Monday, October 8, 2012

For John

I wrote the following in memory of John. 

The Critique

It was quite possibly the worst day ever; the kind of day when your authentic self has been pounded into a pulp and then smeared across the floor. I have had some brutal art critiques, but none of those compared to the one that I found myself in on this particular Thursday afternoon. I stood there, with tears coursing down my cheeks as I endured the criticism.  

Earlier that afternoon I had stood in the gallery, marveling at the artwork that hung on the walls. My artwork—I still couldn’t believe that I had completed 20 pieces of work in 2 months. Which is not something I would encourage any future art student to do—procrastination is not a wise way to view school projects. And while I had finished all 20 pieces—only a handful of them were up to my standards.  I knew I was in for a scolding; I just wasn’t prepared for the disappointment.

John C. Williams was a legend at the School of Visual Art and Design at Southern Adventist University. According to those who never dared to take a class from him, he was the meanest, hardest, most terrible teacher ever.  To those of us who dared to enroll in one of his classes, we knew him as an adopted father. Yes, he demanded perfection, hard work and no excuses—but we also knew that he cared about each one of us. Either you applied yourself and did the work required. Or you didn’t. It was that simple.

And it was on that day that I learned that I was a disappointment to my teacher. He knew that I could do better. I knew that I could have done better—if only I had been true to myself. Instead, I did what I thought John wanted—realistic instead of abstract—artwork from reference photos—instead of my heart. It took me a few months after graduation to realize that I needed that scolding, to see the big picture—to understand that my priority shouldn’t be to gain approval from those around me—but to be true to my authentic self and to God.

I had created the artwork that I had thought that I was supposed to create. It was beautiful, but nothing in those paintings or drawings spoke of who I was as an artist. I had been so intent on gaining John’s approval that I missed the entire point of the showcase. The showcase wasn’t about John. It was about me. But I was focused on John, what he liked and didn’t like. I wasn’t willing to put myself into my work. I thought that I was, but looking back now, I know that I wasn’t.

 John knew that I had a special gift; I had the creativity to be an amazing artist. What I lacked was self-motivation. I knew that I was good, so I didn’t try as hard as some of my classmates. I knew that I had the talent, but didn’t push myself as hard as I should have. Art comes easy for me, just like math might come easy for some of you. Because it was easy for me, I didn’t bother with being true to my authentic self. Instead I concerned myself with what I thought John wanted.

That misunderstanding on my part put a strain on our student/teacher relationship—I resented him. I felt like he had been unfair. Fathers love their children, even when they have to punish them. John was a father figure to each one of his students—we knew that he would do anything for us. He cared deeply about each one of us and treated us as individuals. John knew when we were having a bad day and often went out of his way to make sure that we were ok. He was concerned about every aspect of our lives, including our spiritual walk with God. Our art classes were 2 ½ hours long, yet John spent that time reading to us from the Bible. He’d introduce us to books that asked important questions, like Case for Christ. He’d open the floor for discussion as he trained us to be excellent Christian artists.

Do you understand now why my final art critique was so difficult for me to overcome? I had not been true to my beautiful authentic self. Just as a parent has to discipline an unruly child, so John had to be hard on me in order for me to grasp the depth of my creativity. I still don’t understand the true depth of my creativity. My only regret is that I was never able to thank John for that difficult final critique. John died from liver cancer on October 8, 2009; I never got the chance to tell him. During my last 2 years of college, John was battling liver cancer—yet he never missed an opportunity to witness to his students.

I owe John more than just that lesson. My senior year was very difficult for me; my spiritual walk with God was wavering. I didn’t know what I believed and I had a multitude of questions that I needed answered. I had stopped attending church and spent my time pouring through my Bible, hunting for those answers. I took my questions to the religion professors; surely they would be able to explain things to me. But they just told me what I should believe and expected me to follow their advice. I shook off the idea of being simply a cookie-cutter Christian. I was disgusted and unhappy; I just wanted to understand, in what did I believe?

In desperation, I wrote John a quick email. That evening, when I went to the art studio, I found a stack of books sitting on my easel. A simple gesture, but one that meant the world to me; it told me that John cared. He cared so much about my spiritual walk with God that he wasn’t going to just give me the answer. Instead he guided me through each question with books written by various authors who dissected each one of those daunting questions.

When I think about John, I am reminded of the hymn When We All Get to Heaven. The hymn speaks of what it will be like when we get to heaven. The chorus is what sticks with me, it says; “When we all get to heaven, what a day of rejoicing that will be! When we all see Jesus, we’ll sing and shout the victory!” When all get to heaven, those words bring joy to my heart. When I get to heaven, with guardian angel in tow—I’m going to find John—and once I find him, I am going to throw my arms around his neck and thank him.

Thank you John for being true to your authentic self and for teaching me to do likewise—it has been much appreciated.