A Happy Bird for a Cloudy Day

arkansas, art, coronavirus, cosmology, Creativity, Faith, Fear, gambling, Holy Spirit, Meditation, Ministry, poverty, purpose, Spirituality, Stress, Uncategorized, Work

Happy Bird

“Do not curse the king, even in your thoughts,
or curse the rich, even in your bedroom;
for a bird of the air may carry your voice,
or some winged creature tell the matter.” ~~ Ecclesiastes 10:20

“A little bird told me,” my nanny often said, when I asked her how she knew about my doings. “The walls have eyes, honey, and the wind has ears. Nothing done in secret stays hidden very long. You’d best mind your P’s and Q’s.”

If I had been a more fearful child, I might have been afraid to sleep in a dark bedroom. As it was, I was only afraid of what was under the bed and what might come out of the closet, both of which are normal childhood “monster” fears. I kept these imaginary monsters from harming me by closing the closet door at night and by approaching my bed at a dead run, and launching my small body a full six feet through the air until I landed in the middle of my bed. My parents were thankful I forgot about these monsters by the time I was big enough to have done damage to the furniture.

How do we handle fears as adults? Some of us put our heads down into the sands, as if we were ostriches rolling our eggs in our nests. What we don’t see won’t bother us. Some of us self medicate with substances to the point of abuse. We can even use goods in a bad way: overeating, over exercising, overwork, and orthorexia (concern for a good diet) are a few we could mention. A better way is to seek a balanced life, and not to go off the deep end in any one direction.

When everyone else is losing their heads around you, someone has to remain calm. For a long time my motto was “Leave me alone, I’m having a crisis.” Then I went into ministry and I became the caregiver to people in crisis. Folks need a non-anxious presence to be with them, for even if we can’t change or fix their present circumstances, we can be a reassuring companion. While the present moment may be distressing, often the underlying reason is because our applecart has been upset. When our plans and schemes get upended, we have to monitor the new situation, and adjust accordingly. We may not like what we have to take care of, but this is our now, and not some hypothetical game plan.

As one of my clergy pals used to say, “I keep my calendar in pencil because I have to change it so often.” I just use that tape whiteout and write mine in ink anyway. I like the pretty colors, but I know life happens and when it does, i make the changes and write in a new plan in ink. Life is often messier than I’d like it to be.

I just found out all our public spaces in our county will close for April due to the coronavirus mitigation protocols. We have an establishment called The Ohio Club, which has been serving food and drink since 1905. It’s made it through the Great Flu Pandemic of 1918, the Great Depression, the two Great World Wars, and many smaller ups and downs in between. If we have an eye to the better future, and not just to the problems of the present moment, we can plan and work to get through this part of the cycle.

While closing down is a good choice for our community to contain the coronavirus, it means the exhibition I planned won’t go up. I’ll be checking to see if it’s rescheduled or if it will be a virtual display. With everyone on home confinement, we’ll make the best of the situation. There has to be a silver lining in the clouds somewhere. At least we should be looking for the bluebird of happiness to visit us in the coming days.

Bluebird of Happiness

Here is the poem by the American 20th Century writer, George J. Carroll, that first used the phrase “bluebird of happiness:”

“And in the valley beneath the mountains of my youth, lies the river of my tears. As it wends its way to the ocean of my dreams, so long ago they have gone. And yet, if I were but to think anew, would these dreams evaporate in my mind and become the morning dew upon a supple rose whose beauty is enhanced with these glistening drops, as the sun of life peeks o’er the mountains when youth was full. Then I must not supply this endless fountain that creates the river of my tears but look beyond those mountains where the bluebird of happiness flies.”

Folks tells us to stay in the present moment and to honor our feelings. If we’re in a state of anxiety, however, we need to ask if feeding our fears is the best choice we can make. “What if’s” and “How are we going to’s” are useful fuel for the flames of our imaginations. If we feed that flame, we’ll either take to day drinking or need to be heavily medicated for the public safety. Neither are our best choice. Sometimes we make lists, and then add lists to the lists, as if we could organize the chaos unfolding about us.

In truth, Chaos is confused, unordered, unorganized, and has no distinct form. It’s what existed before Creation. As such, unpredictability is its inherent nature. If we were in one of the closed casinos, the metaphor would be “shooting craps with loaded dice,” since the odds would be stacked against the player in favor of the House.

The best way to keep our wits about us when everyone else is going crazy is to breathe deeply in and out. If we focus on the breath, and remember the source of this life giving breath, we can connect our selves to a greater power.

“Then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being.” ~~ Genesis 2:7

If we remember whose we are, and who we are, we’ll get through this together. Take care of the poor, the hungry, the marginalized, and the sick. We are stronger together than we are alone.

Joy and a Peace, Cornelia

The Joy of Peter Max

SPRING CLEANING

adult learning, arkansas, art, Attitudes, beauty, Creativity, Faith, greek myths, Holy Spirit, Painting, poverty, purpose, Secrets, vision, Work

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.

Kettle and Frying Pan

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.

Happy Pan by Gail

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.

Sturdy kitchenware by Mike

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.

Turner: Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus

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.”

Cornelia’s Orange and Blue Kitchen

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

Still Life with Copper Cauldron (c. 1734–35), Jean-Siméon Chardin.

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.

Still Life with Copper Cauldron (c. 1734–35), Jean-Siméon Chardin. Photo: © Roger-Viollet/Musée Cognacq-Jay, Paris

https://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/beauty-is-in-the-eye-of-the-beholder.html

Cloud Illusions and Creativity

adult learning, art, Attitudes, beauty, change, Creativity, Faith, Holy Spirit, Imagination, Love, Ministry, Painting, Philosophy, Valentine’s Day, vision

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.

Mondrian: Ginger Jar and Apples

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.

Mondrian: Ginger Jar and Cheeses

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.

Shrine of the Madonna

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.

Hearts in Space

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.

Landscape Through a Window

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.

Autumn Landscape

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.