Watercolor illustrations from Diary of an Old Soul by George MacDonald
I was 18 and in my first semester at St. Olaf College in 1975, enjoying the opportunities to visit my grandparents regularly. It had been a beautiful fall, full of bike rides, trips to the farmer's market, tree climbing. In November Arnold and Evelyn asked me to drive them to the Mayo Clinic for a meeting with Arnold's doctor. I didn't understand why they asked me to drive, but of course I agreed. It turned out that they had suspected they would get bad news and they did. They heard that his cancer had spread and there really wasn't anything else that could be done--I hadn't known he had cancer. That first month was an especially difficult time for them, the family and the few friends they let know he was ill.
At Christmas time, Judy Swanson, one of his former art students and a graphic illustrator, gave Arnold a copy of the book whose cover she had just designed. It was Diary of an Old Soul by George MacDonald, a collection of 365 sonnet prayers, newly republished by Augsburg-Fortress Press. Arnold started making rough pencil sketches in the margins of the book and then on December 31, set up his watercolors and began to paint. All through the late winter and early spring he painted, until the earth thawed; then he asked me to dig a new bed in the garden that he'd be able to see from the kitchen windows. He painted the flowers and plants their friends kept sending, he painted memories and he painted illustrations of the sonnets from Diary of an Old Soul. An introspective, quiet time it also seemed very rich as he reviewed his life and the various decisions he'd made. Some things I was too young to fully understand but I was grateful for the times we shared. One thing he was very clear about: his marriage to Evelyn had been a good, a very good, thing in his life.
The watercolors helped our conversations--we'd start out talking about the drawings and images, then we'd move to the ideas, and from there we'd talk about God, faith, meaning and Jesus. Once I challenged him to tell me about a time when he'd really experienced Jesus in his life. He thought for a while and then took me to a sunny afternoon in Montana: an outing along the river banks with young women from his parish. Several cowboys rode up and started hassling, even threatening the women. They seemed to enjoy scaring the women and kept revving things up. And then Arnold placed himself between them and the women and told them to go. He shook his head as he described this to me, he wasn't so big and tough that they could have been scared by him. He told me Jesus had given him the courage to speak up and had convinced the cowboys to leave. Through faith he had accomplished something he could not have done on his own. Arnold died on June 1, 1976. The funeral reception was held in the Art Gallery in Flaten Hall, with the full collection of watercolors on display. A year or so later Evelyn had one printed up so she could share it with friends and family. It was tremendously popular and she printed four more. For Founders Day 2001 where Arnold was honored, we printed four more designs as greeting cards. Over time all the watercolor illustrations will be available to you.
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