I don’t know why, but I love to paint tiny paintings. There is something really exciting to me about creating something that can stand alone as “artwork” in such a small space. I actually find the process of painting a tiny canvas much more challenging and exhilarating than a large canvas; the tiny canvas requires that I “think outside the box”, and it urges me to consider the potential of that which is limited: How do I make it engaging but not busy? How do I balance the need for detail with the need for simplicity? How do I create a piece that is both stimulating and modest? These same questions can be asked regardless of the size, but there is something extra intriguing about undertaking such an endeavor within the limited space of a 3×3 inch square.
I recently read Elizabeth Gilbert‘s book Big Magic. There is something about Gilbert’s craft that I am continually drawn to. Now, I don’t always like what she does. I don’t always agree with her logic or her choices, but all of her books are a pleasure to read; when I come away from a book that I didn’t necessarily like but still feel it was a pleasure to read, that is when I know I am a fan—a fan of the genuinely authentic manner in which Gilbert expresses that which is within her. In this instance, I found a few of the insights she shared really beautiful and thought-provoking. One story, from the very beginning of the book, was about a poet, Jack Gilbert (no relation), who taught the year before Gilbert at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. I won’t go into too much detail, but in reading this story I was struck by a simple phrase:
… I will never forget what the real Jack Gilbert told somebody else—an actual flesh and blood person, a shy University of Tennessee student. This young woman recounted to me that one afternoon, after his poetry class, Jack had taken her aside. He complimented her work, then asked what she wanted to do with her life. Hesitantly, she admitted that perhaps she wanted to be a writer.
He smiled at the girl with infinite compassion and asked, “Do you have the courage? Do you have the courage to bring forth this work? The treasures that are hidden inside you are hoping you will say yes.“
“The treasures that are hidden inside you are hoping you will say yes.”
The concept of treasures hidden within us resonated deep within me. As I continued to read the book I found myself thinking about the gems hidden within us, where they come from, and the purpose of bringing them forth. At the end of the book I spent some time reflecting on the following extracts from the Bahá’í Writings:
Regard man as a mine rich in gems of inestimable value.
~Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings CXXII
The Purpose of the one true God, exalted be His glory, in revealing Himself unto men is to lay bare those gems that lie hidden within the mine of their true and inmost selves.
~Bahá’u’lláh, Gleanings CXXXII
… through the restoring waters of pure intention and unselfish effort, the earth of human potentialities will blossom with its own latent excellence and flower into praiseworthy qualities, and bear and flourish until it comes to rival that rosegarden of knowledge which belonged to our forefathers.
~‘Abdu’l‑Bahá, Secret of Divine Civilization
… there are various stages in the paradise for the crystal itself.… So long as it was stone it was worthless, but if it attaineth the excellence of ruby—a potentiality which is latent in it—how much a carat will it be worth? Consider likewise every created thing.
~The Báb, Selections from the Writings of the Báb
The virtues of the seed are revealed in the tree; it puts forth branches, leaves, blossoms, and produces fruits. All these virtues were hidden and potential in the seed. Through the blessing and bounty of cultivation these virtues became apparent. Similarly, the merciful God, our Creator, has deposited within human realities certain latent and potential virtues.
~‘Abdu’l‑Bahá, Promulgation of Universal Peace
The best of men are they that earn a livelihood by their calling and spend upon themselves and upon their kindred for the love of God, the Lord of all worlds.
~Bahá’u’lláh, Hidden Words, from the Persian, 82
I rejoice to hear that thou takest pains with thine art, for in this wonderful new age, art is worship. The more thou strivest to perfect it, the closer wilt thou come to God. What bestowal could be greater than this, that one’s art should be even as the act of worshipping the Lord? That is to say, when thy fingers grasp the paint brush, it is as if thou wert at prayer in the Temple.
~‘Abdu’l‑Bahá, Professions Compilation
So what do Gilbert’s book, the above quotes from the Bahá’í Writings, and tiny paintings have to do with each other? Maybe nothing. However, I found myself thinking that I am sort of like a tiny painting. My life is both vast in its potentialities but also constrained by certain limitations. I can either refrain from exploring that potential, or I can dive in and embrace the limitations, trusting that those limitations are less of a confinement and more of a framework within which I can organically and authentically explore and express those hidden gems. Such gems—latent potentialities— were entrusted to me by the Divine so that I might bring them to light and, as I feel called, share them with the world. If I happen to earn a livelihood though my calling, wonderful. If not, it’s okay. What matters to me is that I bring forth into the world that which is latent within me, not because I seek fame or acclaim, but because of a sincere desire to honor the Grace that created me.
The process of mining latent gems requires prayer and self-reflection, as well as constructive action in the form of service and expressing creativity; it is certainly challenging. But I like to be challenged, not because I like to suffer, but because I like to grow. Some may say this is a matter of semantics; I think it’s more a matter of mindset. So while the mining process is a challenge, it is also exhilarating.
Maybe I like to create tiny paintings because, to some degree, they remind me of the process of bringing to light the gems hidden within.