Working in a creative field, I’m often asked about the importance of art in society. And when I’m not asked, I often ask myself about the importance of what I am doing. And wonder if it is important at all. And sometimes fear that I’m fooling myself by insisting that I spend time each day expressing myself creatively, as if this will make a difference in the world. And then I witness something life-affirming, something beyond explanation, something beautiful and meaningful, something that brought joy to someone’s face that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, and then I happily resolve to continue fooling myself in hopes that what I want to be true, is true.
Last spring, my friend Kunda and I made an impromptu decision to appear at our friend Ingrid’s house that evening to celebrate her birthday. Alan and I showed up at 8:00, with freshly made brownies, and Ingrid’s husband David enhanced the indulgent experience with some gourmet ice cream. Kunda, Jack and their daughter Kyle brought fruit and flowers, and the table looked beautiful. Since most of us are musicians, we have many common bonds and stories we can share, and we were having a very nice time. Low-key, comfortable and nice.
And then Ingrid let us know that she was a little disappointed, because there was something that she really wanted to do for her birthday, but didn’t get to. I couldn’t imagine what it could be, and when she told us, I would have never in a lifetime imagined that that would be anyone’s birthday wish. Sky-diving, perhaps, or climbing a mountain, or getting a massage, or going to a favorite restaurant – maybe. What Ingrid wanted was to paint her face like the people of the Zulu tribe in the Omo Valley of Africa. She brought out a picture book, and showed us exquisitely beautiful photos of intricate face painting. Circles and lines and dots and multicolors, and it wasn’t just the face that was adorned. Giant piles of fruit or flowers in their hair, and elaborate costumes on their bodies. We read that it’s not something that they do just for ceremonies – it’s something they create every day.
We studied the pictures for awhile, sometimes in utter amazement, and sometimes enjoying a laugh on the subjects’ behalf.
And then we just kind of sat there.
I thought maybe Ingrid would bring some paint into the room, but she didn’t.
Beside me, at the table, I noticed that the plastic wrap I had peeled off of the brownies was covered with a thin layer of the rich chocolate glaze I had made (using 1 cup of semisweet chocolate chips melted with 6 tablespoons of butter, in case you were wondering.) Without thinking, I dipped my finger in the smooth, brown goo and swiped it across my cheekbone. Well, that was all it took to set Ingrid off. Next, I was covering her entire face with the chocolate “paint.” Dots and circles and lines. Ingrid was laughing and smiling and absolutely came to life. David matter-of-factly got out the camera and began snapping pictures. Ingrid ran to the bathroom to look in the mirror, and was not so happy with the results – she thought she just looked muddy. The rest of us continued to paint ourselves, while Alan made flower arrangements to put in our hair. Ingrid had left the room again, so I thought she must be washing her face. Then she ran back in, squealing and giggling like a little girl. She had added another dimension, dots and globs of a beautiful, iridescent aqua-blue. “What is that?” I ask. In her rich, Romanian accent, she excitedly announced “IT’S TOOTHPASTE!!”
In addition to being an amazing, passionate cellist, Ingrid is also an artist. So, back to work she went, and her next facial presentation included white highlights (the other kind of toothpaste.)
Afterward, Ingrid couldn’t stop thanking me for helping her do exactly what she wanted to do. If I hadn’t been brave enough to make that first swipe on my face, our party wouldn’t have become such a memorable experience.
When I’m asked about the importance of art and creativity and self-expression, I don’t like to give a pat answer. I have trouble with the 15-second “elevator” speech. I would rather share a story like this. And then it’s obvious.