Telling a Story Well. . .
. . .is part of being human that’s always fascinated me.
My uncles and aunts got me hooked on this story telling when I was a grade-schooler living in Sioux City. Like when I saw my Uncle Glen’s fat old Rambler pull up, I’d get wound up. I knew he’d have some bizarre or funny story that grabbed hold and didn’t let go until the last sentence. Some stories left me scared out of my wits, others ignited laughter.
If an old white Dodge van rattled up in front of our house I knew Uncle Gale was invading to play some game with us kids. And that meant he’d be teasing some tale and playing the game so imaginatively it would be a blast. One time riding in that old van to the 7-11 his tale made me long for the “olden days” of his youth, which was about 10 years earlier. He set the story up after he bought me a Slow-Poke sucker. When we got back in his rocking-horse-bouncy van and I unfurled the sucker, he told me when he was a kid they had Black Cow suckers. They were so big they lasted all day long and tasted better than any chocolate ever made. I ended up trying to make that Slow-Poke last all day, too. Maybe that was his aim.
And maybe that’s why when I grew up the arts grabbed hold and never let go. It’s the story telling. . . that reeling out a story through visuals, words, and music that’s kept me in this field.
My interest nearly died for the subject had it not been for my great grandma dosing me with her home-grown antidote; the story of her meeting the Jesse James gang who galloped up to her folks’ farmhouse to ask for water.
But what surprised me as I grew up was that telling a story was a gift. I thought everyone could weave a spell with words. I was wrong. Junior high history textbooks told stories in such a miserable manner. My interest nearly died for the subject had it not been for my great grandma dosing me with her home-grown antidote; her story of meeting the Jesse James gang who galloped up to her folks’ farmhouse to ask for water. She told the story so vividly, connecting moments in time to real people, it revived my love of history. She made history personal. She made it alive.
Through the years I’ve learned that it’s not an easy thing to tell a great story through a song or a painting or a short story. When the story is told well, it looks easy. It’s not. Good storytellers work thoughtfully; learn their craft.
Southern writer Flannery O’Connor expresses the situation well: “A story is a way to say something that can’t be said any other way and it takes every word in the story to say what the meaning is.”
Reading that was like getting smacked in the face with a bucket of water. I never thought of it quite like that. The principle applies to any area of imaginative work. It made the phrase my art professors used to burp out constantly - “it’s more important what you leave out than put in” - zap to life. This stuff is serious business. Every word, every note, every stroke of paint should be helping tell the story. Pulitzer Prize author Annie Dillard likened the process to building a house. She says take a sledge hammer to the work if it doesn’t look right. Knock out the wall. Duck.
It’s why the work goes slower these days for this art maker. I understood what is good much better than forty years ago. That speeds up one part of the process. But it slows down another because I have a better eye for what works and what doesn’t.
I’ve lost count on the number of splendid ideas I’ve cooked up through a life of work. What actually makes it to canvas or paper or sound is fractional. These tangible objects I’ve cast along the trail are the only ones I had the courage to let see the light of day.
The painting above is an example of the long drawn process of thought. I’d knocked a wall or two out along the way and I almost abandoned it several times because I wasn’t sure I could tell the story I wanted to tell. But I feel like it comes as close to the thing imagined as I can hope.
There are three parts to the idea shown here. What will add the needed craftsmanship is the framing device I will be using. And this painting will best be enjoyed in person. Digital just doesn’t quite convey this piece.
INSIDER TIP: the idea came as I was reading T.S. Eliot’s Choruses from the Rock. The line “And the Church must be forever building, and always decaying, and always being restored” conjured this idea that I needed to explore. Thus a derivative work with my rendition of Van Eyck’s Ghent Altarpiece side panels, and my go at Monastery Graveyard in the Snow by German Romanticist painter Caspar David Friedrich for the central panel. And the bottom panel is a painting of my son posing as a monk.