Vincent and Theo: that was the example I was to present. How did Vincent Van Gogh and his brother Theo exemplify “the artist in the heart of community”? I struggled at first to determine what to call the role Theo Van Gogh played in his brother Vincent’s life. I remember talking about it with a friend, describing what I’d learned about all the things Theo had and been for Vincent—patron, caregiver, brother, friend, champion. My friend said he was the person that a book dedication is made out to. Exactly—except that’s still a really long title for a role.
The one part of speech that’s the most important thing in the language is the name. Names are the very basic, life-giving term in language.Eugene Peterson, Godspeed
In Irving Stone’s Lust for Life, a biographical novel about Vincent Van Gogh based on the letters he sent his brother Theo, there is a scene between the brothers that seems to be the essence of what their relationship was in light of Vincent’s art. Vincent had been serving as an evangelist among the coal-miners of Belgium and threw himself entirely to the service—to the detriment of his own health. He lost his appointment as a missionary but remained in the area beginning to pursue drawing, and continuing to serve the poverty-stricken miners. Theo comes to visit after having stayed away for over a year, to find Vincent sick, fevered, and nearly starving. He gets him food, buys him a bed, and puts him in it to sleep for the first time in days. When Vincent awakes, he watches Theo going through his sketches for a few minutes before speaking. Vincent asks what Theo thinks, but Theo forces him to shave, clean, and eat before he will answer.
Vincent begins to defend his lack of direction in a career and his pursuit of art—that he is seeking to be of some purpose in the world. And finally, Theo answers. “I’ve believed in you, and had implicit faith in you since the earliest days…and I haven’t any less faith now. I need only to be near you to believe that anything you do will eventually come right.” He goes on, “I have a suspicion that behind all of these abstractions you’ve been dealing in, there is something you want to do. Something you feel is ultimately right for you and will finally bring you to happiness and success.”
The words open a door for Vincent. Stone describes his response:
Vincent looked over at the pile of sketches Theo had been studying under the window. A grin of amazement, incredulity, and at last awareness spread across his face. His eyes opened wide. His mouth opened. His whole personality seemed to burst open wide like the tornasol [sunflower] in the sun.
“Why, I’ll be blessed!’ he murmured. “That’s what I’ve been trying to say all along and I didn’t know it.”
Theo’s eyes followed his to the sketches. “I thought so,” he said.
Vincent was quivering with excitement and joy. He seemed to have suddenly awakened from some profound sleep. “Theo! You knew it before I did! I wouldn’t let myself think about it. I was afraid. Of course there’s something I must do. It’s the thing I’ve pointed towards all my life and I never suspected it….Something has been trying to push itself out of me all these years and I wouldn’t let it.”
It was Theo who woke Vincent to the truth: he was an artist.
I will never forget the first time I heard someone tell me I was a storyteller. I may have been told it before that, and I certainly told stories all along, but I had not heard it before. I was a senior in college, sitting in the back of a van with the alumni director, Louise Riley, after we’d been representing the university at a conference together. In the thread of conversation she said, almost off-hand, “Well, of course. You’re a storyteller.” It was a revelation. And it was one of the pieces God used to change my path and move me toward storytelling and creativity as a vocation.
I believe artists need the kind of community that Theo was for Vincent—the person who can look in, with unwavering eyes, and see what is true. And also the person who has the guts to speak it. Reading through Stone’s book, there were many times I felt that Theo should have just given up on Vincent. Vincent bullied him, harangued him, and wouldn’t listen to him. But Theo kept faithful, introducing Vincent to the impressionists, telling him when it was time to leave Paris and become his own artist, and reminding him of truth over and over again.
It was this role I tried to find a term for. Yes, Theo supported Vincent financially, he introduced him to other artists, he served as a dealer for Vincent’s work. But he was more than a patron, more than a networker, more than an agent. Finally, reading Madeleine L’Engle’s book, A Wind in the Door, I found it: Theo was a Namer.
