What art can do

71

Dear Artist,

In case within the confines of your studio — you were wondering about the relevance of art when the world seems to be disintegrating, you needed only to watch a supernova explode before our collective eyes and ears on television on Wednesday. In the middle of the elder statesmen, bibles, bunting and marine band’s coordinated efforts to galvanize the history-in-the-making moment of the Presidential inauguration, a 22-year-old poet delivered, in her own words, the turning of an American page.

Women and Children First: Howardena’s Portrait, 1990 Acrylic on canvas with hand-woven fabric and African fabric borders 74 × 71 1/2 inches by Emma Amos (1937-2020)

Women and Children First: Howardena’s Portrait, 1990
Acrylic on canvas with hand-woven fabric and African fabric borders
74 × 71 1/2 inches
by Emma Amos (1937-2020)

As is art’s purpose, her work, like a thunderbolt, electrified the imaginations and spirits of those watching. Like a heart-shock in the midst of a ritual in danger of turning platitudinous, her art, afire and advancing in its ideas and execution transfixed, comforted, inspired, explained and expressed, in five minutes — in 723 words — what a million minutes or words without art could never achieve.

Like perhaps yours, my phone blew up. “Can you believe this?” Then silence. A poem — a poem — the most mysterious and delicate of artforms, was laid out before us as a soul-gift, from the soul of the future. It was as if we had all forgotten where our souls were, or were they merely battered, depleted or shrivelled, having forgotten that art is not a luxury, but rather an ardent and essential longing — because it is, in fact, the universal pathway to connection and meaning. Later, I watched the once glazed-over eyes of a pro commentator light up with wonder and humility at the revelation of being touched by it. They were suddenly eager to both understand what had happened to them and also delirious and delighted to be consumed by its magic. In five minutes, the artist affirmed their humanity in a way that even grief cannot. Only art, in the form of seeing our own souls, in being touched by its joy, in being made aware that it is even possible as an experience, can provide the vision of where we might head towards next, together.

Art Heaven, 2006 Digital print with fabric appliqué 26 × 20 inches Edition of 100 by Emma Amos

Art Heaven, 2006
Digital print with fabric appliqué
26 × 20 inches
Edition of 100
by Emma Amos

Sincerely,

Sara

PS: “The poem is already written, it’s already done. Now, it’s just up to you to bring it to life as best as you can.” (Elizabeth Alexander to Amanda Gorman, January, 2021)

Esoterica: Amanda Gorman was born in Los Angeles in 1998 and was raised with her two siblings by her mother, Joan Hicks, a middle school teacher. Amanda struggled with a speech impediment that made it difficult for her to pronounce certain letters. She underwent speech therapy and turned to writing to express herself. When she was 15, Amanda watched a speech given by Pakistani Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai, which inspired her to become a youth delegate for the United Nations. She was chosen as the Youth Poet Laureate of Los Angeles, earned a scholarship to Harvard and became the National Youth Poet Laureate, the first person to hold the position. She founded a youth writing and leadership program and opened the literary season for the Library of Congress. Dr. Jill Biden, after seeing Amanda’s reading, recommended her late last month for the inauguration. Amanda was given no brief, only told that the theme would be “America United.” Halfway through her research and writing process, which included studying the historic speeches of leaders tasked with bringing people together for a collective purpose during intensely challenging and divisive periods, and looking to her mentors, former Poet Laureates Richard Blanco and Elizabeth Alexander, the events of January 6th happened in the U.S. Capitol. Amanda, even more deeply inspired to speak to the difficulties America faces and the hope needed to prevail, finished her poem and gave it, without reservation, to the American people.

Black Dog Blues, 1983 Acrylic on canvas with handwoven fabric 52 x 76 inches by Emma Amos

Black Dog Blues, 1983
Acrylic on canvas with handwoven fabric
52 x 76 inches
by Emma Amos

The Hill We Climb

When day comes we ask ourselves, where can we find light in this never-ending shade? The loss we carry, a sea we must wade. We’ve braved the belly of the beast. We’ve learned that quiet isn’t always peace. In the norms and notions of what just is isn’t always justice.

