Every blade of grass outside is a uniform tan, for winter’s pale light has sucked the life and green from its living cells. Each colder breeze separates yet another straggling leaf from a sleeping stick attached to the limbs of a hibernating tree. The sap won’t rise until mid February, when the days are warmer and the nights are still freezing. The ornamental pear trees lining the entry to my condo are beginning to bud, so I’m sure they’ll be covered with snow before Easter. I’m almost wishing for a good snow to change up the colors outside, to cause some excitement of a bread aisle clearing stampede, and the joy of eating pancakes at every meal “just because it’s a snow day.”
Instead, I’ve brightened my interior spaces with fresh flowers. This is an early reminder to all you lovers out there: Sunday, February 14 is Valentine’s Day. Be sweet to the special person in your life by bringing something beautiful or joyful into their life. Our art class has been working with the palette knife instead of the brush lately. This is a different tool to get the paint on the canvas. With the brush, we can make lines and broad strokes, as well as dots or blobs. With the knife, we have to pick up colors on the metal end, push and press with varied strength and wrist twists to get the paint to go where we want it and to mix at the same time.
How does this happen? It’s magic! Or luck, or practice until you figure out how the paint feels under your hands. I can best describe it as being willing to do finger painting, but with a palette knife. We also have to let our adult mind go sit in the corner, while we let our five year old come out and play. Another way to think of this is to compare religion and faith. Religion has rules and boundaries for how to “do it right.” We spend most of our lives in this mode, trying to measure up to a severe standard, rather like the older brother to the prodigal son. In faith, we trust we’re enough and God’s mercy and grace are sufficient for us, so we yearn to please God even more. What we can do in love, for love’s sake, will bring the world into the love of God.
This is why no one copies my art work, but goes on their own journey to find their own way of seeing. This is one of the hardest parts of making a painting, to isolate the primary forms and shapes, and then to set them in a space. As we look at a three dimensional world, we have to come up with our own visual language to write on a two dimensional surface. As we invent our own language, we’re creating a new vocabulary, grammar, and conjugations, which take some time for us and the world to understand. We don’t worry if we’re “good,” for we are painting these to grow our minds, stretch our boundaries, and by learning new skills, building new brain connections and endorphins. We get joy from our work, so it gets us through the doldrums of winter.
There’s a wonderful poem by Robert Frost, of a bouquet of flowers, and two birds in winter:
Wind and Window Flower
Lovers, forget your love,
And list to the love of these,
She a window flower,
And he a winter breeze.
When the frosty window veil
Was melted down at noon,
And the cagèd yellow bird
Hung over her in tune,
He marked her through the pane,
He could not help but mark,
And only passed her by,
To come again at dark.
He was a winter wind,
Concerned with ice and snow,
Dead weeds and unmated birds,
And little of love could know.
But he sighed upon the sill,
He gave the sash a shake,
As witness all within
Who lay that night awake.
Perchance he half prevailed
To win her for the flight
From the firelit looking-glass
And warm stove-window light.
But the flower leaned aside
And thought of naught to say,
And morning found the breeze
A hundred miles away.
“Wind and Window Flower,” a poem written by Robert Frost, speaks of how we can sometimes love someone who can’t leave either the safety of their window sill or the prison of their cage. With this in mind, it’s best for the bird to fly on by in order to find true love or purpose somewhere else. Some of us will watch the cold world from a safe distance as it goes by, while others will leave our cozy homes and go out into the cold, sharp winds to seek another path. We may regret leaving the caged bird behind, but we have to go and find our highest purpose in life. I often wonder about the bird left behind, if the cage ever got too small or if security was more important. The fresh flowers won’t ever know the outcome of this story, for they’ll be gone before the week is out.
Even these small and insignificant works of the creator are not outside the care and concern of a loving God. As Jesus says in Matthew 6:26-33—
“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?
And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?
Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
In 1938, Jung had the opportunity, in the monastery of Bhutia Busty, near Darjeeling, of talking with a Lamaic rimpoche, Lingdam Gomchen by name, about the khilkor or mandala. He told the famous psychologist , “the true mandala is always an inner image, which is gradually built up through (active) imagination, at such times when psychic equilibrium is disturbed or when a thought cannot be found and must be sought for, because it is not contained in holy doctrine.” (Psychology and Alchemy, Princeton University Press, 1993, paragraph 123.)
Today, in 2021, over eighty years later, a lot of folks must have their psychic equilibriums out of kilter. They look for certainty in an uncertain world. They seek a savior in a frail human being. They make war to bring about their peace. Whatever angers and fears stir their soul, they act on them, to the detriment of the common good. They are like unbridled, runaway horses, stampeding to a cliff edge without awareness of the consequences of the fall.
The mandala is a graphical representation of the center or the Self. It is unique to each person and would be different from day to day. Jung believed the circle invited conflicting parts of our nature to appear and allowed for the unification of opposites in order to represent the sum of who we are. He found this sense of wholeness was reflected in the lives of his patients, as he was able to trace the progression of an individual’s psychological recovery by correlating it with the coherence of the mandalas they drew. Jung believed making the mandalas over time would help a person gain insight into their Totality or their Wholeness, or “True Self,” as we say today. Totality or Wholeness is the psychic stage in which the union of the unconscious with the consciousness has been achieved. It is the final aim of Jung’s psychotherapy.
The Self was a term coined by Jung and reflected the Hindu Upanishads and its depiction of the higher personality, or atman. It’s considered to be the central archetype of the collective unconscious and serves as the organizing principle of the individual personality. The most familiar way the Self can make its presence known in Jungian work is through dream imagery, but this isn’t the only way. Another possibility, and one which had a particular fascination for Jung is the mandala.
For Jung, the individual consciousness is only the flower and fruit of a season that grows out of the perennial rhizome under the earth, and it finds itself better attuned to the truth when it takes the existence of the rhizome into account, for the root system is the mother of all.” This imagery begins to unfold in the mandala imagery. We can imagine a half circle below the earth, where the seed is planted just below the ground, and another half circle above the ground, where the flower will blossom, and then recall the Christian symbolism in the parable of the fertile soil in Luke 8:1-15, which states at the end of this section, “This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God.”
In art class, we worked for several weeks at the beginning of the year on our personal mandalas. Since each of us have unique personalities and come from different experiences, we each create a different design. After all, as the Psalmist says to God in 139:14, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.” Gail designed her mandala in the form of a Passion Flower, a wild vine of various colors, with a circular crown in the center. This form suits her background and service in the national parks system. She has an affinity for nature.
Jung knew he needed to maintain a balance between his inner and outer worlds by whatever means, whether it was by painstaking anamnesis (the remembering of things from a supposed past existence), creative activity, and yoga activities or by any other means. He knew his family and patients depended on him, so even though he was in personal crisis, with an unconscious that could have “driven him out of his wits,” he maintained through his obligations of the here and now. Jung was also aware of the possibility of being whirled around by “the winds of the sprit”, since he had observed his colleague, Nietzsche, who “lost ground under his feet because he possessed nothing more than his inner thoughts.” Jung described Nietzsche as being possessed by it, rather than him possessing it, and so succumbed to exaggeration and unreality. To Jung this was horrible state, for he aimed for this life and this world.
