Art in wartime

Orchid (detail) (2022 acrylic and graphite 30cms x 20cms)

A writer who, as a child, didn’t like vegetables much, remembered her mother saying, “Eat up your greens! Think of all the starving children in Africa.” “How does my eating sprouts help the children in Africa?” asked the young writer-to-be.

I was reminded of this as I read Jay Rayner’s restaurant review in the (London) Observer newspaper recently: “On the morning my train to Liverpool pulled out of London Euston, the media was full of images of other trains: crowded ones, filled with terrified people, fleeing for their lives, an invading Russian army at their backs. I, meanwhile, was going to lunch.” Rayner followed this with four paragraphs of justification for writing about brown crab rarebit while the suffering continued in Ukraine. He quoted counsellor and agony aunt Philippa Perry’s advice, tweeted in response to a question on this theme, “Stay in the present and not the hypothetical mythical future. Deal with what is, not what might be. Remember to enjoy yourself as much as possible. It doesn’t help anyone if you don’t enjoy yourself.”

Recently, artists on Instagram have also been questioning the point of making art during wartime. Why draw these apples on an antique plate while the bombs fall on Kyiv? Is painting frivolous, irrelevant, even disrespectful when families are huddled in basements, fearful of their lives?

The artist and teacher Nicholas Wilton explained his reasons for continuing to create during these troubled times in a recent blog post: “Making our art is all about making connections — it moves us towards a connection to ourselves and others. Non-artists are also connected to our cherished vision when they experience…our art. This shared experience of what we make helps create a more connected and, as a result, a safer, kinder world. Making art is a practice of showing the world what truly matters. And it makes a difference.”

One of the many supportive comments on Wilton’s blog post, from a woman who had trained as a physician before switching to painting, underlined this point: “embodying what we are for is more powerful than opposing what we are against….Art heals. Living from that place, there is no inclination towards violence, harm, neglect, disrespect. Only love and celebration…generosity and gratitude, and so much more.” A recent clip on Twitter showed a young woman in her Ukranian apartment, the windows blown out, playing Bach on her piano before she left the room for ever, becoming a refugee from the place she called home. It was important for her to play that final piece amongst the devastation, on the brink of her unknown future, dressed in a warm coat in the ruins of her former life.

Painting a picture, writing a poem, playing the piano – all help us make sense of the world we live in and perhaps go some way towards helping to create a better world, one where “love and celebration, generosity and gratitude” are more in evidence. If we don’t do these things, it won’t help the people under fire in Ukraine; doing them, however, might just be a small step forward into the light.

Simeon and the Magic Fish

A couple of years ago, a friend of mine called Tom Dykstra sent me a story he’d written for the children’s sermon at his Dutch Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan. It was a re-telling of the Grimm brothers’ story, The Fisherman’s Wife, although in Tom’s version the fisherman is the architect of his own downfall rather than being able to blame a greedy spouse. Sending me the piece, Tom wrote “I have no intentions to publish and am not asking you to illustrate the story.  I just thought you might be interested in reading it and…visualizing wizened old Simeon scurrying over the dune.  If you are moved to a sketch or two, I would love to see them!”

From time to time I put together an idea and sent it to Tom and his wife, Lois. They seemed to enjoy seeing them which encouraged me to continue. It became a fun thing to do, and I sent Lois a birthday card with Simeon holding a chubby fish which I hoped would cheer her up a little during a long and difficult series of medical interventions which, tragically, she didn’t survive. In February of this year I was halfway through another drawing for the story when Tom, too, passed away unexpectedly.

Tom and Lois’s daughter agreed to let me publish the story here with the handful of drawings I completed as a tribute to them both. I should say at the outset that I’m not a skilled illustrator of children’s stories but it was a great pleasure to do them, even with my limited expertise. I should also mention that Tom had thought of changing the ending – removing some of the religious references in the final paragraphso that it could be read by those whose faith was not as central to their lives as his own. However, whether you share Tom’s faith or not, the story is a delightful one with a simple, honest and compassionate message. I’m thrilled and honoured that Tom shared it with me.

