I had the pleasure of listening to a dialog between the great cartoonists Lynda Barry & Alison Bechdel on a podcast called “Live Wire!” recently and Lynda in particular hit on something that I had been thinking upon a great deal lately. And that’s the idea of purpose behind art.
I struggle with art a lot of times because it feels like such a selfish endeavor. Many times it’s driven by pride or money or fame… particularly in the movie industry (although I imagine it’s true of all art, I just have less experience with other industries.) Even the idea of struggling artists who create art “just for themselves” really turns me off. I think anything done “just for yourself” is a bit of a waste. I think it’s why I am happiest when I’m creating in a collaborative environment, whether that be a comic book artist or a writing partner, where I’m forced to bump into people. I believe that we’re put here on this earth to touch people and change lives, through our friendships, through our giving, and certainly through our art.
Lynda spoke to this during the conversation with this brilliant story:
“You all know what phantom limb pain is? That’s that thing where you lose part of your limb but you still have the sensation that it’s still there. There was a guy who had a particularly intractable case of it. He had lost his hand from here down. But his sensation was that his hand not only there, but it was in a really painfully clenched fist. He was in misery, the pain was constant. His life was really deteriorating. They didn’t know what to do for him.
And there’s this brilliant neurologist named V.S. Ramachandran who has done a lot of amazing work with imagery on the brain. And he had this idea, and his idea was, well, let’s make a box and we’re going to put a mirror in that’s slanted this way and there’s a hole on this side so that the guy can put his hand into the hole on this side, and then when he looks down it’s going to be the illusion of seeing two hands. You follow me on that? And so the guy did it. So he sees two hands. And Ramachandran says, ‘Open your hand.’ And he did. And he saw the other one open. And the pain went away.
And I believe that’s what images do. That there’s something about – whether it’s in another book, or it’s something that we make – there’s something about seeing something – and I don’t mean literally, necessarily, although with art that’s true – there’s something about working with images that can unclench something that we have no other way to get to.”
I was listening to the program in my car and after hearing this, I literally cheered. It was exactly everything I had been thinking, put into a simple, beautiful illustration.
What got me thinking about all of this was a lunch with a very good friend of mine named John Ray. John’s son, Marcus, was one of my best friends growing up and he took his own life almost 10 years ago now. After the death of his son, John became a pastor. And he did this in part, I believe, in order to help the hurting. Here is a man who has been through the worst pain imaginable, who very easily could have turned all of that pain inward and slowly morph into a twisted bitter old man. But instead, he took that pain, as inexplicable as it is, and used it to help others. Myself included.
When I had lunch with John, I was really struggling with my place in life. I was broken, not sure of what I should be doing. Just burnt out on trying so hard to be successful, in life and in art. And John said to me with such clarity, “Hudson, what you should be doing is taking the gifts God has given you, and using those gifts to tell your story. To share with others the questioning and the brokenness and the hurt that you’ve been through in order to help those who are on similar paths.”
This, to me, is art. Art is personal. It’s vulnerable. Art is not teaching. Just like John, I have no more answers now than I did before the pain. A lot of times, there are no answers. But I do know how to come through to the other side.
After the above illustration, Lynda goes on to talk about how Alison’s fantastic graphic novel Fun Home “opened a lot of fists” with it’s auto-biographical portrayal of a girl dealing with the death of her father who was a closeted homosexual. It is a story exploring death and life and sexuality and father/daughter relationships in a way that is completely unique to Alison.
The greatest desire all of us have in life is to know we’re not alone. It’s these unique, personal stories that speak to the hearts of the lonely.
We create, not for our own benefit, but for the benefit of others. To share beauty and to ask questions… to challenge minds and to warm hearts.
Tell your story through your art. You never know whose fist you might be opening.