The Eightieth Letter: Abstract Art & A Messy/Beautiful Life


Dear Daughters,

It is a surprise to no one who knows us that we make a lot of art in our house.

A few years ago, I taught you the word “abstract” to describe your paintings so you would have an answer when someone asked you what your picture “was.” You had seemed a little embarrassed when it wasn’t a picture of a particular thing because you were just making fun designs, and after learning the basic idea of “abstract,” you embraced it.

It throws people off guard though, hearing such a small child announce that her piece of art is an “abstract design.” And sometimes, truth be told, I even get annoyed because you refuse to say what pictures are now and instead insist that everything you make is “abstract.” But most of the time, it makes me happy.

You love it.

You really love all art.

A few weeks ago, your class’s drawing unit through our homeschool coop was on abstract art. I went to the library and checked out some books on famous modern artists, including Kandinsky, Pollock, Rothko, Matisse, and even O’Keeffe, who didn’t only paint flowers. I was excited to show the photographs of some of these artists’ abstract paintings to your class because I, too, love abstract art. I love how evocative it is. I love how impromptu it seems.

I also had fun coming up with a simple abstract art project for your class, and I had fun the night before making a sample to show you all. Your class had struggled with some of our other drawing assignments in our curriculum, like reproducing mirror images, but I thought abstract would go over really well.

And so I didn’t really expect—I mean, not at all—that when I opened the first art book to an abstract image to ask your class, “Is this art?” the resounding answer among your peers would be NO! (One child even said “YUCK!” when he saw it.)

I continued to show pieces of art, and continued to emphasize how neat they were, explained how the colors evoked different emotions and why I liked particular things about it, but your classmates insisted that it was messy and ugly and definitely not art.

And when I showed them my sample piece they were going to be making for their project that day, they were not impressed at what I was asking them to do. Not at all.

I’ll admit I was surprised at this response. I wasn’t sad or frustrated, just surprised. I didn’t expect these 4 and 5 year olds to have such strong opinions as to what WASN’T art.

For the record, you, of course, thought it was all beautiful, and weren’t influenced by public opinion, thank goodness. You’re consistently firm in your verdicts of beauty and wonder in the world all around you, and in your class among your peers it was no different. You raved about the abstract piece you made. You were amazed at the art books I showed. You loved my sample. (In fact, you said, “WOW!” when I showed you my sample. That’s about as opposite of “YUCK!” as there can be. It made me proud.)

The thing is, I don’t know what a “normal” 5 year old thinks about abstract art. Maybe you’re totally normal. Maybe your peers are totally normal. Or maybe there is no “normal.”

But I’ve been thinking about the dangers of making messy and ugly synonyms, the dangers of seeing messy as the opposite of beautiful. And I sure hope we aren’t teaching our children to think that messy means ugly or unholy or unwelcome.

Or unloved.

I know you know where I’m going with this.

Life is messy, girls.

Life doesn’t end up the way we plan it.

Life doesn’t look the way we sketch it out before we begin painting. All kinds of things get in the way and mess it up.

But I’m convinced that it’s precisely the mess that makes life beautiful.

It’s precisely the splashes of dirt mixed into the paint, the unexpected scratch on the canvas, the layers of magazine and newspaper mod-podged on top of everything else and then peeled back and sprinkled with glitter as well as tears that give life character.

We bury, we uncover, we scrape, we splatter, and we pray, and we step back, and then we see it: there is beauty in this messy life we live.

This is a metaphor, and this is life.


Your Momma