Autumn is just around the corner: I know this in my heart of hearts. My friends, who have lost hope in this endless pandemic, tell me, “It’s heat stress, nothing more.” I persist in my belief the bright yellow leaves scattered among the green canopies and the orange and red tinged foliage are the harbingers of the cool breezes of fall.
When the thermometer kisses 100 F and the heat factors have blown past that number like a NASCAR driver taking a hot lap for the pole position, my body only wants to swill decaf iced tea and stay close to the air conditioning. When I taught art back in Louisiana, my art rooms were in an old wooden shotgun shack. It wasn’t air conditioned because “it’s tradition, so it won’t be air conditioned, no matter how much you ask for it.” Private schools have their “traditions,” some of which aren’t healthy for either the teachers or the students.
Two days into the school year, I fainted from the heat. A visit to the nurse’s station got me glasses of sugary iced tea and cold compresses, plus it was air conditioned. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Someone drove me to my dad’s office in the Medical Arts building across from the hospital. I got the once over and was sent home to rest, drink plenty of fluids, and not go outside. My couch never looked so good to me. Mom and dad even kept my little girl so I could rest.
I learned later I had a brush with death. Passing out with other people there allowed me to be helped. People who are alone in the heat aren’t so fortunate. Heat can kill a person. The hurricane Ida is already taking out the utilities in south Louisiana, which means they might not be back for weeks. The hospitals full of Covid patients hope to have ten days of power and food, but that’s just to get them through until relief supplies can roll in.
I actually repainted this canvas a second time, since I wasn’t thoroughly pleased with it on the first go round. The Airport image above is the first incarnation of this painting. While I don’t mind the colors in the ground, the overall texture of the work didn’t appeal to my senses and the runway with its numeral stuck out like a sore thumb. It was either going into the trash bin of my work, or I’d leave it alone long enough to find the inspiration to cure it.
Painting is a journey in itself, as the white canvas disappears under the brushstrokes of color. We can think of a pristine sand beach in the early morning, and its well marked surface erased by the high tide under the moonlight, only to be marked again when the sun rises. As Benjamin Disraeli, the British Prime Minister in the 19th century once said:
“Like all great travellers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen.”
Sometimes we can better solve a problem by ignoring it, for the the problem will find its own solution. Trying to impose our solution upon it just leads to more death, but not to life. Letting the painting come into being in its own time is a better choice, for it can’t be born before its time. In the spiritual life, kairos time is God’s time, while chronos is human time. When we work on deadlines or punch a clock, we operate on chronological, human time, but if we wait for the inspiration from the divine energy, we’re operating in the God moment, or the propitious moment for decision or action.
Along my life journey, I’ve made some unique handmade preaching stoles. When I decided I no longer had use for them in retirement, I decided to cut them up. This is why some of the pieces are the same rectangular size, such as the gold and silver diamonds pattern with the blue and white diagonal stripe in the upper left corner. Some of the pieces are the backings, and others are deconstructed sections. I incorporated several types of gold: acrylic paint, embroidery thread, and a metallic candy wrapper. I also used multiple textures of lace and fabric, some of which I overpainted. All of these come from recycled fabrics. In life, nothing is wasted.
Perhaps this no longer looks like a map of an airport, but more like a place remembered in a dream, when one wants to travel on the whiff of a breeze, which has brought a half remembered smell of a time in the past or a love long lost. Autumn can bring those memories to mind, as well as our hopes for a more beautiful future, for just as a leaf flutters free from its tree, our thoughts can fly away: golden leaves on silver breezes.
Look for the golden leaves, my friends, and let them call to mind those of fond memory and the dreams of journeys yet to come.
If we watch the evening news on television, read a newspaper, or check our Twitter feed, bad news seems to fill the whole of it. Sometimes it gets to be too much, and we turn it all off, for we can’t cope with the next straw; it will break our camel’s back and we won’t be able to go on. Or we may already be broken by all the grief and pain, wounded by the wounds we can’t heal or by those wounded ones who wound others, rather than seek healing. I often thought I spent 50% of my pastoral care on 10% of my congregation, the “broken” ones.
After a while, we can feel like Elijah, who was worn out from doing great things for the LORD, and felt “I alone am left.” God comes to remind him he’s not alone. John Donne was very ill when he wrote this famous meditation. The artists all are from the margins, or made their art during a time of suffering. Yet, what beauty they found in this time. Artists often find their way back into the unity of all things by joining in the creating spirit of God.
