As the days grow shorter, the pile of leaves grows larger. This is Einstein’s equation for autumn. I know “Energy equals Mass times the speed of Light squared” isn’t really congruent with all those bags of leaves accumulating on the edge of the streets of the front yards in your neighborhood. It just seems that way. When I bought my first little stucco, flat roofed house back in my hometown, the former owners reminded me at closing, “Be sure and rake the roof every autumn.”
Of course I forgot about this, until the twenty something major trees around my little flat roofed house dumped all their leaves on my roof. How did I know? When it rained, those leaves blocked the drainage holes, so water came inside the ceiling light fixtures of my kitchen in the back of the house. As soon as the rain quit, I had the ladder out and was filling the big, black garbage bags with soggy leaves. If you only fill them half way, they’ll stay intact when tossing them over the parapet. I was younger then, and trainable. I didn’t forget when autumn came the next year.
I’ve always thought leaves “fell” off the trees or the wind blew them off, but I asked Mr. Google, “Why do leaves fall?” Turns out, the trees cut them off with scissor cells. The leaves are only useful for making food for the tree. They are the seasonal kitchen staff, so the tree lets them go for the winter and brings in a new crew in the spring. The changing light and cooler temperatures triggers a hormone that makes this happen.
If the leaves stayed on the tree, they’d wake up during a winter warm spell, start their food production work, and then get frozen when the cold inevitably returns. The tree knows the lifespan of the leaf, and this is the natural course of the life cycle. New growth will come in the spring, after a period of rest and recovery.
Our holiday season coincides with darkening days and marketing excess. Most of the commercials show happy families with lots of presents in heavily decorated holiday environments. Statistics show 25% of people are estranged from their families, and one out of every 463 Americans alive at the beginning of 2020 has since died of covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. About 1 in 8 Americans say that a member of their family died of the virus; another fifth say that they lost a close friend, according to YouGov polling. These are staggering numbers, for in the US alone, 779,293 people have lost their lives as of November 30, 2021. One too many Thanksgiving tables had an empty place setting for a loved one no longer among us, and this will be a blue Christmas for many families.
If this were a war, maybe folks would get all excited and consider good health practices such as mask wearing , hand washing, and vaccinations their patriotic duty. Instead, they throw themselves into the breach of a thousand tiny viruses as if they were seeking the congressional gold medal for valor, and end up leaving their families with nothing but medical bills, grief, and the loss of their presence. Into this weary season comes Omicron, yet another variant, but an expected event due to the lack of worldwide access to vaccines and the virus’s ability to mutate in immunocompromised individuals. The enemy keeps evolving and the battles continue, whether we’re weary of the struggle or not.
“The Falling Leaves,” by Margaret Postgate Cole of England, is one of the first anti-war poems from a woman’s perspective. It was written in November 1915, during the First World War, when from 1914 to 1918, Flanders Fields was a major battle theatre on the Western Front. A million soldiers from more than 50 different countries were wounded, missing or killed in action there. Entire cities and villages were destroyed, their population scattered across Europe and beyond. The tradition of poppies on Veterans Day came from the red flowers given life from the blood spilled on this battlefield. COVID today is exacting it’s own cruel battle toll, with children left orphaned and spouses left without their mates. The adverse affects on this generation may be equal to those who went through the great flu pandemic of 1918 or the Great Depression.
War may be necessary in some instances, but it’s never to be glorified. There’s always a sadness related to the loss of life, regret over the great expense poured out that might have been used to build rather than destroy, and the cruelties that attend actions when we make others into evil enemies and refuse to see them as human as we are. Her poem speaks poignantly to this human loss:
Today, as I rode by, I saw the brown leaves dropping from their tree In a still afternoon, When no wind whirled them whistling to the sky, But thickly, silently, They fell, like snowflakes wiping out the noon; And wandered slowly thence For thinking of a gallant multitude Which now all withering lay, Slain by no wind of age or pestilence, But in their beauty strewed Like snowflakes falling on the Flemish clay.
Source: Margaret Postgate’s Poems (1918)
If we want to treat these end of year days as “days of denial” of all that’s grim in the world to focus only on the good and the light, we’s be like people who claim we have no shadow. Carl Jung believed the shadow included everything in the unconscious mind, good or bad. Also, the shadow might include only the part of the personality that you don’t want to identify as self, but still is a part of your unconscious mind. This dark side of your personality contains everything your conscious mind can’t admit about itself.
