Keep It Simple

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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).

Mike’s Trees

When 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.

Gail’s Trees

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.

Paul Klee Color Study
(Not my work)

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.

So the artist within each of us is always creating a new thing, just as God is creating:        

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;

the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.

~~ Isaiah 65:17

Homage to Van Gogh’s Sun Flowers

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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?”

L

DeLee: Homage to Van Gogh’s Sunflowers

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.

Ah! Sun-flower

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,

Cornelia

LESSONS FROM A MASTER

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“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.

Stage One

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.

Original Photo

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:

  1. Perspective

  2. Shading in Value & Color

  3. Color Wheel

  4. Drawing & Painting from Life

  5. Still Life

  6. Landscape

  7. Icons

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.

Work in Progress

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This is a Landscape from Garvan Woodland Gardens, a work in progress, on a recycled woven canvas. I didn’t like the other two paintings I destroyed to make this canvas, and the work I put on the intermediate stage also didn’t satisfy me long term.

Work in Progress

The great joy about art is we can destroy our lower quality efforts and the world is the better for it. In real life, our words and deeds have ramifications which reverberate and intensify from the moment we speak or do them. We may have the freedom to say or do what we wish, but we always need to ask, “Is this the best choice? Will I do harm or good? Will I lift up or tear down?”

Garvan Woodland Gardens

Some folks seem to ask only, “Can I get away with it?” as they push the boundaries of the law, morals, and common decency. Once they were found only underground or in the shadow worlds, but now they feel comfortable walking boldly out in the light of day. Those of us who still believe in beauty and a divine hand in creation, no matter how long the universe has existed, must raise our voices and lend our hands to care for the earth and the oppressed peoples who live upon it

If we speak in one voice, “Care for the only home we all have,” and “Protect the weak of our world from the cruelty visited upon them,” then we truly are the inheritors of the divine image, the ones with whom God once walked in the garden.

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PRAYER: Listening to an Icon

Most of us separate our lives into doing and being: we are creatures of comfort at times, and then we expend energy doing chores or work at different times. We live bifurcated lives, even if we’ve heard the admonition to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16), we work without prayer and pray without working. Then again, some of us have little connection with the spiritual at all, so we miss the mystery and the awe of the dimensions beyond this mundane world. We’re unable to see even the glory and beauty of the creation, since we aren’t connected spirituality to a life beyond this world.

Christ Overcomes the World

The iconographer is more than a painter or a writer: he or she is one who connects this material world with the spiritual world beyond. The icon is a window through which the heavenly and the earthly worlds communicate. It’s like a wormhole, of sorts, in sci-fi language, or a portal passage for direct communication. Of course, we can directly communicate with the Holy Spirit, but not being able to see the Spirit, we can see the icon’s representation of the image of Christ or a saint, and this helps us to focus our thoughts and prayers.

Golden Christ

Some say a candle would suffice, or a text from Scripture, and I agree. Yet not everyone is able to live such a spare life, reduced of images, color, and beauty. Minimalism isn’t for everyone! This is why we have zen gardens as well as romantic English gardens. Some of us need architectural modernism and others like quaint country clutter. The icon tradition comes from the ancient church, for Luke was traditionally ascribed to be the first iconographer, as well as one of the first gospel writers. He painted Mary “the God-bearer” and Jesus.

Mary Macaroni

Our art class is moving out of its comfort zone in the painting of icons. We can learn about the spiritual life in the art class every time we meet. In fact, every time we try something new or challenging, we learn about ourselves and the spiritual life. A close inspection of the gospels shows a Jesus who was always challenging the status quo. The only time he was comforting people was when they were dispossessed, marginalized, or disrespected. “Blessed are the poor…” was his first choice, not blessed are the rich or powerful!

When we are weak and powerless, when we struggle and fall short of success, and that will be. Every. Single. Day. In. Art—We are then most able to lean on the one who for our sakes became weak so we can become strong. Then we’ll come back and fail again and remember the times Christ stumbled on the rocky road to the crucifixion. What seemed like a failure to everyone gathered about, and didn’t make logical sense to wisdom seeking people, nevertheless served a higher purpose. By uniting all of our human failures and faults in one person, God could experience all of them in God’s own image, the icon we know as Jesus Christ.

Crucifixion

If there’s any reason to attempt a Holy Icon in this modern world, we paint and pray to unite our work and spiritual into one. Usually only the clergy have this privilege, and they can too easily burn out if they do too much and pray too little. Lay people underestimate the amount of prayers necessary for effective work. The older I get, the more prayer time I need. Of course, work takes more out of me now, but I’m a refugee from the dinosaur age. I used to be an energizer bunny back in my fifties, but working thirty hours a week painting and writing is enough for me today.

