The life of one who pursues Art and Faith has many overlapping points. One of these is the search for perfection. The French artist Marcel Duchamp quit painting to play chess, saying he couldn’t create a greater work. However, he was still working on one last piece in secret in his studio. Artists are driven toward this ultimate prize, just as people of faith are called to grow towards perfection in faith and love.
The difference between perfectionism and Christian perfection is huge! The first seeks flawlessness in self, others, and in all things. I know people who get up in the middle of the night to rearrange the shoes in their closets. Shoes must not dance! While I do alphabetize my spice rack, I can leave my closet’s contents to party at will while I sleep all night. I learned from experience early on not to concentrate in any one area of my artwork, since all my many teachers drilled this lesson into my head. Overworked areas of wet paint also get muddy, for the colors blend together into a sad grey. Experience is a good teacher.
Christian perfection is a heart so full of love of God and neighbor nothing else exists. By definition, our hearts would be also full of love for our own selves, since we are made in God’s image. This is why in art class we use ABC: attitude, behavior, and consequences. Positive ABC gets praise, and negative ABC gets redirected to a better place. If we can reframe our attitudes, we can change our behaviors, and then we’ll have different consequences. Sometimes we need an attitude adjustment.
Art classes aren’t easy, but neither is the Christian life. We need to face our limitations, and this is humbling. We aren’t strong or powerful, nor have we achieved anything close to perfection in any part of our own life. This doesn’t make us bad people, but it does make us drop the false mask we’ve been wearing in the world. The best art will come from an open heart, or from transparency to God and others. We’re so used to hiding our true self from others, we think we can hide it from God also. Art will reveal our true self, however.
In Philippians 3:12-16, Paul talks about Christian perfection, so I’ll add some notes about the search for artistic perfection. In class we drew the negative or empty spaces of a wooden dowel construction I rigged up for the center of the table. I tossed in an extension cord for good measure.
Drawing the negative space is a new concept. Most of the time we’re outlining the object itself, but not focusing on the empty space. Then we wonder why our object looks cattywumpus. By drawing the emptiness, we end up with the positive figure. This is a backwards thought process. We’re so trained to look at the object, we forget the empty spaces are a design element also. Drawing the negative space helps us to find the true object in its actual location in three dimensions and translate this into a two dimensional space. This is a complex form of thinking, which is why age 9 or the ability to write in cursive has been the usual cutoff age for formal art training.
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal—by this Paul means Christian perfection, or having the full love of God and neighbor within our hearts. We artists will work all our lifetimes to achieve perfection. If we’re truly growing as artists, rather than just repeating variations on a theme, our style will change. Monet once destroyed multiple Waterlily canvases right before an exhibition, having deemed them inadequate for the show. We artists are our greatest critic. The day we’re satisfied is the day we begin to repeat ourselves.
but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own—of course, the Holy Spirit empowers this spiritual quest for complete love, or we’d never achieve this goal alone. I believe all persons have a creative spirit within them. If we’re made in the image of God, who is the creator and is creating all things new again, we must share this attribute in part. Moreover, I think of it as a spiritual gift, for we enter into the mystery of God when we let go of our ego’s organizational skills and allow a greater hand to move our own as we create.
Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own—the mark of a spiritually mature person is recognizing how far from the perfection of God all of creation will always be. Yet God can refine and renew any imperfection in our spiritual and physical lives. The consequences of our acts will stay with us, however.
At the end of a studio session, I sometimes tell myself, “I’ve learned all I can from this one. It’s time to go onto the next piece and do better.” I don’t expect a masterpiece every time. I do expect to learn from my mistakes. I own my mistakes! I’ll keep the work around for several months. If it doesn’t fall apart, I let it out to show. If it doesn’t sell in three years, I destroy it and move on. I can’t stay attached to it, although I once did. Now I see my work as an opportunity to share the beauty and joy of God’s inspiration with others. I’d be selfish to hoard it all to myself.
but this one thing I do—Paul stays focused on the ultimate prize, not just on the easy gains. “We have stress enough in our daily world, so why can’t we just come and be comfortable in our sanctuary or in our art class?”
