Artists: Re-Writing the Book of Rules

Apricot.  Bittersweet.  Burnt Sienna.  Cornflower.  Maize.  Thistle.  Salmon.  Lemon Yellow.  Mahogany.  Sea Green.  Melon…

If you grew up between 1949-1957, you know those names, and you know what they represent.   As clear and vibrant as the bits of nature whose names they bear, they are Crayola colors.  They’re not your garden-variety colors, either.   Apricot, Melon, Salmon and all the rest were part of the box of forty-eight crayons.  Before 1958, when the 64-crayon box was introduced, they were the big boxes, the boxes you got for Christmas, or a birthday, or because you were really, truly sick with something like measles that would keep you in bed for a while.

I was given my first big box of crayons for Christmas, with a coloring book or two thrown in for good measure.   Not so many months ago I saw a photograph from that Christmas.  I’m still in my pajamas and robe, lying on the floor with my Dad, coloring.  As I recall, he preferred simply to watch the artistic process unfold. Others were a touch more involved.  I barely had put brand-new crayons to  my untouched coloring book before I heard those standard words of advice: stay inside the lines!

Unfortunately, I couldn’t.  I’m told it’s common for coloring-book novices to stray and smudge and straggle their way across the page, but I seemed particularly unable to keep things tidy.  My mother worked with me, as did my grandmother.  Even a neighbor or two tried a little artistic coaching.  It seemed important to everyone that I kept my apricot and corn flower and sea green efforts inside the lines, and so I tried – without success.  Every now and then, when no one was looking, I’d sneak a piece of typing paper and just draw.  But the coloring books always reappeared, along with exhortations to please stay inside the lines. 

Eventually, the coloring books were set aside for bigger and better art projects: a squirrel carved from ivory soap, a ghastly puppet with bright yellow hair and a calico dress, a Japanese lady in a kimono drawn with colored pencil on a piece of siding.  I learned to cut snowflakes by folding paper.  I sent coiled-clay vases and ashtrays to the kiln, and one fine day I created a presentable corn field with tempera paints. 

But always, there was a mold, a form, a pattern to guide my artistic efforts;  success was judged by how well results fit that mold or matched the pattern.  A “good squirrel” was properly proportioned, a “good” Japanese lady was slim and elegant, snowflakes were symmetrical and corn fields looked like corn, by gosh.  If you were going to produce art, you needed to learn the rules.

There were rules to spare.  Some were explicit – “real” poetry rhymes.  “Real” music has no dissonance.  “Good” art is always a representation of reality.   Other rules were implicit, such as our absolute belief that blue and green didn’t belong together.  We were children of the 50s, and we accepted the rules, despite a growing frustration with our inability to stay inside the lines.

Later in life, the consequences for those who couldn’t control their crayons (or pencils) became more serious.  My first full-time job was as a customer service trainee for the telephone company in Kansas City.  Together with about a hundred of my closest friends, I took calls from folks who wanted to have telephone service started, disconnected or changed.  It was before the days of computers, so the information we obtained – names, addresses, employment records – was transcribed by hand onto forms that resembled graph paper.  Each letter or numeral had to be precisely placed, inside its own 1/8″ square.  After the six week probationary period had ended and evaluations were complete, about 30 of us were “allowed to seek employment elsewhere” – a nicely-phrased concession granted to obvious idiots who couldn’t follow the rules, or stay within the lines.

Despite having been fired from my first job, I was unbelievably relieved.  I’d hated the work, and every day was a misery.  I understood the importance of following company guidelines and wanted to do things properly – I simply seemed incapable of it.  People kept giving me sideways glances, asking, “Why don’t you just do it their way?”   I had no answer, but the lesson from my childhood seemed confirmed.  If you stay within the lines, you’ll be fine.  Get distracted, lose focus, grow bored or restless, and your days are numbered. 

For the next few years, I stayed away from Sea Green, Burnt Sienna and Thistle, and did my best to keep within the lines.  But time passes, confidence comes and anxieties go, and by 1975, I was in London on holiday, ready to hear what the Heptones had to say on the subject.  A reggae band from Jamaica, they had recorded their hit single, Book of Rules”  in 1973.   It was part of a huge musical wave overtaking London at the tme, and I loved the song from the beginning.   Bob Weir, guitarist, lyricist and founding member of the Grateful Dead, liked it, too.  He told David Gans in 1981 how he had come to record the song:

“It had been one of my favorite reggae cuts for the last few years.   I finally found the record and copped the tune and recorded it.  Then a few weeks ago, after the record had been pressed up and everything was happening, a friend of Barlow’s found a compilation of verse, a collection of poems from the turn of the century to about 1930.” 

