Sculpture could well have been my vocation, at least if I had been sufficiently daring and dedicated, but, alas, I was not. I had undergone the sensible indoctrination bequeathed me and my entire generation of young men (and women) that the first obligation was to become a financially self-sustaining American whose ultimate goalafter marriage and two childrenwas to achieve a blissful retirement. Thus trained, I was not willing to venture out into a world where the only predictable way a sculptor could make a living waslike my noted mentor Puryear Mimsto become a teacher of sculpture. But I did not want to teach itI simply wanted to do it! But I could not figure out a way to make a living at it.
I had noticed this skill as early as my days as a cub scout when I was assigned the task of carving a bar of Ivory Soap into the shape of someone I admired. I chose FDRor perhaps it was EdisonI dont remember. I do recall that my mother was amazed that the end result looked very much like the person it represented. In the 8th grade, I carved a female nude figure from the limb of an oak tree and took great joy in showing it to my art teacher because I knew in my heart of hearts that while this might be considered risky business, she could hardly denounce it after having showed us pictures of marble statues from classical art that were much more risqué than mine.
The summer before I was to enter college, I was at the home of a friend who happened to have some plasticine clay sitting on a nearby table. Having become inattentive to the ongoing conversations around the room, I began to mold the piece into the bust of an aging man. When I finished, I realized that I really enjoyed the doing of it and was a bit surprised how easy it was for me.
Consequently, in the fall at Vanderbilt, I signed up for sculpture class, in addition to my required courses, and over the next four years under the instruction of Mims (who had worked on Mt. Rushmore and whose work is still displayed in front of the Tennessee State Capital) I progressed from clay to plaster to stone.
By my senior year, I was entering shows with my teacher and briefly considered how delightful it would be to pursue a career doing nothing but this joyful exercise the rest of my life.
Two things put the quietus on this dream. First was my junior year spent studying at the University of Madrid where, every few days, I would visit the world renowned Prado Museum, mostly to see the works of Goya and Velasquez, both of whom I adored, but also to examine what masters of the past had done in stone.
It was totally disheartening. Here I was two thousand years later nowhere near being able to achieve such refined work, such incredible detail. I instantly realized that I could work the rest of my life and never achieve what these nameless artists had accomplished eons before. It was during that time that I realized sculpture would have to be an avocation, like making model airplanes. And, as I have already mentioned, I could not figure out any means by which I could earn a decent living chipping away at pieces of rock, let alone excel at something where I was already twenty centuries too late.
Of course, one does not attempt sculpture without also doing sketches and a bit of painting, something I had been doing since early childhood. Here, too, I found it interesting that I could replicate in charcoal or paints the likeness of a face so that it was recognizably the same person before me. But I think had I been meant to become a painteror a sculptorI could not have been so easily deterred and overcome with doubt. Whereas in the literary arts I found a place where I could make a living and continue developing a skill I did not discover until my senior year in high schoolI could write, whether fiction or scholarly essays. Furthermore, I could make a decent salary while teaching, and find time when not grading papers to continue with my writing.
After a few years working on both poetry and prose, and most especially after publishing a couple of books, I was hooked. I soon found that I had no peace of mind, no lasting joy unless I was writing. Part of this sense of endless delight derived from the fact that I was not really competing with anyone. I was not trying to emulate anyone or any particular works I had read before, not after I realized my limitations as a poet and focused on translating theology and philosophy into language accessible to the ordinary reader, because that was the one thing I felt capable of doing well.
Nevertheless, after having completed a series of books a couple of years ago, I decided I needed to take a break, and spent two years dedicated to painting. I bought a decent easel, a drafting table, a good supply of acrylic paint and brushes. My dear friend and a talented professional painter Roger Bansemer tutored me, and shared some of his multitude of videos he has done for his PBS program, and then came for a visit to give me some further instruction.
The end result was satisfying, but not enduring. I shared some of my work on Facebook and got some positive response, and quite soon into this foray I found my principal joy in doing portraits. The human face became endlessly fascinating to me because so much of the inner self become inscribed there. Among my favorites were Frederick Douglass and portraits of notable native Americans, the pictures of whose faces seemed exquisitely storied and contained a depth of emotion and a nobility of character that could only derive from lives lived attuned to nature and the earth.
I also attempted portraits of Baháí figuresone of the Master (Abdul-Bahá) when he was in Adrianople in his mid-twenties, and of his brother Mírzá Mihdí, who was four years his junior.
But then, after two years of doing nothing else, the desire to paint and the joy I derived from it vanished suddenly and completely. I had been distracted from my love of writing long enough. I put away tables, easels, bought a treadmill, and changed my art studio into an exercise room and began churning out books again.
Someday, no doubt, I will be dwelling in some home for the aged where a dutiful soul will place me in front of an easel for me to dabble in painting again, but I will always be aware that I am but a dabbleras contemporary American philosopher Clint Eastwood famously observed, A man has got to know his limitations! And while I will continue to push my boundaries with writing, I know full well my limitations with sculpture and painting.