Gathering Blue is set in a town that, long after a worldwide catastrophe called the Ruin, is primarily characterized by the struggle to survive. It is a world without art, a world in which the villagers see art as lacking any practical purpose, and therefore as being useless. The novel focuses, though, on three young artists: Kira, who excels at weaving, Thomas, who excels at carving wood, and Jo, who excels at singing. Through the experiences of these artists in a village without art, the novel comments on art and the creative instinct, as well as the way that art can be abused by the powerful and the requirements and responsibilities of art.
In the novel, the “creative gift’ is presented as almost mystical, something that no one—including the artists themselves—fully understands. Kira’s develops her talent for weaving in part by practicing with her mother, Katrina, but for the most part her abilities require no education at all: she’s born with them. Similarly, Thomas becomes a great wood carver without anyone to help him, and Jo learns to sing without any training whatsoever. Further, at times the artists’ creativity gives them an almost magical power to see the future. We see this most clearly in Kira, who senses whether there is danger, or whether something important is going to happen, whenever she touches the cloth she wove as a child. In this way the novel seems to suggest that artists are in tune with the world and are able to represent and understand that world in profound and powerful ways.
While the origin of artistic talent is presented as mysterious, the government of the village—the Council of Guardians—shows itself to be very adept at using art. The Council takes the three artists of the village from their uncomfortable circumstances and gives them comfortable lives in the Council Edifice. But the Council also gives them very specific, very controlled jobs for their art: to embroider the robe, carve the staff, and sing the Ruin Song that are the centerpieces of the village’s annual Gathering. And further, the song and artifacts perform a very specific purpose at the Gathering: they describe the history of the world in such a way as to show an endless cycle of growth and decay that will teach the villagers that, since “Ruin” is inevitable and no real progress can be made, it’s every man for himself. Put another way: the Council uses the artists it controls to produce art that influences the people it rules to act in a way that benefits the government. There is a name for art used in this sort of political way — propaganda.
As the novel progresses, Kira and the other artists come to be unsatisfied with the “art” that they are being asked to produce. Part of this dissatisfaction comes from the fact that there is no actual creativity to their art: they are told what to do. Even when Kira is given the opportunity to design the undecorated part of the robe, it’s clear that the Council is going to tell her what to weave. But such “controlled” art is also unsatisfying because it makes the art worse. Both Kira and Thomas come to feel that they have lost touch with their innate creativity when they are working for the Council. Thomas comments that the carving he made as a child was far more creative than anything he’s done for the Council.
Ultimately, Kira decides to take control of her art, and to weave the undecorated part of the robe according to her own creative instincts, not the orders of the Council. Kira realizes that art is powerful, but recognizes that it is most powerful when controlled by the artist herself, and when she decides to stay in the village rather than leave with her father she embraces the fact that through art an artist can share their own vision with the world and create change.
Art and Creative Instinct ThemeTracker
Art and Creative Instinct Quotes in Gathering Blue
"Of course not. Your strong hands and wise head make up for the crippled leg. You are a sturdy and reliable helper in the weaving shed; all the women who work there say so. And one bent leg is of no importance when measured against your cleverness. The stories you tell to the tykes, the pictures you create with words — and with thread! The threading you do! It is unlike any threading the people have ever seen. Far beyond anything I could do!"
Kira had always had a clever way with her hands. When she was still a tyke, her mother had taught her to use a needle, to pull it through woven fabric and create a pattern with colored threads. But suddenly, recently, the skill had become more than simple cleverness. In one astounding burst of creativity, her ability had gone far beyond her mother's teaching. Nov/, without instruction or practice, without hesitancy, her fingers felt the way to twist and weave and stitch the special threads together to create designs rich and explosive with color. She did not understand how the knowledge had come to her. But it was there, in her fingertips, and now they trembled slightly with eagerness to start. If only she was allowed to stay.
Now, secret in her hand, the cloth seemed to speak a silent, pulsing message to Kira. It told her there was danger still. But it told her also that she was to be saved.
"This is the entire story of our world. We must keep it intact. More than intact."
She saw that his hand had moved and was stroking the wide unadorned section of fabric, the section of the cloth that fell across the Singer's shoulders.