So, here it is, the story of Simeon and the magic fish that he found in his net one day:

In a time long ago and a place far away there lived a poor fisherman named Simeon.  Simeon was so poor that he did not have enough money to live in a house like the other villagers.  So, behind a dune, away from the wind and the sea, he put together a small shack made from the wooden timbers of wrecked ships that had washed up on the beach.  Simeon’s little house had no door and no window, but only a small space where he could crawl in out of the weather.  And, because it was made from the timbers of ships, it looked like a boat turned upside down.

Simeon earned a few pennies each day by taking his net over the dune and down to the seashore.  All day he would throw his net into the sea.  The few fish he caught he would take to the village to sell.  Though Simeon had very little money, he was rich in other important ways.  He was kind to other people and always willing to help them and had many friends among the local people.  And the children, they loved him.  When he came to town he would play games with them, and they would always crowd around him as he told them stories about when he was a child. 

Simeon was not happy being poor, but he had long ago given up hope that things for him would ever be any different.  Then one day something happened that completely changed his life.  He was fishing as usual when his net happened to snare a large, strange looking fish.  Simeon had never in his life seen that kind of fish before.  And imagine his surprise when the fish began to talk!  And as if that was not enough, Simeon was even more surprised by what the fish said.  The large, strange fish begged in a loud voice, “If you will let me go instead of selling me in the village, I will give you whatever you wish.”  

After Simeon got over the shock of hearing the fish talk, he said to himself: “I have to make a decision.  This fish will certainly earn me more than a few pennies in the village.  And what if the fish is not telling the truth and does not grant me my wish?  I will lose the extra money I could have earned by selling it!”  Then he had an idea: “I will make a wish and let the fish go.  If my wish doesn’t come true, then the next time he comes I will catch him and then sell him in the village!”  So Simeon said to the fish, “My boat shack is open to the outside weather.  If you can, I would very much like to have a door and a window in my little house to keep out the wind and the rain.”  “It will be done,” said the fish and he swam away.   Simeon pulled in his net and sailed to the shore, running as fast his short skinny legs would take him to the top of the dune.  And guess what?  He looked down, and there was his shack fitted with a nice little door and a large glass window!  He was so happy and thankful that he ran down the dune and opened and shut the door and window several times just to make sure they were real.  It was an amazing thing:  he had been blessed with a fish who could grant his wishes.

The next time the fish landed in his net, Simeon asked if he might please, please have a well for water and a small tree for shade near his house.  It would be oh so nice not to have to walk all the way to the spring, and to have a cool place to sit when the sun was hot.  And, of course, as you can guess, these wishes were granted.  Simeon decided then and there that he would never, ever sell the fish; he knew a good thing when he saw it.

Weeks and months and years passed.  Whatever Simeon wished for came to be, and he began to wish for more and more.  Slowly his little upside down boat shack grew into a magnificent estate.  There was a large, fancy mansion filled with fine furniture and large closets to hold his fancy clothes, a carriage house with several carriages, fields of corn and wheat, herds of cattle, horses, and pigs; and large barns to hold all of his crops and animals.  Simeon became very rich.  Soon he needed help to do all the work on his estate, so he went to the village to hire those people who used to pay him pennies for his fish.        

Through all this time, it was not only Simeon’s house that changed, but Simeon himself became a changed man.  Instead of humbly asking the fish for things, he started to demand them; he began to think he deserved them and had earned them. And Simeon became very proud and very vain.  He bought fancy clothes; he got a fancy haircut which showed his large ears; he grew a mustache and had it curled into fancy swirls.  Simeon’s eyes were no longer soft and gentle as they used to be but became hard and narrowed.  His face became anxious and red.  (The children thought it was because his new designer clothes were too tight!)

Although he was rich, he became poor in other important ways.  He lost his friends in the village because he was no longer generous and helpful, but selfish and always greedy to get more things for himself.  He became grouchy toward other people because he thought they were after his money.  He began to yell at the children not to bother him.  And so, when the children saw him coming, they didn’t flock to him as before but crossed over to the other side of the lane.  Simeon thought that because he was rich he was important.  And because he thought he was important, he thought he could boss other people around.  The villagers began to dislike him and began to think he was just a boring old man who only thought about, and always talked about the things he owned.  A few of the villagers felt sorry for him because he had lost the very things that had made him truly rich. 