Sam Doyle, who was on born and died St. Helena Island, SC (1906-1985), was a self taught Gullah artist, who painted the local stories of his community on anything he could find. He covered the walls of his home, as well as scraps of metal and wood with iconic figures of his people. You can read about this richly talented primitive artist at https://www.soulsgrowndeep.org/artist/sam-doyle
Hilda Wilkinson Brown was born in Washington, DC 1894 and died there in 1981. She was an African American artist and art educator who brought her love of education and creativity to everything she did. Her work was mostly “under the radar,” except for in her own community. Yet she persisted. As a teacher, she’s best remembered for introducing individual creativity as a goal, rather than having students mimic the teacher’s model. Unfortunately, art education classes are still teaching mimicry.
Myrna Báez of Puerto Rico (1931-2018), painted this lush field of plantain trees, a crop long wedded to concepts of Puerto Rican identity and sovereignty. She depicted the crop’s large leaves as they reflect the tropical sun and delighted in her manipulation of paint on unprimed canvas. Báez’s belief in Puerto Rican independence manifests in her impulse to look, depict, and therefore possess the island’s landscape on her own terms. Puerto Rico is currently an unincorporated territory of the United, in which the people are American citizens, but have no vote, unless they move to the mainland.
Georgia O’Keeffe, who was born in Sun Prairie, WI in 1887 and died in Santa Fe, NM in 1986, painted this exquisite “Hibiscus with Plumeria,” (oil on canvas, 1939, Smithsonian Institute). Intrigued by the opportunity to paint tropical flora, O’Keeffe accepted an offer from the Dole Pineapple Company for an all-expenses paid trip to the state of Hawaii to create a painting for the company’s 1939 advertising campaign. It was a perfect escape from the stress of her husband, Alfred Stieglitz’s ongoing affair with Dorothy Norman, the beautiful young wife of an heir to the Sears, Roebuck & Co fortune.
She visited Maui, O’ahu, Hawai’i, and Kaua’i, painting the islands’ dramatic gorges, waterfalls, and tropical flowers, among them Hibiscus with Plumeria. Pink and yellow petals towering against a clear blue sky transform the delicate blossoms into a joyous monumentality. But of the twenty canvases of Hawaii she completed, none showed a pineapple. Only after Dole had one flown to New York did she finally, if reluctantly, paint the desired fruit.
George Bellows was born in Columbus, OH in 1882 and died when his appendix ruptured at the age of 42 in New York City in 1925. He’s best known for his “outsider” subject matter: tenement life, New York street scenes, and boxing subjects. While Bellows was famous for his fight scenes, he recovered his soul in the landscape, such as this Vine Clad Shore on Monhegan Island, Maine.
Frank Wilbert Stokes (born Nashville, TN 1858-died New York City 1955) was the artist member of Robert Edwin Peary’s Greenland Expeditions. He did small works such as this one on site as a record of the journey. Stokes spent eight weeks in the Arctic, the first painter to work on the ice fields, where he had to learn a method as he went, mixing kerosene into his pigments to stop them freezing and sketching outdoors through indistinguishable Arctic days and nights. Based in his studio at Bowdoin Bay, Stokes would spend fourteen months in all working in this extraordinary Arctic environment:
The outside winter temperature was frequently forty degrees below zero Fahrenheit. The lowest temperature experienced was frequently sixty-five degrees below zero. In order to prevent his colours from freezing, [Stokes] mixed them with petrol and poppy oil and kept his colour box in a deerskin bag. Lieutenant Peary’s general orders forbade any member of the party to go more than a quarter of a mile from the main camp. This restriction was relaxed in the case of Mr. Stokes, who frequently went four or five miles in moonlight or starlight, during the polar night, to study effects which he had declared to be indescribable in words, but which are shown by his pictures.
Thomas James Delbridge (born Atlanta, GA 1894-died Long Island, NY 1968) painted this view of Lower Manhattan, an oil on canvas, in 1934, which is now in the Smithsonian Institute. It was part of the Federal Work Projects Administration, which gave support to “starving artists” during the Great Depression. Lower Manhattan’s glorious skyscrapers inspired all New Yorkers, including the city’s artists, through the worst hardships of the Great Depression.
