the blessing of the artist

24 May

I continue to be blessed in the slow, savoring read of Peterson’s The Pastor.

I recall coming across this story somewhere else in Peterson’s writings, but encountering it again today was timely after publicly blessing a group of our local artists as they go out this week as “ambassadors for Christ” unleashing and empowering Christian artists at three different conferences across the nation.

Peterson had his own artist encounter.

His name was Willi Ossa.

Peterson acknowledges that he had never even seen an artist in the small Montana town where he grew up – that the “sectarian church in which I was raised was far too serious about keeping me separate from worldly contamination to waste time on artists.” I can relate. But as a twenty-two year old theological student in New York City, he met the first of many artists that Peterson says “profoundly shaped who I was in the process of becoming.” I can relate to that too.

Willi Ossa taught Peterson the difference between vocation and job. As Peterson goes on to define, “A job is an assignment to do work that can be quantified and evaluated. It is pretty easy to decide whether a job has been completed or not.” A job is about a paycheck, about responsibilities and duties and tasks. A vocation is a life calling. And it took watching artists in New York for Peterson to discern the difference:

I met Willi at West Park Presbyterian Church in New York City on West Eight-sixth Street. The year was 1955. I had been employed by the church to supervise a group of young adults on Friday nights, about thirty of them. They were all from someplace else, most of them artists who had come, mostly from the South and Midwest, to the city in which they hoped they would find affirmation and opportunity as artists. Most of them were dancers and singers. Two were poets. There was one sculptor. All of them had menial jobs. Some were secretaries, some waiters and waitresses, one drove a taxi, another sold shoes at Brooks Brothers. But they were all serious artists. I didn’t know how accomplished they were in their art, but I soon realized that whatever they had to do to pay the rent, none of them was defined by his or her job. They were artists, whether anyone else saw them as artists and regardless of whether anyone would every pay them to be artists. Artist was not a job; it was a way of life, a vocation…Willi Ossa wasn’t one of the group, but he was always there. Willi was the church janitor. But janitor was not who he was. Janitor was his job. He himself, Willi Ossa, was a painter, a serious painter. He painted mostly on canvas with oils. Something unspoken drew us together, and withing a month or two we were friends….

I was with those artists and Willi Ossa on Friday evenings for two years. I had never been intimately involved in a community of people who lived vocationally while immersed in a society where everyone else seemed to be living a job description. The artists seemed to be quite unself-conscious about their vocational identity. I never heard any one of them talk of being a “successful” artist. Their vocation didn’t come from what anyone thought of them or paid them. Certainly they wanted to act and dance and sing on Broadway. And Willi would have loved to have had a showing of his paintings in one of the galleries on Madison Avenue. But their identity was vocational, a calling, not a job description.

I haven’t had a Willi Ossa in my life – I’ve actually been blessed with many this past decade, whether their vocation takes them to the brush or the clay or the guitar or to a palate of words. Thank you to the artists – the Willi Ossas in my life (Katie and Jessie and Lisa and Sidda and Matt – just to name a few). You are God’s blessing to me, awakening and reawakening me to life and purpose and calling.

May we all be so blessed as to have such living reminders to be more than a job description, to do more than fill an office chair and desk; but to be vocational, to pursue the call that none on this horizontal plane can give or take away (let alone pay for) but only see, or not.

And to do it in living color with bold strokes.

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Posted by on May 24, 2011 in musings


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