When we read the birth story of Jesus, we often focus on the angels and the gifts of the magi. We forget these heavenly hosts are God’s armies and the magi came to meet the new king. These were revolutionary acts that caused King Herod to feel insecure and threatened, so he slaughtered the innocent babies born at this time. The Bible never forgets this shadow side of life, for this is why Christ came into our world:
“to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” ~ Luke 1:79
“The more things change, the more they stay the same,” my daddy was fond of saying. We often long for the “way things used to be,” as if the Golden Age of the past was the best of all times. Yet, that past often exists only in our memories, but not in the lived reality of all persons. This is the classic story of the young prince, who while sheltered within the confines of his sumptuous palace never knew want, but once he walked among his people, he saw suffering and need everywhere. Today we know him as the Buddha, or Siddhartha Gautama. Many over the centuries have wondered why suffering exists in the world, or why they themselves must suffer. The Buddha saw all life as suffering, or rather our inability to accept the impermanence, change, and dissatisfaction with the present moment.
The Golden Age is a myth and poetic concept, as well as a political and philosophical construct. It began in Greece and was fixed in people’s minds by the time of the Roman Emperor Augustus. The Golden Age is a dream of an “earlier time when people lived peaceful, untroubled lives, and the earth supplied all their wants.” Those who read the Bible can easily find a parallel story in the first humans, who lived in the Garden of Eden. Of all the high and holy days in our cultural calendar, Christmas rates number one for nostalgia, both the personal kind and the universal type.
Nostalgia is the state of being homesick, or a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning, either for the return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition. It can be a salve for those who suffer, or it can be more salt poured into an open wound. It just depends on how one frames the experience. We feel “homesick “ in the worst possible way, for we yearn for the security of the familiar and the safe. Mostly we yearn for the people we love and are kin to us.
I remember the year I divorced my husband. It was necessary, for I couldn’t trust him to care for our daughter due to his alcoholism. The first Christmas was hard, for his family chose him and shut me out, as did all his friends. Decorating the Christmas tree was always a family affair in the Golden Age of my memories of Christmas. If this year I had no family, I would bring friends to decorate my tree. Just because I’d always celebrated one way before, I wouldn’t let my circumstances keep me from finding joy this Christmas. I called my young mother friends, invited their families to my home, and we decorated my tree within an inch of its life. It was my best tree ever! And then we ate and drank a toast to our creation. My friends were salve for my suffering, and helped me create a good memory, which still gives me pleasure to this day, four decades later.
Christmas brings families together, but this is a double edged sword. While we all want to be with our families, we also know oil and water don’t mix. After both my parents died, I often ate with some of my clergy pals’ families. I was glad to know they had relatives who also wore their crazy pants to dinner. If I ate with congregation members, they were often on their best behavior, as if I were some sort of god on earth. You’d think after six months at a charge, I’d already have disabused them of that notion, but some people never see your true nature, but only the image of every pastor they’ve ever known before. More often, I’d get pastoral calls of family crises during holiday seasons, so after years of this recurrence, I finally learned to plan for it. I eventually realized we all have a Golden Age of Christmas in our minds, but in real life, we live in the Age of Iron. When reality hits our delusions, the disconnect is palpable. We feel it in our very bones.
For many Americans, images of Victorian Christmases include memories of “children all snug in their beds with their visions of sugar plums dancing in their heads,” which we recognize as one of the opening lines of Clement Clark Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” a.k.a. “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” These sugar plums aren’t sugared fruits, but are more like candy covered peanuts or almonds. Jelly beans also are made by this same process. Whatever these treats were, the children dreamed of a world of happiness, sweetness, and delight.
As my Depression Era mother would say, “If wishes were horses, beggars would be kings.” That outlook never stopped me or my brothers from wanting everything in the Sears Christmas catalog, even though we knew these were just suggestions for Santa. Yet we never felt deprived, for whatever we received was a gift, plus it was more than we had before. On Thanksgiving day this year, consumers spent at a pace of at least $3.5 million per minute on line due to stores being closed for the holiday. This year, the average household is pegged to spend $924 for online shopping, more than double the $440 expected for in-store.
