An Open Letter to an Artist I Met on a Bus in 2009
Dear Bus Artist,
The summer before I started ninth grade, my youth group did a "stay-cation"-style mission trip.
In other words, we camped out in the back yard of one of our youth leaders and did various service projects around the city.
We did things like painting and playing with kids at the Salvation Army youth center, working at an urban garden, and working with other local ministries. Each day, we took the city bus to a different work site.
For me, this was an eye-opening experience on many levels.
I had no idea the need, or the important work being done, in my own city!
Here I was, a timid, awkward freshman girl, hopping aboard a bus each morning and evening with a group of 20 other high school students. Have I mentioned I'd never ridden a bus before?
I was terrified of sitting next to a stranger, terrified of getting lost or missing my stop (yes, I was in a group; no, that did little to calm my fears), terrified that I'd make the wrong move and be mugged in the street.
At the time, I didn't realize these fears had a name: anxiety. As an adult, very aware of myself and my mental state, I can look back and point out all sorts of symptoms I had. As a young teen, I had no idea. I thought I was just a typical, if shy, person.
Of course I also had the normal teen girl fears, like not wanting to look stupid in front of my crush... Anyway, moving on.
By the end of the week, I was exhausted, probably stank from not showering enough, and was only slightly less terrified of the bus.
That Friday afternoon, we all piled on the bus and to my dismay, I was the odd one out. I was forced to sit beside a stranger (horror of horrors!).
This is where you come in, Bus Artist. The strange I sat beside was you.
As a child I had an unexplained fear of men, particularly old men. Well, all old people. And strangers. And sick people, and people who smoked, and people with facial hair (my dad was clean-shaven). Or people who were loud and rambunctious. I had a long list of fears!
In light of all that, I hope you weren't offended by my silence or my unwillingness to even let our clothing brush, though we shared a seat on a bus. I was a dumb kid, and you were an older man with a 5 o'clock shadow and the lingering scent of cigarettes.
But from the first moment, I noticed your clipboard and thick stack of paper. As we rode along on our jerky, stop-and-go way, I was intrigued to find that you were drawing on this makeshift sketchbook. I didn't want to pry, but I couldn't resist watching.
You sketched our fellow bus-passengers without a word. One, two, three pages, filled and flipped over the clipboard.
I would have never said spoken if you hadn't spoken first. I would have sat in silence the entire way, sneaking peeks at your sketches.
I'm so glad you spoke up!
You asked if I liked art. My response, still nervous, was less than enthusiastic. I admitted I liked to draw sometimes.
I wish I'd had the guts to speak freely, to tell you I'd been wondering about pursuing a career as an artist. I'd always loved art, poring over drawing books trying to absorb every word of instruction. I'd moved on from Crayola markers and crayons to "fancy pencils," charcoal, and ink-washes. I specialized in horses, copying all my favorite pictures in my horse books. Yes, I liked art!
You spent the rest of our bus ride showing me how you did gesture drawings. We talked about shading, and the direction of the light. Several times, you told me to get the book Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain by Betty Edwards. I tucked that title away in my mind.
You asked if I drank or smoked, which I, being a sheltered homeschool kid, was somewhat shocked by. I answered "no" truthfully. You smiled and said that was good, and not to try those things. You said drinking and smoking could ruin someone's life. I wondered, but I didn't ask whose life they'd ruined--yours or that of someone you loved. I've wondered ever since... and I've prayed. Whatever your story, I wish life had been a little kinder to you.
As soon as I got home, I borrowed Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain at the library. You were right, it's a pretty insightful book!
I'll admit, I largely forgot about our little encounter until a few years later when I stumbled upon that book in a used book sale.
I opened the book, a hardcover, unlike the paperback library copy I'd borrowed years earlier. The spine was stiff from sitting unopened on someone's shelf.
Turning the pages, it all came tumbling back to me.
Your gruff but kind words, you rough clothing, calloused hands cradling your scrap-paper sketchpad. Your sketches, so expressive and full of movement. The way you explained drawing perspective, shadows, and keeping in mind the direction of a light source.
I was wildly glad that long-forgotten drawing book popped back into my life so unexpectedly, at a time when I happened to be feeling pretty frustrated and uninspired in the creative department.
I don't know if I thanked you for talking about drawing with me. I don't remember our exact conversation, if I said anything when we reached my bus stop. You removed the sketches you'd made during our ride from your clipboard and handed them to me. They are the drawings in this letter.
We parted knowing almost nothing about each other, except that we shared a love of art.
Looking back, I wish I'd asked your story! I wish I'd asked you what you did for a living, what lead you to sketch your fellow bus-riders, or when you first started drawing. I wish I'd asked you if you knew Jesus.
When I got off the bus with my friends, clutching the stack of pencil gesture drawings, I started crying. Weeping. I felt as if I had seen a glimpse of God, and in the most unexpected place: a 50-year-old artist riding a bus. I cried because I could suddenly see how much God loved you, and how much God loved me.
That was in 2009.
Today, eleven years after that bus ride, I wonder where you've ended up.
What's happened in your life since that Friday afternoon? Do you still ride that bus route? Do you still carry your makeshift sketchpad of scrap paper?
Thank you, sir, for speaking first. Thank you for the book recommendation, it's a great book!
Thank you for reminding me that every person is a story, a poem, a sketch of dreams, mistakes, and memories.
Thank you for reminding me that art exists to bring people together. I pray that I may grow to become the one who speaks first, myself, and touches the heart of a young person.
The Teenage Girl on the Bus