CALVET and Art: Isn’t This What They Told Me About Jesus?

Okay, I realize this may be controversial for some folks; I may be struck down by the hand of God at any time today, but lately it’s occurred to me that art provides many of the things that Jesus is supposed to give me … redemption, purpose, love, meaning, joy, healing, etc.  Of course, I don’t know that art can give eternal salvation, but I do know that it can save a soul.  It did just that for my friend, artist Jean Marc Calvet. 

I met Jean Marc a year or two ago through Monkdogz Urban Art (NYC).  We struck up a friendship after I interviewed him on Aberration Nation.  I later also interviewed Dominic Allan, the film director/producer, who was so taken by Jean Marc’s story that he spent four or so years making a documentary about the artist’s incredible life. 

This weekend, I finally saw the film, CALVET, in its entirety.  I knew a lot about it before hand.  What I didn’t know was how deeply I would identify with certain aspects of Jean Marc’s tale. 

We all have some sort of story; we have our own personal demons, although for some of us those demons are more terrifying than others.  The question I most often ask myself is how many of those demons were tossed at me, and how many did I conjure up myself.  And for those that I did create, how in God’s name could I have avoided it? 

When I watched Jean Marc’s story, and took in just how simultaneously tough and gentle he is, I could so clearly see how the circumstances of our lives turn us into monsters.  I wondered what makes a man look into the mirror and decide that he no longer wants to be monstrous, and if a true monster even has such thoughts.  Perhaps the true devils just keep on being monstrous until they finally drop dead and go to monster hell. Perhaps it’s actually the fallen angels of our world who can recognize the demons inside and find the courage to battle them.  Like the incessant drive to create, maybe it’s a simultaneous catch and release.  Good news and bad.

Some days I look in the mirror and see a monster.  Maybe you do as well.  I don’t want to see it but I know it’s there. I hide it.  I chase it. I squelch it and cover it up.  And in that never ending game–that dysfunctional relationship I have with myself–I sometimes love it, too. If I didn’t, the whole stinking business wouldn’t be so difficult.

For Jean Marc, it was ultimately the language of art and a profound love for his son that propelled him back to life.  This theme was brilliantly seared into my heart during a few pivotal scenes in the movie.

In one episode, Jean Marc recounts how he listened to his parents fight each night when the lights went out.  How he tried not to listen, but also wanted to hear what was being said.  How he buried his head in his pillow and then tried to forget the terrible things he’d heard when he woke each morning.  Jean Marc’s expressive explanation of how this emotionally influenced him as a child slammed me straight back to my own small home where my parents fought 24/7.  Yelling, screaming, hitting, crying …. deposit after deposit of heightened emotional turmoil into the heart of a child.  How can we possibly avoid those early monsters ushered in by the adults we love?

In another scene, Jean Marc describes how as a teen / very young adult he was violently raped by a large, brutish stranger.  The audience sat holding our breath as we listened to Jean Marc’s moving confessional.  How he sat outside on a park bench for two days after the incident, numb and dying inside, angered by those who had hurt him.  After the rape, the monsters in Jean Marc came into full force, determined to not only hurt others but to also hurt himself.  It’s a punishment we need to inflict on ourselves.  Somehow we blame ourselves as a way to hide, to push the pain we can’t bare away.  Let me feel this and that and whatever other horrible thing I can so as to wipe all this other stuff away.  In the end, it’s an emotional trap.

At Monkdogz’ exhibition of Jean Marc’s work (which runs through tomorrow), artist Esther Barend and I talked about the scene and I said to her, “I’ve never been raped like that ….but I feel like I have.” 

Isn’t that a ballsy thing to say?  Should I be ashamed? 

No, because perhaps you and I haven’t experienced exactly what happened to Jean Marc that terrible day, but we may have felt some of the same emotions.  Being used, physically hurt, and/or severely mistreated by someone bigger, stronger, and domineering causes a universal pain.  Jean Marc had the guts to tell us how it feels and as we listened, we knew we were hearing something profoundly honest.

The third scene that indelibly sticks with me is one in which Jean Marc describes how he stumbled upon art, and how doing so saved his life.  This is the part that reminds me of Jesus. 

I grew up being told that Jesus is the answer to everything.  I know there are millions of people out there who believe and will testify to the healing power of that message.  I’ve heard all the testimony.  I was spoon fed the information for year upon year, the same years that my own monsters were developing. 

Jean Marc describes how he stumbled upon some buckets of paint during the lowest point in his life, a time when he was literally taking his own life.  In a drug induced rage, he “fought” with the paint and the surfaces nearest to him as if it were all an extension of his misery, anger, and hopelessness. 

In my own way, I’ve experience a similar struggle.  I channeled life into something inanimate and then struggled with it.  I fought with it as if to save my life somehow.  In a fit of rage, I once sat in my car on the side of the road and violently ripped an entire bulky textbook apart into tiny pieces as if it was all that I hated, all that I wanted to conquer in myself that I couldn’t pull forth and destroy.  Instead the book became something alive that I could hurt and once I started, I couldn’t stop; I ripped every single page to shreds as if it were the flesh and blood of a person being ripped from its spine, and then I ripped the front and back covers from the stringy, tight center. It was in that same week that I also attempted to take my own life.

Such was Jean Marc’s nightmarish battle times 1,000, and in the end, he stepped back and saw his emotions.  I too, saw my emotions in the mutilation of something I loved most in the world (books).  Maybe in some way, you’ve seen yours.  For Jean Marc, it was magnified and redemptive because in that moment he found salvation. 

He found art.

Jean Marc’s remarkable discovery was the scene that brought back to me the idea of art being like Jesus … the reason for the season.  The end of the road, the pot of gold we search for in all our suffering and flight from whatever monsters and demons life has shown us, and from those we’ve created for ourselves.

We’re all apples and oranges of some sort, but in our heart of hearts, we’re all human.  The depth of our capacity to experience love, shame, hatred, joy, degradation, etc. likely varies but our ability to feel it, to recognize it, lies deep in the kernel of who we are. 
Dominic Allan’s CALVET takes one man’s struggle and shows us our own.
I’ll continue to think about art being like Jesus, and wonder if it could ever give us eternal salvation. It’s a perplexing question because for Jean Marc, it just may do that.  His may be the testimony heard through the ages. The call others continue to hear when they seem to have nothing left.

If you get a chance, go see the movie.

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