryers, she’d give more time.
I watched her catch the old red hen, a
Squawking and fluttering, a burst of feathers and dust.
The other hens raged and scrambled around, while
Mother put her hand about that thin neck,
Holding her own high and away from her body.
The red hen’s eyes widened and bulged.
I watched, covering my eyes, dizzy to see
The whirling motion of her arms
Then the slack and that sunshine of red feathers,
That awful hopping, jumping, headless hen
Bouncing around among nervous, squawking chickens,
Who like I knew about warm nests, speckled eggs,
Soft yellow biddies and how to drink from the rain trough.
I watched from behind the woodpile, knowing I would
Have to help Mother scald, singe, and pluck that hen.
I know the smell of wet feathers and still can see that
Shiny eye in watery, old newspapers.
Mother cut wings, legs, and thighs into manageable parts and I helped her fry the old red hen.
Company came on Sundays and
Always raved about Mother’s fried chicken,
But I’d slip away from all their talk and go to the swing
Where I would try to think.
The committee in charge of devising the 175th anniversary celebration of the Auburn Presbyterian Church asked me to write a play for the event. I am a playwright and a member of the church. They have organized events for each month, and so the slate of activities includes musical concerts, an old-fashioned garden party, and other delightful events. They wanted my play for September.
Okay, but I didn’t want to write a play. A play has conflict, drama, and a resolution, and I didn’t want any conflict in the project. I selected instead to write a skit with a nod to Charles Shultz’s famous cartoon, where Lucy plays a psychiatrist. In my skit, I have various members of the congregation come to the “Psychiatrist in Residence“ and ask questions about the history and heritage of the church. She along with her Number 1 Assistant give advice. The skit runs about 35 minutes on the page, but at rehearsals, it’s moving toward forty. We’re working on pacing.
We have a cast of fifteen, and each person has gotten into her or his role… often adding lines and ad libbing. I don’t mind a bit because their lines round out the skit and add freshness to it. I have enjoyed the rehearsals, and the whole is coming together rather well.
On Sunday, September 15th, after a very brief service, the performance will be held in the Sanctuary after the benediction, a captive audience.
What have I as a writer, playwright and erstwhile director learned? I learned I love this sort of experience. I learned that a cast of fifteen can be unwieldy. but in our case, unlike a general performance, when one person can’t attend a rehearsal, we are not lost. One important member was dusting her house and fell into her fireplace. She broke four ribs and cracked a bunch of others. Our main Psychiatrist is a popular, busy school girl thus our rehearsals have to accommodate her cheerleading, band, and work schedules. Two young cast members are in band, Scouts, and other school activities. Several members work, albeit others who are retired and need to schedule rehearsal times around their grandchildren’s activities. I have a real estate person, a hospital employee, a retired principal, a retired teacher, a retired administrator, and a retired Daycare Director. I have a chef, a musician, and a homemaker, and oh yes, the Mayor of our town. I have an artist and a Minister of the Word. There is good enthusiasm which makes rehearsals fun.
I learned also that props have to be engineered, the sound system has to work, and appropriate publicity has to be written. Unlike the theater community, where fund raising is a big necessity, I can enjoy the fact that this is a one-time production. The saying “break a leg” is apt, but in my case with broken ribs and retirement activities, I won’t whisper that suggestion.-- not a whisper.
I learned a lesson and some facts at the Indiana Lake ACBS Chapter’s Wooden Boat meet this summer. First off, ACBS stands for Antique Classic Boat Society, which is a membership organization started “on the shores of Lake George Lake New York in 1975.” Its purpose is “to connect people who enjoy classic boats,” and the organization has grown to become the largest group dedicated to the preservation and enjoyment of classic boats.
It just so happens that in our garage is an old wooden boat—a 1957 Wagemaker--- made by the Wolverrine Company in Grand Rapids that qualifies. It’s not in pristine condition, but it has a molded plywood and lap plank design, and it has some bells and whistles. When it was purchased by my father-in-law some thirty years or more ago to use for fishing purposes there was a hole in the front where it had experienced a blow of some sort. Maybe somebody drove it into a dock or a rock. Who knows. The hole was repaired, and the boat was used for a time. When our children were little, they learned to water ski on Hamilton Lake behind the old Wagemaker. Now for at least twenty years or more, the boat hasn’t even seen water So, like any old manuscript, it was time to take it out, give it a look, and see if it was still readable or in this case, sea-worthy. We didn’t take the boat to the meet because it wasn’t ready. It sits in our garage. Maybe next year…
But the lesson I learned has nothing to do with boats. At the ACBS meet, one participant found out I was a writer, and so he asked, “What do you write?” Herein I failed. I stumbled. I said, “All sorts of things” and paused.
I explained I write a variety of genres, I wrote a biography ART SMITH, PIONEER AVIATOR published by McFarland & Company, and junior fiction-the latest one-JUSTIN WAS A TERROR, a collection of short stories- TACKING FORWARD, and a collection of stories set in the rural South-THIS RED EARTH & BEYOND THIS RED EARTH, and that I wrote a personal opinion column for fifteen years, and feature articles, and op-eds, and also am a playwright. I realized I had to figure out how to answer that simple question in one short sentence!
But when the next person asked me what I write, I stumbled again. Maybe it was because the heat index was close to one hundred and seven that afternoon and I was outside in that heat or maybe I just wasn’t thinking. I came away with an assignment. In order to effectively talk about or market my books, I have to be able to put into a single sentence a short yet inclusive answer to the question, “What do you write?” I am still working on the assignment.
I write plays, non-fiction, and adult and junior fiction. That is the answer, but it seems lame. Perhaps when someone asks, I can say, “I write plays, non-fiction, and adult and junior fiction, which genre interests you?” That way the ball is put in the other person’s court. Given some insight as to where the person’s interest lies, I can then elaborate.
Next time at some boat, car, or aviation meet, or street or town festival, when someone casually asks, “What do you write?” I will try it out. Will it work? I don’t know.
I was looking up some information the other day and came across the fact that in July, the 29th of July to be exact, in 1613, the Globe Theater caught fire and burned to the ground during a staging of Shakespeare’s “Henry III." Some believe “All is True” the original title of “Henry VIII” was written in collaboration with John Fletcher. Whatever the case, the catastrophe was started when sparks from a cannon fired during the performance for dramatic effect landed on the thatched roof. I bet Shakespeare didn’t sleep that night.
Rachel S. Roberts