The poem that caught their attention was A Bag of Tools by R.L. Sharpe (1870-1950).  It was included by Hazel Felleman in her 1936 volume, Best Loved Poems of the American People.

A Bag of Tools

Isn’t it strange how princes and kings,
and clowns that caper in sawdust rings,
and common people, like you and me,
are builders for eternity?
Each is given a list of rules;
a shapeless mass; a bag of tools.
And each must fashion, ere life is flown,
A stumbling block, or a Stepping-Stone.

As these things happen, by the time the Heptones’ Barry Llewellyn and Harry Johnson had finished setting  words to music, the lyrics had changed a bit, as well:

 Isn’t it strange how princesses and kings
Can clown their capers in a sawdust ring,
Just like poor people like you and me
Will be builders for eternity.
Each is given a bag of tools,
Shapeless mass and the book of rules.
Each must make his life as flowing ink
Tumbling block or a stepping stone,
Just like poor people like you and me
Will be builders for eternity
Each is given a bag of tools,
Shapeless mass and the book of rules.
I say it’s common people like you and me
Will be builders for eternity
Each is given a bag of tools,
Shapeless mass and the book of rules.
Look where the rain is falling from the sky
I know the sun will be only missing for a while
I say it’s common people like you and me
Will be builders for eternity
Each is given a bag of tools,
Shapeless mass and the book of rules. 

The difference in tone between Sharpe’s poem and the Heptones’ lyrics is subtle but real.  Sharpe says we are given a shapeless mass, and must make either a stumbling block or a steppingstone.   Johnson and Llewellyn say we are given shapeless lives, but there is no indication at all of what we are to do with them.

And there is the secret.  Hidden behind the poem and the lyrics based on it lie the choices we begin making in childhood: coloring book, or blank canvas?  paint-by-number or typing paper?  predetermined outcome, or surprising creation?  inside the lines, or outside commonly accepted limits?   In both cases, we have been given that bag of tools and book of rules.  In either case we are free to determine which tools to use, and which rules to follow or disregard.  But the first choice – coloring book or blank canvas – is critical.   

Letting go of predetermined forms and patterns is not easy.  Like a blank page, a blank canvas can induce vertigo.  Without obvious lines to guide us, the need for decision, discipline and structure increases exponentially.  But all that is part of the joy and terror of the creative process.  Laying down the lines of our personal vision, we are free to fill them in as we choose, with hearts and colors vibrant and bold as mahogany, sea green, and maize.


Comments always are welcome.

18 thoughts on “Artists: Re-Writing the Book of Rules

  1. Daniel,

    How I missed that Chapin song I’ll never know. It’s absolutely wonderful and poignant and ought to be required listening for kids and teachers alike. Thanks so much for dropping by with it; I never would have found it. I hope everyone who reads the post will listen to it, too!


  2. Yes, that’s a great Chapin song!

    I, too, had a song running through my head within reading the first few paragraphs: little boxes, little boxes….ticky-tacky….

    Early in my life, I somehow learned to look at the lines themselves. If they represented reality and were congruent with my values, I usually chose to stay within them. But if they weren’t real for me, I’d deliberately color outside the lines with the wrong colors. The sad part of this is, even though it was a conscious choice, I still felt ‘wrong’. It took me many years to realize that my different drummer might be right, at least for me.

    You said, “But time passes, confidence comes and anxieties go…” That’s a wonderful insight and worthy of a sticky on the monitor!

  3. Linda,
    Another great read!
    Coloring Book or Blank Canvas? I definitely chose the blank canvas in my life. Creativity cannot blossom, if confined to a set of rules…
    Besides..” If you obey all the rules, you miss all the fun!” Katherine Hepburn

    A friend sent me a link to a blog about a year ago, that you may or may not have heard about. You may find it interesting.