And yet, the dawn is ours before we knew it. Somehow, we do it. Somehow, we’ve weathered and witnessed a nation that isn’t broken, but simply unfinished. We, the successors of a country and a time where a skinny Black girl descended from slaves and raised by a single mother can dream of becoming president, only to find herself reciting for one.

And yes, we are far from polished, far from pristine, but that doesn’t mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect. We are striving to forge our union with purpose, to compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.

Hits, 1983 Acrylic on canvas with hand-woven fabric 84 x 70 inches by Emma Amos

Hits, 1983
Acrylic on canvas with hand-woven fabric
84 x 70 inches
by Emma Amos

And so, we lift our gazes not to what stands between us, but what stands before us. We close the divide because we know, to put our future first, we must first put our differences aside. We lay down our arms so we can reach out our arms to one another. We seek harm to none and harmony for all. Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true. That even as we grieved, we grew. That even as we hurt, we hoped; that even as we tired, we tried; that we’ll forever be tied together, victorious. Not because we will never again know defeat, but because we will never again sow division.

Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid. If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made. That is the promise to glade, the hill we climb if only we dare it. Because being American is more than a pride we inherit; it’s the past we step into and how we repair it. We’ve seen a forest that would shatter our nation rather than share it, would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy. And this effort very nearly succeeded.

But while democracy can be periodically delayed, it can never be permanently defeated. In this truth, in this faith we trust, for while we have our eyes on the future, history has its eyes on us. This is the era of just redemption. We feared it at its inception. We did not feel prepared to be the heirs of such a terrifying hour, but within it, we found the power to author a new chapter, to offer hope and laughter to ourselves.
So, while once we asked: “How could we possibly prevail over catastrophe?” Now we assert, “How could catastrophe possibly prevail over us?”

Diagonal Diver, 1985 Acrylic on fabric with African fabric borders 77 x 59 inches by Emma Amos

Diagonal Diver, 1985
Acrylic on fabric with African fabric borders
77 x 59 inches
by Emma Amos

We will not march back to what was, but move to what shall be: a country that is bruised, but whole; benevolent, but bold; fierce and free. We will not be turned around or interrupted by intimidation, because we know our inaction and inertia will be the inheritance of the next generation. Our blunders become their burdens. But one thing is certain, if we merge mercy with might, and might with right, then love becomes our legacy, and change our children’s birthright.

So, let us leave behind a country better than one we were left. With every breath from my bronze-pounded chest, we will raise this wounded world into a wondrous one. We will rise from the gold-limned hills of the West. We will rise from the wind-swept Northeast where our forefathers first realized revolution. We will rise from the lake-rimmed cities of the Midwestern states. We will rise from the sun-baked South. We will rebuild, reconcile and recover in every known nook of our nation, in every corner called our country our people diverse and beautiful will emerge battered and beautiful.

When day comes, we step out of the shade aflame and unafraid. The new dawn blooms as we free it. For there is always light. If only we’re brave enough to see it. If only we’re brave enough to be it. 

Amanda Gorman


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71 Comments

      • Precisely. Please do not let this newsletter become a political screed like everything else. Sara, I believe that your father would be horrified by this, Please, just STOP.

        • I am saddened that you do not see the beauty of the message Sara is sharing with us .. Sara’s words feed my soul and my art .. perhaps you have forgotten where yours is and you lash out in fear …

    • Shawn Dahlstrom on

      This poem offers not a political statement. It asks us to work towards a better place so that future generations can thrive.
      Thank you Amanda.

    • I thought her reading was beautiful. I’m sorry Carl feels this way. After 65 years of living, son of a plumber, Ivy League educated, public school teacher, the qualities I prize are rooted in my self-worth and the worth of others. We waste our lives worrying who is better or worse. What does that even mean? The question is, did you do something good today.

    • Steven J Sweeney on

      Please reconsider whether coming to a place like Painters Keys and expressing empty and false political re-tweets is, besides defiling this precious resource, doing you any good at all? It certainly isn’t enlightening anyone else.

        • Indeed, thank you to those who here uplift the gift of art that enlarges the soul. Bitter hearts defend their hurt with diversion and derision…old tools that mask fear or reveal contempt and condescension.