One day this rich, unhappy man, bored with all his stuff, had a crazy idea.  He thought, “Because I am the most wealthy and important man around, I deserve to have a house like God has!  I will go to see the fish.”  Simeon hitched up his best horses to his chariot (he never walked anywhere anymore.) and drove to the seashore.  He was surprised to see the fish already there, waiting for him. The fish said to Simeon, “I can indeed give you a house like God had.  But this will be the last wish I can grant you; because in God’s house there is everything anyone could ever want.”  Simeon let out with a nasty laugh, “That’s just fine with me.  Be gone and don’t come back.  Who needs a stupid old fish anyway, when he has a house like God’s?”  And with that he drove his chariot as fast as he could to the top of the dune to look down on his wonderful prize.

But when he got to the top of the dune, he could not believe what he saw.  It sent him into a panic which stopped his breath and seized his heart.  Everything he owned was gone! His magnificent house with all his precious possessions, his barns, his fields, his orchards, his crops and herds of animals, all gone!  The only building was a ramshackle shed that looked like a place where animals lived.  Instead of the fruit orchards there was a single dead tree with two branches that stuck out sideways, sort of like the arms of a cross.  There were no fancy clothes; just a single large piece of cloth caught in the tree and fluttering in the wind.  In place of his animal herds there was just one small, skinny donkey standing patiently by.  Well, Simeon was so angry that his red face turned purple.  He leaped out of his chariot, jumped up and down, screamed, and shook his hands at the heavens.

Then a very loud voice said, “SIMEON!  WHAT IS YOUR PROBLEM?”  It was so loud that Simeon was stunned into silence and the six white horses ran away with the chariot.  When Simeon finally got his voice and his courage back, he shouted, “I asked for a house like God’s house and the fish said I could have it!  All there is here is this stupid old shack, a dead tree, and half-dead donkey!”  There was a long silence.  Then the voice said, “Simeon, Simeon, you did not know what you were asking for.  When I came to live on earth I was born in a stable like that.  My clothing was a simple cape.  I never rode in a chariot, but on a donkey.  And in the last hours of my life I hung on a tree like the one you see.  And Simeon, … I did it all for YOU.” 

Simeon realized that the voice was the voice of Jesus.  The poor man did not know what to do!  He wanted to escape the voice but he knew he never could.  He wanted to make excuses for himself but could not think of any good ones.  He wanted to blame others for what he now realized was his own very bad behavior, but there was no-one else to blame.  At last, he was overcome by a feeling of deep, deep shame, and guilt, and sorrow.  He realized he had become a terrible person:  greedy and jealous and grouchy and unkind and proud and self-centered, and on and on.  In the end, all that this miserable, lonely man could do was to lie face down in the sand and cry.  He cried so hard that his tears formed little mud puddles in the dune.  And then the voice returned, more gently now:  ”Do not cry Simeon.  I came to forgive and to heal all those who have a sin-sick soul.  And by my Spirit I have come to live with such people in shacks even worse than the one you see.  I have come to live with them in caves and trenches and foxholes, in hospital rooms and jail cells, under bridges and in sewer pipes.  And if you will have me, I will come to live with you in that little shack below the dune.”  Slowly, very slowly, Simeon raised his head from the sand.  His voice was weak and wavering: “Oh please, please, if you would, I would like very much to have you come into my house and live with me.”

And thus began the happiest days of Simeon’s life. He was a new man.  The villagers welcomed him back as a long-lost friend, and the children once again ran to him for games and stories.  He whistled his way through his days of fishing and was happy never to see the magic fish again.  One evening as he lay on his cot, there came to his mind the tune of a song he had learned long ago as a child.  As he hummed the tune the words of the song slowly came back to him; and he sang: “Into my heart, into my heart; come into my heart, Lord Jesus. Come in today, come in to stay; Come into my heart Lord Jesus.”  It was a song that would become Simeon’s theme song all the rest of his life. The very next morning he hurried into the village and instead of telling the children a story, he taught them his song.

Text (c) Estate of Thomas Dykstra; illustrations (c) Michael Richards