Art and Courage: Stories to Inspire the Artist-Warrior Within
by John Paul Thornton
John Paul Thornton asks, “How will you impact the world?” While the book is not entirely autobiographical, the chapter about the author’s own paintings of missing children is the most powerful part of Art and Courage.
“Fresh out of college, I found work as an art teacher at a facility for disturbed children. One morning while checking attendance, I noticed that the seat belonging to a strawberry-haired 10 year old freckled face girl was empty. Later that day I was told that she had been abducted, and that police were investigating the matter.”
This incident caused Thornton to take notice of mailers publicizing abducted children, which he’d previously thrown away. Each mailer had a small black and white photo of a child along with a brief description. He began saving the mailers.
“One evening, I opened the drawer and spread my stack of ‘HAVE YOU SEEN ME’ cards on to the kitchen table. There were so many faces, so many stories… Holding a random mailer in one hand and a paintbrush in the other, I took cues from the dry descriptions of eye color, hair color, and age. In a matter of hours, I had created a full color portrait of the child featured in the photo.”
“I began painting more and more portraits of missing children…. Each portrait became a very emotional experience for me… After two years, I had thirty paintings.”
“I was invited by a gallery director to show the paintings in a solo exhibition in Los Angeles. Once hung, I carefully wrote the personal information about each child in crayon directly onto the wall beneath each portrait… As more and more people saw these paintings, I realized that they were able to touch people in a real way.”
The number of paintings grew into the hundreds. Thornton needed to find a way to exhibit them.
“A solution appeared in my mind: What if people held the paintings? … This was the breakthrough… My intent as an artist was to break the traditional boundaries of art by having participants actually handle my paintings. I hoped to have the paintings take on a kind of life that they would never have hanging on a gallery wall.”
The first location was at the entrance of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. “As hundreds of volunteers stood shoulder to shoulder in a long line along Wilshire Boulevard, they each held a painting of a missing child… Beneath each painting hung the actual ‘HAVE YOU SEEN ME?’ card that inspired the artwork.”
One thing leads to another. Thornton was invited to the headquarters of National Center for Missing and Exploited Children to discuss an exhibit in Washington D.C. on National Missing Children’s Day. “They were impressed enough to support the project as well as cover the cost of airfare, hotel, and ground travel for myself and a team of assistants.” The event would be at the Lincoln Memorial.
When the day came, bad weather was forecast. “It seemed the threat of a huge storm kept our hundreds of volunteers away. The choir cancelled. The musicians cancelled. The politicians did not arrive.” Only two volunteers showed up. Thornton decided to display the paintings flat on the steps. “And so we placed all two hundred paintings of the missing children in rows, down to the reflecting pool.”
“I realized immediately the greatest lesson at play. I did not require additional musicians, vocal soloists, choirs, politicians or even sunny days to fulfill my mission as an artist.”
Among the thousands of visitors, there were a couple of noteworthy attendees. The advertising executive responsible for the ‘HAVE YOU SEEN ME?’ cards drove down from Connecticut. “Two other incredible people were Sam and his mother Abbey. Sam was a young boy who had been abducted. I had painted his portrait from an ADVO card years earlier. He had since been safely recovered, and now wanted to stand on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial amidst all the other paintings, wearing his own portrait. He was a living testimony to the power of those cards to find kids.”
“This was one of the greatest days of my life. I broke through so many fearful urges while making an impact on my audience. I grew in so many ways that weekend. My heart felt huge.”
“Looking back, it seems ironic that my life’s most important artwork sprung from disposable items that I looked at for years, but had not really seen, until I had the courage to do so.”
Thornton writes about transformation. “In the realm of business matters, it is said that fortune favors the brave. The same is true in matters of art… Many of us know that the greatest source of fear comes from change which we cannot control… As creative people, we must trust change. Only through change will we transform into something greater than our current selves. When we are ready to change we may begin to change the world.”
Thornton, John Paul. Art and Courage: Stories to Inspire the Artist-warrior within. Canoga Park, California: Fire Opal Publishing, 2009. Buy from Amazon.com