Lost in Art

We are sitting at a table in the midst of the stacks at University Book Store in Seattle—Dr. Charles Johnson, Sharyn Skeeter, and me.  

And we are lost.

We are lost in a conversation about spending leisure time in the arts, or perhaps, better put, finding ourselves through the arts—about taking great escapes in reading, writing, music, film, drama, painting, drawing, sculpture, everything. Johnson and Skeeter are making point after point about our capacity as human beings to leap into worlds other than those that demand “face time,” as they say, every single day—the “must-dos,” the messages insistent on some kind of reply, the ubiquitous, screeching headlines, the endless tasks. All of those tasks. So many that few of us make time for even the briefest of pauses, even when those “escapes” are right in front of us.

That’s when Charles Johnson, renowned author and professor emeritus at the University of Washington, gets up and takes off. He’s away into the stacks.

Where is he going?

To get a book. It’s one of his, The Way of the Writer. He has points he wants to make; not just his, mind you, but those of other writers and artists. And they are right there, in print.

In a few minutes, he’s back and has opened the book. He reads from the writings of philosopher Martha Nussbaum: “The point is that in the activity of literary imagining we are led to imagine and describe with greater precision, focusing our attention on each word, feeling each event more keenly—whereas much of actual life goes by without that heightened awareness, and is thus, in a sense, not fully or thoroughly lived.”

Johnson smiles; Skeeter nods. It is the focus we bring that lets us transcend, and learn. It doesn’t matter so much where we are or what we’re doing, but the focus we bring to that doing—in this case, to the arts.

Skeeter is a teacher, writer, and editor with credits at Essence and Mademoiselle magazines, and she puts it this way: “You have to pay attention. Earlier in my life, I was just reading whatever. Now I’m actually seeking out things that will enrich my life in a certain way. You get to a point where you say I have a certain amount of more years, so I need to be…reading things that have some purpose.”

Both have been involved in arts-related endeavors practically all their lives. In fact, it could be said that the arts and humanities are Johnson’s life, with a dossier that includes novelist, short-story writer, essayist, cartoonist, illustrator, screenwriter…the accomplishments go on and on. His passion for the arts has never flagged—more than likely, it’s stronger than ever, which is why he remains such an ardent arts proponent and participant.

To hear him tell it, what we gain by making sure at least a part of our leisure is spent in the arts in some fashion—movies, music, theater, photography, painting, and more—is vital. It is our responsibility, then, to dive in.

But where? There is no shortage of local theater, museums, galleries, and bookstores. And practically every single one of them offers lectures, readings, discussions, classes—many of them free. In all those arenas, the Seattle area enjoys some of the best in the country.

Or, here’s a radical idea: Do it yourself. Write, paint, act, sing—opportunities abound. And then, you’ll find, so do wonders.

It shouldn’t be hard for any of us to remember a moment in our early years when that “wonder” first happened. Ah, but then we work, we pay bills, we meet deadlines, we slog through. We forget. And now? Well, perhaps it’s time to return to those thrilling days of yesteryear. To remember.

“You have to go back to that original sense of mystery and wonder that first drew you to it,” Johnson says. “I think in retirement that’s the time you can do that, if not for any other goal or objective than the love of beauty and the sense that art reminds us and stories remind us that we live in the midst of a great mystery.”

To Skeeter, it’s all of that and more: “You’ve lived a lifetime, so you’re bringing all of that to your experience.” In that hour or two that you attend a performance or make a piece of art or browse in a museum or write a poem, “you’re getting a full experience of something that you might not have gotten before.”

With the laughter of a writer who’s just made a wonderful discovery, she says, “It’s like condensed art!”

So, what do we gain? Perhaps this, the very first words Johnson quotes in The Way of the Writer:

We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.

—T.S. Eliot


Terry Tazioli works part time at University Book Store in Seattle. He left The Seattle Times in 2008 and since then has been serving in various volunteer positions, hosted a national PBS book show called WellREAD, and now co-hosts an online and on-air book club produced by the bookstore and KOMO-TV’s Seattle Refined afternoon program.

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