Of the things that kept his balance, creative activity, which would manifest in his active fantasies and paintings, allowed Jung to become certain he had to delve into these primordial experiences himself, in order to be able to help his patients. If he had gone through it, he may be able to bring the light of understanding to the existential darkness that his patients experience. He could be a spiritual guide, so to speak. This is why he spent time creating the mandalas from his own experience.
Mike’s mandala was created from his inner imagination. His legal work is with persons who are either in trouble with the legal system or need the legal system to bring justice to their cause. Sometimes this is an all day marathon in the courthouse. Keeping all these people, their situations, and the details of the law organized might require a lot of psychic energy. Mike went with a free form design, a choice that might have been a very relaxing and refreshing change from his daily life.
Mandala is the Sanskrit word for circle, but it’s a very special kind of circle. As a magic circle, it encompasses the circumference (perimeter) and the center, but not just ordinary space. The mandala has become a word that is synonymous with sacred space. The very presence of mandalas in the world remind the viewer of the sacred in the universe and in oneself. In some of India’s earliest and most important pre-Buddhist philosophical texts, the mandala already signifies a sacred enclosure and is at times understood to mean a place created for the performance of a particular ritual or practice, or for the use of a great teacher or mystic.
Structurally, the mandala is a combination of a circle and a squared form, usually a variation on a cross. Designs that integrate the circle and a four pointed theme, or one in which the circle is squared represent a mandalic space, or a geometric symbol of life. The four points can symbolize time and space, the equinoxes and solstices, or the four seasonal turning points in the year. In terms of space, it is the four directions. The circle with no beginning and no end is a symbol for the eternal whole which contains time and space. Jung stated that the mandala is the archetype of wholeness, relating it to the Self. He thought a mandala revealed “the center of personality, a kind of central point within the psyche, to which everything is related, by which everything is arranged, and which is itself a source of energy.” Others have stated, a mandala ‘‘expresses the totality of the psyche in all its aspects, including the relationship between (a person) and the whole of nature.”
Therefore, the mandala is one of the image archetypes that often emerges spontaneously when people are in the healing process, either in artwork, or in dreams. Creating mandalas has been found to help the physical healing process as well when they are used in conjunction with meditation. In dreams, mandalas show up in many ways in imagery that shares its geometry or meaning, such as a flower, a square in a village or town, or a fountain. Jung encountered several common symbols when he or his patients drew and interpreted mandalas. These included circular or egg-shaped formations, flowers or wheels, circles within a square or squares within circles. He frequently saw the number four or its multiples in mandalas, which was often represented by squares, crosses or suns or stars with four or eight rays.
Mandala work is very useful in therapy. Art therapists generally simply draw a circle, or have the client draw a circle, and use that as the start of the mandala. This creates an inner and an outer space. If we remember the principle of balance and repetition when we begin to add the shapes to our mandala, we’ll discover its power to unify and center our own energies. In spiritual traditions throughout the world, mandalas focus and reflect the spiritual content of the psyche for both the creator and the viewer. Jung believed that creating mandalas offered a “safe refuge of inner reconciliation and wholeness,”providing a sacred space into which we can invite the Self. He also noticed that creating mandalas had a calming, focusing effect on his patients’ psychological states.
We also see examples of mandala in all the ancient cultures, even in Christianity in designs with animal images representing apostles (and the zodiac), such as the small Chapel of St. Zeno, off the right aisle of the Basilica of Santa Prassede, which was built as a mausoleum for Paschal’s mother Theodora. It’s the only chapel in Rome entirely lined with mosaics. It is an extraordinary sight, as this chapel has the only 9th century Byzantine mosaics in Rome.
For Christians, the Self is a a complicated and mostly negative notion. We usually use the notion in a negative sense, as in “selfish, thinking of our personal needs, rather than the good of the community.” As Philippians 2:3-4 reminds us, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” This doesn’t wipe out our individual needs, however, for we’re also called to “Love our neighbor as our self.” How can we love our neighbors if we can’t honor and love our Self?
This is why we Christian believers can find benefits from introspection and spiritual guidance with the help of a trained person. We shouldn’t take this journey alone, for we need someone with experience who can help us to “test the spirits,” as it were. Above all we should remember the words from Colossians 3:9-11—
“Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”
Our search for the True Self is a quest to be renewed in the image of God and conformed to the nature of Christ. As Paul wrote to the Philippians (3:12-14)
“Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
A mandala is easy to draw. All you need is a circle and a straight edge, if you’re into perfection. You can do the work freehand if you like. The mandala doesn’t force you into any forms. You make the mandala from your own gut. It will change from day to day and week to week. This too is part of the mandala experience. You can cut it out of paper, use crayons, pencils, ink, or even make it on your computer. If you want to doodle the design on the side of a page, consider it a sketch from your inner spirit, responding to the Holy Spirit, who is calling out to you.
David Miller, Ph.D.: MANDALA SYMBOLISM IN PSYCHOTHERAPY: THE POTENTIAL UTILITY OF THE LOWENFELD MOSAIC TECHNIQUE FOR ENHANCING THE INDIVIDUATION PROCESS, The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 2005, Vol. 37, No. 2 http://www.atpweb.org/jtparchive/trps-37-02-164.pdf
Who had hurricanes named with the Greek alphabet on their 2020 Bingo card? In a season when catastrophic west coast fires cause Pumpkin Spice skies, we shouldn’t be surprised. Heat lightning striking drought parched national forests and a gender reveal party blunder set off the blazes. Over the years, all of the top 10 costliest wild land fires in the country have been in California. The costliest of all was Camp Fire in 2018, which set insurers back over $8.5 billion, according to numbers tallied by the Insurance Information Institute. But the Camp Fire was just one fire. Reinsurer Munich Re estimates the costs for all the wildfires that year to be over $20 billion. So far this year’s fires should bring in a similar calculation.
Hurricane Sally knocked out power to 320,000 people along the Gulf Coast and caused initial damages of over $29 million just to roads and public buildings. Homes and personal property damages have yet to be counted. Folks are waiting for flood waters to recede for that estimate to accrue. Over thirty inches of rain fell at the coast, with lesser amounts inland. A major section of a three mile long bridge collapsed, with no date for repair.
None of the dollar costs account for the loss of precious lives, the impact on businesses, or the quality of live in these hard hit areas. Is New Orleans the same post Katrina? Are Miami and Puerto Rico thriving yet? Most of Houston has recovered from the $127 billion loss due to the 2017 hurricane and flooding of the lowlands in the city, and now a large portion of its residents believe climate change is a clear and present threat to future flooding.
The climatological peak of the Atlantic hurricane season is around the second weak of September, which means that August is normally when we start to see a major ramp up of tropical cyclone activity. The year 2020 being, well, a crazy pants year, 2020 is writing a new script. Records are dropping like flies this season as we’ve come to realize those 21 names aren’t going to be enough. Already Tropical Storm Beta, the second letter in the Greek alphabet, is threatening the Bahamas
According to the National Hurricane Center website, “In the event that more than twenty-one named tropical cyclones occur in the Atlantic basin in a season, additional storms will take names from the Greek alphabet.” In 2005, six storms were named with the Greek letter alphabet. During the Great Depression in 1933, hurricane season was also great, with twenty-seven named storms, which beat the former record of 21 storms, according to NASA. Zeta formed December 30, 1933, after the official end to the season.
