Works in Progress

Wednesday, February 1st, 2012

I’m sitting in my daughter’s Baltimore apartment thinking about works in progress. This city is a work in progress and its pockets of vibrancy delight me, partly because, like my own hometown, Detroit, it is too frequently written off in the national mindset as broken, dying — above all, an undesirable place to live.

My apolitical thought on this rainy January afternoon is this: Shatter in your own mind the prejudgments of popular culture, the grinning media dictates of who or what is in and who or what is out. Shatter also any notion of what you can and can’t do.

My daughter the artist. I spent the day at the art school she attends, sat in with the students doing oil painting – painted my first egg. The experience was a stunning exercise in the observation of light and shadow, and the instructor joyously allowed me to be a beginner. I was able to participate.

The physicist David Bohm and others have used the term “participatory consciousness,” which I take to mean the awareness that no truth is complete or solid or locked into place without us.

Participation at all the core levels of life is a primitive concept — primitive as in “primal,” not “less advanced” I think that’s why I’ve always been haunted by primitive masks and other artwork, because they betoken a world before the emergence of experts, a world of far less division of labor, a world in which all adults took part in decisions of collective survival. I say this not to romanticize earlier eras or to cry for an impossible step backwards, but to suggest that maybe modernity has lost something that is reclaimable: each individual’s fundamental and direct relationship with the nameless sacred, whatever that is.

A certain raw wonder — unfiltered, unexplained, inviting our participation the way wet snow invites a child’s eager hands to roll it, pack it, make it into something — is at the center of our world-in-progress. The arts and politics, the creation of our collective future, are sacred endeavors at both the personal and the collective level. The future shouldn’t be owned and controlled by others. But our media have reduced the world they mirror back to us to just that.

I think now about the rarified and celebrity-saturated arts. We are all artists. Just as every child is an artist, so is every adult. “But of course art is also survival,” I wrote some years ago, talking about an organization I have been a part of for many years called the Men’s Art Forum. “We know this. A few of the extraordinarily talented among us are richly celebrated and rewarded, as though they’ve been ordained to make art on behalf of all the rest of us — to sing our songs for us, to forge our visions, to tell us who we are. Taking nothing away from the brightest stars in the human sky, I long for a world that gushes less before great talent, accepts it and honors it, but sees it as no more than the lifeblood that courses in all of us.”

A society saturated in hierarchical judgment, which limits its members’ creative expression, reducing most people to the status of spectators, is starving itself to death.

What I know is this: Another person’s awakening is my awakening. When I think about “the arts” and what matters and what is valuable, I think about the stick-figure story told by a man named Darrel at our first Men’s Art Forum retreat some years ago.

“In the presence of your art, from the bottom of my soul, I feel . . .”

The core of the weekend was often an extended drawing exercise, and we’d begin a discussion of the drawings afterwards with those words. This broke any tendency to be judgmental and superficial.

At that first retreat, the exercise was: Draw the river of your life.

Beyond that, instructions were minimal.

The drawings took up much of the morning. We had lots of material available: crayons and Cray-Pas, charcoal, Magic Markers. The idea was, draw deep and real. Look at where you came from and what made you who you are today. See what you haven’t seen before. Those who were skilled at drawing were encouraged to draw with their opposite hand, to short-circuit their sense of control, to force them into a part of the brain ungoverned by an imposed sense of aesthetics. Draw deep and real.

Afterward each artist talked about his “river.” When we came to Darrel’s drawing, gathering around it in a semicircle, he started pointing to the figures along the winding river. This is Mom. This is Dad. “This is Mom at the divorce hearing. She’s sitting next to me. She has her hand on my thigh, her nails clamped into it. She’s not going to let me go, but I tell the judge I want to live with my dad.” The words came out slowly, haltingly — a clotted river of emotion, at times too much for him, but he went on, breaking into torrential tears. We listened. We supported him. We held him.

The work of art doesn’t end at the paper, it begins there. We lifted Darrel and carried him outside and sat around the bonfire. Someone had his drawing. He tore it into pieces and threw it into the fire.

It seems to me we’ve barely begun to understand what it means to participate in our own psychology, our own history, our own lives.

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at or visit his website at