Noah and Jude, the twin protagonists of the novel, are both artists. Throughout the book, Nelson shows how the siblings’ respective relationships to their art grows and changes alongside their relationships with themselves and one another. Noah at thirteen years old is the proprietor of his own “invisible museum”—he can hardly restrain himself from painting and drawing either on paper or in his mind everything and everyone he sees. Jude, meanwhile, is shy and private about her art—she only makes sand sculptures that wash away with the tide. Three years into the future, however, it is Jude—not Noah—who has secured a place at the prestigious local art high school while Noah has ripped up his sketchbooks and, as far as everyone knows, abandoned art-making altogether. As Noah and Jude take turns embracing, questioning, and denying their artistry, Nelson argues that art is a way of communicating through pain, through grief, and even through times when all other forms of connection have failed.
Art means different things to Noah and Jude at different points in the novel. As their relationships to their art grow and change, Nelson points out the ways in which art is, alternatingly, a way of self-expression and communication, both a selfish act and a communal one at different times in one’s life. At the start of the novel, both Noah and Jude use art primarily as a mode of private, contained self-expression. The two, at thirteen, are still figuring out who they are, and wrestling with feelings of insecurity and uncertainty. In their art, Noah and Jude are able to take steps towards announcing who they want to be and how they want to be seen—by each other, and by the wider world.
Noah in particular has an intense creative drive. When he’s not drawing in his sketchbook, he’s painting pictures in his mind—he calls his mental drawings “the invisible museum.” His frequent invocations of portraits and self-portraits titled to reflect profound, happy, or traumatic moments in his life show that for him, art is a way of making sense of the world around him. As a nervous introvert struggling with budding feelings of desire for men, Noah uses the invisible museum as a way of imagining a world that makes sense to him and plays by his rules.
Jude, meanwhile, is intimidated by her brother’s artistic streak—and her art-professor mother Dianna’s admiration of Noah’s drive and talent. Jude knows that art is something which connects Noah to their mother and feels it is an arena in which she can’t hope to compete against Noah. Jude, however, has an artistic drive of her own. Her private passion is a series of “flying women” made out of sand, which she painstakingly constructs down at the beach just before the tide comes in only to watch them wash away at the end of each work session. Noah and Jude both regard their art as a private matter, and when Dianna tries to groom them for admission to the prestigious high school for the arts, CSA, the pressure becomes too much for the quietly competitive siblings to bear. When Dianna elevates Noah’s work above Jude’s, Jude begins pursuing a vibrant social life with a new group of friends and neglecting her artistic drive—until, shortly after Dianna’s death, she sabotages Noah’s application to CSA to ensure that she herself will be afforded a spot.
Later in the novel—in Jude’s “future” timeline—art slowly becomes a way for Noah and Jude to communicate. Though the two have grown estranged in the years since their mother’s death, in their sixteenth year, both twins find a way to use their art to bridge the schism that has formed between them and find a new way of looking at art, at each other, and at what their very different artistic practices mean to both of them. At CSA, Jude is floundering. She is working in clay sculptures, but her projects keep mysteriously breaking—she believes that her mother’s ghost is haunting her work and purposefully destroying it as a result of her own subterfuge in destroying Noah’s CSA application. She is feeling deflated and useless, and even longs to drop out, when she is struck by inspiration—she wants to work in stone, and she wants to carve a statue of her mother as a way of communicating with Dianna. When Jude becomes a student of the reluctant, heartbroken, and intimidating “rock star” sculptor Guillermo Garcia, she soon realizes that what she wants to carve is not a statue of her mother, but rather a statue of herself and Noah. Over the course of her apprenticeship with Garcia, she comes to understand that though Dianna is gone, Noah is still here—and that saving their compromised relationship is more important than anything.
Noah, on the other hand, has ripped up all his childhood drawings by the age of sixteen. After a disastrous falling-out with his first real love, Brian, he has chosen to abandon art and repress not just his sexuality but his artistic drives as well. Noah makes friends with many of Jude’s former pals and takes up dangerous habits, like drinking and cliff-diving, in place of his art. Still, the invisible museum cycles on, and Noah cannot stop imagining the pictures he would paint if he still considered himself an artist. Towards the end of the novel, after he and Jude reconcile, he reveals that all along, he has been working on a giant mural at an abandoned construction site. When Jude sees Noah’s mural, she sees “the world, remade”; all the guilt she’s harbored about destroying Noah’s chances at an artistic future is washed away when she realizes that he has remained true to himself all along, and has not given up on finding a way to communicate with his sister despite all that has come between them.