The number and cost of disasters are increasing over time due to several causes. These include increased exposure or values at risk of possible loss, and vulnerability or how much damage does the intensity of wind speed or flood depth at a location cause. We also consider how climate change is increasing the frequency of some types of weather extremes that lead to billion-dollar disasters. There were four billion-dollar weather disasters in the United States in August 2020, according to scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: the derecho storm that hit the Midwest, Hurricanes Isaias and Laura, and California’s wildfires.
A wonderful 1934 oil painting, “The Line Storm,” by John Steuart Curry, 1897-1946, possibly inspired by the approach of a derecho-producing storm in Curry’s home state of Kansas, shows the dramatic approach of the shelf cloud driven by the straight line winds.
These storms and their costs weren’t a record, but warming temperatures do account for more frequent and intense weather events. This is important because a report commissioned by President Trump’s Commodity Futures Trading Commission issued dire warnings about climate change’s impact on financial markets, as the costs of wildfires, storms, droughts, and floods spread through insurance and mortgage markets, pension funds and other financial institutions. In calling for climate-driven policy changes, the report’s authors likened the financial risk of global warming to the threat posed by the coronavirus today and by mortgage-backed securities that precipitated the financial crash in 2008. The wildfires in California this year alone have burned 5 million acres of forested lands. To grasp the size, compare Arkansas’s forests, which cover 19 million acres or 56 percent of the State and contain 11.9 billion trees.
Sometimes we’re like Egyptians who live along De-Nile. If we can ignore the problem today, someone else can take care of it tomorrow. Unfortunately, this isn’t the order of God’s world. In the beginning, “God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars.” (Genesis 1:16)
Moreover, “…God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:27-28)
To rule and to have dominion are both terms related to sovereignty, just as Christ is Lord. We don’t talk much about kings in a Democratic society, but we humans have authority over nature. Unfortunately, we don’t always use our power well. We waste resources, fill oceans with plastic, or buy single use items destined for landfills that won’t decompose. As we approach autumn stewardship season, we might want to reconsider our attitudes and relationships towards nature.
In the central Great Plains, the 100th meridian roughly marks the western boundary of the normal reach of moist air from the Gulf of Mexico, and the approximate boundary between the semi-arid climate to the west and the humid continental (north of about 37°N) and humid subtropical (south of about 37°N) climates to the east. The type of agriculture west of the meridian typically relies heavily on irrigation. Historically the meridian has often been taken as a rough boundary between the eastern and western United States. This area around the 100th meridian, was settled after the American Civil War, beginning in the 1870s .
In the United States the meridian 100° west of Greenwich forms the eastern border of the Texas panhandle with Oklahoma, which traces its origin to the Adams-Onís Treaty in 1819 which settled the border between New Spain and the United States between the Red River and Arkansas River. Dodge City, Kansas lies exactly at the intersection of the Arkansas River and the 100th meridian. The latitude of Hot Springs, AR, USA is 34.496212, and the longitude is -93.057220. This means we’re east of the 100th meridian and in the “humid, subtropical south” section of the USA. Of course, spending a single summer here in the Spa City would convince any skeptic of the truth of this. We should have no “weather deniers,” even if we have “climate change deniers.”
Yet we here in Arkansas are far removed from the coastlines of our nation. We have our tornadoes and occasional floods, but we think of these as facts of life. If these disasters don’t impact us, or someone we know, too often we can shrug them off as just another sad occasion. We might collect flood buckets or give a few dollars to disaster relief, but the emotional impact of the life and death circumstances of other human beings doesn’t often register in our households. I’ve often wondered about this, but perhaps we grew numb during the Vietnam war to the nightly body counts and the images of war gore on television. About 62,000 service people died in the Vietnam War, a number which pales in comparison to the number of deaths during this pandemic, which now number 204,202 souls.
Since art carries with it the notion it should be “beautiful,” subjects about social commentary or politics often run against this grain. “Executions on the Third of May,” by Francisco Goya is an example. On 3 May 1808, Marshal-Prince Joachim Murat wrote to the Infante Don Antonio Pascual that he had executed about one hundred Spaniards, ‘Peasants . . . our common enemy’. Later police reports recorded that the French executed mainly artisans, laborers, one or two policemen and beggars during the street protests in Madrid.
The Death of Marat, by Jacques Louis David, is another social commentary painting. Marat was a popular radical French politician, political theorist and journalist, who advocated for basic human rights for the poor during the French Revolution. Marie Anne Charlotte Corday, a royalist from Caen, purchased a knife in a nearby store, walked into his home, and stabbed him dead while he was soaking in his bathtub. David, his friend, painted this memorial to the man who was working up to the last moment of his life for the common good of all the people.
In our faith life, we first learn to pray for our families, then for our friends. With spiritual growth, we can pray for strangers who are like us, and finally we learn to pray for our enemies. When we grow ever closer to God’s presence, we discover we also grow closer to our neighbors. The lawyer who tested Jesus with the question, “But who is my neighbor?” went on to discover the neighbor is the one who shows mercy to the stranger. If we want to be true neighbors, we must be the first to show mercy to the strangers in our midst, and not wait for them to “deserve it” or “give mercy to us first.”
How can we make emotional connections so we can do this? In art, as in other endeavors, we can stick with analysis and order. This is our problem solving brain. “What’s the quickest route from point A to B?” We look for one and done. That’s how we operate in most of our lives. Creative solutions, however, seek multiple options: “How many uses can I find for a brick? How many ways can I use a stick?” When we paint a still life, often we stick with the problem solving skills of our brains, and under use our emotional skills. Sometimes this has to do with our timidity regarding our technical skills, so eventually we’ll gain more confidence in our handling of the media. The expression will come through once we are comfortable with the media. It’s a matter of practice and time.
Putting emotions into our art work is also difficult because we’ve been trained since childhood to repress our feelings. Many of us can’t own our feelings. Perhaps we grew up in families with substance abuse and saw our parents out of control. If the other parent told us, “You don’t really see this,” or “We’re just fine, so go to your room,” we might be confused about how we actually feel. Learning to sort the truth from the lie is hard, but we can learn it at any age. Others of us have been taught to “get along with others by smiling a lot.” Another way of saying this is “don’t speak about anything that will upset anyone.” It’s also known as Peace at Any Price, or Prilosec for Everyone.
Marsden Hartley painted Ghosts of the Forest in 1938, in the woods of his home state of Maine. He saw the giant logs, felled by the forest industry, as if they were bones leeched white on a desert. He had returned from New York to find his own individual voice in the landscape he knew best, in the place in which he was born. (Hartley also wrote Adventures in the Arts, which you can read as a free ebook through the Gutenberg ebook project).
