You can’t miss his gallery shack. It overlooks the ocean on a stretch of coastal highway near St. Petersburg, Florida. His driftwood sculptures are perched in front: an ensemble of rotted tree branches, old fish nets, rusty pieces of metal- anything that the sea coughs up somewhere along the Floridian coast, which is where Johnny Rice has spent all his life.
I happened to be jogging by one afternoon and decided to stop in for a visit, which proved not to disappoint. Johnny, who now in his seventies still lives to sculpt, was quick to procure an old, dog-eared album for a stranger; its pages boasted yellowed newspaper clippings about a younger, more virile Johnny and his makeshift, sea-swept creations. One article featured him on “Good Morning America” about twenty years ago.
He was eager to talk to this stranger whom he intermittently described as one of the many “goddesses” he had come to know in his life, memorable women who somehow had made their way into a divine pantheon at the center of which was Jesus. Each had their own name. Apparently I was Diana, goddess of the hunt: whatever the inspiration- whether it was the Spandex running shorts and a pair of well-worn sneakers or the sweaty post-run glow- I must admit I rather liked the new nickname. When he learned I was a minister (an admission that can elicit a wide array of responses) his tan, leathery face broke into a smile and he began to tell me in animated tones about his life. It was a life that in many ways was as washed-up but strangely beautiful as the creations on his front lawn.
Johnny started out in Key West, which at one time was the playground of writer Ernest Hemingway, a former acquaintance, and other intellectuals. Then he made his way north, with various detours along the way. There was the time, for instance, when he let his friend, a cruise ship captain, smuggle him passport-free onto a boat bound for Brazil, and a long, ensuing period of, as he puts it, “becoming lost” to his friends in a maze of addictions, including alcohol, drugs and women. What saved him, he believes, was God- God through art, that is. As he exclaims, he gestures to his cramped, smoke-filled surroundings. They include a few different depictions of Jesus, from totem-pole-like head carvings to a large, yellow-bearded, Aryan face painted on canvas in bold, primary colors.
“I’m curious: what inspired you to make Jesus blonde?,” I asked.
“It’s like the color of the halos in icons, you know.”
“Huh.” (I’m chalking it up to artistic license.)
When the realities of sobriety, growing older and God’s Love had set in, Johnny had set up shop in this run-down, poor artist’s shanty. He says painting keeps his heart beating. He is in some ways the same little boy who used to sketch and collect things on the beach in Key West, only older, wiser and maybe a bit crazier. And now when he creates, he wants more than anything to “give it all away.”
I’ve been thinking more about Johnny and those mesmerizing, redemptive pieces of art cobbled together out of nothing (or at least the next closest thing). They remind me a whole lot about the way life can be. Like rotted, colorless driftwood on a beach, our many disparate, sometimes conflicting loves and desires can collect and become part of the same old scenery. Sometimes they so bewilder, confuse or even disturb us that we can prefer to leave them there- to let them blend in with our surroundings, as forgotten, untouched, inexplicable and meaningless as “nothingness” itself.
Broken dreams. Aching disappointments. Painful resentments. Wounds to our soul or psyche. The deepest, most angst-ridden existential questions that go unanswered. Lost loves that we have tried to grieve but never full recovered from. I suspect part of what it means to be human is to desire some sort of ordering to all that stuff we have collected through the years on the beaches of our souls.
A friend opined the other day that life would be so much easier and less painful if we human beings didn’t have to be plagued by desires. To some degree, she is probably right. But there is also a sense in which our desires, as the engine of our creativity, are the very thing that mirror God’s image in us and make us different from every other animal on the planet. The cooing infant in her mother’s arms, yes. But also the next crowning jewel of Apple technology. Or, the mapping of the human genome. Or, the uplifting sounds of Handel’s “Messiah.” Or, the writings of Dostoevsky. They, like the creations of a driftwood artist, can only spring to life with the first seeds of a desire that is as divinely planted as it is primal. Give me painful but spirited desire over the carefree existence of automatons any day.
Wendy Farley, in her book, The Wounding and Healing of Desire, describes desire as the “thread” that connects our gnawing emptiness, or resignation to the “nothingness,” to God’s work of redemption in us and our world. I think she is right. That longing to be re-made? That nagging sense that something is missing? That enflamed desire to make the world around us “right” or at least “better”? Maybe they are the very thing that God will use to make something beautiful out of the mystifying odds and ends of our existence. I would like to think so. I would like to think that one day God will stitch the old fishing nets, crumpled aluminum cans and dead tree branches into a boat that will sail away into the horizon of God’s Love. Or a house that will beckon us home, where, finally, we can see ourselves a bit like God sees us. Strange, beautiful creations made out of straw, “beloved” because a Lover has called us so.