The Never-Ending Line

He was an artist with no name. When your work speaks for you, who needs a name? The unnamed artist’s tool of choice was charcoal, for its unique ability to smoothly blend dark and light together. That’s what he liked about it. Its mysteriousness, its messiness, the way that the black smudged into muddled shades of grey.

On the day that he started his masterpiece, the unnamed artist prepared for several hours. He stared at the white paper before him. The charcoal sticks were lined up alongside it, symmetrically. Everything was perfect and untouched.  He wasn’t nervous in the least; he was ready. He began by drawing a solid dot in the corner of the page, to mark the beginning.

From that dot, he drew a landscape. Everything was connected in one long, continuous line of charcoal. That was the challenge he’d set forth on, that day: to create an entire world in one line, never separating from the paper’s thin surface, never lifting his hand.

Mountains, oceans, forests, volcanoes, all of it. One line.  Continuous.  Connected.  Looping back toward the center, he drew a hunched over figure. This figure didn’t look quite right, so he edited it to look a bit more, well–what was it?

Oh, it was a human being. Of course.

That was good, but it wasn’t enough. A single human? No, it was lonely.

He drew another figure beside it. Two human beings stood out in the center of the paper, as if they were the only thing that mattered. They were prominent, the most important piece of the drawing–but they were still connected to the unbroken line. Trapped. Up until this point, he’d been in control of the picture. However, any artist will admit that, at some point, one loses that control. In order to succeed, the art must take on a life of its own. The artist stopped and waited for this to happen, tensely pressing his hand against the paper, unconsciously smudging it.

It didn’t. The figures were still connected to the line, and they looked miserable about it. The unnamed artist struggled to fix the problem and disconnect them, but it was too late. You can’t erase charcoal.

He started drawing again. He drew large crowds of people to accompany them, but each one was equally miserable, equally stuck. He couldn’t draw them separately from the line—to do so would be to betray the entire philosophy that had created the drawing—but he wanted them to separate themselves from it, to actively pursue freedom.

They continued to be stuck, and they became miserable. They became angry. They hated him for creating them. They denied his existence. The most livid looking ones became smudged beyond recognition.  In his head, the artist could hear their voices. They demanded answers. They wanted easy solutions. If they didn’t get these things, they loathed him for it, screamed at him. The drawing he’d worked so hard on became painful to even look at. All he could do was accept the tragedy for what it was. He slowly accepted the idea that maybe he just had to walk away from his artwork, put it away, never look back.

He noticed something.

Without realizing it, he’d drawn one of the figures separate from the line, completely by accident—and that lone figure was smiling. Unfortunately, the figure didn’t see the artist. It was looking for him, sure—but in the wrong direction.

But that didn’t matter, because it was smiling, and it was guiding the others in a new direction toward the corner of the page—the place where it could escape from its white prison, leap out into a world beyond its initial understanding, and find independence. It forged its own path. Others followed. Other unique characters appeared, inspired by the first one, and they created their own directions, their own paths.

The figures weren’t doomed. Deep inside, they knew what the right choice was. They knew how to escape from the continuous line. Even if the smiling ones couldn’t see him, they weren’t content to sit there and brood. They wanted to do things. They wanted to create lines of their own. They wanted to strive for truth and self-create their own individual destinies. The artist knew that someday, they’d find their way off the page. Today just wasn’t that day.

The unnamed artist put down his charcoal. He smiled to himself, and he waited.

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13 thoughts on “The Never-Ending Line

  1. The drawing narrated something interesting. The artist left it after a while and it evolved and surprised, and highlighted peripheral significance. Long ago my acting teacher told me that if a group of 5 actors are playing a scene and if 4 of them act badly and 1 does well, the 1 can save the scene. The entity in the drawing saved it not only for the painting but also for “hope”.

  2. I love the message behind this beautifully written prose…the art must take on a life of its own”, as an artist I find this beautifully profound.

  3. Fabulous post. I do think that the most shimmering artworks ( in any creative form, words, music, visual, performance) happens when the creator/
    practitioner has the discipline to hold the integrity and structure, the craft of creation, but, with that properly in place to avoid just a kind of self-indulgence, something alchemical needs to happen, and the characters, the lines, the music, the performance breaks free from the writer, the artist, the composer, the players, and begins to create itself. It’s found in sport, too, those moments of ‘ in the zone’ which are like some gift of grace. Performers know it, and audiences of performance might know it – some different realm is entered in to – the piece is playing itself, through the medium of the performers, and the live audience are somehow the container within which this is held. I love this story of yours, illustrating all this so perfectly

    • Oh yes, definitely, it’s fascinating how successful art is both contained and free. It’s as if the container needs to be both solid and flexible, expandable, able to hold a sort of chaotic universe inside it – while somehow not interfering.

      Quite a complex puzzle! Thank you for your comment, I appreciate it!

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