    Have a great day Linda, you are doing a fantastic job with BOTH of your blogs!
    Lori (Shutterbug 1)

  4. NumberWise,

    Ah, Little Boxes. But that one I remember and in fact can sing just about all the way through. As for deliberately coloring outside the lines with the “wrong colors”… Time to listen to Daniel’s song again.

    I do thank you for the compliment – I’ve never been a snippet before, at least to my knowledge. Wouldn’t that make a great country song? “I’m Just a Sticky Note on the Monitor of Life”!

  5. Well, Hi, Lori!

    How nice of you to stop by! And I like the Hepburn quote very much. She’s one of my favorites, and has had more than a few wise things to say in her life. Just be sure to note that she said, “If you obey ALL the rules..” Figuring out which rules are good and useful is the trick.

    And a bit of the same thing with this: “Creativity cannot blossom, if confined to a set of rules…” I agree, but would stress the importance of those words “confined to”. A lot of very talented people in the 60s and 70s never blossomed because they were so determined to “do their own thing” without regard for the need to develop structure and discipline.

    I still like something I think I said about writing (although I may have heard it somewhere and just don’t realize it): “The better your structure, the more emotion you can support.” That one’s true in a multitude of ways!

    I looked at the link – interesting stuff. Thanks again for stopping by and for the kind words. It’s always nice to know folks are out there!


  6. As a small child I could not read very well. If I recieved that book of rules, it probably got used as a toy and left outside somewhere.

  7. Skip the blank canvas, at age 9 or 10, I proceeded to the blank wall where I created a mural. Unfortunately the wall was on our next door neighbor’s house. The rules intervened and I learned how to paint a wall (constrained by the rules) as well. My Dad finally said he couldn’t cover ALL the rules with me because he couldn’t predict what I might think of next, just to look around and if no one else was doing it, to come ASK him. Thanks again, Linda, for new avenues of thought and music to meander down my morning tea.

  8. Nanette ~ You know, the phrase “free spirit” keeps coming to mind. I don’t have a clue what the discussion was, but I can remember standing in my own front yard sometime during my grade school years while my mother stood, hands on hips, and said, “This is SERIOUS, young lady”, while I tried to keep back giggles. I may have been hiding your book of rules behind my back…

  9. Oh, my goodness, Laura! This is one of the funniest things I’ve ever heard:

    “My Dad finally said he couldn’t cover ALL the rules with me because he couldn’t predict what I might think of next, just to look around and if no one else was doing it, to come ASK him.”

    I don’t know a thing about the how-ro-raise-a-creative-child literary genre, but if no one has written the book yet, you might give it a thought.
    Or, we could do a words-and-photos combo. The danged thing might sell!

  10. Linda,
    I was looking up lines I wanted. Lines that came into my life many years ago.
    “We are each given a box of tools and a book of rules”. The result of my looking up was your article.
    I have also tried the crayons, and paint, but I think I’ll have to stick with words to paint my picture. (Like you just did).
    Thank you.

    Good morning, James,

    How nice to have you stop by, and I’m glad you enjoyed the read. The song is one of my favorites, and this is one of my favorite posts. You’d be surprised at how many people come by here because of searches for the song lyrics. I suspect the Heptones didn’t realize how much staying power the song would have – and the poem, too.

    You’re welcome any time. Thanks for the comment!


  11. Wonderful! I love the way you take a small idea-the child lying on the floor with her crayons–and expand it to include the world…
    The Heptones got it right, for sure.

    ds ~

    Moving from the particular to the universal has always made sense to me. Start talking to me about beauty, truth, goodness, and my eyes are likely to glaze over. Start with flowers, crayolas, sunsets, and I may pay attention!

    I think it’s going to be a fun year, filled with delectable details. I’m looking forward to sharing it with you!


  12. Actually, the original Heptones lyrics are “shapeless mass” not “shapeless lives”, rendering this part of your analysis a little irrelevant!


    The only lyrics I found used the phrase “shapeless lives”. If they did use “shapeless mass” originally, it only raises more interesting questions about why they made the change.

    Thanks so much for stopping by, and for the tip.


  13. I’ve always heard shapeless mass. Actually, when I was growing up I thought it was “faceless mask”!

    And just so you understand, ‘tumbling black’ is not actually a change in lyrics, it’s how you might say ‘stumbling block’ in Jamaican patois. We often leave off the initial “s” in words that start with an “st”. So “stick” may become “tick”. And since we don’t round our “O”s, “block” becomes “black”.