    • When you can show proof that it was stolen I mean real proof. I will go with you to take it back. Until then keep your vile mouth shut and enjoy a child that is smarter than most of us combined

      • Jacqueline Milner on

        These are inspiring words from the heart of Amanda Gorman. Words of love and hope for ALL. Words I believe that were written for all citizens regardless of stripes.

    • Please stop spreading poison and sickness Carl. Please check your facts on independent fact checkers and stop spreading the miasma of hatred that is destroying our nation and families. Step away from blame. Media is constantly manipulated by many of those who put it out there to sensationalize and make money. That’s why it is So Important to fact check. The poem is utterly beautiful and full of healing. Take a deep breath and let go of your death grip on hatred. Seek the truth from independent sources that do not have political agendas. Snopes.com is just one such site. And about your snide comment “It’s all for our betterment, by our betters.”… Amanda’s literally is about coming together to heal. No where is anyone thinking they are better than you Carl. Not even me. And if one day I spread hate, I hope you will come to me and help me see the world is a better place filled with Love , Empathy, Understanding and Kindness. Peace be with you Carl.

  1. Sara you have captured the moment and the power of art beautifully. I was one of those watching and listening, through The New York Times live feed, and totally transfixed by Amanda’s recital of her amazing poem. This shall stay with me for a long time.

  2. Sara: your words are a testament to art’s tremendous power and ability to bring out the very best in us. We mimic the beauty we have seen in the product of others’ minds, not to copy them, but to honour them and bear witness to the importance of their art in our lives.

    Thank you for sharing Amanda’s extraordinary poem, and for your introduction to her work.

  3. Dear Sara, Thank you. Yes…a transformative work of art that truly left me breathless and aching for more…as all great art does.

  4. Corinne McNamara on

    Thank you, Sara, for the reminder that art gives us a voice. Amanda and her words were remarkable—I’m glad I saw her.

  5. Thank you Amanda….I did not see the delivery of your poetry because our family has rejected television for the past 30 years. Now, with the internet probing the psyche of humanity, it becomes obvious how fragile we really are….how susceptible to subversion and delusion even in the face of facts. That such malignant forces are able to sway multitudes with lies, deceit and perversion is scary indeed, and those of us who remain unscathed by the assault on reason must work to find a way to reconcile our differences….even though humanity has proven incapable of reconciliation throughout history.
    Make art….write poems….whistle a happy tune….have a few babies and get on your knees and pray….The future is now….2020 was the tipping point….and there was a shortage of toilet paper!

  6. Thank you, Sara, for your beautiful and inspiring words. They are as beautiful as Amanda’s! BTW, James Cordon interviewed her on his show and she is as fabulous in that interview as she was at the inauguration.

    Art at its best!

  7. “We’ve seen a forest that would shatter our nation rather than share it, would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy. And this effort very nearly succeeded.”

    It did succeed. I have saved this newsletter since at least May of 2007 when I made a folder in my email account and began saving them. I let go of drawing but continued to give the newsletter a look and and save the email and, if interesting, read the whole article. Votes are stolen in large Democrat controlled cities in every election. Just how it is. In my state, the Chicago vote includes the dead and other devices to steal democracy. They likely delivered the presidency to Kennedy but didn’t quite steal enough to keep Nixon out. What I can’t tolerate is being lectured about democracy in The United States by a site from artists and Canadians. Your father wrote volumes of good reading. You have as well but I don’t recall him directly taking sides on a U.S. presidential election. My un-subscription is next.

    • I won’t unsub – yet – but if political garbage continues to appear (it feels like sycophancy, with even artists expected and demanded to demonstrate total fealty to our new overlords) – I will abandon reading this newsletter after many years. I believe that Robert Genn would be horrified to see his gift to the world turned into a political screed.

    • I think you wrote an incisive and powerful response to Amanda Gorman’s poem. You reach a lot of people, especially artists and I think your father would be proud of you for being so forthright yourself. He would probably have signed your letter with you, if he could have.

      Thanks.

  8. Thank you, Sara, for this insightful, beautiful letter about Amanda’s remarkable poem. It reminds us that art has the power to connect us, heart to heart and soul to soul. Thank you, too, for reprinting it in its entirety.