Art is the force that drives Noah and Jude apart as children—and the thing that reunites them as young adults. When all other forms of communication between the once-inseparable twins have broken down, their tempestuous but ultimately nourishing relationships with art, a force they both in their own ways fear and worship, allow them to bridge the gap between them and find their way back to one another.
Art, Self-Expression, and Communication ThemeTracker
Art, Self-Expression, and Communication Quotes in I’ll Give You the Sun
[Jude] scoots over so we’re shoulder to shoulder. This is us. Our pose. The smush. It’s even how we are in the ultrasound photo they took of us inside Mom and how I had us in the picture Fry ripped up yesterday. Unlike most everyone else on earth, from the very first cells of us, we were together, we came here together. This is why no one hardly notices that Jude does most of the talking for both of us, why we can only play piano with all four of our hands on the keyboard and not at all alone, why we can never do Rochambeau because not once in thirteen years have we chosen differently. It’s always: two rocks, two papers, two scissors. When I don’t draw us like this, I draw us as half-people.
The calm of the smush floods me. She breathes in and I join her. Maybe we’re too old to still do this, but whatever. I can see her smiling even though I’m looking straight ahead. We exhale together, then inhale together, exhale, inhale, in and out, out and in, until not even the trees remember what happened in the woods yesterday, until Mom’s and Dad’s voices turn from mad to music, until we’re not only one age, but one complete and whole person.
Mom says Jude acts the way she does now on account of hormones, but I know it’s on account of her hating me. She stopped going to museums with us ages ago, which is probably a good thing, because when she did, her shadow kept trying to strangle mine. I’d see it happening on the walls or on the floor. Sometimes lately, I catch her shadow creeping around my bed at night trying to pull the dreams out of my head. I have a good idea what she does instead of coming to the museum, though. Three times now, I’ve seen hickeys on her neck. Bug bites, she said. Sure. I heard while spying that she and Courtney Barrett have been riding bikes down to the boardwalk on weekends, where they see who can kiss more boys.
(Portrait: Jude Braiding Boy After Boy into Her Hair)
He points to my pad. “So I guess you just talk in there, is that it?”
“Pretty much,” I say. We’re under a streetlamp and I’m trying not to stare but it’s hard. I wish the world would stick like a clock so I could look at him for as long as I want. There’s something going on in his face right now, something very bright trying to get out—a dam keeping back a wall of light. His soul might be a sun. I’ve never met anyone who had the sun for a soul.
I want to say more so he doesn’t leave. I feel so good, the freaking green leafy kind of good. “I paint in my head,” I tell him. “I was the whole time.” I’ve never told anyone I do this, not even Jude, and I have no idea why I’m telling him. I’ve never let anyone into the invisible museum before.
After a while, she picks up her fist. I do the same. “One two three,” we say at the same time.
“Yes!” she cries. “We still got it, yes we do!” She jumps to her feet. “We can watch the Animal Channel tonight. Or a movie? You can pick.”
“I want to—”
“Me too,” I reply, knowing what she was going to say. I want to be us again too.
(Portrait, Self-portrait: Brother and Sister on a Seesaw, Blindfolded)
She smiles, touches my arm. “Don’t be sad.” She says it so warmly, it makes the air change color. “It came right through the wall last night.” This was worse when we were younger. If one cried, the other cried even if we were on different sides of Lost Cove. I didn’t think it happened anymore.
“I’m fine,” I say.
She nods. “See you tonight then if Mom and I don’t kill each other.” She gives a salute and is off.
I don’t know how this can be but it can: A painting is both exactly the same and entirely different every single time you look at it. That’s the way it is between Jude and me now.
“This sculpture needs to be made so much you cry like this?”
I turn around. He’s leaning against the wall by the painting of the kiss, his arms crossed.
“Yes,” I gasp out, then say more calmly, “Yes.” Is he changing his mind? The sob begins to retreat.