If we were hot house tomatoes being prepared for the salsa factory, this might be an acceptable choice, but we’re human beings who’ll be tested and tried in the world beyond the security of our sacred spaces and quiet studios. We need controlled challenges, just beyond our reach, to strengthen us for the days ahead. Even the most famous artists will struggle with success, so having a goal beyond this world is important. The rest of us will struggle with failure and rejection, so we need to learn resilience and fortitude, and the strength of power available to us from on high.
forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead—most of us carry baggage from our earlier days when we made poor choices and did dumb stuff. If we don’t have several suitcases, we at least have a closet full of T-shirts from Been There Done That Land. In art, we eventually will make enough work to break out of our old patterns, or we can enter into a studio teaching environment and accelerate the process. The trained teacher gives positive criticism and guidance, just as we can give the keys to a novice driver with a licensed driver in the car. We could let the novice driver out on their own, but a cow pasture would be a safer choice for this unsupervised driving experience than a city street.
I press on toward the goal for the prize of the “heavenly” call of God in Christ Jesus.—the Greek word is “upward” call, or “higher” call. This call is more important than any other in our lives. If our only goal is to be a good person, but not loving person, we need a higher goal! Why are we satisfied with less when God is so much more of everything?
Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind;—just as our challenge in faith is to always grow in grace and love, so our goal in life is to always grow and learn. What we fail to use will atrophy and die. If we don’t love from the depths of God’s inpouring and abundant love, our own ability to love will wither and die. Burnout is a spiritual condition first, then it becomes a physical problem. The ancient icon painters prayed as they “wrote” the images of Christ. If we offer up our time in the studio as a prayer to God, we will better connect to God’s deep well of hope and compassion, which can recreate our lives and the world.
and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you.—I happen to be a slow learner, but better a slow learner than one who never learns at all. Some of us need repeated lessons before the scales drop from our eyes, but once we see clearly, we’re zealous to convert the rest of the world. Once the flame of love burns brightly, it wants to spread and replicate itself. One light wants to set the other coals aflame. Still not everyone wants to set themselves on fire! They’re perfectly willing to watch someone else burn brightly and bask in their glow.
Price’s Law is a good example in real life. Price’s law describes unequal distribution of productivity in most domains of creativity. The square root of the number of people in a domain do 50% of the work. In a group of 100, 10 do 50% of the work and 90 do the other 50%. This seems to hold true in business and in volunteer groups. Some Elijahs love to work, but don’t know how to replicate their Elishas. They rob the future Elishas of the blessings of service.
In art everyone has to do their own work, and some have difficulty if the work doesn’t look as good as their neighbor’s efforts. Since everyone begins at a different point, each person improves from that beginning. Each has to be considered as an individual. No one is compared to anyone else, even in a graded system. Art is the best class of all, for if you work the whole class, turn in all your work on time, and meet the criteria of the project, you get an A. There is a “works righteousness” in the studio, even if we’re saved by grace in faith.
Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.—I find many folks want to quote this verse only, but not the whole of the Philippians text. They use it as an excuse to stand still without reflecting on their faith, which they inherited from their ancestors. Worse, they don’t read the Bible with a heart or mind open to the fresh winds of the Holy Spirit. Then they wonder why joy and peace are merely limited gifts in their lives. We prosper, not by material wealth, but in our relationships with one another and with God.
In art, we’d rather copy our teacher’s example and match it to the best of our ability, instead of coming up with solutions unique and personal to our own spirit. Thinking uses energy, but it also builds resourcefulness and new cognitive pathways, as well as increasing confidence.
The former is the standard teaching technique in most departments of education, but it has nothing to do with engaging creativity. Instead it assumes a single right answer, but the history of art is replete with multitudes of many answers and solutions to the questions of the moment. When we ask, “What is beauty, truth, and good in art,” we answer, “Across the years and with different artists in different cultures, it varies.”
With this in mind, as artists and people of faith, we can hold certain truths across all the years, artists, and cultures, but other truths may be variable. Certainly overworking the person and the painting hold true everywhere. Many of us hunger for approval from human sources, and work ourselves sick trying to please too many masters.
In art school I had several master teachers. One day I was drawing in an empty classroom. The department head came by and asked, “Who are you working for, me or Mr. Sitton?”
“I’m drawing,” was my noncommittal answer.
He returned a short while later to ask the same question and I gave the same answer. Not long after that, he popped his head into the door, pointed his pipe at me, and asked again, “Who are you working for, me or Mr. Sitton?”
By this time I was irritated to no end. I’d been polite twice, but this third time was too much! I snapped around on the stool and snarled, “ I’m working for myself, thank you! Now quit bothering me so I can draw in peace!”
He laughed as if I’d finally passed some rite of passage. “That’s what I wanted to hear you say the first time!” Some art lessons aren’t given in a class, and they aren’t about design and color, but about your calling and your purpose.
Who are you working for in this world: the praises of ordinary people, or the eternal voice of the master, who paints the dawn and sunset from a palette of glorious colors?