  9. Thank you, Sara! The hurtful, negative comments in some of these replies sadly illustrate what I hope will be left behind in the coming 4 years. The poet and the poem have touched my heart. Perhaps someday, the hearts of the naysayers will also be touched, and perhaps opened.

  10. I think there is at least one belief we have in common. Art is powerful.
    All the criticism pro and con is typical of a group of artists. Artists have opinions about art.
    How could they not? Every genre of art in history has been criticized. That will not change. Poetry is art. It will be criticized. That does not stop me from painting. Our Poets need to keep writing. This is our contribution. Because we participate in our living art history. No one can stop us. We have the right to voice our beliefs either with words or clay or fiber or with paint.

  11. OMG — I cannot believe anyone found these words “political” — when they are inspiring and asking us all to join together! I have no doubt your Father would be PROUD of you, Sara. I agree with Shawn Dahlstrom. Out of the mouths of babes… this young lady shared a wisdom well beyond her years. It is uplifting art and just when we needed it!

    • “We’ve seen a forest that would shatter our nation rather than share it, would destroy our country if it meant delaying democracy. And this effort very nearly succeeded.”

      This is a political poem, even as it seeks to inspire. Parts of it hit the right tone of unity and seeking shared goals and values, other parts not so much. And that’s fine, she expresses her viewpoint. It should be no surprise that others see things differently and react to the political views and the implication that as artists we should celebrate these particular views.

  12. Steven J Sweeney on

    For those who are “threatening” to unsubscribe because of the comments section, I suggest that you simply avoid the comments section. If you’ve come here only to read other people’s opinions about what you’ve just read in these free offerings and musings about art and the artist’s life, you’ve come to the wrong place, and you don’t belong here. Artists don’t care what you think, and true artists have little patience with pretenders who are “offended” by the comments of anonymous trolls who haven’t anything better to do with their lives. So, if there’s anything I can do to speed up your cancellation, let me know.

    • Please dear God keep this as a special place for artists and encouragement. We hv had enough of political comments, division and entertainment tht lecture on who to vote for and applaud

  13. As a Canadian living in a protected world called Vancouver Island, I am shocked at how some were offended by this wonderful newsletter that offered a message of finding hope through art. Amanda’s poem and delivery of it was exceptional. I felt the same goosebumps I felt when watching Martin Luther King’s speak. But the message of this newsletter speaks of art, and how important it is for us in all facets of life. If people find the total message in this newsletter as flatly political, then they are missing that very important third eye. Thank you, Sara, and Amanda!

  14. Like your father, you are a wise teacher and a great artist, Sara. Thank you so much for reprinting this stunningly beautiful and inspired work, meant to shine a light for us all – not just some.

    If art can inspire, it can create controversy. In this case, I’m shocked to see that the minds of some who consider themselves to be artists, are closed and padlocked.

    I love reading about the woman behind this work, and how she went about bringing such a daunting task to fruition.

    Again, Thanks Sara, you are a light as well.

  15. How All forms and shades of Art inspire and invite us into the deeper authenic essence of whom we – in our pure soul – long for but already are. . Thank you Sarah for your beautiful words

  16. What is art if not a commentary and expression of things seen and felt, now, then, and to come. Perceptions vary from human to human. Respect and dignity need to be universal givens.
    As there was a desecration of a sacred space on 1/6, I feel a desecration of the sacred space of this newsletter. There are and always will be differences of opinion. The problem is how they are expressed. We all have a choice: to be respectful and kind or disrespectful and cruel regardless of our personal persuasions.
    I was overwhelmed to see a young woman stand up and deliver her thoughts and feelings thru her creative vehicle of expression. She reminded me of Maya Angelou. I found it noteworthy that our first lady found her. I appreciate and am grateful to Sara for sharing Amanda’s bio and work. I enjoyed reading all the comments of those who she inspired. I am sorry that there were those who attempted to exude an energy of negativity. In my opinion this is not the right format for that. If those of you who found displeasure with the substance of Sara’s article I suggest you find the suitable venue and speak with intelligence, clarity, truth,and facts and most importantly loving kindness.