The National Retail Federation (NRF) projects November/December retail sales of $843.4 billion to $859 billion, up 8.5% to 10.5% from 2020 results. NRF said its forecast — excluding automobile dealers, gas stations, and restaurants, and covering Nov. 1 to Dec. 31— tops the previous high of $777.3 billion. This total is up 8.2% over 2020, as well as the average gain of 4.4% over the past five years. This increase is in spite of supply chain hiccups, rising gas prices, and the pockets of as yet unvaccinated individuals, who continue to be the greatest number of COVID admissions to our hospitals. It’s as if we’re trying to replace the suffering of our present with presents for those we love. This also accounts for our desire to donate to charities at this season.
Yet the Scrooge of Christmas continues to be COVID, for as an Augusta University Medical analysis released in May of 2021 revealed, which looked at COVID-19 related deaths in vaccinated versus unvaccinated individuals—only .8% (150) of vaccinated people accounted for the 18,000 COVID-19 deaths in May. If you want to give someone the gift of life this Christmas, take them to the local pharmacy and get them started on their vaccinations.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found both infection-induced and vaccine-induced immunity are durable for at least six months — but vaccines are more consistent in their protection and offer a huge boost in antibodies for people previously infected. Unfortunately, unvaccinated persons are also the prime hosts in which the virus can mutate, so the Grinch has already brought us the latest variant of concern, Omicron.
This variant was first identified in the South African peninsula, due to their excellent testing facilities. Of course, now the nations of the world have isolated the countries there, so they now feel punished by these bans. Travelers arriving in major world airports already have tested positive for for this variant, so we can expect disruptions and quarantines worldwide to follow. During this holiday season of restoring relationships, COVID keeps breaking our ties instead of rebuilding them.
We can long for the Golden Age of light from our younger days, when our parents took on the big worries so we could have the pleasant memories of an untroubled childhood, or we can fix our sight on the lights of our faith. The great star of the east which announced the birth of Jesus was a pale light compared to “The true light, which enlightens everyone, (which) was coming into the world.” (John 1:9) His was “The light (which) shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5).
Our Jewish friends meet the darkness of this Hanukkah season with prayers and menorahs, nightly lighting candles to disperse the darkness of hopelessness against great foes. They remember doing battle against spiritual powers, with God empowering their weakness. God never comes for the strong, but has a special kindness for the poor and weak. This is why we should feel blessed, no matter our personal experience, but especially during the holidays. The ceremony begins on November 28 and ends December 6, since it’s set by the lunar calendar.
So also are these December celebrations light filled: Burning the Yule Log on the 4th, St. Lucia on the 13th, the Winter Solstice on the 21st, Kwanzaa on the 26th, and finally, New Year’s Eve. Our good earth will bring its tilt back towards the sun gradually in the days following the winter solstice. This darkness too shall pass, whether it’s our personal grief or our universal suffering.
We’ll keep walking until we meet the better land beyond the horizon. If this isn’t yet the Golden Age of our memories or the Golden Age of our sugar plumb dreams, let’s work together as we walk to build a better world for all people, “for we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.” (Ephesians 2:10)
May you have a mindful holiday, full of joy and peace,
Reckford, Kenneth J. “Some Appearances of the Golden Age.” The Classical Journal, vol. 54, no. 2, The Classical Association of the Middle West and South, 1958, pp. 79–87, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3294223.
The saying is true: “If nothing ever changed, there’d be no butterflies.” Yet how hard do we humans hold to the past, even if we need to move on into the future? As an artist, I’ve always been caught between my desire to honor the traditions of the past, but also to move into the the unknown realms of the future. Artists already have a vocabulary and boundaries to describe the works of the past, so we can tell if our current works “meet the criteria for excellence.”
When we go beyond this known world into the uncharted territories, we’re like Columbus, who landed in the Caribbean islands, but thought he was on the continent of North America. I wonder if the monarch butterfly, just emerging from the cocoon, has any idea it soon will begin a 3,000 mile migration to its ancestral winter home in Mexico. The butterfly has the innate ability to navigate this path, whereas we humans are like Abram, for we’re going to a land our God will show us. We have no idea where we’ll end up, but we do know we’ll travel by stages and God’s guiding inspiration will always be with us.
During this current protracted COVID pandemic, with cases beginning in mid December 2019, we’ve now lost over 766,206 persons in the US alone and over 47,390,239 individuals have had COVID. Worldwide, the numbers are far greater: over 5 million have died and nearly 255 million have contracted COVID, mostly because vaccines and health care services aren’t available to the extent they are in America and the European Community. Not only has our world as a whole suffered a great grief, but each of us individually have lost friends, neighbors, or loved ones. This adds to our collective grief.
