By grace and serendipity I recently had the chance to visit the Bauhaus Archive in Berlin, Germany. In looking through some of the color studies by Johannes Itten and Paul Klee I was shocked to discover something new to me—albeit embarrassingly elementary—about how colors work in conversation with each other. I realize that in sharing my discovery here, I showcase how little I really know about visual arts in general and color theory more specifically; but the discovery was important to me as a writing teacher nonetheless.
Before visiting the Bauhaus Archive, I understood that colors across from each other on the color wheel are compliments and that juxtaposed compliments add depth and vibrancy. I could explain to my kids that blue and orange look great together by talking about them as direct opposites. But at the Bauhaus Archive I saw for the first time that the reason orange is so great with blue is because orange is made up of red and yellow. Suddenly, I understood that a composition of compliments is an expression of wholeness in that it represents all three primary colors. “Wow,” I said aloud. “Blue and orange is really blue and the others mixed together.”
Thinking about colors all mixed together calls me back to my last three-day stint as a volunteer writing teacher at California State Prison-Sacramento. The stories that were written and shared last time I was inside were deeply moving. At one point I found myself looking down at my shoes—hot tears blurring the view—as tender stories of dead grandmothers, dead daughters, and dead nephews stripped away my professional pretense. For me, thinking about the stories I hear as bits of color helps me see that opportunities to write our stories can be opportunities to write ourselves as whole.
When an incarcerated writer writes tenderly about his grandmother cooking for him in the months before she passed away, he writes a purple story on a yellow canvas; the yellow and the purple work together, and I—as receiver—see his wholeness. When an incarcerated writer writes about the Saturday morning ritual of cartoons and cereal in oversized bowls that he shared with his young daughter he writes orange on blue and I—as receiver of this story—see his wholeness. And when an incarcerated writer writes about a nephew who could not choose violence and died for his choice, he writes green on red—he writes wholeness.
Before Bauhaus, I thought about the stories I hear at the prison as complications of dominant narratives—narratives about criminals, crime, poverty, race, class, gender, and so on. Framing the story-writing process with basic color theory helps me see that the powerful humanness of narrative is less about complications and opposites and more about the opportunity to write ourselves as whole by looking at our work-in-process canvases and writing over and into the spaces weighed down by one dominant hue.