The Power of Art

By Johna Till Johnson

Washington Square Park 1

It is so beautiful I must show you how it looks,” wrote Vincent Van Gogh in a letter to his brother. In the margin of the letter, he scribbled a quick sketch of what was so beautiful: a streetlamp at twilight.

I’ve never considered myself much of an artist. In fact, I’ve gone so far as to say I don’t understand the artistic impulse: I don’t know where it comes from, or how artists know what to create, even though I respect and admire the life-changing power of art.

But one of my favorite explanations is from a book written in 1938: “Art is a feeling of love and enthusiasm for something… in a direct, simple, passionate, and true way you try to show this beauty in things to others.”

That’s exactly what I felt walking home through Washington Square Park a few nights ago. As twilight fell, and the streetlights cast their rosy glow over the snow, the quote above popped into my head. It was so beautiful I had to share it. With Vlad’s editing assistance, I was able to capture and convey some of the magic.

Washington Square Park 2

That unexpected surge of artistic sentiment made me remember how much I loved the book, and its author. The book is If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland.

When I first read it, many years ago, I found it inspirational, but a bit cloying. I have to admit that my perception was colored by “time bias”—that sneaking suspicion that everything in the past was quainter and less sophisticated than today. I mean, 1938? They didn’t even have iPhones! What could someone from that distant era have to say that’s meaningful about art in the 21st century?

Washington Square Park 3

And I’ll also admit that I found the persona of the author a bit, well, twee: A little-old-lady writing teacher out in Minnesota. (Never mind that in 1938 she was a vibrant and passionate woman of 47—the photo on the book jacket was a spry, but wizened lady in 1983, so that’s how I imagined her.)

Really, weren’t all women in 1938 conventional, domestic, and limited? Not the sort of person who truly understood the bold, transformative, and terrifying power of art.

Boy, did I get that wrong! If anyone understood life, and art, it was Brenda Ueland. She lived in Greenwhich Village for many years, married, divorced (back when one “didn’t do that”), and moved back to Minnesota to raise her daughter. She supported them both with her writing, which included journalism and essays. As her Wikipedia entry says, “She lived by two rules: To tell the truth, and to not do anything she didn’t want to.”

She was a paragon of physical fitness: well into what people would call her old age, she was turning handstands, climbing mountains, and swimming long distances. (And as for that “out in Minnesota”—it’s not only intellectually vibrant but physically challenging. )

Ueland’s personal life was bold and unconventional as well. The Wikipedia entry politely notes: “By her own account, Ueland had many lovers.”

That doesn’t even begin to tell the half of it. The love of her life was Norwegian adventurer and Nobel laureate Fridtjof Nansen, with whom she had a passionate affair in the late 1920s.

Brenda, My DarlingThe affair came to light a few years back when Eric Utne (her grandson and the founder of the Utne Reader) published Nansen’s letters to Ueland in the form of a book called Brenda My Darling. Her letters to him have been lost, but his to her were surprisingly poetic.

Nansen writes:

“Here from my window in my tower, I see the maidenly birches in their bridal veils against the dark pine wood — there is nothing like the birch in the spring. I do not exactly know why, but it is like you, to me you have the same maidenliness – and the sun is laughing, and the fjord out there is glittering, and existence is beauty!”

And that’s not all. He also sent his maiden several tasteful, but explicit, nude photographs of himself. The photographs turned the book into a minor sensation, with some—including Utne himself—questioning the decision to publish them.  The deciding opinion, as Utne relates, was the Norwegian publisher of the book, Ole Rikard Høisæther, who wrote to him that “Norwegians insist on the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

That book thoroughly exploded any delusions I’d held. Ueland was clearly no quaint, conventional lady writer—she was a strong, powerful artist in her own right. And forget the notion that age necessarily means decrepitude—Nansen was one hot guy even in his late 60s!

Moreover, though he was known for exploration and adventure, that same sentiment enabled him to write beautifully. My takeaway from all this: Art is powerful and inspiring. Showing the beauty in things can be transformative.

And as I’ve written before, there’s a strong connection between the desire to explore and the artistic sentiment: Both have life-changing power—both for the artist/explorer, and for everyone who encounters their work.

That power is available to all of us, if we only stop and listen to that inner voice calling out: “It’s so beautiful that I must show you how it looks.”

45 responses to “The Power of Art

  1. I heartily agree about “to tell the truth and not do anything you don’t want to do”. And telling the truth is difficult. It not about “not lying” it’s about capturing it “right” – in a way that you hope conveys it accurately to someone else….