When we see the rest of our world changing around us, we feel another loss, and this becomes the grief leading to the death of a thousand tiny cuts. Just as in our workplaces, when the ideas of the young, the female, and the ethnic individuals aren’t valued, their dismissal leads to devaluation of their perspectives as well as their personhood. When we devalue nature and treat creation as an arena for humanity to restructure for our purposes alone, we can fall into the trap of thinking only for our immediate future, but not for the generations to follow. This is why building lots inside the city get cleaned off and offered as a blank slate, since this makes them valuable to the greatest number of buyers.
Death by a thousand cuts was supposedly a form of torture in ancient China. It was reserved for the most heinous crimes, such as matricide, patricide, treason, and the like. From all the tiny slices, the accused finally bled to death. It was a cruel and unusual punishment, rather like flogging the back of a law breaker until the flesh was raw, but this punishment was intended to cause death because the executioner kept at it until he succeeded.
Most of us are blissfully unaware of the loss of a few trees here and there in our neighborhoods. Sometimes we even want to cut down the trees on our own property because we’re tired of raking leaves every fall, or if we have a magnolia tree, we’re tired of our year round duty of leap reaping. Of course, if you want a high strung, classy tree to show off in your front yard, you also need to sign onto the high maintenance these trees require. “Those that wears the fancy pants has to take care of those fancy pants,” my mother always reminded me.
Yard work is a type of infrastructure most of us can understand. With Thanksgiving just around the corner, those of us hosting the feast are also getting the house and yard ready for family and friends to visit. Infrastructure has been in the news lately also, with politicians debating whether soft or hard infrastructure deserves the most funding.
In Hot Springs, we have “Green Infrastructure,” which includes all the natural assets that make the city livable and healthy: trees, parks, streams, springs, lakes and other open spaces. These assets are ‘infrastructure’ because they support peoples’ existence. For example, tree canopy keeps the city cooler while also absorbing air pollutants and mitigating flooding. The Hot Springs National Park forest area is also an important resource for a variety of reasons. The mountain area is in the recharge zone for the hot springs and the forest provides other important ecosystem services.
In urban areas, we can evaluate the landscape on a smaller scale, so even small patches of green space become important, since together they can make a greater large cumulative impact. Smaller urban spaces, such as linear stream valleys, or even pocket parks, can add up to a connected green landscape. When evaluating the ecological health of an urban area, urban tree canopy is a key green asset. For instance, Hot Springs has 57% tree canopy coverage and an additional 12% green space coverage. This adds to our quality of life, for this isn’t only pleasing to the eye, but the trees and grass convert carbon dioxide to oxygen, thus improving the air we breathe.
Cities are beginning to recognize the importance of their urban trees because they provide tremendous dividends. For example, city trees are a strategic way to reduce excess stormwater runoff and flooding. Even one tree can play an important role in stormwater management. For example, estimates for the amount of water a typical street tree can intercept in its crown range from 760 gallons to 4000 gallons per tree per year, depending on the species and age. Taken city-wide, the trees within the city provide an annual stormwater interception of 1.2 to 1.5 million gallons which equates to 7 to 9 million dollars in benefits. The loss of one tree is worth so much money, replanting our tree cover is an investment in our future wellbeing.
I often heard an old proverbial poem growing up, which may not be repeated much today:
For want of a nail the shoe was lost. For want of a shoe the horse was lost. For want of a horse the rider was lost. For want of a rider the battle was lost. For want of a battle the kingdom was lost. And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.
My nanny would remind me of the same principle in other words, “A stitch in time saves nine.” My daddy was from the school of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” While those two schools of thought still persist today, I think making a small, inexpensive repair, rather than a costly replacement, is a better choice, but too many of us live in a throwaway society.
When we lose one small thing, we brush it off as no matter, but after a thousand small losses, we just can’t take it any longer. We look around and wonder what happened to our world, why didn’t we take action sooner, and now we might be in a hole so deep we can’t see the top. When I first painted the trees on this vacant lot, the little coffee kiosk had closed shop and moved on. It was springtime and the violet wisteria vines were bright against a sunlit cerulean sky.
As I was taking a few photos with my iPhone last spring, the local policeman pulled into the circular drive to check on me. We chatted a bit, but he wanted to make sure I was OK. I’m at that age when silver alerts go out for others, but I’m not there yet. I guess “old gal taking photographs of trees” still looks suspicious in my small town. I’m thankful my town is this quiet.
