Artists tend to live in their imaginations. At least I do, and I’m pretty sure I’m not alone. It’s not always great. We can be quick to imagine the worst case scenarios, and slow to imagine the best possibilities of any given situation. But the upside is we can imagine, and sometimes successfully create, beautiful, singular and even humorous works of art. My field is painting, and I can say that very few of my paintings reach the pinnacle of beauty they had when I imagined them.
One artist who wrestled with this was a Christian artist named John, who was trying desperately to finish his art work. Sidetracked by distractions and interruptions — his country was being pulled into a war, his duties as a teacher, helping friends in need, and his advancing age and approaching journey (“death day”) all worked against him — he was desperately trying to finish writing his gargantuan epic story. His immense story had many, many, details numbering like a multitude of leaves on several trees. It imagined characters built upon old lost mythologies and languages — in fact, John was so engrossed in historical linguistics he would call himself a philologist before he’d call himself a writer. It would be a wonderful artwork, if he could only finish it! The stress was building, until he developed what every writer fears — “writer’s block.”
John began to work on a short story after seeing a neighbor’s tree branches cut off. He came up with a story that both described his predicament, and offered hope for his fears of never completing it.
The story he wrote told of an artist, Niggle, whose name means one who is caught up in minutia, in petty details. He was an artist, and not a very good one, who was also worried about finishing his art, a large painting. Niggle was better at painting individual leaves than whole trees, and, with all his interruptions, feared he too would not finish his tree before he died. And, alas, he did indeed have to take “his journey” much sooner than he wanted to, leaving his large canvas behind to critics who would salvage it for temporary roof repairs, after disparaging how unimportant and unworthy it was as art.
But after a long journey, Niggle ended up in heaven. Roaming the hills there one day, he was over joyed to see his bicycle, with his name on it. Riding it, he jumped off it, exclaiming “It’s a gift!”, when he saw his finished, painted Tree, in full blossom, there in heaven. Its “branches bending in the wind that Niggle had so often guessed at, but failed to catch.”
The story is “Leaf By Niggle,” written, of course, by the author who did, thankfully, finish his epic, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, along with a few other novels and short stories. John Ronald Reuel, or J.R.R. Tolkien, lived to see his great work finished, and even lived to see some of the success and popularity it enjoyed. And through his struggle not only did he come up with a short story analogy that helped him, but all of us, too, artists and non-artists alike, who realize that our work really does matter. If we are building on the Rock of Christ’s work, we will see that our labors here on earth were not in vain.
Jerry Dienes is a painter and a 2017 Center for Faith & Work Artist-in-Residence award winner. His exhibit, “Niggle’s Studio: Leaf Paintings” by Jerry Dienes, imagines other leaf painting Niggle may have done, in addition to his famous unfinished magnum opus. The exhibition runs May 10 to July 5 at the 150 W. 83 St. Galleries, which is also the Redeemer West Side church ministry center.