On My Mind: the writings of Sarah Bracey White                                                                                        

 
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Speech given at the Neuberger Museum, Purchase College

 

"The Writer as Artist"

          I argue against being called an artist. I think of myself as writer -- not one of art’s chosen disciples, I simply  dance in the tide-pools of her powerful ocean. My business card reads “writer, arts consultant.”  However, after thoughtful review of my lifelong involvement with art, I decided that I am an artist.

            After years of hard work struggling to give birth to the stories that whirled inside my head, and failure to sell any of these works,  I found myself unable to write - blocked by self-criticism and the demon of perfectionism. Something rose up and saved me from myself. Art. So much that happens in life is credited to chance. Webster’s dictionary defines chance as a possibility of anything happening; an opportunity; a risk, or a hazard. I choose to embrace the opportunity aspect of the definition. For that is what chance has been in my life - an opportunity for my growth, a way out of the darkness of self-restraint.   Fortunately, chance, disguised as Ann Cefola, sent me Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. My creative self was so desperate that I was willing to do anything that would make me feel better. As a life-long lover of books, and aware of their power to transform, I willing undertook Valerie’s prescription for freeing the artist within, though I could not see how it would help my writers block: I kept a daily journal, conducted a self-inventory of my desires and set out to play.

            Play was the operative word. It fed the child within me and she began to show me where I had gone wrong. I found myself taking play dates to bookstores where I drooled in the coloring book department. I went to the Bronx botanical gardens where I examined trees and orchids, which I tried to draw -- to no avail. I wound up in the gift shop examining coloring books of exotic flora and stained glass windows. I bought water colors and colored pencils and began to fill in the lines. [Show the first water colored picture.] Still, that did not satisfy me. I found an adult education class called Drawing for the Right Side of the Brain and immersed myself in perspective, still lifes, and negative shapes. One of the first things the teacher did was to turn a famous drawing upside down and instruct us to copy the picture by drawing the unfamiliar shapes we saw. Surprisingly, everyone in class made a recognizable copy.  I was getting closer, but I was not yet home. One day, while preparing a display for a children’s art extravaganza ( my day-job revolves around making art accessible to others),  I needed an illustration of the kinds of projects in which parents could involve their children.  My board member, a bona fide artist and art instructor, had made samples that I thought were too staid, abstract and serious for kids; so, I took construction paper,  cut random shapes and arranged them on a blank sheet. [Show the girl with a ball.] Voila! I had found my medium. I need to manipulate the artistic medium, just as I manipulate words on the page. I went wild!

            I began this [show my Picasso-esque collage.] late one evening and at bedtime, my husband coaxed me to put it away. I went to bed, but could not sleep. As soon as his breathing grew steady and even, I eased out, returned to my dining room table and worked until I finished the piece - four hours later. It seemed like an hour had passed. I was refreshed, exhilarated. I had been in the athlete’s zone. Frequently in the days that followed, I paused to stare at that piece. Every time, it made me smile in wonder. I had done that! It did not matter what other people said about it. It pleased me. Proved something to me and my inner critic. My husband encouraged me to frame it, and display it with our other works. I did.  Soon, I wanted to write again, and I began to edit the novel that had long lay abandoned on my desk.

            How does my art influence my writing? Being a practicing artist has taught me to see the world differently. After taking that drawing class, I realized that to describe something, I also can look at its negative spaces. I see people from a different perspective and their distinguishing characteristics stand out more vividly.

            In my heart, I have always been an artist, though not a conventional one.  Art poured from my hands in various forms: sewing, designing and making handicrafts, cooking, layout and design of public relations flyers, displays, photographs.  But always, I stopped short of the canvas of pure visual expression. Now that I no longer fearfully desire the canvas, I can embrace it and use it to form the backdrop of my emotions. Whenever my literary critic grows too harsh, or my child needs the distraction of play, I turn to the canvas and its call for images that precede the words.  Painting is a world dominated by lines, arcs and colors. It is a language my literary critic does not speak, and its absence of familiar guidelines, lulls him to sleep, leaving me free to create.  It is a vast leap from the mind’s eye to the artist’s page. Any trick of encouragement is important fuel for the creative process. Collage feeds my writing and writing feeds my collages.

           Now, more than thirty years later, I realize that I’ve mastered something else: the writer’s life.