    Wonderful song, however you take it.

    1. Allison,

      Thanks so much for the great comment! I used to have a reader in Jamaica who would help me out with such things, but she’s gone off to wherever beloved former readers go. Your explanation adds much to the post – not to mention my understanding of the song.

      It is a wonderful song – I’m glad you brought it back up to the surface. I believe I’ll have another listen!


  14. Geez, I’m not sure where to start. This post (which evidently appeared over a year before I discovered you on Weather Underground) has triggered a fugue of introspection.

    I don’t recall having any difficulty coloring within the lines, at least no more than usual for crayons wielded by a child’s clumsy hands. But look how I turned out! I think there’s a hole in my head where the creativity was supposed to be. Am I naturally dull, or did I have a creativity-ectomy when other kids were having their tonsils out? Am I one of the “people in the 60s and 70s [who] never blossomed”? How does one tell, after the fact?

    Can legitimate art occur entirely within the rules? Is a Jackson Pollock painting art? Must art make some kind of esthetic statement, or can we use an operational definition, i. e. that art is whatever sells in an art gallery?

    I realize that these questions venture outside the lines of your handy task here, but these are the corners around which my mind ricocheted since I started to read. Do I owe you an apology? I mean, I didn’t come here to shoot up the place. :o)

    1. Bogon,

      What’s really interesting about your questions is that many of them were raised anew on my trip, when I visited the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville. I’m still pondering that experience, and delighting in some rather unusual encounters I saw there.

      It’s one thing to ask, “What is art?” It can be quite another to ask, “What’s the appropriate way for people to interact with art?” I certainly saw some interactions that I wouldn’t have expected at Crystal Bridges, and I found it one of the most enjoyable museum experiences I’ve had. But I haven’t sorted it all out in my mind, yet.

      One thing I’m sure of. Everything that sells in a gallery isn’t art. Or, at least, not good art – whatever that means!


      1. Linda, I thought about your question, “What is art?”, and came up with this list.

        Properties of Art
        · It is a purposeful, designed artifact or activity of a sentient being. Natural phenomena are not art.
        · It exceeds the minimum requirements of functionality or utility.
           ‘Merely’ (no denigration intended!) workmanlike craft of artifice does not suffice, though the line separating the two can be thin. A craftsman whose lifelong standard of quality exceeds the average may be deemed an artist. Training and acclaim usually help, but neither should be necessary.
        · In our capitalist society it is probably meant to be noticed and appreciated.
           Consider one of your interests: pottery. When does a vase, drinking vessel or pitcher transcend its utilitarian category to become art? Turn the question around. How subliminal can an item be and still be considered art? I can imagine a form of art that is so cunningly designed, so effectual, that it performs its function unnoticed. Perhaps such things are commonplace. Would we know?
           Obviously unique things made by hand stand a greater chance of qualifying than things that are stamped out on a production line, but an exceptional designer deserves credit. These days he can take advantage of force multiplication.
           Huh-oh. Here’s a question: can a corporate drone be an artist? If the company claims the rights to the design, how can the artist achieve recognition?
        · Most of the time art is a conscious form of expression, which is meant to produce an effect. It redirects our attention, produces an emotional response, or embodies an esthetic.
           The subliminal element again: is it art if we don’t notice it? Of course, our attention is partly a function of our culture (or lack thereof). A century earlier or later and someone might notice. A few thousand miles east or west and someone might notice. Bear in mind that, even for objects that are widely acknowledged as art, on a given day some people are impressed, while others are preoccupied with other concerns. I imagine that (on average) people who work every day in the Louvre may be less affected by the Mona Lisa than people who are visiting (Gay Paris! Once in a lifetime!) from Cucamonga.
           Must art be intentional? I don’t think so. Accidents can qualify. The opinion of the artist may disagree with the opinion of the critic. I don’t claim to know which is correct. Maybe neither.

        Disclaimer: I don’t claim that this list is entirely correct or complete. I am neither an artist nor art expert. I intend this only as a starting point, some food for though.

        In this list the question “What is art?” overlaps with “Who is an artist?” and perhaps “What does the artist hope to achieve?” The last question is telling. I’m thinking that, in a lot of cases the answer is “To make a living!”

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