The Privilege of Making Art By Twania Brewster
I was on stage playing a chorus extra in my all girls’ high school Spring musical. While milling about in the ballroom scene, I would gaze enviously at the crew in the wings among the curtain legs. I had thought that my longing to be in the wings making things happen on stage was because I had absolutely no talent…in acting, singing, drawing, painting. However, I now believe my first-generation West-Indian American working class outlook viewed the ‘job’ of making art as a privilege I could not enjoy. Creating art regardless the discipline and spending too much time thinking about it was for people with time and money. It was nothing I could claim for myself.
I learned this from my parents but that is not to say they did not enjoy art. Somehow despite playing it very close to pay the monthly bills, my mother seemed to find a way to take my sister and me to the children’s theater series at the Goodman Theater when its stage resided on Columbus Drive. On so many summer Sundays, we took the train to the Art Institute and my mother would ask, “Which direction?” She was referring to the Culture Bus program, which ran bus routes from the Art Institute in every direction (except East) with stops at museums and cultural institutions. From the Museum of Science and Industry to the South to the Baha’i Temple to the North to the West to the Frank Lloyd Wright designed homes in Oak Park, my mother made sure we were able to be appreciators and consumers (on the free admission days) of art.
I imagine she thought my exposure to the arts would match well with the private school she struggled to ensure we attended. She may have thought the arts would help us in conversations with my much wealthier, well heeled, further removed from their immigrant ancestors, American classmates.
Although unspoken, it was very clear: you are not producers of art. You are to do something – anything – other than an artistic endeavor. As the oldest child, I took it to heart and any direct participation in the arts was strictly for my college applications.
Through college, I continued on the same path. Artistic endeavors are to be consumed (at a reasonable price), but not as a form of self-expression or even to take up a significant component of my leisure time. I could date an aspiring writer. I could not aspire to be one. It was not until my mid-20s that I met young people who believed that art — the making of it, the supporting it with brawn and time — was not solely for an end consumable product, but rather as a means of being and making meaning of their own lives.
This was a revelation. But also seemed like indulgence, not meant for me. I still (to this day) am not a creator of art. I work with a graphics team and have learned to love the creative process while helping the artists shape the vision into a shared message.
When I came across a letter John Adams wrote to his wife Abigail about how he wished he had the time and thought to spare to write to her about the art, architecture and gardens he was seeing “and describe them so as to be understood,” I understood him all too well. His words and meaning echoed what I had been taught and ultimately became hard-wired into my unconsciousness:
Art, its study and creation, is not for you, First Generation American.
It is for the generations after you.
IF you succeed.
Then they will have the time and the leisure to be artists.
Then they will have the right to pursue artistic endeavors.
“I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy. My sons ought to study Mathematicks and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, Naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculture, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.”
I have come to understand that is not the case. It is worth noting that in the handwritten letter, Adams initially included painting and poetry ahead of math and philosophy as liberties his sons should have to study but he crossed them out and saved those rights for his grandchildren.
I want more for my children. They should have the ability to engage in an artistic life – in whatever manner brings them joy and fulfillment – and they have the right to discover and share their gifts in whatever forms they take. For me, this is the American dream.
Photos: Top (cast and crew photo of my school’s production of The Sound of Music – I am the tall girl with glasses on the far right as nearly out of frame as I could manage); Bottom Left (my niece – left – and eldest daughter – right – blissfully uncrossing out John Adams’ determination of who gets to study painting); Bottom Right (my son with Homer Hans Bryant after his first dance performance as a student at Mr. Bryant’s Chicago Multicultural Dance Center)