Tractor: Simple Shapes Convey Complex Ideas

Daddy taught all of us to draw a tractor. We drew tractors every Sunday in church, sitting beside him or on his lap. So when our Sibling Discovery Project turned up tractor as a prompt, it was inevitable for at least one of us to bring that illustration into play. Norma did it.


She took that simple line drawing we all know and repeated it into a quilt block, angled and copied four times.

“I’m starting to see it as a wall hanging 30 inches square,” she said. “Four tractors, four children [our oldest sister died several years ago]. This will be a fun project to do this summer, so I’m filing it away as images to develop.”

* * *

And all of a sudden we were off on a complex conversation about the creative process—the very place we hoped these monthly conversations would go.

* * *

“This design is very accessible and fresh,” Norma observed of her own work. “I realize that sometimes I over-complicate things. And yet for years I over-simplified. It’s a balance. Good creativity to me is a mix of ingenuity and intellect.”

Paul, the woodcarver, also feels that need for balance. “You get the basic form, then embellish and refine. And where do you stop? Lots of times, ‘enough’ is about two steps before I decide to quit.”

That resonated with Norma, but in reverse. Not long ago she went back to read her own writing (this textile artist is also a creative writer) and realized her essays were all about three paragraphs short. “I left ideas undeveloped. Didn’t polish my verbs. Got tired and quit or lost heart,” she said.

I chimed in to say that my writing is a constant process of taking things out. “I compose ideas in my brain ahead of time. Then I spew all the details on to the page, then go back and remove what isn’t needed. Once in awhile, I need to add something, but usually I’m taking away.”

Paul’s art form does not offer that latitude. In woodcarving, you cannot add things back on. So Paul carves everything over and over in his head before ever touching the wood. However, he does know that he can usually reinvent a piece, as long as he doesn’t carve too deep. “That’s why you never carve the back of the head until you’re done with the face. You can get four faces before you’ve carved so far you have only a mask.”

Norma is grateful she can always glue and sew things back on, “because I need a lot of forgiveness!” But generally, she goes the opposite direction, adding complexity and layers.

She also assured us that all creativity requires editing—one way or another.

* * *

While Paul and I work in our minds before approaching the wood or the page, Norma’s best stuff happens in the moment. Perhaps this is because she has spent a lifetime becoming who she is and developing techniques and ideas. “It is not coming from nowhere,” she says, “but it is not a deliberate process.”

For example, she has no idea what the large project in her studio right now will look like when it’s finished. She has parameters, including sizes and colors and theme and her personal style. Fortunately, her client is comfortable with that.

* * *

Where did these instincts come from?

Paul recalled that our dad seldom did anything hastily. “In his repair work, I’m sure he had thought it out really well,” Paul said, remembering how Dad would approach a broken farm implement. “And in Mom’s cooking, she would add things, but once she found a recipe that worked, she pretty much stuck with it.”

Mom and Dad were creative models for Paul and me. But Norma feels her creativity developed largely away from home.

“Sometimes I even forget that our parents were creative,” she says. “I knew it, but didn’t see it for what it was. I knew they were makers. But I didn’t observe Dad’s process, whereas Paul observed him all the time. I could have observed Mom, but I wanted to be outside, so I did everything to avoid doing anything domestic. Neither of them could tell me how to arrange flowers, so they just gave me the books … [long pause] … Except I certainly did learn to lick the spoon!”

* * *

So, Norma wondered, why did Dad choose to draw tractors? (Paul recalls him drawing trucks too, just not as well.) This sent us into all kinds of musing:

Dad was a farmer, and he loved being a farmer.

Yet he did not draw wheat or piggies. He chose to draw tractors. He chose to draw a tool of farming, not a product.

Maybe he just thought it was easier to draw tractors than animals or plants. (!)

But he liked to tinker. He had mastery of the tractors. And what an interesting message that he conveyed to us every Sunday: his point of mastery.

* * *

What have we drawn with our children?

Paul drew tractors and cartoon faces. “My own drawing was to tell my kids that they could draw on the church bulletins, too—that it’s okay to keep your hands and mind occupied. And now I draw whatever I’m working on at the moment … leaves, the corners of the mouth, a nose, whatever.”

I said my kids and I often use pew time to create drawings that start from letters and digits. “A snowman from an number eight is obvious. But what can we make from a number seven or the letter J?”

Norma’s kids can probably draw that same tractor Dad taught us. But now, Norma doesn’t really draw. She is learning to draw more and to get more comfortable with it, but her best designing comes when she uses the scissors. In fact, she would be more comfortable with the tractor design above if she had cut the shapes.

* * *

As complement to Norma’s quilt square design, Paul and I did bring creative work to this discussion. I wrote “My Dad Drove an Orange Tractor,” a poem that honors our father and the unique Minneapolis Moline machines he chose for farming. Paul brought a concept for a carving: a 3-D representation of that same orange tractor’s nose, as if it were coming through the wall—”just that big grill with its horizontal lines and the MM emblem.”

* * *

Recalling an “aha” from our previous discussion, Norma said she has grown her appreciation of Dad as the “more creative” of our two parents. Mom embraced structure and rules and boundaries. Dad was the improviser. “They wound up in roles they weren’t really prepared for … the man as provider and sole breadwinner, the woman as homemaker,” she said. “Mom was not groomed to be a farm wife. She didn’t come into it knowing how to cook or sew.”

That made sense to me. When I took my first job out of college, more than 20 years ago, corporate America was foreign territory for this farm girl who had only seen men in suits on Sundays. Yet I have been able to succeed there. I prefer to thrive in my own small business, but that corporate experience has taught me lessons and skills that serve me well today.

Norma had a similar experience as military wife. While that role didn’t allow enough time with her primary strengths, she had lots of time to practice and develop her secondary strengths.

Paul talked about his current job as rural mail carrier. “I know where I have to be until retirement age, and I have my little bit of happiness [woodcarving] on the side. And I have a community I serve.”

We agreed that there are valuable lessons here, which we want to hand to our children:

Life isn’t always so good to us that we can be where we want to be. But we can still be authentic. We can have a sense of ourselves in every place that we are.

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