Elizabeth de Veer
Sunday School - PLUS a Giveaway
A few musings on a life creating – read below for a GIVEAWAY!!!
The year was the 1980’s, and I was a teenager. My family, always the last on the block to adopt any new technology, finally acquired a VCR, a machine which would – stay with me, this is pretty amazing – record shows while they were happening on the television so you could watch them later. You could even skip the commercials.
Heady stuff back then, but we were still dizzy from the invention of the answering machine, a giant, hulking piece of machinery that let people call you on the phone, and if you didn’t answer at that moment, they left you a message.
What madness! Phew!
I don’t know whose idea it was, but I think it was mine, to tape the PBS production of Sunday in the Park with George, a musical loosely based on the life and work of the pointillist painter Georges Seurat, whose birthday is today, December 2. I’d seen the poster: there were two painted heads of folks from another time, and below it, the paper pulled back to reveal two sets of modern legs, a man’s in jeans and boots, and a woman’s in black hose and a neat black skirt. I wanted someone to explain that image to me, and I supposed the best thing was to just watch the production.
Cut to 2021. Last week, it was reported that composer Stephen Sondheim had died at the age of 91. The man who created Sunday in the Park with George was no more. I stopped what I was doing and remembered how Sunday in the Park had seriously impacted me, back in my teenage days. What was it all about, again? Painting, art, life, love, and … pointillism. How you create a life in so many dots, balancing light and dark, pain and joy, love and loss.
Anyway, I listened to it again, after not listening to it for many, many years, and I remembered every word. I laughed, I cried, I sang along. And I realized that Sunday in the Park had taught me many lessons about living the art-centered life. Somehow, I knew at the time that they were all 100% true, and I also knew that I would have no choice but to experience them for myself. And knowing that there are others out there – Georges Seurat, for one, Stephen Sondheim, for another, and countless, countless others – who daily experience and wrestle with these things, makes the journey a lot less lonely.
1. “There's a part of you always standing by/Mapping out the sky/finishing a hat” It’s a key theme in Sunday in the Park, and it’s such a true one. When you are immersed in the work of creating – when you are trying to finish the hat – it’s incredibly hard to balance relationships with humans, be it a marriage, children, family, all friendships. People demand immediate attention and constant maintenance, but so does the work of art. People need your time, energy, vision; so does your work. You are constantly choosing, swapping this for that, time here, which will hopefully be repaid over there. The bad news? You’re almost always prone to make a choice that short-shrifts one of them.
2. “Art isn’t easy. Any way you look at it.” Another theme in the musical is the people around the creator, constantly chattering, asking questions, casually musing, taking the piece apart, looking at the pieces, not understanding them but judging them anyway, revealing their own insecurities through it all. These are the critics, and I have to admit, I haven’t met too many of them. They’re not tearing me down; they’re ignoring me. You know who you are, only you probably don’t because you’re likely not reading this! Ha ha. (Just kidding – call me!! I’ll send you an ARC ASAP!)
3. “Say ‘cheese,’ George, and put them at their ease, George. You're up on the trapeze, George.” This is what the modern-day George says to himself when he’s at a lovely wine and cheese reception for his exhibition. Benefactors, marketing, showing up. It’s another piece of the “art isn’t easy” puzzle. Who pays your living expenses while you are creating? People need shelter, food, heat, light. Some of us, me included, go the part-time job route, and that, of course, means an investment of time, time that cannot then be used for creating. Are you getting it? No matter how you do it, the tap-dance is constant.
4. “Stop worrying where you’re going – move on.” Creating is scary. True secret from this debut author? I am terrified that my next work won’t be anywhere near as good as the published work. (And it’s taking me a million years to write it anyway, thanks to, see above, part-time job and other priorities, and the damn Covid situation is simply not helping.) But Dot, the love of Georges’ life, tells me, and I am listening now, “Stop worrying if your vision is new. Let others make that decision; they usually do. You keep moving on.” It’s such an important reminder: follow your vision to where it brings you. Stay critical but don’t let the critique, or your own intrinsic understanding of art, and whether or not you’re creating at a high enough level, stop you in your tracks. Breathe, be brave, create. Move on.
5. “White: a blank page or canvas. The challenge, bring order to the whole. Through Design, Composition, Tension, Balance, Light, and Harmony.” This last lesson, in the words that open the musical, and repeat in the masterpiece (MASTERPIECE) song Sunday, is also one that I knew was true when I heard it as a teenager. As creators, as brave pioneers venturing into our own imaginations, making that terrifying gamble that we may be creating actual art or we might simply be throwing thousands of hours (while neglecting our 401k’s, our children, our homes, our friends) into teaching ourselves how to begin, if we see it through, there is a reward: seeing our vision take life outside of us. When the thing we created makes sense to someone else, when someone says it gave voice to some pain or experience? That’s the gift. That’s the bottom line. That’s why doing the tap-dance is truly worth it.
Thank you, Mr. Sondheim, for the gift of this piece, in so many ways: amazing, ahead of its time, every bit as misunderstood as the work of Georges himself in the story. You inspired so much art, creating, music. Thank you for creating something so perfectly imperfect, it’s completely and totally perfect.
GIVE-AWAY: I bought a CD of the music from Sunday in the Park with George!! It’s not even in print anymore so I had to win an auction on Ebay, but I did it!! Comment below before MONDAY, DEC. 13 on how Stephen Sondheim or Georges Seurat has touched your life, or about living the art-centric life to be entered in a drawing. UPDATE: oops!!! I thought you could comment on this blog!! Oh, dear, maybe not. Okay, to be entered, comment on this post on FB, IG, or wherever you happen to see it. Or email me at email@example.com. Thanks!
Stephen Sondheim was also an incredible supporter and mentor to other composers, and after he died, Lin Manuel-Miranda organized a group-sing in his honor. This song is the stunning climax of one of the most amazing musicals in history.