Learn, Create, and Teach: A Guide to Building a Creative Life
A Denver Journal Review by Denver Seminary Professor Douglas Groothuis
Clara Lieu, Learn, Create, and Teach: A Guide to Building a Creative Life (Create Space, Clara Leiu, 2013). ISBN-10: 1490928960; ISBN-13: 978-1490928968. 170 pages. Paperback.
Although I am not a visual artist, I am fascinated by art, particularly painting and photography. As a long-time teacher, however, I am something of a performance artist (influenced most by jazz). Thus my interest in art is pronounced. Ms. Lieu kindly provided me a copy of this short, but thoughtful, primer on the endeavor of art-making throughout a career. The author is a practicing artist—a painter, sculptor, and musician—as well as a teacher of art. She desires others find direction in pursuing their muse with meaning and results, since being an artist today is not an easy gig.
Each chapter features a drawing, a saying, and a short essay on being a student, teacher, or a practicing artist. Of course, these three stages or dimensions overlap. Dividing the book into these three sections adds to the quality of the work, as it is sensitive to human development in artistic achievement. “There is a time for every purpose under heaven,” as Ecclesiastes affirms (3:1).
Mss. Lieu’s writing is clear and crisp; there is neither fluff nor any autobiographical indulgence, which is, sadly, so common when egocentric memoirs abound. The incidents from her own career are apt given the subject, and we are not subjected to lugubrious reports of artistic angst or, on the other hand, ecstasy. Lieu is practical without being officious or pedestrian; she is inspirational without being unrealistic.
The book is also grammatically sound. This was once taken for granted, but, sadly, grammatical errors are increasingly common, especially given the awful plague sentence fragments that assail from every side. Nor does the author use offensive epithets. Her tone is insistent, but emotionally smooth. Learn, Teach, Create is also rhetorically sensitive. The short essays have substance; moreover, they are placed throughout the book in a purposeful fashion. They are not unrelated epigrams. I enjoyed reading it. The book is far superior to the unduly popular book, Steal Like an Artist (2012) by Austin Kleon, which is often glib, even childish in places, and generally over-rated. (See my review of this book at Denver Journal.)
Unlike too many ignorant techno-boosters, Lieu recommends person-to-person interactions with other artists. Nowhere does she offer the facile advice of Austin Kleon to “Google everything.” Rather, she writes, “Avoid the Internet: relationships forged on line just don’t have the depth you need to foster a strong professional relationship [concerning art].” (94) Along these lines, she also wisely commends beholding art as it is installed in a place, in old-fashioned space and time. In fact, Ms. Lieu displays a deep humanism (in the best sense) by emphasizing the person-to-person presence in learning, practicing, and teaching art. She says, Chapter 39 is entitled “Experience Art in Person.” It emphasizes the aesthetic loss experienced when art works are rendered on line or in magazine. She speaks of experiencing sculptures so- lifelike that she mistook one for a real person; then she wondered if breathing people were sculptures! “A digital image cannot recreate this type of interaction” (100). One here thinks of the Apostle John’s remark, which encapsulates and entire theology of the body and presence found in the Holy Scriptures.
I have much to write you, but I do not want to do so with pen and ink. I hope to see you soon, and we will talk face to face. Peace to you. The friends here send their greetings. Greet the friends there by name (3 John 12; emphasis added; see also 2 John 12).
Lieu claims that artists “must believe in themselves” (75). We hear this often enough that it has become a platitude. Yet platitudes may be wrong. G.K. Chesterton wrote in Orthodoxy (2008) that the man who believes in himself ends up in a sanitarium. That is, those who become self-sufficient islands of inner supposed goodness will soon sink into the seas, since man was never meant to be the final source of his deepest beliefs. That is reserved for God. Nevertheless, Lieu does not expand on this notion, and may simply mean that the artist should explore their own God-given abilities to the fullest. With that, a Christian may agree, but should give the credit to God, the giver of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17).
We humans are unique among the living. Given our origin and nature as God’s creatures, we are creative (among other things). We are taught this in Genesis 1, Psalm 8, and elsewhere. We are culture-makers, culture-shapers, culture-receivers, and, sadly, culture-destroyers. This short book assists us in understanding the calling of the artist, even though does not strike an explicitly theological or spiritual tone. The aspiring or established Christian artist will find much to ponder and put into practice. Although too much writing about artistic inspiration and practice leans toward—or fully embraces—some kind of eastern mysticism, this book does not fall into that deadly ditch.
Ms. Lieu offers winsome advice on good manners throughout the book. She advises one to be patient, to be courteous, to say thank you and follow up with people who help you, and to be consistent and reliable as a teacher. This moral dimension is refreshing, given the relativistic bohemianism of so many artists—the notion that wild genius need not play by the rules of decency. God, of course, thinks otherwise, since his character is the moral backbone of existence (Matthew 5:48).
The last section on teaching is written for art instructors, but the principles and example extend far beyond that. As a teacher of philosophy, I found many sound principles. Consider this gem: “A good teacher is feared and loved by the students at the same time” (115). That is, a teacher should set high standards, abide by them, but love their students in demonstrable ways.
Clara Lieu’s concise but rich book is a welcome addition to the literature on developing as an artist; but her insights are not limited to the art world. Anyone concerned to develop a creative and wise approach to personal enrichment and cultural expression will appreciate this work.
Douglas Groothuis, Ph.D.