As an itinerant Methodist pastor I, along with my sisters and brothers, have had the privilege of answering God’s call to minister in different cities and towns. Sometimes I questioned the wisdom of the Holy Spirit working through my district superintendents and bishop, but I wasn’t alone in this. Other clergy have wondered why they were sent to “exile cities, ” just as our congregations often wondered why the bishop sent them the very last person at the bottom of the clergy bucket.
The prophet Jeremiah spoke to the people taken from their homeland into exile in Babylon after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE:
“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (29:7)
God has a way of putting us where we need to be, just as God has a way of providing the leaders we need. Maybe not the leader we want, but the leader we need. Also maybe not the location we’d put at the top of our bucket list, but the place where God needs us to be in this present moment.
Making a painting has some of this same expectation and disappointment. In class we had the inspiration of “The City.” We don’t paint just the shapes, but also the emotions we feel about the subject matter. If we like the city, we’ll respond well, but if the idea of the city is distressing to us, we might not even be able to work at all. If I don’t have sufficient caffeine by 10 am, my creative juices don’t flow swiftly.
This was one of the inspiration images. It may be best understood as, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” Also a poem, “The Cities Inside Us,” by Alberto Ríos, says “what the Shadow knows:”
We live in secret cities
And we travel unmapped roads.
We speak words between us that we recognize
But which cannot be looked up.
They are our words.
They come from very far inside our mouths.
You and I, we are the secret citizens of the city
Inside us, and inside us
There go all the cars we have driven
And seen, there are all the people
We know and have known, there
Are all the places that are
But which used to be as well. This is where
They went. They did not disappear.
We each take a piece
Through the eye and through the ear.
It’s loud inside us, in there, and when we speak
In the outside world
We have to hope that some of that sound
Does not come out, that an arm
Not reach out
In place of the tongue.
These brightly colored houses are the last layer of a heavily overpainted canvas. Underneath the house shapes with their gabled roofs, we can still see the faint images of rectangular buildings. The artist also scratched through the paint in places for texture and stumbled colors on top of other colors. This technique takes more time than two hours, since the bottom layers need to dry before the upper layers are added. The quality of paint is different also, since thin paint isn’t able to handle this type of work. It yields a much livelier and more optimistic image than the dark one above.
This image has not only the brightly colored houses of a seaside city, but also their reflections in the water below. The sky is broken up into planes of various tints of blue. There’s three distinct sections: foreground, middle ground, and background. It’s located in a real space, even though it’s rendered in flat and decorative colors.
Dusty painted his buildings on a green lawn for a nice landscape setting. While he didn’t have time to render any details in our short class time, I could tell he was thoughtful about the placement of his colors and shapes.
I asked Mike what his Myers Briggs Type was, since he has no trouble making a plan and executing it. My guess his first and last letters are E and J, and most likely S and T in the middle. Not everyone can make a plan right away, but some have to work on the canvas and let the painting begin to call itself into being. It becomes more of a conversation between the artist and the artwork.
Mike enjoyed bringing to life the night sky with its clouds and full moon. The mystery of a city and its buildings’ windows blazing with light in the night must be a memory he holds dear.
Lauralei’s city had some moody, overhanging clouds. The buildings underneath were transparent and fragile. It was as if they were a glass city, and a threatening storm cloud hung over the city. Worry and stress can wear a person down. I know anxiety is something I’ve had to deal with my whole life. “You can’t cross the bridge until you get to it,” my mother always said. My Nannie would chime in, “Today’s trouble is enough. Don’t go borrowing trouble from tomorrow!” It’s best sometimes to put the work down and try again after giving our concerns over to God:
“The prayer of the humble pierces the clouds,
and it will not rest until it reaches its goal;
it will not desist until the Most High responds.”
~~ Sirach 35:21
Sally would have liked to work some more on last week’s painting, but tried this project instead. She’s still learning the limits of her paints, so this is why the building on the left has one green dot darker than the others. It was painted into the wet ground, so it picked up that color and dulled it. I saw that move out of the corner of my eye and suggested she let the building dry first. If we work all over the surface, or “do the big before the small,” we have a good chance our colors will stay clean and fresh. If we want grayed colors, we go ahead and paint into wet areas. The orange and blue complementary colors contrast nicely with the grays and violets.
Gail used a photo to do her painting at home while under quarantine. She made a good rendering. I’d suggested to the group the week before we would do a city scene, so if they had a photo on their phone, or a postcard from a vacation, they were welcome to bring it. I guess the dog ate everyone’s homework! Except for Gail.
My work went through several stages, rather like our continuing COVID pandemic. The map covers the area between our two city hospitals, National Park Medical Center and CHI St. Vincent. The former is at 100% occupancy in its ICU beds and the latter is at half capacity. National Park’s regular beds are almost 80% full, while CHI’s are about 55% full. In class time, I laid down some base colors according to a pattern from Google maps. Then it was time to pick up, clean our tools, and go home.
At home, after I recovered from a weekend of four exciting football games, I took several of my oldest fabric face masks, which are inadequate for our latest highly transmissible omicron variant. Abandoned masks are a common sight, joining the rest of the urban detritus that sully our city sidewalks now. I also added some of my grandmother’s crocheted rickrack for one of the main streets. I overpainted the bright colors with dark blue colors. Somehow rolling into the third year of this pandemic has sucked some of the energy out of me.
The dark night of COVID couldn’t last long for me, for I always have hope. I picked up my iridescent colors: silver, gold, and bronze. Mixing these, as I scumbled them over the base colors, I thought of the Psalmist (104:30):
“When you send forth your spirit, they are created;
and you renew the face of the ground.”
I wasn’t truly satisfied until I pulled the gold, silver, and bronze mix over all the whole surface. Only a few of the bright colors from the original under painting remained as key notes to bring the eye around the canvas. I think I might have to make more three dimensional areas in another work. This one doesn’t have quite enough.
When I taught young children, I used to remind their parents children have a different purpose in art than adults do. Children are excited about the process, while adults want a finished image. Kids will push a work beyond its “boundary” just to experience the activity of making art, while adults often hold themselves back for fear they might go over the edge. We grownups need to have more of that childlike abandon, since going over the edge in art isn’t going to threaten life or limb.
This week we’ll paint from wildflowers. Drawing from our imagination is difficult if we haven’t practiced this skill. Drawing from an object we can see is much easier. We can look at it and sort out the basic shapes and lines. We can check the proportions to see if they relate to one another correctly. Sometimes we discover drawing from real life is actually just as hard as making something up out of our own creative ideas. Actually, everything about art is equally easy and difficult at one and the same time. We just have to relax and make the colors and shapes appear on the surface.
Remember the words of hope from Jeremiah to the captives in Babylon:
“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile (29:11-14).”
Joy and peace,
The Cities Inside Us by Alberto Ríos – Poems | Academy of American Poets
COVID-19 (Coronavirus) Hospital Capacity in Garland County, Arkansas