Yesterday Jack and I took the never-before taken Q train, deep into Brooklyn. We were off to visit Rick and Brenda and the rest of the Beerhorst clan in the apartment they recently relocated to from Michigan. It was brave and giant leap they took –– a couple of self employed artists, moving with six small children, all of them home schooled, into the belly of the Big City.
Rick works in several media: he is mainly a painter and a wonderful one at that – his realist work is part Alice Neel , part Grant Wood, depicting his children, his household, and his faith. He also makes bold woodcuts and has just recorded a CD of his original songs and he is a devoted sketchbooker. (All of this work is available through their website ). Brenda is a rug maker and her paintings are abstract, colorful patterns that remind me of Paul Klee (sorry for all these references – the Beerhorsts are actually quite unique) and I liked it very much. As Rick says of her work:”It is the way trees speak to us when we wrap our arms around them. It is way the ocean speaks to us when we walk along its shore letting our sneakers get wet.”
Back in Michigan, twice a year, they would cover their walls with the art they’d made — the children’s drawings, Rick’s painting, Brenda’s weaving, and Rose’s sock monsters. Then they would open their home and sell their work to anyone who wandered in. The question this weekend was: could this same thing work in a Brooklyn apartment building? When Jack and I arrived, it seemed like it could — there were all sorts of people from the neighborhood sifting through woodcuts, admiring sketchbooks, picking through a basket of monsters, and then opening their wallets.
Rick and Brenda seem to be living the life that most of us only dream of, and, of course, I wondered how they manage. They make their art, sell it, and educate their kids themselves, all in a city a thousand miles from what’s familiar. And they’ve apparently always lived this way.
Recently, I asked Rick to tell us more about how they live and how they manage and his answers reflected their deep religious faith:
“As to “irons in the fire”, keeping the money coming in, bills paid and a life still fertile for creativity that remains quite a mystery. I think it is up to each person to find the path that is theirs. I think for us at the bottom is a kind of old fashioned belief that God really does exist and has his eye on us. His realm seems to be both the physical and the spiritual at the same time, whereas we tend to be mostly just bound by the material world and its concerns (the neighbor who is mad about our bath tub overflowing and ruining his ceiling for the 4th time). We think God is watching out for us and has actually called us into a life of art-making that has a particular design to it that often may seem like foolishness to much of the general public. “Having so many children, (“don’t you know about birth control?”) is one of those things that seems like it could really get in the way of a “successful career” and yet our children have made our life so much richer and have given it depth which is in the long run great for making art with depth and uniqueness. But we don’t want to get up on a soapbox and preach lots of children as the answer. Which brings me back to the mystery part of living. The question always seems to come back to each person to ask, “what is in my heart?” and then to begin to pursue that. “We have written and received art making grants including the NEA and the Pollock/Kranser Grants and others. We have worked with art galleries around the country; Chicago, Seattle, Nashville, and now NYC. We have also had family art show where we invite friends into our home where Brenda and I as well as the children have put our works on display. These home art shows continued to grow and bring in more people and revenue over the past 10 years up until we moved here this summer. “We are missionaries with a mission organization out side of Nashville called ACT, Artists in Christian Testimony International. They work with artists and see them as an important part of the way the church needs to grow to stay relevant in a world culture that is increasingly image based. We are basically doing what we can to help our artist friends stay healthy and encouraged because we feel that the culture we live in is often toxic and about destroying artistic people rather than nurturing them. I had a friend die of an over dose about 5 years ago and it kind of lit a fire under me to want to do something to put an arm around the artists population that really needs a friend that is just there to take. “We have known poverty and lived with in it but try to keep the “spirit of poverty” out of our hearts. We have received the benefits of the WIC program. We have gone to church food pantries to volunteer as well as to receive free or nearly free groceries. We have often found our selves at the end of our physical resources and sought God’s deliverance in simple prayers and then experienced some incredible breakthroughs. “I will give you one such story: “In the spring of ’04, I was coming back from my gallery in Chicago with my two older daughters and their friend in our old Chevy van filled with paintings that the gallery wanted out of their storage room that hadn’t sold (the old maids I call them). We were about an hour away from home when the engine blew on the highway. We got a tow in to town and got the kids to bed really late. The van was bad news because we had no money to replace it and now real prospects except our little spring family art show coming up. “Brenda was pregnant with Rain, our sixth child, at the time. We decided to go without a car for a while which is a lot tougher in the Midwest where every thing is dependent on everyone having their own vehicle. It was the day of our family art show and Brenda started going into labor when she wasn’t supposed to be due for another two weeks. We were in the dilemma of what to do, call off the art show or just press on with it? “We decided after talking with our midwife to go ahead and let people come and if things got out of hand shut the show down. We ended up selling over a thousand dollars of art the first night and closed the door at 8:00pm. Brenda had the baby upstairs in our bedroom at 8:30pm, a beautiful little girl. The next afternoon we began again at 1:00 pm and in the first two hours, Betty DeVos came over who is a personal friend of President Bush. She and her husband own the AmWay corporation with another family. She is mind bogglingly wealthy. She bought enough paintings to make us $8,000 richer that day. (I had met her son in a filmmakers’ group a few months before). Needless to say we were able to buy a car to get around again. We kind of walked around in a daze for a while wondering how this had all happened. It felt like a miracle to us. “The pattern of our lives seems to be we are frequently hang from that little branch on the edge of a cliff and rescued just before our grip gives out. Living like this is a pain in the ass but it keeps us awake, attentive and appreciative. We feel like the life we live is an impossibility that God makes work as we press into him for his help and favor. In New York, we are living off the money we made when we sold our house back in Michigan. Our savings are dribbling away as I type and we feel again that scary feeling of a free fall. We are taking this day-to-day, just trying to do the best we can with what we got.”I am very grateful that Jack and I had a chance to visit with the Beerhorsts and they taught me some very valuable lessons. Lessons I seem to have to learn over and over:
Choose your path.
Believe in yourself.
Count your blessings.
Trust in the power of love.
What can you learn from their example about your own life?