The word art comes from the Latin ars, which means craft or skill. But what kind of skill? If we look further, the word’s Indo-European root means to fit together. At the heart of it, we could say that art involves the craft or skill of fitting things together. As such, it is a lifelong capacity that lives in everyone, for part of being human is the never-ending task of fitting things together. So, art is a creative, expressive means by which we come to understand our human experience.
We could say that a perennial purpose of art is to discover harmony through the ordinary ritual of making things. Whether we create a wheel, a garden, or a relationship, it is by fitting things together into a working whole that we make sense of being alive. The capacity of art that lives in everyone is a seed of transformation we each carry, a way of knowing and making that can lead us to what is true over what is great, a way of searching that can lead us to what is worth celebrating over any short-lived illusion of celebrity.
By trying to create, we are created. By trying to express, we are expressed. By trying to discover meaning, we become meaningful. So, the measure of great art can be understood, not so much by the beauty achieved in birthing a singular piece, but more by the transformation it births in us for the journey of creating it. It is not the thing created that renews us, but the creative act that restores us to our place in the Mystery.
We are all artists, wanting to create and waiting to be created—each of us shaped by our devotions and trials in fitting things together. Everyone is privileged to live the artist’s journey, if we only dare to voice what we feel. When we do, passages unfold.
Early on, most of us use our gifts as a way to learn about the world we’ve been born into. This is a time of firsts. Everything is new and everything triggers wonder. Once the world becomes somewhat known, the hunger for wonder continues, and we begin to seek out what is unique, what is special. Often, this is part of our search for identity, to find one’s place as distinguished from everyone and everything else.
In time though, through some clear or ambiguous suffering, most of us, if resilient enough to keep growing, find ourselves transformed and humbled into an eternal perspective that makes us look for comfort and meaning in what we have in common with the living. Now we search for the Living Center and Source that lies at the heart of everything. A different kind of identity is found there that is more empowering and enduring.
For those who continue to be shaped by their journey, life becomes a sacred expedition of seeking moments of love, epiphany, and wisdom. Then, the art we leave behind is the trail of a timeless want to bear witness and belong to something larger than one’s self. Over a lifetime, we experience an evolving sense of fitting things together, through which we are put together.
Of course, the journey is fraught with obstacles and derailments, all of which contribute to shaping us further. Ironically, we all begin wanting to be instrumental, wanting to alter the world and achieve great things. Yet, if blessed, we are honed and pared down to a hollow bone that longs to be an instrument through which the greater forces play their music.
At each juncture, we can stray from our capacity to fit things together. When we lose access to our creativity, we lose access to wonder. This in turn distances us from the resource that is life. We may continue to gather and sort enormous amounts of information, but this is not the same as releasing life-force by fitting things together. Rather, gathering and sorting is like hoarding mounds of kindling with no way to light it. A poignant example of this can be found in one of the last letters Charles Darwin ever wrote:
Up to the age of thirty, or beyond it, poetry of many kinds, such as the works of Milton, Gray, Byron, Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley, gave me great pleasure. … But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry. … My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts … and if I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week. … The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.
The journey of art and its impact on each of us is a powerful source of wakefulness. Yet the power of art to shape us has been muffled in our society until art has been quarantined as an abstract pursuit of beauty or a sophisticated form of entertainment. Nothing could be further from the truth. Meaningful art, enduring art—and the transformative process it reveals—keeps us alive.
So where are you in the lifelong quest to fit things together? What are you creating and how is it creating you? What have you tried to do and how has it undone your early intent? How is life making you whole? Just what is the mirror of the world holding up to you? And what is it trying to say?
Read more from Mark Nepo here.
Questions to Walk With
- Describe the relationship between you and something you created: how it drew you to its possibility, how its process of being birthed led you, and how you were changed by the experience of creating it.
- In conversation with a friend or loved one, tell the story of someone you admire who taught you about the craft or skill of fitting things together.
Mark Nepo will be teaching at Pine Manor Retreat Center in Lake Elsinore, CA, and Embry-Riddle University in Daytona, FL, in November. See MarkNepo.com for details.