Looking from the dock of a harbor island, Thomas Delbridge showed the dark mouths of Manhattan’s ferry terminals; above them ever taller buildings climb out of red shadows into gold and white sunshine. The crisply outlined forms evoke such famous structures as the Woolworth Building to the left and the Singer Building to the right without placing the buildings precisely or describing specific details. The skyscraper at the center suggests the mighty Empire State Building as it had stood incomplete before its triumphant opening on May 1, 1931. Even as the stock market foundered and thousands were thrown out of work, New Yorkers had gathered in excited throngs to watch their tallest tower rise. The Manhattan skyscrapers in the painting appear to be pushing back dark clouds, creating an oasis of brilliant blue around the island. (1934: A New Deal for Artists exhibition label)
Does art come only from the mind, or does it come from the greater depths of our souls and our hearts or guts? If we reduce art to only its analytical forms and colors, we may rob ourselves of the deeper experiences of the art itself. Likewise, if we put on our false face of “I’m fine,” but in fact we’re falling apart inside, pretty soon our facade will crack open too. Then folks will say, “What happened there?” And perhaps we’ll be too ashamed by then to speak of it, for we lied about our truth too long.
My recent canvas is another cognitive map, for it deals with the changing landscape and our changing climate. It uses paper scraps, lace trims, the button row of an old outfit, and old blue jean seams all glued on the canvas in the proximate place of the main roads of the Dixie Fire out in California. I painted flame colors over the surface, but left some greens for where the fire hadn’t yet spread. Then I took out my handy Bic torch lighter to sear some of the cloth additions. Even acrylic paints, if overheated, will combust, as I soon discovered, for I burned two holes in the painting. They look like the black holes of outer space or the dark night of the soul in our spiritual lives.
When I think of all the needless deaths from the coronavirus since we’ve have the introduction of our current safe and effective vaccines, I feel very sad for every life lost. Even with nearly 4.4 million deaths worldwide and almost 639,000 deaths in the USA alone, I’m not so inured to the loss of my brothers and sisters that I can just shrug it off. I know very few of those Covid has taken from us, but the world is a lesser place without those millions.
And so I leave you with this famous meditation. Donne didn’t know if he was on his deathbed or not when he wrote it. I’m pretty sure I won’t leave behind such immortal words when I think my end is near.
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were. as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
~~ John Donne, “Meditation 17,” (1623, transcribed into modern English)
“It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.” —Hebrews 2:10-11 NRSV
After the initial burst of summer excitement, my community is not only sweltering in a heat wave, but we’re also smack dab in the midst of the third wave of this Covid-19 pandemic. We might be more than halfway through 2021, but at the rate my home state of Arkansas is pursuing vaccinations, it’ll be years before we reach the holy grail of herd immunity, estimated to be at 80% immunity. Only 37% of our people are fully immunized, with Alabama and Mississippi pulling up the rear nationally with 35% and the states of Louisiana and Wyoming tied with us at 37%.
Like the old gal who’s always worn a certain size shoe or dress, my state now tries to fit an increasing number of Covid patients into a fixed set of ICU beds in our state. My days of a size seven shoe or skirt are a dim memory, as are the days of empty medical facilities.
“We have nowhere to send COVID-19 patients within the State of Arkansas. There is limited bed capacity at trauma centers increasing pressure on the time-sensitive healthcare system,” said Jeff Tabor, program director for the COVIDComm system, which helps match covid-19 patients with hospitals.
Tabor said the one COVID ICU bed which is available is located in southern Arkansas. There are five hospitals, also in southern Arkansas, showing limited COVID bed space. Tabor said some COVID-19 patients are so critical at rural Arkansas hospitals that they cannot be transferred to other hospitals because the patient is too critical and because of bed space.
Recently our state legislature adjourned a special session without amending their misguided law mandating no masks ever in public schools or government agencies. Act 1002, by Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, prohibits state and local governments, including public schools, from requiring people to wear masks. Act 1002 became effective on July 28.
The state’s largest school district, joined by a small district already suffering from Covid quarantine attendance problems in its early opening days, filed suit in court to stop this law from going into effect. The judge issued a temporary restraining order. The reasons for this aren’t political, but are found in the Arkansas constitution.
