Poet Frank X Walker believes artists aren’t the only creative people. He says barbers, cooks, janitors, and kids enrich the world with their creativity as much as the painters, sculptors, and writers.
I believe that what we often call survival skills is simply creativity at work.
When I think about how my mother fed all seven of us, making us think that every day was a “different meal,” I still appreciate how much a creative cook can do with a single potato.
And it wasn’t just in the kitchen. She would flip her old Singer sewing machine upright, study pictures in books and magazines, then make ethnic versions of those same dolls and stuffed animals to sell at church fundraisers. Without a TV in the house to distract us, we made the dolls come to life, filling the hollow fabric sleeves one fistful of cotton at a time.
My mother made her own clothes and all my sisters’ prom and wedding dresses. I always knew when she was making something, because she would be singing or humming. She sang all the way through her home correspondence courses in floral design and interior decorating. She made being creative as normal as breathing and encouraged our participation by telling us that “idle hands and minds were the devil’s workshop.”
I believe that happy children are those given the freedom to be expressive, to discover, to create their own “refrigerator-door” masterpieces. I remember mixing tempera paints with powdered detergent and painting the Baskin-Robbins windows every Christmas season. Not for money, but for all the ice cream I could eat. And every time I saw people look up at the window and smile, I knew I was getting the best part of the deal.
I believe that the highest quality of life is full of art and creative expression and that all people deserve it. I believe in a broad definition of what art is and who artists are: barbers, cooks, auto detailers, janitors, and gardeners have as much right to claims of artistry as designers, architects, painters, and sculptors. Every day, our streets and school buses become art galleries in the form of perfectly spiked hair, zigzagging cornrows, and dizzying shoelace artistry.
My first collection of art was a milk crate full of comic books. I survived the projects and my teenage years inspired by my favorite character, the Black Panther, who had only his mind and no superpowers, and Luke Cage, the thick-skinned, inner-city Hero for Hire. By the time my “bookish” reputation and thick glasses became a target for the neighborhood bullies, I responded by composing juvenile but truly “heroic” rhyming couplets in my head.
Ever since high school, words have continued to serve as my first weapon of choice and my salvation. Many of life’s challenges need creative solutions. I believe creativity—in all its many forms—can change the way we think and operate. Celebrating the creativity around us helps maintain our sanity and keeps us happy.
Frank X Walker is the author of four collections of poetry and was awarded a prestigious Lannan Literary Fellowship in 2005. Walker serves as Writer in Residence and lecturer of English at Northern Kentucky University and is the proud editor and publisher of PLUCK!, the new Journal of Affrilachian Art & Culture. Walker was appointed to serve as Kentucky Poet Laureate for 2013–2014.
Independently produced for NPR by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with Emily Botein, John Gregory and Viki Merrick.
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