State of the Art

Art changed my life (again) today

By Lawrence Toppman

Johnny Thornton painted this impression of a stained glass window. My photo doesn’t quite do it justice.
Johnny Thornton painted this impression of a stained glass window. My photo doesn’t quite do it justice.

Longtime readers know I go to the UMAR fund-raising luncheon every year. Its main purpose is to bring in dough for the Huntersville-based organization, which serves more than 400 physically or developmentally disabled adults in group homes and programs. This remains an especially crucial year for UMAR; cuts in government funding took away $216,000 of its budget for arts programs.

That’s worrisome, because my main purpose at these lunches is to find something beautiful. This year, I picked “Painting of Stained Glass” by Johnny Thornton. Despite the grayness of the day and the grayness of my mood – I was coming back to the office after an illness I didn’t shake for nearly three weeks – the sun shone in my hands as I carried the piece to my car.

I could have chosen a wry wire sculpture of a kite flier or ballerina. I might have picked one of the thick, comforting scarves. I browsed among jewelry and photography and oil paintings and boxes cheerfully decorated with ceramic hearts. In the end, I walked away with the piece that reminded me of Georges Rouault’s stained glass windows. Is the central figure in this painting a dancer? A bird? A flower? Is it even a figure at all? I’ll enjoy pondering the possibilities.

For a hundred reasons, it’s easy to judge people quickly. Looking at UMAR residents who have difficulty speaking or behave differently than we do, the first reaction can be limiting: What could these folks possibly accomplish? Seeing this annual outburst of creativity always cheers me, reminds me to think twice before making snap judgments about anybody and slightly intimidates me: I haven’t a tenth of the ability of some of the visual artists and weavers in this annual exhibition.

Before the luncheon, the UMAR choir sang “Open the eyes of my heart, Lord.” Each time I see Thornton’s painting, I’ll be reminded that too few of us really walk through the world with our eyes open. Even fewer remember to open the eyes of our hearts.