Any art work, whether a landscape, portrait, or an icon, can be alive or dead, depending on how the artist approaches the work. If we draw the lines, fill in the colors, and never pay attention to the energy of the art itself, we’re just filling up time. If we’re thinking about our grocery list, what to make for dinner, or the errands we have to run, we aren’t on speaking terms with our artwork. On the other hand, if we’re paying attention, sharing in the conversation, listening to what our work is telling us, we can respond to the push and pull of the conversation. Our work will tell us what it needs if we’ll only listen to it. If we trust and listen to the Holy Spirit, we’ll paint a true icon, and the window into heaven will open for all who want to listen.

Christ Blessing the World

The Struggle is Real

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One of the most difficult struggles in art, sports, faith, or anything else in life is knowing what you want to achieve, but finding yourself lacking the skills to accomplish it. Some people give up right away, since they can’t master it well. Art takes a lifetime to master, so even the best of us will be struggling to get better until our last breath. Perfection is highly overrated! All artists are their own worst critics! At least in faith we have God as our coworker.

In art a beginner can set aside this quandary and say, “Well, I just need more practice and I’ll get there soon enough.” The intermediate practitioner contends with a little more skill, and could push his or her technique over the edge attempting to discover the heart and soul of their expressions as they seek their own way to speak of the beautiful and the true in color and forms.

Sometimes a seasoned artist comes to a growth point. Even one who, perhaps from their past work in a certain style, has some following and financial success, when they come to the daily search for truth and beauty, will discover the old beauty no longer attracts them. So while they may have all the technical ability to continue creating their old works, they find this no longer is their truth and they can’t in good conscience continue to produce in the same vein.

Our Still Life

The search for truth and beauty is like the search for God and our inner truth as artists and people of faith. If we’re only working for fame and gain, maybe we should have listened to those who said, “Don’t quit your day job.” Or thought of Rembrandt and Van Gogh, who found both success and poverty, but at different times. Our inner search for truth and beauty is just as fraught.

Will we take the risk and try something new? This week l brought the class a shade of my former self, no inspirational paintings of old masters, and only a variation on last week’s still life. Afterwards I was traveling up to the doctor‘s poffice for “the cure to end my misery.” After a few days on sinus medications, I can hold two thoughts together again.

To really look at life and look inside oneself is the best way to discover truth and beauty. Some folks don’t want to look inside for fear they’ll see ugly things, long buried secrets, pains, and memories best forgotten. We need to see these, recognize them, and let Jesus take them into his already redeemed life. If we can let these painful parts be transformed by his graceful healing mercy, then we can use his renewing power in our own lives to bring truth and beauty to the life of others.

Some people look out and only see ugliness, decay, and despair. I imagine if they look inside, they also see the same things. They need to remember the nature of all things is not in itself beautiful or ugly, just as they themselves aren’t ugly or beautiful. Beauty is a standard, like a Virtue, which is an ideal characteristic, and it’s beyond anything here on this world. We’ll probably understand Truth and Beauty in the eternal world, when we have the opportunity to participate with God in the fullness of time.

Gail—Day of the Dead image in process

If beauty were only to exist in the eye of each and every beholder, and each one of us could determine our own standards of beauty according to our own experience and criteria, then all the plains would be level and no mountains would exist. Yet, we know this isn’t so, for my icebox door may be decorated with my grandchildren’s crayon drawings, but they wouldn’t be hanging in an art gallery in any creative district anywhere.

Mike—Basket of Veggies against a Yellow Wall

If art isn’t a challenge, if life isn’t a pursuit of excellence, and if we are content to rest at the foot of the mountains, then I really wonder why God created the heights, if not for us to aspire to them? If there’s mountains in this world, why are so many content to climb just the hills, but call them mountains? Most of the struggles we have in life are actually molehills, but we blow them out of proportion and call them mountains! The biggest successes come from the accumulation of many small failures. We’re just training until we hone our muscle memory to a fine edge. This is why we say works can’t save you in faith, but art is all about the work ethic.

DeLee—Work in Progress

Our biggest challenge this week in class was the woven basket. Some of us had never woven anything in youth groups, so experiences I took for granted as a child growing up (weaving situpons and potholders) weren’t in some people’s backgrounds. Learning to look, follow the weave, see the play of light along the wave of the reeds, and the shadows as they dip under the warp bands took a bit of doing. We’re also beginning some Day of the Dead related works. We’ll work in these in October. I was so sick, I failed to photo everyone’s work. I should be in better shape next week!

Joy and Peace, Cornelia

For now we remember, as the apostle Paul sighed,
“For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
~~ Romans 7:19

And he leaves us with these words of hope,
“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
~~ Romans 8:28