He referred to it as “your art.” And I always smiled.
He meant theatre, really. Theatre was what I did. I was an actor. And he, the man with the thick Dutch accent who sat in front of our pew, got to know me because of it.
It started with some advent monologues that I did at church one year. He commented on them and we began to talk. He came to my plays. We continued to talk. About theatre, church, opera, God, and…art.
When I first entered university last September, I heard the word ‘art’ again and again.
The art department had their pictures in the hallways. And my friend was an Art major. She was taking Art 181.
But I was in theatre. And I took Acting and Theatre classes and went to see plays.
Yet I always heard the word ‘art.’ Theatre artist. We are theatre artists.
“Art must be specific,” one particular prof repeated, again and again.
I had to take a history of music, dance, visual art, and theatre class. And we were all there because somehow, we — freshly emerged from high school, recently uprooted from the only familiarity we’d ever known as we were — were considered artists.
Next semester, we discussed what art was, whether it was subjective or not, what good art and bad art was, how art could be considered kitsch and so on. We even had to do projects, in place of essays, in which we created our own art.
I didn’t understand it all at first. I’d never considered myself an ‘artist’ before. I was just someone who liked acting a lot. Art was for people who painted pictures and created masterpieces — not little old me.
And time and time again, the question came up… what is art?
And to be completely honest with you, I still don’t know.
My Voice and Movement professor had us make short scenes in which we did things from our daily lives: getting up in the morning and talking on the phone. We presented them to the class.
I worked and worked and worked on a monologue. Night after night and day after day. I wept over it. I laughed and learnt. I tried to hide and then let myself go, I brought people in to watch and give me suggestions. I rehearsed. I auditioned with it one night in late March and gave it all that I had and I lost something strange and good and scary and gained something more.
I learned how to move in a Shakespeare monologue. I developed a physical score that scared me to death but gave me new life. I did it for my class and a friend told me that was when he knew that I wanted to be an actress. An artist.
I look back and I think, “Well, maybe I do know what art is after all.”
I remember the last conversation that we had — it was about art. He leaned against his walker, talking swiftly in the usual way. He spoke of my art. He praised art and said that it was important and part of God’s purpose.
I smiled. These were both new ideas to me, which I’d come to realize, through tears and aggravation, in my first year of university. Yet this was what my friend had been trying to tell me all the way along.
I don’t think we ever talked again. The man with the thick Dutch accent who talked about ‘my art’ went into the hospital soon after. I always meant to visit him, but I homework piled up and I never did. I regret that.
He died before my final exams began. Before my first year finished. And a few weeks before, as we spoke about art in the fellowship hall, I never would have guessed.
I couldn’t even go to the memorial because of exams. And so, it doesn’t even really seem that he is actually gone.
It makes me sad to confront his loss — so I try to forget sometimes. But when I’m at church, I see his empty spot and the tears creep in and it is hard to sing.
Yet he gave me something that I’ll never forget. He left a precious gift on earth for me to cherish and learn about forever.
The man with the thick Dutch accent, who used to sit in front of us at church, called me an artist. And he said, just like the Lord said when He created the universe, that it was very good.