My mom stopped by this week to deliver the family calendar that my sister’s family made for 2017. The calendar is great, as every family calendar for the past 20 years has been. At least I think it’s been twenty years. Anyhow, along with a few copies of the calendar my mom also handed me a newspaper headline and one paragraph cut out from the middle of the story. The headline, from the Deseret News, is:
Of fantasy and faith: LDS artist James C. Christensen dies at 74
(You can read the article here Naturally, when I tried searching on deseretnews.com I didn’t find it, but when I tried a Google search I found it.)
I’ve heard of James C. Christensen before and seen his work now and then, but the thing I remember most is the story that was told in the one paragraph my mom gave me. Here it is:
When he served as an LDS bishop, he got a sketchbook that was black and formal-looking to use as he sat on the stand. “Then I got busted,” recalled Christensen in a 2013 interview with the Deseret News. “The next week on the back of the program was a box titled ‘Bishop’s Doodle Area.’”
Why did my mom cut out that one paragraph and give it to me? Because she knows, as do lots of other people, about my habit of drawing during church meetings. It’s a habit that started when I was in high school. I didn’t just draw in church meetings, though. I also drew in my high school classes, and later, in my classes at the University of Utah and my other college classes. Later still, I drew in faculty meetings and committee meetings at work.
In some ways, my time at the University of Utah was my golden age of doodling. The folders I bought to take notes in always had the kind of cover I could draw on. Because one folder had to last the entire quarter, I drew pictures that were time-consuming.
Most of my teachers didn’t notice my drawing and consequently didn’t comment on them. In one of my German classes, the teacher noticed my drawing and said some nice things about it, which I appreciated. When I was in the MTC (the Missionary Training Center of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints) one of my teachers had a different reaction. He said I should learn to focus. That was more than 35 years ago, and I guess I still haven’t learned to focus yet. I’m not sure I want to.
The thing is that drawing does for me what meditation or medication does for some other people: It relaxes and calms me. Unlike meditation I can draw and still pay close attention to what’s going on. And unlike medication there are no negative side effects (unless you count mild criticism from an MTC instructor) and no bills to pay (paper and ink are pretty cheap).
Okay, I suppose that in a perfect world, or if I were a perfect person, I would be able to focus on a meeting, even a boring meeting without drawing, or fidgeting, or falling asleep, or (in the case of some department meetings at work, although no recent ones) getting frustrated and upset. But would I really gain a lot by doing that? It isn’t like I have to draw in meetings. From time to time I sit through long and/or boring meetings without drawing just to prove I can do it. (Although more often I do it because I don’t have my drawing materials with me.)
I don’t think I would gain much by not drawing, and I would definitely lose something: the drawings themselves. The process of drawing is great, but it’s also nice to have the product of that process. One of my missionary journals (which were kept in the same kind of drawable folders that I used in college) is a case in point. The cover that I drew on brings back memories just as effectively as the words written inside, but in a different way. The particular journal I’m thinking of is one of my favorite notebook covers ever, and I remember sitting on my bed at night and drawing before I went to sleep. It was a way of working things out and winding down.
But really what I like is the synergy. Last spring I missed the April LDS general conference because I went on a week-end field trip with my wife and her geology class. I listened to the talks later, and they were good, but I have to admit I had a hard time finding the time to go back and listen to them all. For the October conference I watched and listened in the usual way. Then one Sunday afternoon I decided to listen to the conference talks while drawing, sitting in the comfy chair I have in Studio D (which is the pretentious name I use for my basement hideout). In no time at all, it seemed, I had gone through a conference sesion or two.
Just to clarify, I don’t mean to downplay the spiritual aspect of church or church meetings. I admit I have a lot of room to improve in that regard. But I never draw during the sacrament service, which is the most spiritual part of LDS church meetings, and the pictures that I draw are about church topics (scriptures and hymns) or neutral (abstract and nature). I have a lot of room to improve, but like Bishop Christensen (presumably), I don’t believe that improvement is mutually exclusive with drawing. In fact, I think the two go together just fine.