When I told the officer, “These trees called to me,” he might have had second thoughts about my state of mind. Then he realized he was talking to an artist. I was rescued when his radio called him off to take care of some real trouble. I find I do my best work when I feel called to a subject, for I have a spiritual connection with it.
That was this past April, and here at year’s end, this lot is up for auction, with a commercial use zoning. It has easy access to the bypass and would be good for a food place or a fuel stop. Things change and we can’t hold back progress. I know people who buy a vacation home to visit while they still work, but as soon as they retire to this same place, they grouse about all the weekenders who come and spoil their solitude. They put up with it a year or so, griping daily, and then sell and move on. Life changed for them and they didn’t adjust to their new normal. I wonder why they never realized Hot Springs was a vacation destination. We think we need an infrastructure just for the 38,500 people who live here year round, but we actually need an infrastructure to support the over two million visitors to whom we offer the hospitality of our hot springs, our hotels, our fine dining, our attractions, and our natural beauty.
When I saw the trees were gone and the lots had been plowed level, I wondered if the trees had a swift death, or if they had brief dreams and fantasies while the saws pierced their outer skins. I thought of the butterflies encased in their cocoons, and the deep sleep of their transformation. Do butterflies dream in this stage, or do they even dream like we do? I wondered if next April I would see wisteria growing near the ground, for as a weed, it’s hard to kill. I always hope, for I’ve learned over time, if I’m a prisoner of hope, this is better than seeing only the loss.
After traveling and recovering from an autumn sinus infection, I decided to destroy an old mobile sculpture of a butterfly made from found materials and attach it to a canvas. I took some scraps of cloth from some mask projects, and glued the whole to the canvas. Maybe I crammed more than I should have onto the small surface, but I was going with it. This work might be more catharsis than art, or more process and possibility than success. It doesn’t matter, for sometimes art is more therapeutic than anything else.
The first layer held all the colors and shapes of the original Google map. The second layer began to make sense of the shapes and textures, for I started to pull together the small areas into larger spaces. By the third layer, I’d lost most of the color areas and turned them instead into linear shapes. The primary colors of the background I subdued beneath an overall gold tone. The lines now are like an automatic writing or glyphic writing, which might be the language spoken either by the trees or the butterflies, or by all natural living beings.
When we confront suffering in nature, in our lives, or in the world, we often ask, “Where is God in all of this?” In the days past when I suffered, I held on to the words of the Apostle Paul to the Romans:
“I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” (8:18-21)
Often we suffer because we can’t change our past, or we think we can’t affect our future. At some point in our lives, we come to accept our suffering. We don’t have to continue to suffer, of course, but we need to accept that what happened to us is over. We can forgive ourselves for not leaving a bad relationship earlier, or being too young to know we were being harmed. Some of us may have survivor guilt from our nation’s wars, and suffer moral injuries from acts of war. Only good and decent human beings would feel this guilt, and they can heal with Christ’s forgiveness. We can be changed and then begin to change the world, even if we begin only with our own selves.
After all, the Psalms promise us God is faithful both to us and to the creation also: “When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” (104:30)
These dried hydrangeas, a gift from North Carolina, traveled home with me from my vacation back east to see my youngest nephew marry the love of his life. My childhood friend cut them from the bushes in front of her beautiful retirement home in the Blue Ridge Mountains near Lake Junaluska, the famed Methodist Retreat Center. Her home is about an hour away from the Biltmore Estate, America’s largest home. I’ve now been to both historic places, known for their hospitality, and enjoyed the hospitality of two friends’ homes, who live not an hour apart. I knew both of these gals growing up back home, and now they know each other through me.
Hydrangeas are native to America. Two well-known hydrangea species, among others, grow wild in North America — the H. aborescens (smooth leaf) and H. quercifolia (oak leaf). Their actual cultivation began in the 1700s. An historic trifecta of our forefathers’ estates is proof: Mount Vernon, Monticello, and Montpelier all cultivated these hydrangeas.
William Bartram, of Bartram’s Nursery in Philadelphia, provided the seeds and plants for these historic homes. James Madison’s home, Montpelier, in Vermont, still has the creamy white heads of H. arborescens as a border for his garden wall. The Bartram Gardens were a natural history project begun by his father John Bartram and continued through the generations, with William’s love of travel and exploration leading to a four-year collecting trip to the American Southeast and the publishing of an account of his travels in 1791. It became a classic text in the history of American science and literature.