In art class, we talked about how 2020 has been a snowball rolling down from an avalanche high up in the mountains. It’s been one catastrophe after another. I know some young folks who’ve quit watching the news altogether, since they can’t handle one more piece of fuel thrown onto the conflagration of the chaos of their lives. Older people, who’ve survived other chaotic times, tend to breathe in, exhale, and say to themselves, “Be still, and know that I am God.” We know once this pandemic passes, some other excitement will take its place. We’ve learned to focus our energy on things that matter to us, rather than on the chaos which the world throws at us. Practicing spiritual disciplines helps us to meet the world calmly.
In art, we call this principle imposing order on disorder. Every work of art, no matter how abstract, has an internal order. Sometimes the order is a limited color scheme, such as a cool or warm palette. The balance may be evenly distributed on both sides, as opposed to a large central shape. Each of us has our own personality, of course, so we show our creative streaks differently.
Gail’s energetic painting of the flames eating the trees came from her heart. With her long experience in the park service, nature is a close companion. The fires in California have made a big impact on her, for she can imagine such a fire in the Ozark’s of Arkansas. This is empathy, which is a characteristic of a good neighbor.
Mike’s painting recognizes the need for city planning. Out west, people want to live next to nature, just as we do, but having homes near drought stricken forests is a prescription for calamity and combustion. The beginning of his design reminds me of his last year’s Day of the Dead altarpiece, which was quite the elaborate project. When we learn from other people’s mistakes, folks call us intelligent. If we repeat the same mistakes others have made before us, folks don’t have kind words for us. That’s when we wish they would practice smiling more, and speaking less.
I often do traditional landscapes, with a foreground, middle ground, and background. I’ve always wanted to do some paintings based on maps, or aerial views, so I looked up Oaklawn UMC and the racetrack. I brought some scraps of clothing, canvas, glue, and scissors to add some dimension to my work. While it doesn’t have my usual palette colors of yellows and reds, maybe the grays are like the smoke filled skies overhead. This California smoke has traveled on the jet stream as far as Northern Europe, or about 5,000 miles.
The whole purpose of art is to stretch our minds and push our boundaries. The more we encounter the world around us, the more likely we come close to the edge. That’s scary for some folks, but it’s just paint, canvas, or other materials. We aren’t jumping off a tall building. That would be an irreversible harm to life. If our end product looks sad at the end of the class, we can work it over later on. We get second chances, and another opportunity to improve. We learn from our mistakes. As my grandmother, a portrait painter, used to say, “Fail again, but fail better each time.”
We can also redeem our world, for we still have time. This is how we can live out our image of God, co-creating and recreating a better world.
“When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” ~~ Psalms 104:30
What is Real? What is True? What has Meaning for our shared lives in community? Is there an Authority for any of these questions, or are we all on our own when we try to figure out how to make sense of our world? The ancient Greeks were onto these questions long before the fateful day when Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?”
Today we have a branch of philosophy which studies how we know things. It’s called epistemology. The word comes from the Greek words episteme and logos. Episteme can be translated as knowledge, understanding, or acquaintance, while logos is often translated as account, argument, or reason. Logos also means word, saying, speech, discourse, thought, proportion, ratio, and reckoning. In some strains of Greek thought, the Logos was the rational principle which governed and developed the universe. In early Christianity, the Christ was the Logos or Divine Word through which God created and ordered the universe.
Normally, in ordinary conversation, we don’t throw around these fifty cent words, but prefer instead the nickel and dime ones of our fast food conversations. “How was your day?” We answer, “Fine,” but don’t pull up the deeper words of our emotions to share with the ones we love the most. Eventually we come to a quiet acceptance of togetherness, but perhaps also an inherent loneliness also. The isolation of this Pandemic has cut us off from sharing with others, so now we may feel this inner pain more acutely.
I personally miss the brief give and takes between the random strangers whom I meet in the grocery store or at the coffee shop. Just the opportunity to compliment a stranger or to help an elderly shopper find a product makes me feel good. Likewise, if someone does the same for me, I also feel better about myself. Making connections gives us a sense of community and unity in this trying time.
If we put on a brave face, smile, and say, “I’m fine,” are we being Real, True, or merely hiding behind what society has determined is the appropriate response to this time and place in which we find ourselves? Artists find themselves in this position every single time they approach a blank canvas, a lump of clay or a block of stone. “Am I going to do what all the artists before me have also done, or will I look at this in a new light and make an entirely new expression?” When the first Cubist paintings went on exhibit in France in 1911 at the Salon of the Independents, the people who attended were outraged, for the artists had broken every rule of “good painting,” which the attendees could see first hand in the other exhibits.
Cubism broke the plane of the canvas into an overall fractured space, rather than an attempt to render a three dimensional subject on a flat surface. It presented multiple viewpoints of the objects at once, rather than a single view. Picasso and Braque challenged the accepted representation of art: does art have to represent the world as we see it? Do we instead carry the ability to disassemble reality and reassemble it in a way that’s not limited to the dimensions of the real world? These artists were groundbreaking because they actively deconstructed the real form to illustrate the chaotic and puzzling side of the real world. For cubists, artists aren’t just people who paint beautiful things, but people who give others the chance to think about the world they’re living in through artistic expression.
Traumatic events like September 11th and this Pandemic also “disassemble our reality” and may cause us to reject it outright, hide from it, deny its impact, or find a way to make sense of a fallen and broken world. We can either become wounded healers or we can become wounded people who keep on wounding others. Nothing can take away the losses we’ve suffered, but we can learn to make use of our grief to help others get to better places in their own lives.
Art often serves as therapy for traumatized persons, as does journaling. This is because both are physical means of expression and both require focused breathing. I find I can’t paint when I’m agitated, but if I do a little cleaning of my palette and preparing of my work area, I begin to calm down enough to concentrate. With writing, I like using old fashioned pen and ink on paper to let the good ideas flow, but I can also tap, tap on the iPad if I have a well conceived idea beforehand.
If we let the thoughts inside of us come up to the surface, we can become aware of them and deal with them. Sometimes we don’t like these painful images that arise, for they remind us of old trauma and grief, which may depress or anger us. We need to look these feelings in the face for what they are: emotions only, but they aren’t the definition of our eternal Truth. These are mere moments in time, not forever moments, unless we choose them to be. As a person living with chronic depression, I had to learn how to think positively and stay appropriately medicated, as well as to do the healthy self care behaviors to enhance my ability for an optimistic outlook on life. We can be survivors, not victims. If I ruminated on my sad thoughts or anxious feelings, I wouldn’t be able to take positive steps forward. Learning how to refocus my thoughts took time and practice, but the effort was worth it.
Art pushes our boundaries outward, so we are more resilient when we meet struggles in the world. If we struggle and fail on a painting, we still learn from our work some lessons to apply on the next one. Art is a series of building up of failures until you get competency surrounded. One day your hand, eye, heart, and mind all click into one circuit. Suddenly your art looks like you seem to know what you’re doing. It has a voice unique to you and begins to speak to the world beyond. This is the moment when your inner spirit and emotions are at work, for you have enough technical ability to get the meaning across.
How long does this take before your work takes on its own personality? We all have it from the beginning, for we each have our own unique insight into the world built up from our past experiences. The better question we ask is “when does our work look good?” At this point we’re asking, “Is it Beautiful, Technically Competent, Engaging, or Appealing?” Sometimes we’re asking, is it commercially viable, or will someone buy it? If the test of great art is someone will purchase it, Rembrandt’s later works and most of Van Gogh’s oeuvre don’t make the cut. Yet, history proves these are museum worthy paintings. This means we don’t need to concern ourselves with this question, but we shouldn’t quit our day job anytime soon.
