Art Should Challenge You

It was the 80’s and it was in a sleepy little West Texas town called Panhandle when I first realized that art (while subjective) can be destroyed by a narrow view of the world.

The project was called “What Sparks Your Imagination” and we were given two weeks to create using provided chalk and illustration board. The only other stipulation was that it must depict in some way the local landscape. In West Texas, for the most part we have flat yellowing grass with beautiful sunsets and sunrises.

The other exciting part of the project was that the top three grades in the class would have their work go on to a local college (West Texas State University - Now it’s called West Texas A&M University)  to compete in a contest by the same name - What Sparks Your Imagination.

I set to work right away - I first used a No2 pencil and notebook paper to create a mockup of the eventual piece. Normally I would have waited till a few days before the project was due and then just create on the provided medium but this was too huge! I could already see my piece in the halls of a University. I could hear the judges whispering back and forth “how creative” and “incredible use of lighting” - oh it was going to be amazing.

My idea was to use a local canyon - Palo Duro Canyon as my setting. This would allow meet the criteria for local landscape but not be as boring as a flat Texas field with a sunset. I knew that most (actually all) of the other students would go that direction. Oh I’d have a sunset alright but it would be in the canyon and I had a few surprises for my art teacher and those judges.

It took a second notebook paper mockup and several erasers but I had brought my idea to life in the form of a rough draft. “What are you drawing?” a classmate asked, “What is your project going to be?” asked another. Oh no, no, no this is going to be so amazing I couldn't risk someone stealing my ideas. This was top secret.

I started to work with the chalk using painstaking details to create two canyon cliffs and and a sunset that was lighting up the sky with brilliant color. But what was this? A second light source? Yes, one can plainly see a second light source creating subdued shadows and casting different huges upon the rock and the brush of the canyon.

Side note - I needed help because I’m red/green colorblind so I asked an upper classman (Mary Profit) to help me map out the colors before hand. Mary was (and still is) an amazing artist and I knew she could be trusted - plus we weren’t competing because she was in a different class.

Slowly but surely it came together and this thing was deep on many levels. Oh those judges are going to be impressed.

What came to life was a knight on white steed in full armor on one side of the cliff and on the other ,a red and orange portal was opening up (the second light source I was so proud of) and coming from that hole in the sky was a mighty red dragon. The light glistened off of the knights armour and sword, the dragon breathed fire - all in the setting of the Texas Panhandle's version of The Grand Canyon. My imagination was more than sparked - this thing could have been a Molly Hatchet or a Saxon album cover.

Another note - If this piece of art was here today, I fully believe that while it show signs signs of a young, inexperienced artist it would still be worthy of being hung on display somewhere - maybe that's just me.

I got a “D” and it never was sent to the competition.

My art teacher said it "lacked creativity" and "missed the entire point of the project."

I was furious! “MISSED THE POINT?!?” “LACKED IMAGINATION?!?” I was screaming at the teacher in class. I was holding back tears of anger and rage!

I was sent to the principal's office… again.

One of my classmates got second place in that competition for her chalk depiction of a Panhandle sunset with a windmill and a rickety barbed wire fence. We got to go on a field trip to the University and see all the entries as well as the winners. It was a huge wall with every chalk drawing from the area that was selected. Rows of things like “Cow on the Plains” and “Panhandle Sunset” and “Panhandle Sunrise” and “Pickup Truck On The Plains” and my favorite - the winner “Windmill and Barn with Panhandle Sunrise.” They were good, don’t get me wrong. I would have accepted if I had gotten a “D” because my artistic abilities were not as good as the students whose work was on display. That wasn’t the case.

I never put much effort into another art project at that school again.

I’m sharing this with you because I want you to know that art - all art - while subjective, is also often only consumed when it is safe. When it looks or sounds or feels like something that the person consuming the art accepts as being within the normal boundaries of what they believe and see within their lives.

Art should challenge! It should never be safe, it should make you think, it should frankly scare the hell out of you!

If you are consuming safe art - safe songs, safe paintings, safe sculptures, safe dance, safe theater - I challenge you to find something that is MORE! If you live in the Texas Panhandle, you can see a windmill with a rundown fence at sunset every day of your life if you go on a little drive. You can listen to someone sitting on the tailgate of their truck spitting tobacco and drinking a beer - it’s everywhere! You can watch people two-step and line dance and you can see our area farmers and ranchers work their asses off every day. I love this area and the art it invokes but I want to challenge you the reader to step out of your comfort zone and consume art that makes you uncomfortable because my art teacher never did.