  17. The only overlords on this planet are rich (mostly) white authoritarian capitalist religionist theocratic supremacists. Or pale-faced republicans- for short. They have both a political wing and a religious wing- which allows them to forever blame the other side. They’ve been in control for many many generations. They have zero interest in the poor and downtrodden- we’re just fodder. They will repress creativity at any and every turn- because we creatives refuse to listen to them- refuse to obey them- refuse to bow down to them. That’s why we top the list of those who get killed in coups.
    In this age of social media- they’ve perfected the dispersion of propaganda to the point the brainwashed can’t even tell they are brainwashed anymore. And in order to maintain their control over wealth and humanity- they’ll kill us all so they can wallow in their money. And please note- my statement isn’t the least bit political. It’s simply the truth.
    Art IS political. And any of you artists who refuse to honor and recognize just how political art is- should go gaze upon Picasso’s Guernica again.
    So to hear those above claiming this resource/letter has no politics attached- and who want to remain ostriches with their heads buried in the sand- you are more pathetic than those of you whose politics are us&them- power over rather than power shared- dictatorial rather than democratic- only for you and not for everyone. You’re the problem too- just as much as are the authoritarians.
    Killer poem. Thanks Amanda. Thanks Sarah. The poem I wrote recently has swear words in it…

    • Sorry- I didn’t remove the swearwords…

      what fresh hell
      © 2020 J. Bruce Wilcox

      such an especial christmas mix
      a pandemic and twenty twenty politics
      here’s a new seasonal storied tale
      written during a week in facebook jail
      this year I just couldn’t help myself
      but don’t mistake me for a santa’s elf
      after the solstice darkest night
      three days hence rebirths the light
      folks with their revered traditions
      come with way too many conditions
      while wondering what we should believe
      just try and have a merry little christmas eve
      coupled with so much grief and sadness
      so much for all the holiday madness
      the winter solstice just came and went
      the darkest night just done got spent
      saturn jupiter in a great conjunction
      eight hundred years since their last seduction
      two planets shine up in the night sky
      starlight to see with a naked eye
      are we witness to a miracle omen
      that’s so not the star of bethlehem
      tis the darkest winter we’ve ever seen
      as a lethal virus sweeps the scene
      so the light returns but don’t get together
      or you’ll just cause a super spreader
      stay six feet apart and definitely mask it
      so you don’t end up in a casket
      rich repubs want to front the vaccine line
      after months denouncing- it’ll all be fine
      the virus is a hoax- it’s not real- it’s a lie
      there’s no virus that’ll make you die
      so let’s give the rich rethugs the fake placebo
      we can watch them all die off- ho ho ho
      sadly I’ve had it with privilege this year
      had it and had it right up to here
      so don’t suggest I show some mercy
      I think I’ll just get a little cursey
      abracadabra and ali kazam
      lock of hair- eye of newt- blood of lamb and shazam
      ranting and raving while showing some class
      take that you motherfucking jack ass
      repubs and magats are everywhere
      brainwashed minions machine-gunned to scare
      their seventy-four million- eighty-one million of us
      throw their massive minority under the bus
      defending a scam doesn’t take warriors
      it takes batshit crazy leaking lawyers
      cause our fake prez wants martial laws
      to deliver a win and disguise his flaws
      could military might become the key
      to overthrowing our democracy?
      pledged to defend the constitution
      corruption rules our institutions
      so maybe we’ll all get six hundred bucks
      while our corporate government just gives us fucks
      but wait! asshat conman now says two grand
      buying his base as he plays his last hand
      could we have imagined such a tragic shit show
      yes- because I told you so four years ago
      so don’t pardon me for the crime- do the time
      and I’ll continue to rhyme on a dime
      so is this fourth season making us sing?
      and when it’s all over- what will it bring?
      our has-been second rate reality tv star prez
      thinks he’s the king- so just do what he says
      there’ll be ratings and ratings and ratings galore
      as the chosen one exits and heads out the door
      tis the night before christmas and in all our hearts
      what we’ll do tomorrow is support the arts
      so merry happy insane holidaze
      while we twenty twenty this political craze
      twenty twenty one is on its way
      what fresh hell will it make us pay?

