11 July

Ed As Artist: The Sanctity Of Creativity

by Jon Katz
Ed As Artist

“Creativity is a little like opening the gate at the top of a field irrigation system. Once we remove the blocks, the flow moves in.” – Julia Cameron.

Once Ed Gulley, a hard-working dairy farmer,  incorporated the creative spark into his life, he and his life  were never the same.

This week, sitting with Ed in the late afternoon in his suddenly quiet room I understood why so many spiritual people are creative, the great artists of old times all believed the creative spark came into being when God created the earth, at the time considered the greatest creative work ever.

I asked Ed if he wanted me to read some spiritual texts to him, he  said he did.

The Kabbalah, the texts of the Hebrew mystics, also often speaks of  the creative spark, the unique gift God gave only to human beings, of all the creatures of the earth.

No other species has felt the call to write poets and books or compose great works of music. In the Kabbalah, a gentle God warns that it is unacceptable to fail to unleash the creative spark inside of each of us.

I went to see Ed around 3:30 this afternoon, Carol wanted to go shopping and Maria went with her to keep her company. It was very quiet in the house, a friend and blog reader came by with spice cake and strawberries, which Ed devoured and loved

But for most of the afternoon, I just sat quietly next to Ed with a book while he sketched. Almost every colored pencil he used fell to the floor at one point or another, and I kept picking them up and putting them back in the box.

It was mostly silent time, when I wasn’t helping him to eat the strawberries and cake and taking away the plates. Silent time is a new thing for me and Ed, we are both talkers and story-tellers and this silence is new for both of us, and deeply spiritual for me.

But now, it feels natural and rewarding.

I told Ed that when he was deep in mystical rapture, St. Francis would often hear the sounds of music.

The Little Flowers of St. Francis tells us that one he was deep in meditation, “all of a sudden an angel appeared to him in a very bright light, holding a viol in his left hand and a bow in his right hand.”

As St. Francis gazed in amazement at the angel, the latter drew the bow once upward across the viol. In an instant a beautiful melody entered his consciousness and his soul “and suspended all of his bodily senses.”

Ed nodded and smiles, he seem to get the story.

I think any writer or artist or musician or sculptor will recognize this implosion of feeling and impulse. It is the embodiment of the creative spark, it is the great joy of creation.

I thought I saw and felt this watching Ed  focus so intensely on his sketches today,  perhaps his last remaining path to dignity and meaning, the one contribution he can make, the last productive thing he can still do.

I am not sure about God, but if he is real, he was in that room, shining a light on Ed, who seemed to gain strength and power as he drew. There almost seemed to be a light on him.

Suddenly, just close to 6 p.m., he turned to me and said he thought he needed to sleep, and  we lowered the bed and his eyes closed, and I said goodbye and held his hand. He was already deep in sleep, it just took seconds.  The sketches exhausted and depleted him.

I took the pencils and the sketches and put them on the table next to his bed.

He would not awaken until much later in the night, and I would be gone.

My new afternoon activity with Ed is to just sit  with him, I think we are past talking much or telling stories or taking videos. Silence can be a gift at the right time and place. My hospice work taught me about Active Listening, and people at the edge of life need it and value it.

I don’t try to cheer Ed up or tell him things will be fine, I am not there to do that, and he would spot it as a lie right away. People at the edge of life hate it when people try to cheer them up or tell them everything will be okay.

Ed can no longer sit up or stand up, he is confined to bed, and subject to all of the indignities that come with that.

At night, I am told, he is sometimes fearful and emotional. I rarely see that in my visits.

When I see him, he is very quiet and focused completely on his sketches, they were good and colorful today. It was warm, and he chose to be shirtless. He had no lectures to give me, or stories to tell me.

There was something very powerful and very spiritual about this image above. I asked him if it was okay to take a photo, and he said, as he always does, “sure.”

When he sketches, Ed seems to go deeply inside of himself. He is transformed, he appears strong and healthy, even though his cancer is making its way through his body and changing him in real and visible ways.

When people are terminally ill, there is an initial rush of visitors, then it quiets, and most people don’t return.

It is hard for many, and they don’t know what to say. A neighbor came to the farmhouse today and told Carol she was thinking of them, but she couldn’t bear to go and see Ed. She wanted to remember as the big and powerful man that he was. Carol said she  understood.

My photography has once again become the best vehicle to tell Ed’s story, as he gathers himself to die. I thought I would have to stop taking photos, but not yet.

The farmhouse seems more peaceful to me than before, I think there is more acceptance there, almost every becomes somewhat normal if it goes on long enough.

The presence of hospice has taken a great deal of pressure off of Carol and the family to make all the decisions about his health care and well-being and comfort. Whatever happens, they are ready.

I feel some peace in Ed now, and in the farmhouse around him. And great peace in his room.

It is unfortunate that most people don’t think of themselves as creative beings, even though all of us are. Religion and politics teach people to follow strict rules of thought and behavior. There is nothing in public life less creative or thoughtful than the left or the right, both symbolize the death of thought  and creativity in public life.

Parents consciously snuff out their children’s creative urges by telling them to grow up, choose careers, find day jobs, get real, move to big cities where there is work, go to expensive colleges. At every step of their lives, children are warned to be practical, avoid daydreaming or fantasizing. So many are ridiculed for being different or thinking differently, the birth of creativity.

Almost everyone I meet tells me they are not creative, our culture has done a good job of leeching creativity out of them an robbing them of creative courage or faith. Creatives are the others, people who get paid poorly to make art and music and literature, people to not be taken  seriously in the land of money.

The author Julia Cameron teaches seminars in unleashing creativity. She  refers to God as the “Great Creator,” and says the secret of unleashing the creative spark lies in an “experience of the mystical union” with our own personal divine. Creativity, she says, is “God’s gift to us. Using our creativity is  our gift back to God.”

I know what the means, even if I have my own ideas of God.

Ed reminds us that the creative spark is in all of us. Perhaps it always needs the nourishment of creativity to rise and grow. Perhaps that’s all it needs.


  1. I’ve experienced that precious time of sitting quietly with dying loved ones, and it makes me sad to think that many people are fearful of it. I relive these deep and meaningful experiences through your powerful writing. They changed me. God bless you all.

  2. This is one of the most powerful and beautiful photos I have ever seen from you.

    As Marianane says, those of us who have spent sacred time with dying loved ones know what this feels like. I remember when my beloved crossed some line and it was just a few close people allowed in the circle. It is such an honor to be The Friend They Truly Need.

    I remember as my beloved came in and out of consciousness, she would tell me about being in heaven with her dog from our youth together, and a friend who had passed of the same disease not long before her.

  3. This is such a powerful and spiritual photo, Jon. It puts me in mind of an “Old Masters”painting. Ed looks so focused, yet serene. Definitely see the “light” surrounding him. Thank you for your poignant writings and photos during what surely must be a difficult time for all who know and love him.

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