LRSD and MSD are likely to succeed on the merits. Act 1002 violates the Education Article of the Arkansas Constitution, Article 14, § 1, which requires that “the State shall ever maintain a general, suitable and efficient system of free public schools and shall adopt all suitable means to secure to the people the advantages and opportunities of education.” A suitable and efficient system of public education would not require students to risk their health and their lives to get the education promised to them in the Arkansas Constitution, especially when the State is required to “adopt all suitable means” to provide them “the advantages and opportunities of education”.
An affidavit provided by Dr. Glen Fenter, the superintendent of the Marion School District, said that incentives, including gift certificates, groceries, and even big-screen televisions, didn’t entice many local citizens to take the vaccine. Only one out of every three students in the district has acceptable home internet service, making remote learning difficult; even then, “very few” students who did “participate in the virtual education option last year achieved an acceptable level of academic progress,” the affidavit said.
The Marion superintendent said that his district was forced to “quarantine over 500 students and employees” based on CDC and state health department guidance after the second week of school. The school year in Marion began July 27, 2021. This rural system has only 3,325 students enrolled for the 2021-22 school year. Their math proficiency score averages 22% and reading averages 31%, compared to the statewide averages of 47% and 45%.
The broader lawsuit argues that the Act violates an education clause of the state constitution, the equal protection clause of the state constitution, and that certain federal laws preempt the state from enforcing the Act. It also argues that the Act violates separation of powers principles, conflicts with a subsequent state law, and violates the premise of Jacobson v. Commonwealth of Mass., the 1905 U.S. Supreme court case during the smallpox scourge, which allowed mandatory vaccination policies — and penalties for those who refused to comply — to stand.
On another front, the mayor of Little Rock, Frank Scott, Jr., said the capitol city’s covid-19 task force had recommended to him that “masks be worn again in public spaces for which the city is responsible.” He strongly exhorted businesses to follow suit. Scott made note of the many children who visit city parks and community centers and who will be returning to school later this month, adding that “right now, they don’t have the ability to mask up.”
In the middle of all this stress, I ponder these questions: “What inspires a work of art? In our search for beauty in this world, do we have to forget our pain and become as the lotus eaters of the ancient myths?”
Worn out from the years of the Trojan war fought in a foreign land and tired from an unending journey full of trials and tribulations on the way home, Odysseus found his men succumbing to the hypnotic lure of the magic flower. When eaten, it caused people to forget both their troubles and also their future plans. In the words of the hippies of yore, they were content to “get high and get by.”
Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, The Lotus Eaters, inspired Robert S. Duncanson, an African American landscape painter, prior to the Civil War:
Hateful is the dark-blue sky,
Vaulted o’er the dark-blue sea.
Death is the end of life; ah, why
Should life all labour be?
Let us alone. Time driveth onward fast,
And in a little while our lips are dumb.
Let us alone. What is it that will last?
All things are taken from us, and become
Portions and parcels of the dreadful past.
Let us alone. What pleasure can we have
To war with evil? Is there any peace
In ever climbing up the climbing wave?
All things have rest, and ripen toward the grave
In silence; ripen, fall and cease:
Give us long rest or death, dark death, or dreamful ease.
Odysseus had to bodily carry his men back to the ship and tie them to their seats to keep them rowing on a straight course for home. Today we’re treated to videos of airline passengers taped to their seats because of their unruly behaviors. Rage flying has taken the place of rage driving. Neither the roads, the post offices, nor the skies are friendly anymore. “Going postal” has almost lost its meaning when no workplace is safe these days.
In the midst of the record deaths of despair, come now the increasing deaths of our most precious inheritance—our children. The number of children contracting Covid-19 has increased fivefold since the end of June, with a “substantial” 84% jump in the last week alone, according to a new report from the American Academy of Pediatrics. This number comes as numerous states report upticks in child hospitalizations amid the ongoing delta surge. In Arkansas, we’ve had three children die from Covid.
Some would say this is an “acceptable loss or trade off to allow others to have freedom.” I find this line of reasoning heartless at best and cruel in reality. I wonder what these folks would say if their child had lost their life instead. It seems not too long ago some of these same persons were advocating for the elderly to accept a shortened lifespan, since their productive lifetimes were expended. They seem to value people only for their economic ability, rather than for their humanness or for their lived experience. Allowing the “weak” to die in this part of the pandemic also devalues those who aren’t yet ready to produce economic gain for the big machine. (Yet, they fail to recognize the loss of future gain of these young “production units.”)
