There’s a new exhibit of Native American art at our local art museum. We went last week and spent hours gazing at art in all sorts of media–watercolor, pencil, ink, pottery, textiles. At some pieces, we laughed out loud; at others we giggled nervously, and at others we gasped with delight. It was a feast for the eyes and soul, a reminder of just how much we need these thumbprints of the human spirit.
A young friend of ours, a senior at university and a Native American herself, works at this art museum and has learned a lot through her classes and work. I love being around people like her because I learn from what they’ve learned; and I love to learn. At a display of pottery made by Pueblo Indian Maria Martinez, she told us a story about Maria she’d learned in art class.
Maria specialized in making black-on-black pottery similar to that made by the ancient Pueblo peoples. As Maria became better known, demand for her work increased. Each piece fetched a nice price, so soon other Pueblo Indians began to replicate Maria’s work and sell the pottery to tourists and art collectors.
When the white folks figured out what was going on, they began to demand that Maria sign her pottery, which she did. The other women would then bring their pottery to Maria to have their pots signed, so that all could share in the bounty produced by Maria’s name.
Standing there in the museum’s chilly air, looking at Maria’s flawless work, I wondered at her. How different a spirit she had than is typical among white folks, indeed among any folks these days or any day who seek to hold on to what they think is theirs, to possess and be possessed by, to hoard what there is not enough of. I was reminded of Nobel Prize winner N. Scott Momaday’s concern that the “removal of the spiritual matrix of the traditional life, the theft of the sacred” would eventually ruin not only Native American culture, but America as a nation. One effect of the loss of a spiritual True North, he said, was that people would lose traditional cultural principles such as those the Plains Indians lived by: bravery, fortitude, generosity, and virtue.
Momaday, like Martinez, knew that doing one’s art well required more than the courage, resolve, and fortitude to merely practice one’s art with regularity. “Writing is a way of expressing your spirit,” he said, “so there’s much more to it than the question of material success. You are out to save your soul after all, and be the best thing that you can be in your whole being.”
“I would like to live my life according to those four things. I would like to do it in my writing, as well as in my other activities. That’s what I believe. I tell students, writing is the expression of your spirit, but you must live by certain ideals, and they must inform not only your writing, but the way in which you have breakfast with your mate, as well.”
As Momaday said and Martinez exemplified, it is not enough to simply become our best selves, to live our best selves; generosity is required. Virtue must be applied, for “faith without works is dead” (James 2:26).
Our trip to the museum to wallow in art reminded me to keep a loose hold on my own spirit, on what I call my work, “my writing.”
It, like my very life, is not really my own.