St. Augustine once wrote that he carried a “question” with him at all times: “My question was the attention I gave to the world, and its reply was its beauty.”
Beauty—no matter our taste—demands our attention.
This past summer I began looking again at my new surroundings: the city of Nashville. In hopes of recording some beautiful “answers” with my paintbrush, I’d get up early and catch the morning light as it woke up the world. One such morning I sat down on a curb across the street from a hilariously pink Mexican grocery, and began to paint. That hot pink screamed for my attention!
Following my habit I started working quickly to capture the essence of the scene, when steadily—one by one—construction workers began setting up on the street not five feet in front of me. Workers. Cones. A truck. Another truck. Boom! Construction blocked!
“I can’t go anywhere in this town without running into construction,” I huffed, packing up my supplies. That’s when the lightning bolt struck:
Construction is everywhere.
From roads to skyscrapers and traffic cones to tower cranes, the multicolored landscape of construction had one thing in common: my attention.
But could it be beautiful?
Having worked in and around construction in the past, I realize it can be a dirty, inglorious job, to say the least. But I looked up at the workers anyway, and saw the wicked contrast between the long purple shadows on the road and the intense chartreuse glints reflecting off their safety vests. Playing off the hot pink grocery backdrop, a laser orange flashed off of the octagonal “SLOW” signs while hints of cool blues covered the white work trucks.
The very next day I set up at a new location: my new mission of painting Nashville construction set in motion. I soon discovered the Nashville Business Journal’s “Crane Watch”, which allowed me easy access to a different jobsite every day. Breathing the air, taking in the hum of a worksite, construction became a language that took on deeper meaning.
I stared at the tower cranes like an idiot, wondering why they never seem to get credit for the final building product. I filled my phone with pictures of “ugly” buildings in progress, completely captivated by getting to see the guts and bones of a structure take shape. I mourned the loss of the moment, knowing one day all those wacky colors of underlayment will be hidden underneath slick gray stucco or yet another sheet of boring glass.
To me, the language of construction helped me talk about the process of becoming—that with all of its mess we can experience the growth process as the thing of beauty. I’m acquainted with the realities on the ground that make such beauty seem impossible, but so is God.
Tucked away in Hebrews 3 this little sentence caught my attention like a pink wall: “Every house is built by someone, but God is the builder of everything.” If we had a mustard seed of faith to think about God—like those unacknowledged cranes—as a builder of people, would that allow us to appreciate our present construction zone?
Unlike a building, we will never be finished, right? So why worry obsess about producing? Why worry about tomorrow when the day’s work is enough? Sanctification, they used to call it. Beauty in the pain. Joy in the struggle.
I paint construction sites because I can’t help it. It feels as essential as breath. Thomas Merton once wrote, “What I do is live, what I wear is pants, how I pray is breathe.” Painting on location at a construction site, I hear an echo of Merton: “how I paint is breathe.”
** Editor’s note: Selected works from Tony Sobota’s The Art of Construction and more are currently on display at The Arts Company Gallery in downtown Nashville, Tenn.