I would rage blog at the inhumanity of our legislators, who couldn’t find an giant acorn in the midst of an empty football field, even if they had the scales removed from their eyes, but then there’s always the hope they might learn the lesson of Job, for whom suffering brought new understanding of God. Then they’d call themselves back into session and amend their own misbegotten law so it’s flexible enough to meet our current, extreme circumstances. Who knows, they might even rescind this unconscionable law, for persons who truly have the capacity to lead with courage also have the ability to change their minds. Some say it’ll never happen, but I’ve always been afflicted with incurable optimism.
In the meantime, I paint and pray. Even this dire event can inspire a work of art. One of our local hospitals has already canceled elective surgeries in order to concentrate on Covid care. The other hospital has very limited intensive care unit availability. Right now, no one in our tourist town needs to get sick and we certainly don’t need a mass casualty incident. Of course, I could live in a rural county and my nearest medical facility with a trauma unit could be hours away. I remember my early years of ministry when I reminded people, “If I’m ever unconscious, please just have them stabilize me and send me off to the big hospital in Little Rock or Memphis.”
Today I blog about another painting based on a Google map of my adopted city, so it’s another “cognitive map.” I used scraps of an old preaching stole. I made the stole from odd pieces of fabric, plus an old pair of overalls, and a garden glove. I deconstructed the stole, since I’m no longer preaching in my retirement years, and added a few worn out face masks, in which I sewed small pleats. I took some of my grandmother’s old crochet and rickrack trim to mark some of the roads, but let the three dimensional shapes mark the other directional lines. My mother made Belgian lace collars for my young daughter’s dresses, so I’d used these for masks.
I too wore these masks until I was tired of them. I was hopeful when those who know more than I do believed the virus had subsided and we were safe to shed our face coverings. One day in early July at Kroger I had an hour long conversation with a young man who was also glad to be shed of the mask, just to see people’s smiles. We talked for a while and I learned he was just a few weeks past a suicide attempt. This pandemic has been hard on him. We talked some more, for I’ve been in the dark place before too.
I don’t need a preaching stole anymore, for preaching isn’t what I do best in this season of my life. God sets people in my path who need an encouraging or healing word. The world, in its beauty or its sadness, inspires me to paint a new vision of the world as it could be, for I don’t think I’ve ever painted what was ever “real.”
People ask, “Why don’t you make a painting that looks like real life?”
I answer, “We have cameras today for this. In any event, how do we know this ordinary world we see today is what God intended? This could be the fallen world, and not the original world of colors and joy, which God originally created.”
Perhaps we need to rethink our cognitive maps or how we view our world. If we consider all persons to be made in the image of God, then caring for them becomes important also. We can’t separate the Spirit of God from the body in which it resides. We also have to recognize God works through extraordinary events as well as through ordinary events. If we are to reject the inspiration and special providence of God in the matter of scientific discovery, then we’re going to go back to living in caves for a long time.
I remember when my daddy came home from his medical office with a small vial and a special double pronged needle. The windows were open, so it wasn’t yet the heat of summer. He stood next to the light, as he always did in his office when he worked, and gave us children the smallpox vaccine.
“Let’s put a little light on the subject, shall we?” I laughed as I proffered my left arm. He washed it with a cotton swab and alcohol, in his usual calm way. I went first because I was the oldest. Also, I was a role model for my brothers, but I was used to this because of my birth order. I knew to trust my daddy and to show my brothers the way forward. A few tiny pin pricks later, a bandaid, and I was good to go. My brothers followed suit, and we were all told, “Hands off.” We were restricted from playing with our friends because of our parents’ fear we’d end up with a limp or in an iron lung. Polio was eradicated in the USA in 1979, but it still occurs in war torn and poverty areas worldwide.
Finally, while some will write off as heartless idiots the ones using the tired canard of freedom of choice (the ones who fail to protect our vulnerable children), I remind them we require measles, mumps and rubella vaccines to enter schools because medical professionals deem it important for the children’s health and welfare. Of course this same group throws back to us the name “liberal whackdoodles” in return. Maybe we’d all be better off if we thought less of our own egos and territory, and cared more about the welfare of our future generations.
We could then fulfill the promise of God in Isaiah 57:19—
“Peace, peace, to the far and the near, says the LORD;
and I will heal them.”
God is full of grace and love, given to offering gifts of healing to those who are both close to us—our neighbors—and those who are far from us—the strangers. If only we humans could love one another as God loves us all.
Changing the way we see our world, one map at a time, brings