Documents from Mount Vernon record how in 1792, George Washington planted a native hydrangea, H. arborescens, on the bowling green at his home. Nearby, when Thomas Jefferson was designing his gardens and walkways at Monticello, he also included these new shrubs. Today, gardeners can purchase heirloom H. quercifolia seeds from the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants in Monticello.
The notion everyone is connected by just six stages of separation gained popularity in the early 2000’s based on scientific studies done in the 1960’s. The game Six Stages of Kevin Bacon was based on this idea. Today, due to social media and the internet, some people have only 3 or 4 stages of separation. Our founding fathers ran in the same circles, so their stages of separation were small.
Hydrangeas also come from Japan, where they’re the subject of many brush and ink paintings. The flowers hold a solid role in Japanese culture. The Japanese celebrate the hugely popular Ajisai (hydrangea) festivals in the blooming seasons of late spring and summer. Pink hydrangeas are given on the fourth wedding anniversary. Hydrangea gardens often grace the grounds of sacred Buddhist temples. People enjoy amacha, or tea from heaven, on April 8, Buddha’s birthday. Amacha is brewed from leaves of the Hydrangea serrata.
While western churches are sited in lawns, as if they were sheepfolds to shelter the sheep within and protect them from the outer world, eastern Buddhist temples incorporate nature into their design and sites. This reminds us everything is one. As Father Richard Rohr reminds us in his book, The Universal Christ, the author of Colossians 1:19-20, puts this idea plainly:
“For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
A classic example is the Buddhist Meigetsu-in Temple, which was founded in 1160 as a Rinzai Zen temple of the Buddhist Kenchō-ji school. Located in Kamakura, Japan, its nickname is the hydrangea temple, for from the end of May through July, thousands of hydrangeas bloom during the rainy season. The temple is a Japanese national historic site.
When I first brought in the dried flowers to class, the first reactions I heard were, “Wow! You brought those all the way from North Carolina intact?” and “This is gonna be hard!” I’ll let you figure out who said what!
My answer was, “Sure, I’m an old art teacher, and I’m prepared for anything. I had a travel box in my SUV trunk, so they nestled quietly there on the journey home. As for hard to paint, remember what I always tell you, don’t paint the eyelashes before you get the shape of the face. The KISS principle always applies.”
“You mean keep it simple, stupid?”
“Mike, the one who wants to learn and stretch their mind is never stupid. KISS stands for KEEP IT SIMPLE, STUDENTS.”
They all laughed. Most of us can’t see the big forest because we’re looking at all the individual trees. If we step back and get a sense of the whole first, we can see how the parts relate to one another. This helps us put the basic sketch onto the surface of our work. It also gives us a moment to observe the subject before us and catch that moment of interest, which we can then emphasize.
As I reminded folks, “This looks difficult, but the basic shape here is a big ball. We’ve already done geometric balls. You thought those were boring, but they had a purpose. You needed that skill to be able to see the same shape in nature and recognize the same pattern of light and dark shadows.”
They nodded their heads. Teaching often is just reminding people what they already know or reinforcing previous skills from a different viewpoint. We went on to the slide show. It helps to see how other artists have handled the subject of the day. I’ve always enjoyed show and tell time, for it gives us inspiration and education both. Every time we learn something new, we have a new wrinkle in our brains. At a certain age, this is the only place we want to get wrinkles!
This lovely Japanese woodblock print is from the era when Japan moved from its historic monarchy into the beginning of its new democratic government. The old emperor was confined to the palace due to illness, so the western educated prince regent Hirohito was the default leader. During this time, the people favored western art styles, such as this romanticized Shin-hanga print, instead of the older artists’ works of the floating world, or Ukiyo-e. The Japanese continued to prefer the works of the floating worlds, with the dancers, actors, musicians, and tea houses.
Of course, Taisui and the other artists of the Shin-hanga movement were producing for a distant audience, who may never have set foot upon the island of Japan. What we think we know of a place is one thing, but until we experience it first hand, we won’t know its truth and its power, except by word of mouth. Taisui was active for only a decade, as far as we know, from 1920 to 1930, but he made numerous prints of plants, insects, and birds, which still bring joy to us today.
