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.