I attended a talk that graphic designer Debbie Millman gave the other week in which she jokingly drew a comparison of designers to janitors. While most people in the audience laughed at what was meant to be a lighthearted joke, Debbie’s comment brought back a flood of thoughts from my years as an undergraduate art student. It made think of a janitor who was responsible for taking care of the art building.
The building in which most of the art classes are held on the Cal State University, Long Beach campus is a four-story slab of mid-century California Modernism. The halls and classrooms are musty with the quintessential milieu of 1970’s academia; linoleum floors, constantly malfunctioning hydraulic door closers, and a single stuffy elevator whose noises constantly give you reason for worry. It is the kind of conventional state-funded academic building that you can imagine was once shiny and new, but is beginning to age, and—as with many buildings funded by state dollars—not necessarily with a whole lot of grace.
Still, a building needs to be maintained, and so every morning at around 4am, The Janitor—whose job consists of cleaning and maintaining all four floors—starts his rounds. While I never learned his name, I found myself on campus at 4am enough that we established a kind of rapport. He’d empty garbage cans, and if our paths were to cross I would simply say “Thank you”, to which he’d nod and smile.
Occasionally I observed him in his work. What most of us might see as a set of menial tasks, he saw as a series of problems to be solved in the most efficient way possible. He ganged up tasks according to tool, location, or duration, many times managing to take care of two or three tasks at once. Not only that, he went about his work with relish; with a gusto that one would normally reserve for…well, for art. There was most certainly a studied & finely honed fluidity in his movements. He wielded a mop in smooth, languid passes, not unlike the pencils or brushes used by some of the best drawing & painting instructors I’ve ever studied under. And like a designer, his audience was one that would probably never see his artistry; that would realize the value of his craft only in his absence.
People that I talk to who aren’t in a so-called “creative” field always lament their lack of creativity. I always contend that there is an inherent artistry in nearly everything that we do. Whether the individual grace of a simple janitor going about his rounds, or the systemic harmony of a diner’s staff fulfilling the orders of the morning rush-hour, art is part and parcel of our everyday lives; it is woven into the very fabric of our culture. While some threads of the zeitgeist might be brighter than others, we would do well to remind ourselves of the larger tapestry. And of those unsung painters whose brush might just happen to be a broom.