A recent study found if a family has an annual income of $100,000, a child is twice as likely to become an artist, actor, musician or author than a would-be creative with a family income of $50,000. Raise the annual income to $1 million and $100,000, respectively, and the stakes become even higher, with members of the first household nearly 10 times more likely to choose a creative profession than those from the second. Overall, for every additional $10,000 in total income, or pre-tax earnings of immediate family members, a person is two percent more likely to enter a creative field. This is why we see so few persons of color in the art world today, for historically their art was not only disparaged in early American history, but today people of color have lower median incomes than whites, partly due to systemic racism resulting from inequalities in education, but also lack of entry into home ownership due to redlining.
Art is like ministry: we don’t do it to get rich. We do it to live our best life. We do it because we have a need to express the deeper voice which we hear in the depths of our hearts and mind. It isn’t the call of the world, but the mysterious calling of the Divine Word, which we remember from John 1:1-5, was “The Word Became Flesh:”
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
When we make art of any kind, we reassemble a new reality, for we proclaim we’re living in the power of the creating God. We know we aren’t a god, but we share God’s image and God’s work of creation. Because of this, we can rebuild the broken world, heal the broken people, and show love and compassion to all we meet. For many of us who grieve or judge ourselves harshly, maybe self compassion and self love is the first reconstruction of our world we should work on. If we aren’t painting or sculpting, we can bake pies or cookies, keep gardens, grow flowers or veggies, or do any other life giving endeavors.
Art gives us an safe space and an opportunity to build a new world. If it doesn’t hang together, we can always paint over it and try again. Or we can start afresh on a brand new canvas. How many of us wish we could wipe yesterday from our memories? Or come to tomorrow clean and new? We can have hope, as Jeremiah 29:11 reminds us:
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
Lately I’ve had an extra burst of energy around the house, but this always happens as the light begins to change and the sap rises in the trees. I see the first feathers of blooming green on the tips of trees and realize the grays of winter are no more. The ornamental pears lining our drive are bursting into white and the joy of the pink Japanese magnolias have my spirits and energies both exulting. I was in Kroger looking for the daffodils to bring to art class, but they weren’t in the store yet. I live in a condo, so those jaunty jonquils on our property aren’t mine to cut, since they’re considered community property.
When I arrived at church Friday, it was a fine spring day, the sort most folks would want to be outside digging up a garden. I certainly would, but I have a few pots inside for herbs and call that my “condo garden” instead. Mike and Gail asked, “What? No flowers? We hoped there’d be flowers!”
Yeah, me too. I’m ready for flowers. Just as spring flowers remind us of new life, they also remind us of the fragility of life. In the bulb, there is the promise of the life yet to come, even if it’s hidden underground all winter, just as there’s the promise of our new life to come after our death and burial. When we have a worldwide pandemic of a novel Coronavirus, which has no vaccine as yet to protect us, we depend on common sense behaviors and our faith in times of trial.
For our still life, I appropriated a tea kettle and a frying pan from the church kitchen. Since I returned it, I didn’t use the five finger discount, but merely borrowed it for a bit. As we looked at the still life, I talked about the objects as simplified forms, which we’ve done time and time again. The basic forms may get boring, but they’re the foundational exercises for artists, just as practicing the scales are for musicians.
I pointed out how the tea kettle is more like a big sphere, which has had its bottom sliced off so it can sit on the table. If we can see the ball inside it, then we can capture its fullness. The spout is a cylinder, with a triangular form attached to it. The pan is another sphere, but this one has had its top and bottom cut off. It’s like a globe with only the equatorial latitudes remaining because the top and bottom 45% have been removed. Also, we can see the inside, for it’s been scooped out.
Last week I’d shown Gail the trick of using the brush handle to measure the still life and get similar proportions on her canvas. I showed this to Mike today. This is part of the “secret, gnostic, knowledge, known only to a few, and passed on by word of mouth,” which artists teach to students when they they’re ready to receive it. I usually leave the group alone for awhile, and then get up and make a quick check of their work. Gail and Mike are second year students, so they work more independently. We all paint some more, but on the second check is where we’re more likely to get into trouble.
This second checkpoint is about ninety minutes into a two hour session. Our internal clocks tell us to hurry up and finish, so we begin to paint without thinking or looking at our subject anymore. We’re just doing, but not paying attention. If we were slicing onions with a sharp knife for a restaurant, we might lose a fingertip here. Thankfully we’re only painting shapes, which can get covered over with more paint. Art is much more forgiving than chopping onions. Keeping our focus is a skill just as much as learning perspective, color theory, or value. Learning how to step away and check our work is also important.
What of the subject matter, though? What inspires us to paint? We may be asking the question, “What is beautiful?” A corollary to this is “Does the subject need to be beautiful to be art?” The ancient proverb, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” has been around in one form or another since the 3rd century BCE in Greece. I remember standing in front of J.M.W. Turner’s “Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus” (1829) in the Tate Gallery in London when I spent a winter term there during my grad school days.
I was making a small drawing of the scene, which I remembered well from my days in Latin class, and was paying attention to the details of the one eyed cyclops and the tiny figure shaking his fist in the boat below, when an older gentleman came close, inspected the art work, stepped back, and then looked hard at the painting once more. A brief moment of silence passed as he continued to study the work before him, then he leaned forward once more and read the painting’s title out loud. “Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus—no, I don’t see it. I don’t see it at all.”
I almost dropped my sketchbook in amazement. It was as plain as the nose on this man’s face, but he couldn’t see it. This painting currently isn’t on exhibition, so perhaps many people had the same reaction as the gentleman viewer, and not enough had my joyous response to Turner’s painting. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, an untrained eye won’t recognize esoteric beauty even if it’s labeled “work of beautiful art.” If we don’t have fine arts education in our schools, then children grow up without an appreciation for their creative spirits and their own unique voices. Art is a field of exploration which allows for many types of expression and interpretations of “beauty.”
In our world today, we’ve turned so many activities over to professionals. While I wouldn’t want someone who stayed in a Holiday Inn last night doing brain surgery on me, I’m not ready to let fast food cooks prepare all my meals. This attitude of outsourcing ministry to the professionals is a dated concept, for now the most prevalent understanding is all Christians are called to ministry by virtue of their baptism, and some are set aside for special service to the church and the world through ordination. In art terms, we all are part of the arts and crafts movement, although some of us have special training to elucidate our greater gifts.
Paul explains this in his letter to Timothy:
“In a large house there are utensils not only of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for special use, some for ordinary. All who cleanse themselves of the things I have mentioned will become special utensils, dedicated and useful to the owner of the house, ready for every good work.” ~~ 2 Timothy 2:20-21
Lest we get a swelled head, thinking we’re special utensils, or get depressed believing we’re only ordinary utensils, we all need to remember we’re both useful in our Father’s household. In our everyday lives, we need to care for those in our community who exist on the margins of life, many of whom are hourly workers who stitch together several part time jobs to make ends meet, but don’t get health insurance anywhere.