"The future will be told here," he said. "Our world depends upon the telling.”
The Singer's robe contained only a few tiny spots of ancient blue, faded almost to white. After her supper, after the oil lamps had been lit, Kira examined it carefully. She lay her threads — the ones from her own small collection and the many others that Annabella had given to her — on the large table, knowing she would have to match the hues carefully in daylight before she began the repairs. It was then that she noticed — with relief because she would not know how to repair it; and with disappointment because the color of sky would have been such a beautiful addition to the pattern — that there was no real blue any more, only a hint that there once had been.
When he read the word hollyhock aloud with his finger on the word, she saw that it was long, with many lines like tall stems. She turned her eyes away quickly so that she would not learn it, would not be guilty of something clearly forbidden to her. But it made her smile, to see it, to see how the pen formed the shapes and the shapes told a story of a name.
"It's a lovely thing," he said, seeing the small cloth. Kira stroked it before she closed the lid.
"It speaks to me somehow," she told him. "It seems almost to have life." She smiled, embarrassed, because she knew it was an odd thing and that he would not understand and could perhaps find her foolish.
But Thomas nodded. "Yes," he said to her surprise. "I have a piece of wood that does the same. One I carved long ago, when I was just a tyke.
"And sometimes I feel it in my fingers still, the knowledge that I had then.” He turned to leave.
That you had then? No more? The knowledge doesn't stay? Kira was dismayed at the thought but she said nothing to her friend.
The fabric gave a kind of answer but it was no more than a flutter, like a breeze across her that she would not remember when she woke at dawn. The scrap told her something of her father — something important, something that mattered — but the knowledge entered her sleep, trembling through like a dream, and in the morning she did not know that it was there at all.
Ruin. Rebuilding. Ruin again. Regrowth. Kira followed the scenes with her hand as larger and greater cities appeared and larger, greater destruction took place. The cycle was so regular that its pattern took on a clear form: an up-and-down movement, wavelike. From the tiny corner where it began, where the first ruin came, it enlarged upon itself. The fires grew as the villages grew. All of them were still tiny, created from the smallest stitches and combinations of stitches, but she could see their pattern of growth and how each time the ruin was worse and the rebuilding more difficult.
But the sections of serenity were exquisite. Miniature flowers of countless hues flourished in meadows streaked with golden-threaded sunlight. Human figures embraced. The pattern of the peaceful times felt immensely tranquil compared to the tortured chaos of the others.
Tracing with her finger the white and pink-tinged clouds against pale skies of gray or green, Kira wished again for blue. The color of calm.
As Kira prepared for bed, she thought about the frightened, lonely tyke below. What songs were they forcing her to learn? Why was she here at all? Ordinarily an orphaned tyke would be turned over to another family. It was the same question that she and Thomas had discussed the day before. And the answer seemed to be the conclusion they had reached: they were artists, the three of them. Makers of song, of wood, of threaded patterns. Because they were artists, they had some value that she could not comprehend. Because of that value, the three of them were here, well fed, well housed, and nurtured.
Kira did too. She wanted her hands to be free of the robe so that they could make patterns of their own again. Suddenly she wished that she could leave this place, despite its comforts, and return to the life she had known. She buried her face in the bedclothes and for the first time cried in despair.
"Why must there be such a horrible place?" Kira whispered to Thomas. "Why do people have to live like this?" "It's how it is," he replied, frowning. "It's always been."
A sudden vision slid into Kira's mind. The robe. The robe told how it had always been; and what Thomas had said was not true. There had been times — oh, such long ago times — when people's lives had been golden and green. Why could there not be such times again? She began to say it to him.
"Thomas," she suggested, "you and I? We're the ones who will fill in the blank places. Maybe we can make it different."
The three of them — the new little Singer who would one day take the chained Singer's place; Thomas the Carver, who with his meticulous tools wrote the history of the world; and she herself, the one who colored that history — they were the artists who could create the future.
The guardians with their stern faces had no creative power. But they had strength and cunning, and they had found a way to steal and harness other people's powers for their own needs. They were forcing the children to describe the future they wanted, not the one that could be.