Roberts: Mundane works of art surround us

Roberts: Mundane works of art surround us

August 24th, 2010 by Dalton Roberts in Opinion Columns

Psychologist Abraham Maslow reminds us that a first-rate soup is more creative than a second-rate painting.

One of his more interesting research projects was studying the creativity level of people doing mundane work. Mundane, in this case, means people doing boring work or repetitive labor, like an assembly-line job, or job activities that seldom change, like a street sweeper. It also means people doing any job not usually associated with creativity.

He wrote, "A fair proportion of my subjects were not productive ... nor did they have great talent or genius, nor were they poets, composers, inventors, artists or creative intellectuals."

For example, he observed a woman who was uneducated and poor and yet brought unconventional creativity to her roles as a homemaker and mother. Although she had very little money to work with, her home was always beautiful, meals were banquets, and her taste was impeccable. She was in all these areas original, novel, ingenious and inventive. How could he not classify her as creative?

It reminded me of an essay in a book titled "Home" by Cleveland, Tenn., photographer Stephen Greenfield. He was kind enough to let me read a chapter about a little black lady named Queenie who was so proud of her little home that she often swept the long walkway to it. The walkway was not brick, gravel, concrete or asphalt. It was just plain dirt. I can never forget his picture of her standing straight and proud in front of her little home with that broom. The coupling of his photography with his words about Queenie moved me deeply. Queenie's paintbrush was a broom.

My "second mama," Thelma Shoemake, lived next door to us when I was a preschool child. Her husband died, leaving a widow and four children. The men in the community made up enough money to build "Mama Shoe," as I affectionately called her, a two-room house, and my parents allowed it to be placed on our property (yes, even people in a poor community did that kind of thing in those days). With a well for water and an outhouse, I remember her home as attractive and clean. More importantly, I remember the love, counseling and attention she lavished on her four children as well as me, my sister and brother. Yes, she was an artist with the paintbrush of love and gave the world four gifted works of art in her children.

My own mother was a painter, poet and novelist who kept a fresh plate of cornbread and a big pitcher of sweet tea on the kitchen counter at all times. All the kids in the neighborhood came whenever they wished for tea, cornbread and love. Her heart was too big to limit her love to her own three children. She had to mother a village.

When I think of her as an artist, in my own mind I see her paintings, but I also always see the cornbread and tea. I see her hugging three little boys whose mother had died. I see her leaving the house at 3 in the morning to hold the hand of a neighbor who was dying and calling for her. She was a graduate of a much higher school of art.

I'm with Maslow. Any of us can make our lives and work sparkle like a painting in a museum. There are no unimportant jobs. There really are no mundane workers. There are just too many eyes that cannot see the miracles in the mundane.

I heard a preacher say, "The age of miracles is gone." No sir. When see a Queenie sweeping her dirt pathway, a Mama Shoe raising four children on little more than love and oxygen, and Mama Nora making fresh tea and baking fresh cornbread for the children, we are seeing miracle workers laying hands on the mundane.

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