Our elderly are another marginal and vulnerable group, who often have multiple health conditions and declining incomes, fewer social contacts, and less mobility. Once they were the special vessels, made of gold and silver, but now they get treated like ordinary wood and clay, too easily broken in their fragile days. Our elderly carry the dreams and memories of our history together, so they can tell the stories of perseverance when the times get tough.
The wonderful promise is all of us can be “special utensils,” dedicated to God, ready and useful for every good work. We merely have to show up. We don’t have to hire professionals to do all our work, but we can enjoy the experience of our own creative efforts. Learning new skills builds confidence as well as competency, so we get a double benefit. God will give the promised Holy Spirit to the entire priesthood, for we’re are all called to do God’s good works for the sake of the kingdom.
I’m one of the world’s worst worriers. I can make a mountain out of a molehill. This doesn’t bode well for living life to the fullest, for none of us know for certain what’s coming up around the corner, much less further down the road. This knowledge paralyses some of us, so that some of us cannot make choices until we have more information.
The fear of making a poor choice keeps some of us confined to our beds, for what happens if we get out on the wrong side of the bed? Our whole day might be ruined. We’ll choose to stay in bed, rather than risk making this first bad choice of many. After all, there’s no sense of starting a day that will only go downhill from the gitgo.
In times of stress, I have repeated this sentence as if it were a mantra: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” ~~ 1 John 4:18
When faced with a blank canvas, we all have choices. If we use a pencil to draw the shapes, then we try to fill in the exact lines, even though we may not have yet found the perfection of form of the object we are representing. I always recommend drawing the general shape of the subject matter with a brush dipped in a wash of yellow paint. This helps the artist do two things: set the general composition and forms on the canvas, and provide an opportunity to correct any first misperceptions, since the pale yellow is easily over painted.
Of course, most of us have not lived in a world of unconditional love, even in the church. We Methodists are traditionally called to go “onto perfection in love of God and neighbor until our hearts are so full of love, nothing else exists.” Judgement causes fear, so people are afraid to give what they have or to serve with their gifts, if others tell them how poorly they are doing.
In art class, we have a rule of positive critiques. First we find three constructive statements to make about a student’s work. Then we talk about what can be improved. It takes time to move people’s minds from thinking negatively about their own work, to believing positively in their capabilities to learn. In this aspect, I confess to a belief in “works righteousness,” for persistence will pay off. While we may not become Matisse or Michelangelo, we can enjoy the pleasures of color and the creative act of making art in our own way.
We had a full class last Friday when I brought a small still life. The objects were a small clay lamp from the Holy Land, a white stone scraper I found on an arrowhead hunt with my family, my grandmother’s darning egg, a stone fossil from my San Antonio neighborhood, and a leaf I picked up in the parking lot. Artists can make anything interesting, for we don’t need to have luxurious items for our subjects. Each person brought elements of their own personality to the subject at hand.
Mike is one of my repeat students, who loves texture and mixing colors. You can see he favored the lamp, the scraper, and the fossil, for these have these best rendering. The rest are suggested just enough to balance the others.
Erma is new to the class and comes from a mosaic background. Her shapes are true and carefully drawn. Working to get the dimensional qualities is a challenge for everyone. This comes from learning to see the light and darks. Last year the class had traditional perspective drawing classes. I may have to do this again for this group, now that I see where they are.
Tatiana has a fine drawing of the leaf and the fossil. Her colors are natural. Getting shapes down is the first goal. Later we’ll work on highlights and shadows.
I was glad to see Glenn back after his health issue. Can’t keep a good man down. He was in good humor the whole class and was a blessing to all of us. He got the basic shapes of the still life on the canvas. Next time, we’ll work on filling more of the canvas, so it won’t feel so lonely.
Gail is on her second year of art classes. She’s either a glutton for punishment or she’s getting some pleasure from them. She is an example of persistence leading to improvement. Her objects are to scale, relative to each other. We see highlights from the light source, as well as the cast shadows, both of which emphasize the sense of solidity of the objects represented. She has marked off a front plane from the blue background.
Some say artists never use logic, or the left side of their brains, but I’d disagree with this. Back in the 1970’s, the commonly held theory was creativity’s location was in the right side of the brain, but today neuroscientists believe both logic and creativity use both sides of the brain at once. While speech and sight are located in certain areas, which if damaged, can affect these abilities, logic and creativity are spread out across many areas of the brain, says Dr. Kara D. Federmeier, who is a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she’s also affiliated with the Neurosciences Program and The Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology.
As we age, older adults tend to learn better how to be both logical AND creative. This may occur because this kind of a shift is helpful to bring extra processing resources to bear on a task to compensate for age-related declines in function. Or it might be a sign that the brain is simply less good at maintaining its youthful division of labor. Understanding hemispheric specialization is thus also important for discovering ways to help us all maintain better cognitive functioning with age.
Those folks who say “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” haven’t been to an art class. We don’t teach, we give opportunities to learn. Every day in my own studio, I learn something new about myself, the paint, my world, my calling, and my vision for the future. I never reach perfection, but at least I’m going on to perfection. My little still life has a mosaic quality, because I took an old canvas, which didn’t meet my expectations, and I sliced it up into evenly spaced vertical cuts. I took another poorly done old work, cut it up into horizontal strips and wove it into the first canvas. Then I painted over what was underneath. Yes, I had to pile the paint on thickly, but that gives it a rich effect, as opposed to a thinned out, watercolor feeling. While I made no clear line of demarcation, the color change denotes the difference between the table and the background.
I do not know what tomorrow will will bring, or what will come to life on the blank canvas before me. If we will trust the one who lived, died, and rose for us, we can live and work in perfect love every moment of our whole lives. I know I trust the word of our Lord who always will be there for us in our futures to make our mountains into molehills.
“But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” ~~ Mark 14:28
I was watching the Super Bowl on Sunday. Two evenly matched teams kept the score tight until the last quarter, when an interception by Kansas City put the game into the hands of Patrick Mahomes. This young quarterback proceeded to shred the 49ers with 21 unanswered points for a comeback win. If San Francisco came away feeling shell shocked, they had every reason for their disbelief. They were ahead by 10 points going into the last quarter and KC hadn’t won a Super Bowl in 50 years.
When I was in art school, the most difficult task was learning how to see the world in a new way. Our art history classes tried to prepare us for this undertaking by teaching us the changing styles of beauty across the ages. Some of us never got it, however, as we persisted in thinking the ancient works were just “ugly and deformed” or the modern works were “lacking in realism or talent.” We students weren’t asked to have preformed ideas already, but to learn new ways of looking at the world and the ways of representing it.
When I went to seminary twenty years later, I hit the same wall in philosophy class. We were studying the ancient Greek philosophers, who each defined reality in a different way. I was confused for a moment, until I realized the great artists across history all sought a different form of beauty. When I explained this to my classmates, the “aha moment” also came alive for them. In our world, we often think a word means one thing and one thing only, but this isn’t so.
As Joni Mitchell says in “Both Sides Now,”
I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now
From up and down and still somehow
It’s cloud illusions I recall
I really don’t know clouds at all.