He’s stroking his chin. His expression softens. “You need to make this sculpture so badly, you will risk your young life by sharing space with a disease-carrying cat?”
“Yes. Totally, yes. Please.”
“You are sure you want to forsake the warm, moist breath of clay for the cold, unforgiving eternity of stone.”
“I am sure.” Whatever that means.
“Come back tomorrow afternoon. Bring your portfolio and a sketchpad. And tell your brother to give you back the sun, trees, stars, all of it already. I think you need.”
“I’ve tried everything to get through to her, Guillermo. Absolutely everything. I have this weird book and I scour it for ideas nonstop. I’ve done it all. I’ve slept with her jewelry under my pillow. I’ve stood on the beach at midnight, holding up a picture of the two of us to a blue moon. I’ve written letters to her and put them in her coat pockets, in red mailboxes. I’ve thrown messages into storms. I recite her favorite poem to her every night before I go to bed. And all she does is break what I make. That’s how angry she is.” I’ve started to sweat. “It would kill me if she broke this.” My lips are trembling. Covering my mouth, I add, “It’s the one thing I have.”
A week after Dad’s forgotten birthday, with the rain beating the crap out of the house, Mom and Dad seat Jude and me in the frozen part the living room no one ever sits in to inform us that Dad’s temporarily moving down to the Lost Cove Hotel. […] Mom tells us he’ll be renting a studio apartment by the week until they can work out some issues they’re having.
Even though we haven’t spoken in forever, I can feel Jude’s heart clenching and unclenching inside my chest with mine.
“What issues?” she asks, but after that the rain gets so loud I can’t hear what anyone’s saying anymore. I’m convinced the storm’s going to bust down the walls. Then it does and I’m remembering Dad’s dream because it’s happening. I watch as the wind sweeps everything off the shelves: knickknacks, books, a vase of purple flowers. No one else notices. I grip the armrests of the chair tight.
(Family Portrait: Assume the Crash Position)
I can hear Mom’s voice again. It’s calm, too calm, yellow fluttering birds that don’t belong in this life-bucking tempest. “We still love each other very much,” she says. “We just both need some space right now.” She looks at Dad. “Benjamin?”
“This afternoon I teach you to use the power tools. With these you must be so, so careful. The chisel, like life, allows for second chances. With the saws and drills, often there is no second chance.”
I stop walking. “You believe that? About second chances? In life, I mean.” […]
“Of course, why not? Even God, he have to make the world twice.” His hands take to the air. “He make the first world, decide it is a very terrible world he made, so he destroy with the flood. Then he try again, start it all over with—”
“With Noah,” I say, finishing his sentence.
“Yes, so if God can have two tries, why not us? Or three or three hundred tries.” He laughs under his breath. “You will see, only with the diamond blade circular saw do you have one chance.” He strokes his chin. “But even then sometimes you make a catastrophic mistake, you think I am going to kill myself because the sculpture is ruined, but in the end it come out more incredible than had you not made the mistake. This is why I love the rocks. When I sculpt with clay, it feel like cheating. It is too easy. It has no will of its own. The rocks are formidable. They stand up to you. It is a fair fight. Sometimes you win. Sometimes they win. Sometimes when they win, you win.”
Dad drove us to the post office to mail off the applications. We couldn’t find a parking spot so Dad and Noah waited in the car while I went in. That’s when I did it. I just did it.
I only mailed mine.
I took from my brother the thing he wanted most in the world. What kind of person does that?
Not that it matters, but I went back to the post office the next day, ran all the way there, but the garbage had been emptied. All his dreams got taken out with the trash. Mine went straight to CSA.
I kept telling myself I would tell Noah and Dad. I would tell them at breakfast, after school, at dinner, tomorrow, on Wednesday. I would tell Noah in time so he could reapply, but I didn’t. I was so ashamed—the kind that feels like suffocating—and the longer I waited, the more the shame grew and the more impossible it got to admit what I’d done. Guilt grew too, like a disease, like every disease. There weren’t enough diseases in Dad’s library. Days kept passing, then weeks, and then, it was too late. I was too scared if I confessed, I’d lose Dad and Noah forever, too cowardly to face it, to fix it, to make it right.