L’Engle’s book is steeped in the concept of Naming. Her protagonist Meg is partnered with a cherubim named Proginoskes, and they are faced with fighting the Echthroi, beings that X. Progo takes Meg to look at a sky full of stars and they watch as a line of black appears with violence. The Echthroi have Xed, says the cherubim, “Annihilated. Negated. Extinguished. Xed.” Trying to explain the Echthroi and how they work, Progo says,
I think your mythology would call them fallen angels. War and hate are their business, and one of their chief weapons is un-Naming—making people not know who they are. If someone knows who he is, really knows, then he doesn’t need to hate. That’s why we still need Namers, because there are places throughout the universe like your planet Earth. When everyone is really and truly Named, then the Echthroi will be vanquished.
As Meg fights against the Echthroi she learns that to Name people she must love them. That is her weapon against the darkness—and it’s not an easy one to wield. To do so, she must see clearly who she is, and move past her own hatred and anger to see clearly the one she is Naming.
[Spoilers are blacked out. Mouseover to read.] Andrew Peterson’s Wingfeather Saga recognizes the value of Naming. Gnag the Nameless is the great terror to the Wingfeathers. Abandoned, crippled, unloved, never named. The lack is what shapes him. He grows into Gnag the Nameless, hungry for power, for destruction. But the heroes realize in the end that all along, Gnag has always been hungry for one thing only: a name. And, reading the First Book, they discover that his mother loved him, and she named him. And that is the undoing of his evil and the satisfaction of his soul. In Naming him, the Wingfeathers fight the darkness.
Artists must have Namers. Namers who love you and love your work. They’re not sycophants, but truth-tellers. It may be just one person—that person who delights in your work and tells you the truth about it: needs improvement; love this character; your perspective’s off; ooh, good line; I see the passion in that painting.
But we are a forgetful people.
Naming is not something that happens once and is done. I was asked recently what the Rabbit Room meant to me and the first image that came to my mind was that of a cairn—a pile of stones that serves as a memorial or a trail marker. In the Old Testament, the Israelites set up cairns to remember God’s faithfulness, his provision, his rescue of them. In the Law, God instituted feasts, regular reminders of who he was, who they were, and their covenant relationship with one another. I encountered the Rabbit Room at a time when I had lost sight of my name: storyteller. I needed this community to remind me.
Namers remind us who we are and that our endeavors are worth doing. I once drove an eight-hour car trip with my friend Seth and we spent a good portion of the time figuring out the geography of my fictional kingdom so that I could get the climactic battle to take place in the right area. Seth was a Namer in those hours. He said: it’s worth doing, and it’s worth doing right—let’s figure it out.
Diana Glyer uses the term “resonator” to describe “anyone who acts as a friendly, interested, supportive audience” (Bandersnatch). She says that resonators give feedback, praise, encouragement, and offer help and promote an artist’s work. I would call Namers a subset of this category, with the specific role of telling—and reminding—the artist who he is. During her keynote at Hutchmoot 2016, Glyer told a story of a time she was ready to throw in the towel. She’d been trying to get her first book published for years, and had seen no movement. She told her writing group that she was finished, and a friend there told her he saw her walking in to their meeting with a box full of copies of her book. When she told him she couldn’t see that, he replied, “I will see it for you until you see it for yourself.” He named her: author.
There are people in the world who do not consider themselves creative. And while I agree with the argument that creativity is a much broader thing than just making art, perhaps some of these people are called to be Namers, rather than artists. Naming is a creative act.
The Namers in my life are just as important to the stories I tell as I am. I have one manuscript that will be dedicated to Christine and Saritha, for they were the Namers in a period of darkness when I couldn’t write. They are the ones who reminded me that the story was worth telling.
To steal ideas from L’Engle’s book, I would say we are fighting the un-Naming of the universe as we create art. If feasting is an act of war, art is its counterpart. Art is an act of love—to paraphrase Jonathan Rogers: the artist loves his audience and loves his content and wants to introduce the two to one another. But while the artist may be the front line of the battalion, the Namers are the gun loaders, the message runners, the water carriers. The front line would falter and fail without them.
[This post was adapted and expanded from a portion of Makers and Thieves: Subcreation and Inspiration, a session at Hutchmoot 2016.]