We’re only looking at the clouds or illusions of what we think is beauty or reality, for we don’t know reality at all. A painting could be a two-dimensional representation of a three-dimensional space or form, or it might be colors and shapes floating on a flat surface, meant only to evoke emotions in the viewer. Some paintings are sculptural in form, so they straddle the boundary between dimensions.
The challenge for beginning art students is to look beyond what we know and what we think we know. This also a challenge we have in our everyday lives. Do we keep repeating the same recipes because we KNOW how to make them and we KNOW our people enjoy them? Do we want to get “healthy,” but we want to keep eating the same food and keep our same lifestyle, even though these are the very things which have made us unhealthy? When our health care provider asks, “What is one small change you can make this week?” Will we answer, “eat cheese with only one meal per day instead of three?” This is a small change; next week we can add another one.
Artists also keep repeating forms and styles, sometimes because they love their subject matter and other times because they feel secure doing this. How can we stretch our creative minds and build our mastery beyond our current plateau? We do this because we’re human, and human beings like short cuts, and the easy way out. If it were really easy, everyone would be doing it. We can all do it, but only one in a million may earn a living from it. The rest of us are glad if we earn our art supplies from our work. Everyone can enjoy the benefits of the creative life, however.
This past week our class looked at two Mondrian paintings of the same subject: a ginger jar still life. In the earlier work, his attention to detail, the planes on which the apples rested, and the background are treated realistically. We know these are objects from his household and his kitchen. The later painting has the ginger jar, plus some food items, perhaps cheeses, but Mondrian has broken up the whole surface of the painting with intersecting lines, which touch the edges of the objects on the table. The painting as a whole is more important than the individual objects. We don’t ask which is “better,” for each one is a good example of the style of painting the artist was pursuing. Later Mondrian would leave the objective world all together and paint right angle lines in red, yellow, blue, black, and white.
Erma brought a photo of a fine mosaic shrine she made. I suggested she try working with that as her inspiration. Translating from a flat photo to a flat painted surface seems as if some of the problems would be solved, but colors and shapes which work in 3D don’t always work in a painting. These are things we learn by doing. There aren’t any mistakes in art, only opportunities to make changes for the better. If we artists had to do things perfectly, none of us would ever get out of bed, for one look at our bed heads would send us back to our comfortable cribs and we’d be pulling the cozy comforters over that mess. Our muffled voices would call out for coffee, but we’d only poke our heads out long enough to grab the proffered cup and back into hiding we’d go.
Mike had valentine’s day on his mind, since he plans on goose hunting on the holiday. I think I see the image of the sun in the background. NASA recently released some high-quality photos of the boiling surface of the sun. Mike has an affinity for the bodies in space. We bemoaned the loss of Pluto as a planet, it having been relegated to the category of “dwarf planet,” by @plutokiller, aka Mike Brown, of California Institute of Technology. We also talked about pointillism, the technique of using dots of paint to make an image and to mix the color in the eye.
Gail chose to do the landscape seen through the fellowship hall window. The background has the parking lot stripes, the tree, and the asphalt. The light stripes in the foreground are the vertical window shades. It’s unfinished, as are all the other class room works. It’s hard to get even a small work done in an hour and a half, but we get a start on it. I don’t get mine finished either. It’s a small landscape of the green spaces in Hot Springs, for an exhibition I have in the springtime.
I have works, which I live with for a certain time, to see if they stand up to my eye. If they pass muster, I let them loose upon the world. If not, I destroy them by cutting them up, reweaving them, and painting a new work on the recycled canvas. Sometimes I’m painting when I’m sick or distracted, so I’m not in the best of sorts. When I’m feeling fine, I have a flow. Of course, since one can’t plan for the flow to happen on a certain day or time, going ahead and painting is the surest way to catch it in the act!
Eventually, however, all art is never finished, but only abandoned, for whatever we have learned on this work is enough, and now we go onto the future with the knowledge we’ve gained. The new work we initiate is full of all our past successes and failures, and it contains the promises of the future breakthroughs. We always work in hope, for while we breathe, we always hope. If we come to the blank canvas full of hope and believing in the promises of the future, we are then open vessels for the holy spirit to fill and quicken. Then we can paint or make what ever beautiful work god moves our hand to create.
I awoke Sunday morning to a fog enveloped world. My brain was much the same until I made my morning cup of coffee. Unfortunately, this took longer than I expected, for I had only one tablespoon of grounds and a full bag of beans. I’m glad the electric coffee grinder was standing silent beside the coffee pot, waiting only for its moment to be of service. On any ordinary day, I ignore it completely, just as many of us fail to observe the subtle changing of colors from day to day or how the sunlight of the seasons has a different temperature and feel.
Seeing is a learned skill, but like the ancient, secret, gnostic wisdom known only to a few and passed by word of mouth, seeing is best learned in an art class with one who is an eye already. Cézanne characterized Monet as “only an eye—yet what an eye.” Monet taught students not to think of the tree, the building, or the flowers they painted, but of the colors and shapes they were putting on their canvases. This is a conceptual leap, as if we were translating English into Spanish or Martian (we may need this when we go to Mars).
faced with all the many impressions daily flooding into our consciousness, most
of us have learned to block all these distractions out. We do this to “get our
chores done in record time” and “come home to escape from this rat race.” “Out
of sight and out of mind” is a phrase I often heard growing up. We are often
“unconscious people,” walking about in a fog. My dad grew a mustache and my mother
kissed him every night before bed without realizing he’d changed his facial
appearance. I came home for a visit and said, “When did you grow the Col.
Saunders’s look?” My mother was shocked she hadn’t noticed it.
Our first lessons in art class are drawing the geometric figures, since we can simplify or translate most things in nature to these forms. Bushes are balls, houses are cubes, trees are cones, and so on. Some are multiplications of the forms, such as some tree’s foliage is made up of several ball shapes. You get the idea. This way of looking helps to simplify the details so people don’t get stuck on every single leaf.
Another way to simplify is to leave out some of what you see and focus only on what you think is important. If you were a camera in front of a landscape, your eye would take in everything in front of it. We aren’t cameras, however. We can paint as much or as little of what we see before us as we want. I remember in seminary study groups, we prepared for final exams together. The exam would be 3 hours long and cover a semester’s work, which included all the class notes and 15,000 pages of reading. Some of my pals would write a book length answer to one study question. “Fine, but there’s going to be a dozen other questions, so can you hone this down to an essay?” Keeping it simple is a good motto in art class.
Friday in art class I brought in angel hair spaghetti. If the kids eat it, I’m not worried. Fortunately, my “kids” are grownups, but we like to get our inner child out to play every once in a while. We put paint on the sticks and tossed them down on our canvases wherever luck would have them land. In biblical terms, this is “casting lots.” I had given them some ideas for landscape images or they could do some squares in the style of Paul Klee. They went with trees. Mr. Energy and Exuberance, aka Mike, finished his up with jewel tones. Gail, Thoughtful and Precise, did a hard edge tree with a lightning bolt in the background. I worked on a Klee square piece, but I only got the first layer down. It needs more subtle overpainting.
