Beauty From the Margins: Drawings by “Stan”: A Series Called “Weather”

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Works of art participate in our lives; we are not just distant observers of their lives. They are in conversation among themselves and with us. This is a part of the description of human life; we do the way we do partly because of things that have been said to us by works of art, and because of things that we have said in reply. – Wendell Berry in the essay “Style and Grace”

This is the second installment of drawings from my friend Stan. In case you missed the first part, here is the drawing that started it all with a description of what this series is all about. At its core, people with intellectual disabilities have been relegated to the margins of our society. With this, their gifts have been sidelined or destroyed all together by the various medications and institutions seeking to fix and make more functional. I hope to open some eyes, hearts, and hands through the loving gifts of Stan.

This is a series he did recently called, “Weather.” Or as he would say, “It’s the wedder.” There is a connection between them all and, as Berry says above, they “are in conversation among themselves and with us.”

What does this series say to you?

How might you respond to them?

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Beauty from the Margins: Drawings by “Stan”

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The artwork above is done by someone most people will not meet. It is a fireplace from a story kept in the mind of my friend. For the sake of anonymity, we’ll call him “Stan.” Stan is my young friend who is categorized as a special education student. I have worked with him and he with me for the past couple of years. It is a relationship, not a mere job of one-way teaching and learning; ours has been a mutual journey. And this is the essence of a relationship. He has taught me much about life and love; I hope I have done the same.

He cannot always articulate what his needs are, seems to wander aimlessly while talking to himself, and has – on occasion – become physically aggressive.

However, he is one of the funniest, most practical, and beautiful people I have met. Yes, he by many “standards” will never be a productive citizen in our society. He might never have a public job. The future opening up before him has the potential to be ridden with institutions and medication. He may never be “put together” or “normal” or “fixed.” As Jean Vanier states,

Our society is geared to growth, development, progress. Life, for most of us, is a race to be won. Families are about evolution: at a certain stage, children are encouraged to leave home, get married, have children of their own, move on in their lives. But people with disabilities have no such future. Once they have reached a certain level of development, they are no longer expected or encouraged to progress. There is no ‘promotion’ for the disabled and what forward movement there is seems frequently to be either erratic or cruelly sped up: many move quite quickly from childhood to adulthood without passing through a period of adolescence; others age quickly. Our society is not set up to cope very well with people who are weaker or slower. More important, we are not skilled at listening to the wisdom of those whose life patterns are outside of the social norm.

And he shouldn’t be “fixed.” He is a person in this world and his existence alone is an overflow of the love of God. With persons who are less-abled, our imaginations tend to drift into the fixing and the functional. These aren’t terms for humans, but for machines. Humans aren’t dysfunctional. Machines are.

Persons are to be loved. Persons love and are loved.

Personhood involves a host of things, but perhaps at its core is the ability to give gifts. We all have areas where the love within us seeps out in myriad of ways. I recently read a profound assessment on prisons:

We affirm how precious our gifts are when we create prisons. Prison is a societal decision to take away your freedom and thereby is a place where we say you are not free to give your gifts. Taking away your capacity to give your gifts is the worst thing we can do to somebody. The opposite of freedom is that you cannot give your gifts. In prison, we will keep you alive – we will feed you, give you shelter and health care – but we will not allow you to give your gifts. – John McKnight and Peter Block, The Abundant Community, p. 110

I have worked the less-abled long enough to realize how frequently the focus is on problems, outbursts, and brokenness over beauty, love, and uniqueness. In many ways, we have given these children prison sentences with different names. This takes place when we relegate them to anything less than human in our descriptions, prescriptions, and alienation. In short, when we strip people of their gifts and gift-giving, we dehumanize.

This forced relinquishment of gifts ends in atomization. Rather than incorporating – literally making one body – people like Stan and his gifts into the community, we isolate and hide them. In a society based on power and privilege, the weak often get pushed to the margins – gifts and all. If one is deemed to be less than human, one cannot participate in community.

So what I am proposing to do?

This summer I will post a drawing of Stan’s once a week. This is his way of participating in community: his gift – his overflow of love – is his artistry. Having watched him draw for the past couple of years now, I can tell you that intentionality, attention to detail, and precision are at the front of his little mind. Nothing escapes the watchful eye of this artist. He does complete series of life events, portraits, and still-life. Each one unique in its own way.

I want to present them to you as gifts as he presents them to me as gifts. Again, for most of us, we will never see the beauty from the margins because of either our neglect, ignorance, or blindness. Is it possible to find and celebrate the wisdom, determination, and perspective in this unexpected place? I think it is.

I hope to open some eyes to the beauty found in perceived brokenness.

I hope to open some willing hands to the beauty of those living in homes down the street or across town.

I hope to open some hearts to the beauty lying dormant within themselves.

In the end, I hope to open some eyes to the beauty given in the gifts of my friend Stan.

Genesis, Vocation, and Master Penmenship

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Every human being has a call to be a maker. This vocation is one of cultivation, of using the resources before us, alongside the talents within us, for betterment of those around us through partnering with the God among us. This is (partly) what it means to be made in God’s image.

This is part of the creation mandate found in Genesis. Many readings of “the beginning” focus on particular polemical readings, either glossing over or completely ignoring the narrative trajectories these primal texts put us on. From the onset of our story, we find a God getting down in the dirt – the image of a gardener on his knees comes to mind – hands covered in earth. Breath is infused into the earthenware known as human and he is told to get on with being this cultivator, this maker. In short: be a culture maker. This is not a solo venture, but one completed and carried out in community, as the Genesis story tells.

And so we find that our spiritual life is comprised of our physical life. Our vocation is a holistic one: the spiritual manifesting itself in the physical. The two are intimately incorporated into one. Proper usage of earthly materials along with the proper wielding of our personal beings is at the center of the spiritual life. We do damage to the Genesis story and in turn to what it means to image God when we set up false dichotomies between the spiritual and the physical. God is one who gets down in the muck, not who stands above it all.

True spirituality, therefore, is not a denial of or seeking an escape from earthy stuff, but is a participatory relationship with and resting in one’s interconnected place within all this earthiness.

This vocation is not dependent upon one’s occupation. The call – vocation literally means “calling”; same word as vocal – is to use and put forth objects of love. Love in the sense of making them with love for others whom you love because you know a God who does the same. Be it a plumber, teacher, or mayor; those employed, unemployed, or under-employed; the call is the same: creatively use what you are given and who you are to be a cultivator of love.

To be human is to cultivate love.

An example of these thoughts is found in the video of Master Penmen below. I hope you find it both challenging and inspiring as I did.

“Name the Hunger”: Eugene Peterson on the Pastoral Vocation

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“All men and women hunger for God. The hunger is masked and misinterpreted in many ways, but it is always there. Everyone is on the verge of crying out ‘My Lord and my God!’ but the cry is drowned out by doubts or defiance, muffled by the dull ache of their routines, masked by their cozy accommodations with mediocrity. Then something happens – a word, an event, a dream – and there is a push toward awareness of an incredible Grace, a dazzling Desire, a defiant Hope, a courageous Faithfulness. But awareness, as such, is not enough. Untended, it trickles into religious sentimentalism or romantic blubbering. Or, worse, it hardens into patriotic hubris or pharisaic snobbery. The pastor is there to nudge the awareness past subjectivities and ideologies into the open and say ‘God.’

We must only do what we are there to do: pronounce the Name, name the hunger.”

– Eugene Peterson, Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness, p. 87