This is why my mother destroys everything I make. This is why she can’t forgive me.
I go outside and ask [Guillermo] to teach me how to use the diamond blade circular saw. He does.
It’s time for second chances. It’s time to remake the world.
Knowing I only have one shot to get it right with this tool, I wrap the cord around my shoulder, position the circular saw between Noah’s shoulder and my own, and turn on the power. The tool roars to life. My whole body vibrates with electricity as I split the rock in two.
So that NoahandJude becomes Noah and Jude.
“You kill them?” Guillermo says in disbelief.
“No, I saved them.”
“Okay. So once upon a time, I saw this cubist portrait my brother did of you and had to have it.” I look at him. “Had to have it. It was love at first sight.” He smiles. “He and I were always playing this game where we’d swap parts of the world for others in a quest for universe domination. He was winning. We’re . . . competitive, that’s the nice way of putting it. Anyway, he didn’t want me to have you. I had to give up almost everything. But it was worth it. I kept you here.” I show him the spot where the picture hung by my bed. “I would stare and stare at you and wish you were real and imagine you coming to that window, just like you did tonight.”
He bursts out laughing. “That’s incredible! We’re absolutely split-aparts.”
“I don’t know if I want a split-apart,” I say honestly. “I think I need my own soul.”
“Let’s go,” Noah says, and we’re running together into the woods like we used to, and I can see how he’ll draw it later, with the redwoods bowing, the flowers opening like houses for us to enter, the creek following behind us in winding wending color, our feet inches above the ground.
Or maybe he’ll do it like this: the forest a blur of green over our heads while we lie on our backs, playing Rochambeau.
He picks rock. I pick scissors. I pick paper. He picks scissors. He picks rock. I pick paper. We give up, happily. It’s a new age. […]
I roll on my side to face him. “So can you believe how weird I’ve gotten and how normal you’ve gotten?” “It’s astounding,” he says, which cracks us both up. “Except most of the time,” he adds, “I feel like I’m undercover.”
“Me too.” I pick up a stick, start digging with it. “Or maybe a person is just made up of a lot of people,” I say. “Maybe we’re accumulating these new selves all the time.” Hauling them in as we make choices, good and bad, as we screw up, step up, lose our minds, find our minds, fall apart, fall in love, as we grieve, grow, retreat from the world, dive into the world, as we make things, as we break things.
I glance around the room, sensing Mom so much, certain this is what she wanted. She knew we each held an essential part of the story that needed to be shared. She wanted me to know she saw the sculptures and only Guillermo could tell me that. She wanted Guillermo and Dad to hear the truth from Noah. She wanted me to tell Noah about CSA and maybe I wouldn’t have found the courage if I hadn’t come to Guillermo, if I hadn’t picked up a chisel and hammer. She wanted us in Guillermo’s life, and he in ours, because we are, each one of us for the other, a key to a door that otherwise would’ve remained locked forever.
Our connection is still so natural, though now, for me, it’s tinged with guilt because of Dad. I turn back to my clay model, start caressing my mother’s shoulder into shape, her upper arm. “It’s like some part of me knew,” I tell him, working the bend of her elbow. “I don’t know what I knew, but I knew I was supposed to be here. You made me feel better too. So much better. I was so locked in.”
“This is what I think,” he says. “I think maybe Dianna, she break your bowls, so you come find a stone carver.”
I look at him. “Yeah,” I say, the back of my neck tingling. “Me too.”
Because who knows? Who knows anything? Who knows who’s pulling the strings? Or what is? Or how? Who knows if destiny is just how you tell yourself the story of your life? Another son might not have heard his mother’s last words as a prophecy but as drug-induced gibberish, forgotten soon after. Another girl might not have told herself a love story about a drawing her brother made. Who knows if Grandma really thought the first daffodils of spring were lucky or if she just wanted to go on walks with me through the woods? Who knows if she even believed in her bible at all or if she just preferred a world where hope and creativity and faith trump reason? Who knows if there are ghosts (sorry, Grandma) or just the living, breathing memories of your loved ones inside you, speaking to you, trying to get your attention by any means necessary? Who knows where the hell Ralph is? (Sorry, Oscar.) No one knows.
So we grapple with the mysteries, each in our own way.