Learning how to see is a lifetime process. The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance, and this, and not the external manner and detail, is true reality, said Aristotle. Art opens us up not only to the outer world, but also to our inner world. As we see more in the world about us, we find more compassion for its brokenness as well as more love for its beauty. Likewise, we realize we too are both broken and beautiful, so we find we can be more compassionate and loving towards our own selves. As forgiven and reconciled people, we can pour God’s love out into the world and into our art as well.
We discover art isn’t just about decorating a surface with pretty colors and shapes, but art is more about the spiritual process of growing in grace, accepting our lack of strength, and learning to depend on the power of the Spirit moving our hands and hearts. The more we try to impose our power upon the work, the less life it has, but the more we “get out of ourselves,” and let our inner witness work, the more life our creation embodies.
the artist within each of us is always creating a new thing, just as God is
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
The heat of summer hasn’t yet passed, even though we’re past “seasonal summer” and are almost at “meteorological fall.” Yes, the autumnal Equinox is almost upon us, arriving on September 23, at 2:50 am CDT. Even though the term means “equal night,” the day is longer than 12 hours on an equinox because Earth’s atmosphere refracts sunlight. Why does day insist on exceeding its boundaries, you ask, and not be content with with “equality?”
Refraction, or bending of the light, causes the Sun’s upper edge to be visible from Earth several minutes before the edge actually reaches the horizon. The same thing happens at sunset, when you can see the sun for several minutes after it has actually dipped under the horizon. This causes every day on Earth – including the days of the equinoxes—to be at least 6 minutes longer than it would have been without this refraction. The extent of refraction also depends on atmospheric pressure and temperature. It’s the nature of days to want to be longer, or if they’re like my little girl, to want one more story or just one more drink of water before the lights go out for nighty night.
This is the season of sunflowers, and they bring light inside when we want to keep the shades down or the curtains drawn to keep the hot sun from cooking our dwellings and driving up our air conditioning bills. I’d bought some blooms to brighten my home and enjoyed them while I repainted my condo. They died during this weeklong endeavor. Afterwards I took a break from wall painting to do some canvas painting. I decided to paint the dying sunflowers.
Van Gogh painted numerous sunflowers, often in vases, but he also painted canvases of the flowers with no background or container. One had double heads, but the other larger one had four life sized dried heads and is approximately 24” x 39.” He painted it between August and October, 1887. Van Gogh often painted flowers to practice color combinations. Some think he saw the sunflower as a symbol for the bright sun of the south of France, the light of which permeates his paintings. His friend and art colleague, Paul Gauguin traded his work for one of Vincent’s dried sunflower paintings.
Van Gogh’s Four Dried Sunflower Heads
Doing a homage to a masterpiece helps an artist grow. The artists of old never worried about their “brand” or “style,” for they made the art they needed to make. It also helps to identify areas the artist needs to develop, such as color combinations, design, drawing, negative vs. positive space, texture of paint, and light vs. dark. Because the artists aren’t invested in “their own motifs or symbols,” they can concentrate on these focused areas.
Of course, none of us can make an exact copy, for we don’t bring the emotions or vision of the original creator to the piece. This is especially true if we use live objects rather than making a direct copy of the original painting. Not many of us have the intensity of Van Gogh’s short and chaotic life. I’m not given to sticking with natural color, so my five sunflowers all have different seed heads, rather than the same brown. The stems change color, but not as much as Van Gogh’s painting.
We can aspire to perfection, but attaining perfection is difficult. All artists and creative types have to learn to deal with this incongruity of life and work. Even in the spiritual life, we can know the truth that sets us free, but live a life in bondage, for we don’t allow God to work in our lives and set us free. It’s as if we can know the laws of perspective, but not execute them on the paper, with the result our drawings of buildings look out of sort.
I make a painting, hang it on my wall, and I can almost immediately see room for improvement. Sometimes I work some more on it, other times, I call it good for now, and go on to the next canvas. A year or so later, I might repaint it, or cut it up and reweave it into a new opportunity for creativity. This sunflower poem by William Blake speaks to the aspirations of our earthly journeys for their ultimate destination with the holy.
By William Blake
Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun:
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the travellers journey is done.
Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow:
Arise from their graves and aspire,
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.
Of course, we don’t need to die to unite with the holy, for we can become one with God when we dedicate our lives to loving God and neighbor with all our hearts, minds, bodies, and spirits. Doing art is a form of meditation, for if you focus on the image before you and the act of painting, you aren’t thinking of politics, eating, paying bills, hurricanes, or family problems.
“Doing it right” means losing track of time, learning from your mistakes, and keeping a positive mental attitude. It also means giving yourself some grace, for your desire to do better is only a challenge, not a barrier. It’s also what fuels your energy to get up every day to say, “What beauty can I bring to the world today?”
Don’t worry about perfection, but keep on painting or creating! Each day is another step towards your ultimate goal. We can’t climb Mt. Everest if we don’t leave home and travel to Tibet. Like the ancient desert dwellers, we travel by stages, from one oasis to another. Sometimes we rest a bit at each place, as we gather strength for the next part of the journey. Picasso, Rembrandt, and other famous artists developed several styles along the way, since they lived long lives. Those artists’ lives whose were cut short didn’t have such an opportunity.
May you live long and splash joyful color throughout your days,
“Only when he no longer knows what he is doing, does the painter do good things.”
Edgar Degas, the French artist known for his ballerina paintings, is a good teacher from whom to learn. A true artist learns something new every day and isn’t afraid of failure. Failure is just another word for discovering what won’t work. As artists and as Christian believers, we are a people of hope. In fact, one might say we’re afflicted with chronic optimism. Even when our work fails to satisfy us, we can say, “Look at what I learned on this, and what I can carry over to my next work.”
North Carolina Sunlit Path
This little landscape is the second stage of a previous painting, one which I began while I was ill with a sinus infection. If I wasn’t at my best, I also wasn’t at my worst, so I was painting at my easel. I knew I wasn’t happy with it, but I thought I’d live with the painting until I heard it tell me what was needed.
The trees of the finished work are more slender, more shaped by the wind of the Carolina coastline. The bush masses are larger and have more contrast, while the sky is more evenly colored. Even the path has more sunlight and less shade.
Artistic license is the ticket to drive we all got as children with crayons and poster paint. We could paint the sky red if we took a notion to do so, give our dogs blue tongues, or paint the grass orange. Only the grownups among us squelched our creative spirits. Sometimes we have to learn to forget ourselves on purpose to learn art, faith, love, compassion, or joy.
I’m going to teach Friday morning art classes again at Oaklawn UMC. You bring your materials, I volunteer my years of experience teaching K-12 and adults. You get to learn real art:
Shading in Value & Color
Drawing & Painting from Life
One thing you’ll never do is copy anything I’ve already done or come home with a work that looks similar to one of your classmates. Art is about expression of your inner truth. You get to do you, and have a safe place to grow and struggle.
As G. K. Chesterton said in Orthodoxy:
“Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination.”
We artists will not go mad, but we will stretch our minds, deepen our souls, and gain a greater appreciation for the creative struggle.
The first class will begin Friday, September 6 at 10 am, and meet on Fridays afterwards. We’ll break for thanksgiving and Christmas. I’ll get a material list to the church office soon.