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Excellent read and certainly true. I’ll be reading the book.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That closing sentence hits the creative nail on the head, Johna. It is where the essence of truthful storytelling begins and ends. A very thought-provoking post. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Saucy read here today … I thoroughly enjoyed it and your photos. I guess it shows that whats going on today, in the interest world, with those explicit photos being sent between people is old hat. I must admit, being an artist myself, that artists tend to be a bit askew about how they approach life …. and … how they live it. Bravo …!!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Oh, how interesting this is! A book I surely will enjoy. What a remarkable woman and how lucky she was to have found her ‘match!’ :)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Johna Till Johnson

      She is a fascinating writer, and reminds us all that the world didn’t start in 1965 or 1978 or 1991 or whenever we all thought it did :-). Sadly, they had only a year together before his death, and most of that “togetherness” was long distance, as he was in Norway and she in the US. But at least we got great letters….

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Great post about an inspiring lady! I was not familiar with Brenda Ueland but now I might be buying her book!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Your photos are beautiful. And I love the description of art that you shared.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Beautiful pics. I really enjoyed this! Thank you. I’m keen to read Brenda’s book now.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I can see the beauty in what you saw! Quite artistic.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Wonderful, then I’ve succeeded! I really did feel, right that instant, “Oh it’s so beautiful I must show you how it looks…”

      Like

  11. Why are these not published essays that you are writing, friend? They are engaging, thoughtful and approachable. Please peddle them somewhere. Pretty please.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Johna Till Johnson

      I’d love to, Sandy (and my mother says the same thing!). But two things: First, I’m not sure who publishes this kind of stuff, and second, most places seem to not want to publish things if they’ve previously appeared in blog posts. The wild new world of publishing! :-)

      Thanks for your wonderfully encouraging words, and thanks for reading, and posting!

      Like

  12. Reblogged this on Patchwork Ponderings and commented:
    This beautiful post has stayed with me for days. I just had to share it!
    Kindly visit the original post to ‘like’/ comment.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Pingback: The Power of Art | Wind Against Current | Patchwork Ponderings

  14. I wholeheartedly agree with that definition of art.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Great read, enjoyed your post today about this book – I will definitely look it up.

    Liked by 1 person

  16. Pingback: My Article Read (2-18-2015) (2-19-2015) | My Daily Musing

  17. I also agreed with the definition of art. Thanks for reminding me about the Brenda Ueland book. I haven’t read it for years and didn’t know all that about her. I definitely need to read it again!

    Nancy

    Like

    • Johna Till Johnson

      Thanks, Nancy! Yes, she has a nice autobiography called “Me: A Memoir” where she covers some of this stuff. But she writes rather opaquely about Nansen because he was married at the time, and she didn’t want to hurt his family. She’s up front, and quite generous, about her other lovers–and the fact that she had them (all quite rare traits in 1938).

      Liked by 1 person

  18. I thoroughly enjoyed this post Johna. There’s a writer in my country who I’d always assumed produced dry and dull work, an assumption based solely on that writer’s rather crusty public persona. Eventually, I read one of his novels and was entranced. He can tell a good story. Ever since I’ve held to the premise never to judge a book by its author. I’ll see if I can get hold of “If you want to write”, it sounds helpful and Brenda Ueland seems fascinating.

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Art is long, and life is fleeting; by virtue of its longer and overpowering reach, art is transformative and uplifting, which is exactly what prompted that famous statement of Van Gogh… Art and philosophy start off where science apparently ends, to bring up the latent beauty and mysteries of science. In your own modest way, the scientist in you, Johna, is doing just that by way of those pics and narration of ineffable beauty of late evenings under street lamps…thanks indeed for picturising and communicating it…best wishes… Raj.

    Liked by 1 person

  20. How amazing! You begin with that lovely photo at twilight, and then meander on to Brenda Ueland’s seminal book (one of my very short list of imperative books on writing) and so on to one of recent history’s great love affairs (of which there are probably many more than anyone suspects). It just goes to show — well, one of the many things it goes to show — is how much one’s own unexamined assumptions (about age? about art?) — conceal rather than reveal.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Johna Till Johnson

      :-) And how meandering gets you all the best places, as Brenda herself pointed out: “When I walk in a carefree way, without straining to get to my destination… it is then that the creative power flourishes.”

      Liked by 1 person

  21. Just wow. Some of your best pictures and one of your best posts. Fabulous!

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Beautiful and inspiring post, Johna!

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are most welcome!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s