Chantelle Pence


“How do we talk about the darker sides of existence, in a way to make it beautiful?” I listened to the words of distinguished artist Garry Kaulitz from backstage at the Performing Arts Center. I leaned forward in my seat and held my arms tightly around my belly, trying to keep from shaking. The room was cool and my dress was thin. But the shiver came from deep within. He should be here, I thought.

I was receiving an award from the Rasmuson Foundation (along with 36 other Alaskan artists) to pursue my art seriously, as something valid and valuable to society. In the past I considered creative writing a hobby, though it often took more space in my brain and on my desk than work that paid. I used to say “I work as a consultant and play as a writer.” The recognition from my peers and the foundation has helped me to step fully into the idea that my art is worthy. I so wanted my son there to see.

Everyone is an artist in their own right. But there are some who can’t shake the urge to explore and express the mysteries of life. The dark places captivate. We want to know why. What is at the root, hidden below the things we can see? How can we talk about it, or draw, dance, or sing in a way that brings beauty? Surrounded by talented individuals, in a ceremony that honored the role of the artist, I was struck with the understanding that art is not just a hobby. It is vital to the wellbeing of society. He should be here…but he’s not. If I could turn back the clock, I would take my son out of an environment that thought him weird, and allow him to find his own way.

He tried to live his life according to what others would like. But the real him didn’t quite fit in the appropriate choices presented. He looked different from family and friends, a factor from day one. He loved to read and write, but math was a fight. Grey hair came in at age ten, after being kept at his desk for 30 minutes to complete a math assignment that didn’t make sense to him. That was the first time he mentioned suicide. When I asked him why, he said that he felt like he was in a brick room and he didn't know how to get out.

A poem from sixth grade proclaimed his feelings for school. “Six hours of working against your will. I’m tired of authority. It attempts to be fun…failed attempts,” he wrote. “Rivalry with other kids…Angry parents, teachers, principals…Some kids make their own rules.” Maybe what he was trying to say is that some kids are ruled by another way. The muse had a strong hold on him and, when he couldn’t let it all out it pulled him back in.

I could picture him there, at the Performing Arts Center. He was always so good on stage. The kid who was kicked out of more than one school could captivate an audience with his storytelling and songs. In one setting, he was a failure. In another, adored. When he had a guitar in his hands, people would exclaim how talented he was. His test scores told a different story. He stood at the bottom academically, so it was a short walk to join the army. It’s never good to look back for too long, but in hindsight I think that art could have saved his life.

Surrounded by creative energy, I couldn’t help but think that we missed a great opportunity. My son was a far better artist than me. I knew more than him about how to succeed in terms of fitting in and making money. But he was a master at turning darkness into beauty. He was just never told that it was truly worthy. The failure is my own, but it is also something built into our society.

It was with a humbled heart that I received the offering from the Rasmuson Foundation. I am so impressed with their example of how to love artists unconditionally. They do not ask the recipients to meet a standard set by another, but to create something new, pulled from the ethers. I wonder what would have become of my son had I loved him like that? Like an artist. A work of art.

Chantelle Pence
Anchorage, AK