Bright Light of Our Soaring Dreams

As artist or recipient, art makes your life far richer.

In 1969, I had just finished college and had set up my first studio in a chicken coop behind my dad’s house. It was scary. With a wife and two small children to support, I had no idea how I was going to make a living. I wanted to be an artist, but at the time, there were very few artists who made their living by selling their work. It was real scary.

One of the lucky breaks for me in those early years was an article on my work which appeared in a Church magazine. Not yet a full-fledged magazine, the “Era of Youth” was just a 14-page insert in the old Improvement Era magazine, which later became the Ensign.

The editors came to my studio one day to do a story on my art. They had photos taken of my makeshift studio, published several of my poems, and even, before it was all over, chose one of my sculptures as the cover for the entire magazine, the February 1969 issue.

It was not the most typical cover the Era ever published, since it consisted of welded steel scraps and an egg beater reworked into a piece of sculpture called “One-man Sub.” A bronze figure of a boy sat in the submarine, floating in Plexiglas waters with pasted-in clouds.

More than a few subscribers probably looked twice and scratched their heads that month as they tried to figure out what a submarine was doing on the front cover of the Church magazine.

No doubt there are some of you who, just as I did, dream of being artists yourselves, supporting yourself with your creative work. Others, though very interested in art, do not think you will go into it as a profession.

I would like to address you both. For though the end goals are quite different, the means of growth and fulfillment in the creative arts are not that different for anyone. For everyone, it is a process of recognizing value in the visible world around us and applying it to our lives in a way that will make us more sensitive and aware human beings.

As we grow up in a world of practical needs, it is easy to understand the value of studying math and geography, and of learning how to read and write, because we see how those things can be useful to us on a daily basis. We tend, however, to see art as a frill, as entertainment.

But did you ever consider that the arts—music, literature, dance, painting, and sculpture—are as vital a part of our experience as reading and writing? The elements of art—such as color, texture, sound, and movement—are a constant part of our daily experience. That’s why they are called the “humanities.” They intensify and sensitize our experience as human beings.

What good is knowing how to add and subtract and read and write, if we ultimately do not savor the life we are experiencing? Works of art are the tools we use to expand our awareness of the world around us, its beauty and complexity.

As we develop our ability to listen to music, for example, the sounds of everyday life take on a new dimension. The same is true with visual art—painting and sculpture. As we learn to appreciate the patterns and harmonic colors of a fine painting, suddenly the shapes of the world around us become more beautiful. We become more discerning, more sensitive and alive.

And it isn’t only artists who benefit from the experience. Artists are just the people who create the forms which allow the art experience to occur, just as it is the doctors who care for our physical bodies and the plumbers who bring hot and cold water into our homes.

We all create things of value for one another, and it is just as important to learn to appreciate art as it is to create it.

This was brought home to me very strongly one time.

I was reading the poetry of Robert Frost. The patterns of his words were so beautiful that I was becoming quite discouraged. If only I could write with the power of Robert Frost, I thought.

Then suddenly it hit me that in envying the poet, I was missing the whole point of what art is about. My focus was so much on comparing myself with him, that it was impossible for me to savor his poetry—to receive it, really.

As the reader of the poem, I was the other side of the creative equation.

The poet had created a tool to use for expanding awareness, through his personal experience, using words as the vehicle. It was my privilege to take up the tool—the poem—and apply it to my own experience.

I grew up in an apple orchard. Suddenly Frost’s poem about apple picking took on new dimensions as I read the lines in their purity:

My long two-pointed ladder’s sticking through a tree
Toward heaven still,
And there’s a barrel that I didn’t fill
Beside it, and there may be two or three
Apples I didn’t pick upon some bough.

As I read of Frost’s experience with apples, I could go back to my own experience as a child in my father’s orchard, where my own ladder pierced the firmament of leaves and placed me on the edge of what I hadn’t realized was heaven until Frost invited me to see that it was so.

As we grow, the depth of our awareness—through art—increases.

Over the years I have learned of deeper meanings in my own sculptural images than I even realized at the time of their creation—like the “One-man Sub” which awkwardly graced the cover of the Improvement Era in February 1969.

Remember how I wondered if some people might think it as somewhat out of place on the front of a Church magazine? Well, as I have learned to understand my own visual poetry a bit better, I have come to realize that there was a good deal more religion in the submarine than I had realized at the time.

I have learned that my child sculptures are representative of people in general—all of us placed here as children to learn and explore, and through our exploration, to grow.

Almost as if suspended in space, the children of my ships surge forward through a universe of wonder and hope. The submarines are only shells really, suggestions of the finite nature of our earth existence.

I have done several other “submarine” pieces over the years, and flying machines—vehicles which carry children into worlds of imagination. They all have one thing in common. They act as vehicles of empowerment for the child.

Transcending the limits of earth, these children soar by the strength of their own imaginations and the locomotion of their fondest hopes and dreams. Powered by their trust in the basic goodness of earth experience, they transcend the limitations of this existence with an undimmed vision of the future—with a hope for continuance beyond the bonds of death.

So the sculptures, in essence, become a very intimate expression of personal faith.

Art is about sharing the power of our dreams with one another in a language of forms that could not be expressed in any other way.

Not too long ago I was in Santa Fe Springs, California, for the dedication of a fountain the city had commissioned me to create to celebrate the young people of their community.

I designed a series of five images of children and placed them on pedestals from 12 to 20 feet in height. Titled “Soaring Dreams,” the sculptures are of children surging forward in gestures of exhilaration and celebration of the simple joy of life (which is not usually hard for kids to do).

On the evening after the unveiling, it was a highlight of my life to stand in the middle of the fountain with my shoes and socks off, surrounded with billows of frothing water on all sides.

I looked up and saw the bronze children soaring above me. At the same time, real children reveled in the water all around me, not knowing I was the artist. In that moment, art and reality merged for a moment, and I will never forget the wonder of it.

The foremost figure of the “Soaring Dreams” fountain is of a young child in a blanket reaching forward for a ball. The blanket trails behind him like the tail of a shooting star. The ball is almost like an Earth.

Many times, while working on that particular piece, I thought of the lines of William Wordsworth’s great poem “Ode on Intimations of Immortality” and realized the power of art to help us recognize who we really are:

Not in entire forgetfulness,
And not in utter nakedness,
But trailing clouds of glory do we come
From God, who is our home.

Another of the figures is of a girl playing dress up. With a crown on her head and dressed up in one of her mother’s old dresses, she surges forward with a long strand of beads trailing at her side like a field of stars.

It is only through using their imaginations that children are able to understand what it might be like to be a mother or father. Through playing house, they take on the mantle of understanding.

We are all very much the same way.

It is just as difficult for us to comprehend that loving eternal parents watch over us in our earthly struggles. By imagining our own eternal nature, we are able to grow into an understanding of eternal worth and to sense our true nature as children of God.

Our experience of art, whether as artist or recipient of art, is a significant part of our earth experience:

We fly—from innocence—
toward visions borne by air
and hope. In the bright light
of our soaring dreams we fly,
toward celebration of a thousand
dawns or more, and stars
and stars.

[photos] Photography by Mark Smith