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20100813-artist-heal-thyself-by-david-griffithLast week, my mother told me that when I was a little kid she believed I would one day be President. We were alone in her hospital room at the Cleveland Clinic when she said this to me. She was minutes away from having surgery to remove a tumor from her brain.

I didn’t know what to do other than to deflect and make light. I said I didn’t think it was such a desirable job these days.

When I was in pre-school I played Abraham Lincoln in a history pageant. There are pictures of me wearing a top hat and a bluish-gray suit with wide 70s lapels and a brown bow tie. I am on the verge of tears, barely able to spit out my lines, the opening of the Gettysburg Address:

“Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.”

A score and ten years later, I sat next to my mother in silence, again on the verge of tears. In that pregnant moment I had a fleeting memory of being in that preschool pageant. I remember processing single-file down a short flight of steps and into the large classroom where the parents were gathered.

That’s it. That’s all I glimpsed, yet still I felt that tight anxious feeling in my chest, the kind you get before walking into a room full of people where everyone is expecting you to say something. I couldn’t move or speak for fear of crying. I was stuck in 1979, four years old, my eyes on my shoes, chin quivering.

I think the reason why I was so moved by my mother’s fantasy that I would be the leader of the Free World is that it’s stunning to me that she ever thought that way about me; ever looked at me with such bursting pride. I mean, I knew that writing and teaching for a living would be hard, but I didn’t know what a toll it would take on my relationship with my family. Devoting myself full-time to being a writer, and breathing the rarified air of academia has gradually changed me, made me more self-possessed and melancholy.

I’m not that kid in an Abe Lincoln costume anymore.

Talking to my parents about my work is uncomfortable because writing doesn’t quite seem like work to them. They are endless home improvers of the DIY sort, engaged in several projects at once, so trying to talk to them about how revisions on a single essay took me five months is a little like a mechanic explaining an engine rebuild to someone who thinks cars are a sinful extravagance.

This isn’t to say they aren’t proud of what I’ve accomplished. My parents are very good at reminding me that they are. “Work hard. We’re proud of you,” my mother often says at the tail end of phone calls. My dad always asks me how much writing I’m getting done. Their concern, as they have conveyed many times over to me in sermonettes at different stages of my life, is that I work as hard as I possibly can, because that is what will lead to success.

During the four and half hour surgery, I wandered the hospital looking at the art. A colorful Alexander Calder mobile hangs in the foyer of the parking garage. The walls of the long hallway leading to the surgery waiting room are lined with reproductions of Hopper, Rivera, Frida Kahlo, Modigliani, and Romare Bearden.

Elsewhere in the hospital there is a 100 foot long mural of origami animals. There is life-size hologram of a tree projected on the wall that sways back and forth and goes through the seasons again and again. Over the course of two minutes, the vibrant green leaves turn orange and yellow, wither and die and gently blow away, followed by the sprouting of new green buds. As you can imagine, I stood for a long time meditating on this one.

Back in the surgery waiting room a violinist and violist put on a recital of sacred and popular music, a beautiful version of the Kyrie that I couldn’t place and the Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty-Four.”

While listening to the music I noticed on a nearby table a flier for the clinic’s art therapy program that stated in big bold letters: “Medicine Cures the Body/ Art Heals the Spirit.” The flier announced the days and times for art classes for children and adults, as well as docented tours of the clinic’s art holdings. Reading this, listening to the string duet, and recalling all the wonderful art I had seen that day, I got the urge to write. Even if it was just to record what I was thinking, I felt compelled to describe the experience of being there in that room with so many anxious families whose loved ones came here hoping to be healed.

Over the two days I spent at the hospital it became clear to me that art therapy is effective. Living among the ruins of crass ratings-driven art and entertainment, it’s so easy to forget art’s therapeutic power. For those who spend hours upon hours, days upon days waiting, hoping and praying, the art gives them something to look at and think about except sickness.

By the time I returned home to Virginia, I had taken over fifty photographs of the art and composed many notes reflecting on the various pieces. I even have what I think is the ending of the book I’ve been working on for four years.

Susan Sontag says that for people “handicapped by a ruthless work ethic,” snapshot-taking is “a friendly imitation of work.” I would like to appropriate her astute observation for my own purposes: for people under great stress, attempting to make or create something out of your anxiety creates a moment of grace.

Like my mother did many years ago now, Jess and I sometimes fantasize about what our children will grow up to be. One of our greatest worries is that both will become artists like us, but after my experience in Cleveland, I’m feeling more okay with that possibility.


The Image archive is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.

Written by: David Griffith

Dave Griffith is the author of Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America. His essays and reviews have appeared in Image, The Normal School, Creative Nonfiction, The LA Review of Books, Killing the Buddha, Offline, and the Paris Review Daily, among others. He lives in Michigan with his wife, the writer Jessica Mesman Griffith, where he directs the creative writing program at Interlochen Center for the Arts. He recently finished a book manuscript titled Pyramid Scheme: Making Art and Being Broke in America.

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