Several years ago, my best friend from college built a spectacular cabin on Beaver Lake in Benton County, Arkansas, not far from where we went to school. When I say “built,” I mean designed and physically constructed it, albeit with help from family, friends, and a really good concrete company. Now that I live in Louisiana, her invitation to the Ozark Mountains was a welcomed respite from this summer's oppressive heat and humidity, so last month we loaded up the car and headed 10 hours north to what we all affectionately call the “treehouse.” Floor to ceiling glass windows frame a view of the lake totally obscured by lush green trees. Our six glorious days and five beautiful evenings spent swimming and skipping rocks were punctuated by several deer sightings and one terrific thunderstorm.
As we packed up to begin the trek south again, we decided to soften our re-entry with a stop at nearby Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. The impressive buildings were designed to integrate into their lush green habitat, part of the museum’s mission “to welcome all to celebrate the American spirit in a setting that unites the power of art with the beauty of nature.” Arkansas is The Natural State, after all.
One of Crystal Bridges’s jewels is the Bachman-Wilson House, a Frank Lloyd Wright design that was originally constructed in New Jersey in 1956. In 2015, the entire building was taken apart and each component was labeled, packed, and moved to the museum grounds where it was reconstructed. It’s fitting they would choose a Frank Lloyd Wright house. His concepts of art, nature, beauty, aesthetics, form, function, and all of their intersections are at once both timeless and revolutionary.
“In organic architecture then, it is quite impossible to consider the building as one thing, its furnishings another and its setting and environment still another,” he concluded. “The spirit in which these buildings are conceived sees all these together at work as one thing.” To that end, Wright designed furniture, rugs, fabrics, art glass, lighting, dinnerware, and graphic arts… He believed that every man, woman and child had the right to live a beautiful life in beautiful circumstances and he sought to create an affordable architecture that served that aspiration. (franklloydwright.org)
Coincidentally, I had been contemplating Wright for several weeks, since I began a study of living life artfully. I found a quote he used to clarify a theory popularized by his mentor, Louis Sullivan. “Form follows function — that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.”
So how do we create that spiritual union in our own lives? How do we exercise our right to live a beautiful life in beautiful circumstances? How and when do we consciously make decisions to surround ourselves with those items, activities, people we find beautiful? When do we subconsciously deny ourselves those same indulgences? How can we deepen, enrich our tapestry by weaving in more color, more texture… more silk, more linen, more leather? If you are the artist, the artisan, how can you use your life, your letters, your legacies as your medium?
I have always adhered to the notion of functional art:
Occupying that tenuous space between fine art and the everyday, functional art refers to aesthetic objects that serve utilitarian purposes. The genre is remarkably inclusive: it encompasses everything from furniture and lighting to dishes and even books. (Alex Allenchey of Artspace)
It’s the blue-green glazed pottery coffee mug I use to warm my hands every morning. It’s the hand-turned walnut candle stick my grandfather made when he was still alive and well enough to patiently putter around his wood shop. It’s the soft, worn leather backpack I scored from an old girlfriend twenty five years ago that still carries my journal and a fountain pen, now along with my iPad. It’s the stained glass my best friend made in college, long before she built a cabin on Beaver Lake.
I’ll venture to say it’s also a careful curation of souls with all of their unique stories. I generally encounter these delightful little masterpieces when I least expect them. Truly, it’s one of my favorite parts of traveling, which for me, can mean getting lost in my own backyard; an unexpected conversation, a gracious invitation, a profound insight I would have never entertained if I had stayed inside my own insular bubble.
Back to living a life as the ultimate expression of functional art. Back to the Ozarks. William Joseph (Joe) Nieters is freelance photographer in central Missouri, just a bit northeast of our vacation retreat. He offers this definition of art:
Art is something we do, a verb. Art is an expression of our thoughts, emotions, intuitions, and desires, but it is even more personal than that: it’s about sharing the way we experience the world, which for many is an extension of personality. It is the communication of intimate concepts that cannot be faithfully portrayed by words alone. And because words alone are not enough, we must find some other vehicle to carry our intent. But the content that we instill on or in our chosen media is not in itself the art. Art is to be found in how the media is used, the way in which the content is expressed.
Art is a verb. So is love in my dictionary. Both express our most intimate experiences, our profound and formative perceptions of the world as we understand it. Both require a level of self-awareness and a desire to engage that self with something outside of our own skin. Both mean making thoughtful decisions to see what is around us, what is available to us. Both demand we seek the beauty in our surroundings and find ways to communicate what we see, share what we’ve discovered.
So each of us becomes an artist. Our life, then, becomes our body of work. Some pieces will be better than others. Some relationships, careers, decades will be better than others. But there is beauty in each of them, whether it’s a gritty depiction of harsh reality or an ethereal study of light and shadow. We learn, hone our craft, use new media, choose different tools. We feed our curiosity. We grow in our expression and develop our authenticity.
This is how our voice emerges, that particular essence that characterizes our work. When we choose love over fear. When we choose clarity over obscurity. When we choose elegance over crudeness. When we cling to courage in the face of adversity. When we follow what feels good and right in our very core instead of generally accepted consensus. When we allow ourselves to play. When we permit ourselves to fail without shame or judgment so we can move on to success and fulfillment.
The blue-green coffee mug breaks and is replaced with iridescent raku. The written memory of my grandfather’s thick and heavy hand becoming so nimble replaces the candle stick that was lost in a cross country move. Stained glass windows give way to buildings that offer refuge to weary spirits in need of a lake.
But I’m never letting go of that backpack.