I remember it so well. I was sitting in the Camp DeSoto Craft Shop on a wooden stool that rocked back and forth on the uneven stone floor. I was ten years old, and at this moment things were not going well. I was trying desperately to paint the perfect angel - I had seen the craft’s counselors’ prototypes, I had a vision in my mind, and I simply could not make it work.
The angel I wanted to paint was ethereal and soft and dainty. In my mind’s eye I saw her, floating across the page in her gauzy pink robe with the slightest glow of a halo casting soft yellow light on her mangificent wings.
The angel painted on the page in front of me was thick with paint in too-bright colors, the wings looked like they belonged on a butterfly, and the halo looked like a yellow frisbee. Not golden. Not soft. Not beautiful. Every additional stroke of the brush only made everything worse. I could feel the tears well up behind my eyes.
Susan, one of my favorite counselors, saw my frusteration. She came to sit next to me.
Susan was a real artist. I was in awe of her. She was always messy with paint, and her hair was usually pulled back from her face in a casual, haphazard way that I envied. She was whimsical, and I didn’t even know what that meant yet. She made magic happen with paint, and I wanted desperately for my angel to look like hers.
“I can’t get it right!” I told her in exasperation. “It’s not like it’s supposed to be. I ruined it.”
Without trying to explain away my dismay, or convince me it was a beautiful angel (it wasn’t), Susan started to teach me. She showed me how to mix colors and brush on lighter strokes so the paint would look ethereal and transluscent. She helped me paint away the frisbee-halo until it was just a soft glow of light. She helped me trim the edges of the wings until they started to look strong and majestic. Soon, from my own clumsy beginnings, I started to see a graceful, angelic figure take shape.
In the end, my angel looked nothing like Susan’s. The halo floated a little to the left of center. Her wings weren’t symmetrical. She was not perfect, and she did not look like Susan’s angel. But she was beautiful.
I know Susan talked with me as I painted. But I can’t tell you what she said. All I know is that was the first time I realized that things don’t have to be perfect to be good or beautiful.
I often think about that day in the Craft Shop. I learned a few things about how to make a better painting. But I learned a lot more about having grace for myself. About not abandoning something when it doesn’t look just like I wanted it to. About staying with the not-quite beautiful things in life until you begin to see the beauty emerge.
I don’t know if Susan knows this story. But a few years ago she sent me a post-card written on the back of one of her paintings. It was a painting of an angel.
That painting is now framed and hanging above my desk. Susan’s angel is a daily reminder of the grace I discovered as a ten year-old, struggling to make art in the Camp DeSoto Craft Shop. I still want things to be perfect. They never are. But they can still be beautiful.
Susan, thank you for noticing my ten-year-old struggle and meeting me there. Thank you for not trying to convice me that my painting was beautiful, which might have been simpler, but instead teaching me to keep going until it really was.
I imagine God has met a few other people in the Camp DeSoto Craft Shop over the years. I like to think of the Holy Spirit hanging out down there, teaching girls the gospel through paint and clay, messes, mistakes, and masterpieces. On summer days Camp is full of girls learning all kinds of things from how to post a trot and paddle a j-stroke to how to sew a seam and shoot a bullseye. But they are also learning so much more.