In her book Holy Personal: Looking for Small Places of Worship, Laura Chester tells the inspiriting story of artist Michael Dowling.
Dowling loved art from the earliest times he could remember, but its first great impression upon him occurred when he was in the first grade. “When I was six,” Dowling recalls, “I made a pattern of a checkerboard grid, a purple square, then a yellow square with a purple flower. I had no idea what I was doing, but for some reason I took it to my next door neighbor’s house, Mrs. Strong, and she said, “Oh, that’s so beautiful. I’d love to have wallpaper made out of that.”
He continues, “I recently remembered this–for now I’m working on this tile floor piece, and the tiles, it turns out, are based on early Celtic designs that are exactly the same grid as the grid I did when I was six, the sixty-four squares, which is really a checkerboard or chess board, very big in Celtic mythology.”
Laura Chester explains that “this all happened before the traditional year of reason. At six years old he wasn’t aware of how many squares he was making, but by the time he was eight, his art teacher was teaching his class: The Six Steps to a Perfect Tree. ”
“So there I was, looking out the window,” Dowling recalls. “It was a beautiful fall day. I had my crayons and I was coloring and coloring–but then she held up my drawing and said to the entire class, ‘This is the worst tree I’ve ever seen a child draw.’ Unbelievable. But the thing was, I believed it. Suddenly everything was split in two–everything had a right and a left, light and dark, wet and dry, visible and invisible. It was a time of confusion. My intuitive knowledge got put aside, and it’s so hard to retrieve that earlier sense of things. I remember showing the bad tree drawing to a little girl across the street, Jane Nicholson. She loved it, so I gave it to her.
“I was in my studio recently, contemplating these tiles, and I had a vision of the checkerboard I had painted when I was six years old. That same day my twin nieces invited me to come to their school as a visiting artist. I thought–OK, I’ll go and do a tile project with them. I gave them all tiles to paint on, and I told them the story of Mrs. Strong and my chapel.”
“Later that afternoon, when I was dropping my nieces off, my sister showed me Mrs. Strong’s obituary. We discovered that the wake was being held right around the corner, so we both went, and I was able to tell her children, my childhood friends, this story. We also talked about their mother’s pussy willow bush that had been chopped down when they moved away. Then Jane Nicholson showed up, and she put this beautiful tree-shaped bouquet at the head of the casket.”
“I love that kind of drawstring that pulls various events of your life together” (Chester 10-12).
Parents are those through whom we first are nurtured and empowered; when our parents fail to nurture or empower us, we begin to seek these necessary forces outside of ourselves, in parental surrogates. In this story, Michael Dowling’s gift for art was overlooked by his parents and teachers alike. In fact, when he brought his gift into the classroom, as so often happens, it was not merely ignored, but also ridiculed. This is the fate of so many artistic, creative, and brilliant children.
Nevertheless, Michael Dowling had his surrogates. His neighbor, Mrs. Strong, and his childhood friend, Jane, both recognized and appreciated his gift. Though their nurturing of his gift and the power their appreciation had empower him both occurred when he was only six to eight years old, he never forgot them. Probably most of us can remember at least one teacher, relative, friend, or other person who recognized, appreciated, or nurtured our gifts. Likewise, I have no doubt that we can also remember people who mocked and shamed us for these selfsame gifts.
Jungian analyst James Hollis writes about the power our memories have to sustain and even feed our hungry souls in his book called The Middle Passage. Although his book is directed at people already traversing this passage, I think it’s a book that will benefit anyone interested in the psychological and spiritual development of the real self. Hollis writes that people are called to go through three developmental stages in life: childhood, the first adulthood, and the second adulthood. Childhood lasts, roughly, from birth to age 12 or so; the first adulthood from around age 12 to 40; and the second adulthood, if a person enters it at all, normally occurs after age 40. The salient point of referring to Hollis’s book is that Michael Dowling was born with a gift. His vocation or calling from the earliest age he could recall was to do art.
Unfortunately, like many (if not most) of us, during his magical childhood he encountered the tempering influences of school and adults in ways that neither supported nor encouraged the development of his real, artistic self. Instead, his efforts were shamed by his teacher, an authority figure who took the magic away. I admire that the 8-year-old Michael would still show his drawing of the tree to his neighbor, Jane. He had learned that day that his teacher wasn’t to be trusted; but Jane was a safer bet, for she was still a child, too.
I don’t know what twists or turns Michael Dowling’s life as an artist took between third grade and the time when he returned to his art while building a personal place of worship in his root cellar. I do know that Michael Dowling only returned to his true self when he had become open enough to follow the meanderings of the spirit. Michael Dowling went down into an old root cellar he found buried outside his home, and turned it into a place of worship. It is no mistake, I think, that he had to go underground to carve out a place for God and for his real self.
Dowling had already started working on the tiles for his chapel when he remembered the checkerboard he had made when he was six years old. Within hours of the connection between Dowling’s self who was tiling his chapel floor and the self who had drawn the checkerboard at age six, he was called to be the visiting artist at his twin nieces’ school. Twins, who just may have symbolically represented the two halves of the whole that Michael Dowling perceived had been “split in two” the day his teacher mocked his tree. That day, the day it all came together for Michael Dowling, there was no more, “right and left, light and dark, wet and dry, visible and invisible.” All was one for him the day the artist took residence.
James Hollis’ book The Middle Passage points out that we have jobs, and then we have vocations; we are employees, and then we are called. The two occupations (job and vocation) are seldom the same. While some are able to unite work and vocation, most are not. The key to unlocking the door of the second adulthood, among others, is to live fully yet realistically, to remember the gifts we’ve been given, and to use them. It is to refrain from confusing our work with our callings.
Michael Dowling’s story reminded me to remember. It reminded me to think back to the times during my childhood when I knew the world was magical, mysterious, and frighteningly powerful. I know what it’s like to tremble in awe. I have known long, lazy hours of living in tiny villages made of pebbles, of being an Indian running through shoulder-high wheat, of running naked in the rain through a field; of wearing moccasins and hunting the antelope. I’ve been a soldier, an Arctic explorer, a blind and mute girl, a gypsy, and a princess. I wrote poems by the hundreds, and I’m still trying to find them.
But I know about Michael Dowling’s gift, because I know about my own.
How about you? Do you remember your magic?
Do you know what’s happened to your gift?
Chester, Laura. Holy Personal: Looking for Small Places of Worship. Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 2000.
Hollis, James. The Middle Passage: From Misery to Meaning in Midlife. Toronto, Canada: Inner City Books, 1993.