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
About Hilda Rue Wilkinson Brown: African American artist and teacher who lived in Washington, D.C. (1894 – 1981) | Biography, Facts, Career, Wiki, Life
George Bellows | The Metropolitan Museum of Art
The Project Gutenberg eBook of My Arctic Journal, by Josephine Diebitsch-peary. https://www.gutenberg.org/files/64549/64549-h/64549-h.htm