February 10, 2010

On Mark-Making: Post-It Notes from the Universe

 I think a lot about the making of marks. In fact, "mark-making" is one of the five core values that are posted on the inspiration board above my desk. As an artist, I'm interested in the physical act of making a mark: a stitch, a charcoal line, a splash of ink, an indentation in clay, a stain on a surface. As a human being in service to the world, I am driven to understand the metaphor of mark-making: changing my world through actions, words, or emotional and spiritual connections with others.

I am still learning so much about making marks--in my sketchbooks, in writing, and in relationship. Lately, small lessons have floated into my awareness in ones and twos, like post-it notes from the desk of the Universe.

Ellen Dissanayake writes about the role of art in human experience--the drive to "make special" and to bring into existence a form that did not previously exist. We do this because it feels good, because we can't help it, because an idea calls to us to be manifest. We make marks because to do so makes us feel supremely, actively alive.

This month I'm co-leading an art journaling workshop for cancer survivors (sponsored by this lovely nonprofit: Hirsch Wellness Network). At our first session, we played with new friends: compressed charcoal, chalk pastels, soft and hard drawing pencils, oil pastels, erasers. We made marks. Broad ones, wiggly ones, smeary ones. We crosshatched and blended and experimented. And at the same time, with music and stories overlapping all this artistic exploration, a small community began to cohere. We made new friends, we got friendly with new materials, and in the process of all that, we got a little friendlier with ourselves.

Andrea Scher of Superhero Designs describes how a simple gesture of kindness can change a frightening situation. When her son had a seizure in public, she writes, the terror and confusion of the situation was ameliorated by the presence of a young man who stated, simply, "I'm here to help."

We all have the power to be miracle makers. All it takes is showing up.

I live in Greensboro, NC, which recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the sit-ins at the downtown Woolworth's lunch counter. The local newspaper gave plenty of column inches to the four African-American men who first took seats at that counter--a simple but powerful (and dangerous) action that led to enormous cultural change. But the News and Record also ran a feature describing the supportive backbone of the six-month protest at Woolworth's: The "Fifth Men" Kept Counter Sit-Ins Going. Read the stories of other men (and women) who played small but vital roles: the ones who organized a benefit concert, offered rides to protesters, or bailed out people who had been arrested. They showed up however they could--and by showing up, they helped make a lasting difference.

I have always believed that my power to change the world lies in momentary individual interactions--one moment of connection at a time. But, I confess, sometimes I worry that what I'm capable of is just too small to make a difference. Thanks to Mark Silver for drawing my attention to this quote by Mother Teresa: "No one can do great things. You can only do small things with great love."

For another view on why your tiny, insignificant mark really is important, read Sonia Simone's post on Compassionate Selfishness. Like she says: just start somewhere.

To be a mark-maker is to be a miracle maker. Offer your help, your art, your superpower (whatever that may be). Follow that divinely human urge to create connections. The world is made better by every single mark made with an open heart.


  1. 'We all have the power to be miracle makers. All it takes is showing up.' --Tracy Hart.

    That one is going in my art journal...

    Thanks for this very inspirational post.

  2. This is a very thought provoking post. I love that Mother Teresa quote also. I have it up on my desk in my office among the many others like "Trust the Process"—Shaun McNiff ,"Lean into your discomfort"—unknown and "Neurosis is always a substitute for legitimate suffering"—Carl Jung. I have also struggled with the idea of what change can I make in all the wrongs of the world and I have also come to the conclusion like you, that I can only make one small contribution, but as I use my gifts of "Mark-Maker" as you refer to it to touch others, they in turn use their gifts or "marks" to touch more and the energy and love can spread and "together" we CAN change things for the better. Thank you for sharing your gift and your voice.