Rebekah, my 17-year-old daughter, recently told me a story about second grade art class.
They were working with clay, and the art teacher instructed her class to make animals–dragons and alligators, specifically. But Rebekah was, and still is, an artist. And sometimes, artists don’t like to be told what to do.
Rebekah uses pencils and paint and clay the way I use words–as a reflection of her soul, the truest expression of herself. It flows from her naturally, effortlessly. It always has.
As a second grade girl, Rebekah had an obsession, not with dragons and alligators, but with owls. So, she ignored the instruction given her, and set out to mold and make her clay owl.
Where most other students needed help shaping their animal, Rebekah instinctively knew what to do. She had never worked with clay, so she didn’t know why she knew how to handle it so well. She just did. Without even a picture of an owl as a guide, her small hands carefully squeezed and smoothed and pushed the clay to form the body, the head, and the small pointed ears of her owl. Then she skillfully crafted the wings to flare out, just a bit on each side, so her clay owl would be ready to take flight.
When she was satisfied with every last detail, she smiled, cradled the artwork in her little hands, and carried it to her teacher.
The art teacher took one look at the fragile creation and said, “No, no no! This will never work. Those wings will break off in the oven.”
“Then I can put them down, like this,” and Rebekah gently moved the wings so they were snug at the owl’s side.
The art teacher was dissatisfied. Rebekah had not followed directions. Clearly, the teacher had instructed the class of 7 and 8-year-olds to make alligators and dragons, not owls–did she not hear the instructions? Moving the wings snug to the owl’s side was not sufficient. This piece was not good enough. It was no good at all!
With that, the art teacher lifted her hand, and with one swift move, slammed it down onto the owl, smashing it flat.
Rebekah remembers going back to her desk and crying.
I had never heard this story. As Rebekah shared this memory, I was blinking back tears, thinking about that little 8-year-old, walking back to her desk with a smashed clay owl in her hands.
I asked her, “What did you end up making after that?”
She said, “I don’t remember what I made. I only remember how I felt. I remember I didn’t care about that project any more.”
I have no idea what would prompt a second-grade art teacher to destroy a child’s project. It’s uncharacteristic of every teacher I know. Maybe it was a bad week. Maybe one too many 8-year-old boys shoved clay up their noses that day. Maybe it was time for her Xanax. Or retirement. I don’t know.
As a card-carrying Rule Follower, I want so badly to sympathize with the art teacher, though. There are things I must do, whether I like them or not, whether I understand them or not. I get that. Rules are there for our good, you know. They ensure our safety and protection. Without rules, there would be mayhem.
I mean, think of the chaos that would ensue if children in art class actually used their imaginations and expressed their passion in their artwork? Potentially, we could have alligators and dragons and owls baking in the exact same oven! And clearly, that just won’t do.
But as an artist, my heart hurts for little Rebekah, and for every creator who’s had someone smash her art flat.
Maybe it was with words of disapproval.
“Don’t quit your day job!”
“I don’t get it.”
“No. No. No. This will never work!”
Or maybe it was simply indifference.
A shrug of the shoulder.
A disinterested look.
Or maybe it was outright rejection.
A cancelled contract.
A smashed clay owl.
All I know is I never had the privilege of seeing that beautiful piece of pottery my baby made with her little hands.
I’m so thankful Rebekah had the courage to continue creating after her teacher smashed her artwork.
Fellow artist, may I encourage you for a second?
That thing burning inside you,
That thing that you think about every day,
That filter through which you hear every sermon, read every book, interpret every song…
Whatever that thing is you go to when you have an extra hour,
That thing you do for pennies or for free,
That thing that makes you lose track of time or makes you stay up too late or makes you forget to eat,
That thing you have tried to set aside a dozen times so you can be “productive” and “efficient” and follow the rules…
That thing is God’s image in you.
In the beginning, God created…
It may be words you write, or clay you mold; lyrics you compose or chords you play; ingredients you combine or websites you design; houses you decorate or dance steps you choreograph…
Whatever that is, will you please keep doing it?
I don’t want to see a bunch of copycat art! I’ve never been inspired by something that is just like the 30 other pieces alongside it.
The world needs your clay owl. I need your clay owl! Most of us don’t care if you follow the rules. Most of us don’t mind if you make an owl instead of an alligator. Most of us love the way you are able to move the fragile wings down so they don’t break in the heat. Most of us hope you leave the wings up because we want to see if those wings can withstand the fire.
Most of us would rather see the owl you created from your heart than the dragon you created from obedience.
Please don’t stop making your thing. Keep writing and playing and cooking and painting and dancing. It is sacred work. The world has enough rules. We need your soul.