    • Hi Bruce. You say that religious people don’t care for the poor and downtrodden. Have you ever heard of Franklin Graham and Samaritan’s Purse? Or the Salvation Army? These people have been helping poor and downtrodden people for years. They are still doing so. There are people in cities and towns throughout the country that help people in need. I also agree with Lyn that it is interesting to hear people’s views on both sides. And I admire the people who said they want to bring more love and light into situations. With all the anger around, it seems harder to do. Lastly, about the point about whether there is any corruption in government, remember the movie,”Mr. Smith goes to Washington” starring Jimmy Stewart? Some author wrote that script, fully aware that there can be corruption, at times, in government. They were aware of it, nearly 100 years ago. And made a popular movie about it. So, at times it happens. Hopefully, not too often.

  18. Patricia Smith on

    Thank you Sara for the gifts of insight, intelligence and expansion that you bring to all.
    As for that darkness which strives to tarnish the blessedness of life; let us have courage to shine the brilliance of goodness so that Truth and Light prevail!

  19. I had no knowledge of Gorman prior to watching her. Candidly I wondered how someone as you as she could possibly know enough, have lived enough, to be significant. However, she demonstrated that wisdom comes in all different forms and in all ages. It wasn’t a poem as much as a poetic statement, but it was perfect.

  20. I loved this post. I loved hearing Amanda read it the day of the inauguration and it was so alive. When I googled it on line and reread it, it didn’t have the same effect but somehow reading it in this context gave me both goose bumps and tears. Thank you, Amanda, Thank you, Sarah for promoting all the arts.

  21. Thank you Sara for featuring a poet, a wordsmith that has so wonderfully incorporated head and heart in her poetry best expressed by yet another great poet of our time;

    To walk on hills is to employ legs
    As porters of the head and heart
    Jointly adventuring to perhaps true equanimity

    – Robert Graves

  22. Lorraine Lauer on

    I received an email with this posting by a member of a writer’s circle I belong to. Having heard Amanda’s poem on the day, I envisioned Amanda as the new representation of all that is hopeful in our nation, the new David throwing down the gauntlet to a social faction striving to be Goliath. Most of us live in a land relishing the rainbow above, while striving to avoid being mired in the muck below.

    Interested in this site I read further, disappointed but not surprised, by the crack of division that had already seeped its way in to serve as the mire to Sara and Amanda’s fully bloomed rainbow. I think I will hang-on to the rainbow for now.

    Thank you Sara for highlighting the work of this national treasure. Amanda has come to us in our time of need, while waking and shaking all of us to climb the hill, and be the light.

  23. Wow! this post sure stirred up a lot of stuff for people…that’s great! that’s the true purpose of art. this is a perfect platform. thank you so much Sarah for sharing. And for getting people to open up their concrete encased minds and delving in… something we all need more of.

  24. Linda Anderson Stewart on

    It was so lovely to watch America rise above the muck with the hope this young woman inspired. May we never see a repeat of the last 4 years ever again.

  25. Wow. This is a good collection of all levels of intent. Unless we are designing bumper stickers, most of us get up in the morning, realize what day of the week it is, and figure out how we will spend our precious time. I believe our nights tell us where we really are in the flow of events. If we remember. It is a great thing when we can just work at what we want to work at. But. Lets not forget our humanity, however we describe it. If in the flow of things, we describe a rose petal as we want it to be. That’s it, that petal. Let’s move on. Good writing, Bruce. Thank you, Sara

  26. So happy you copied the words for us to savor. Amanda is remarkable as the artist you chose to honor. I hope we can come together as a nation and help our politicians come together. They just can’t come together as it’s already too divided and revengeful, but maybe we can help them understand these words by our actions.

  27. Wow, a lot of hatred expressed in these comments. Hatred from both sides, and I’m sorry to see it, but that’s what art and art commentary sometimes exposes and in raw terms.

    • Yes art seems to be the only thing that speaks directly from the heart, unfettered, and honest in its naked truth. As a South African, I am absolutely blown away by this wonderful young woman! It is truly inspirational in our dark times. I have a daughter who lives in San Francisco and can’t get to see her for years. These words gave me hope in their bravery and beauty.

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