I found this painting on Pinterest. I pointed out how the artist didn’t paint every single flower petal, but still got the message of “hydrangeas” across. This is a palette knife work, so it builds up the shapes from back to front. An artist can’t just throw paint on the canvas like some piece of spaghetti against the wall and hope it sticks. We always have to put our thinking cap on and build up the shapes from back to front and from dark to light. We also have to pay attention to the direction of the light if we’re doing a realistic image.
This second rough image by Allison Chambers is another example of not painting all the minute details, but getting the main idea across (KISS). This is why billboards don’t use small print and politicians use sound bites. We’re moving too fast on the highway to read the fine print and our attention spans now are less than a goldfish! Sad but true, a goldfish can focus for nine seconds, but the average human only for eight seconds.
We can blame phones, social media, and our desire to be connected all the time. Once we were content to call once a day, but now we have to check in twice a day or more. Some of us find that much contact interferes with getting things done, but then self starters don’t need anyone checking up on them. These folks tend to think frequent callers need to find another hobby to fill their time. Everyone needs a purpose in life, so those who’re trying to micromanage others might need to spend that energy helping the poor with food distribution or expending that excess energy doing good elsewhere. Then again, maybe those frequent callers are just lonely. They might need to use those dialing fingers for good as part of a community prayer chain. Then they can connect in prayer and feel useful too.
This last image does have many details. It’s a watercolor built up in thin layers of washes to get the desired result. When working with washes, we have to have time and patience, and channel our inner goldfish, so we can manage our attention spans. Our first inclination is to work wet in wet, over and over, but that just muddies up our colors in that space. We need to let that spot dry, move to a new spot, paint it, and keep painting and moving, until we get the whole first layer done. Then we can come back and lay in darker tones in certain areas, once again moving about the canvas, for if we repaint too soon, we’ll just lift up the underpainting.
This takes focus and intent, as well as the ability to reserve judgement on our work, since it takes time for it to come into being. This isn’t a simple skill, for delayed gratification isn’t practiced often today. Even when we work our plan and execute our technique to the best of our ability, the end result may seem lacking. Yet, we’ve grown, or else we wouldn’t realize our struggle didn’t meet our expectations. When we want more, we can see how far short our efforts fall. This should encourage us to continue the challenge.
As Philippians 3:12-14 reminds us about the spiritual life:
“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.”
After show and tell, we sat down to paint. We’d done enough talking and presenting of models. We had enough to chew on for the short time our class meets. If we have two hours, we use the first 15 minutes on presentation and the last 15 minutes on cleanup. This gives us about 90 minutes to paint. We don’t make large works, but sometimes we take an extra day to finish what we started. I’d call most of our work “studies,” since they’re quickly done.
Gail chose to do color exploration and deeper, more saturated applications of paint, rather than her usual washes. This was a bold experiment for her. Art is a risky business. We can’t always control what the brush will do. Most of us have been trained since childhood to “color within the lines.” Once the paint gets loose, we’re in uncharted waters, sailing out into the deep ocean and out of sight of familiar landmarks. We can either turn back and hug the safe shore, or sail out to discover the unknown land. Taking risks is how we grow.
Mike’s love of texture is apparent in his painting, as well as a variety of color. While the colors aren’t natural to the subject, he chose the colors which made him feel good. His is an emotional response to the beauty of the flowers. He wasn’t happy with the opening of the vase, but he got so carried away with the flowers, he forgot his perspective principles.
We might need to reteach that lesson once again. Some lessons need reteaching multiple times. This is why Jesus spoke in the gospels about God 264 times and love 44 times. Money rated 24 mentions, riches 2, the neighbor 10, and the poor 25. If we ever wondered what Jesus was focused on, we might look at what he emphasized in his ministry.
I noticed we each gave our flower pots a different look when we painted our canvases. None of us are dedicated copyists. My color scheme tilts toward the red-orange, yellow-green, and blue-violet. This is a secondary triad, rather than a primary triad of red, yellow, and blue. The mixed colors give the flowers their muted look.
By adding white to some of the brush strokes, and darker tones to others, I was able to suggest individual flowers as well as shapes. It’s just a quick sketch, a work I would do in preparation for a larger painting. Doing this would help me get some ideas down and help me solve some problems in advance, as if I were training for a competition. I would know if my color scheme was working, or if I needed to change the values or tints. I might want to choose a deeper color, or certainly a larger canvas.
So we come back for another day and another try. We can “see the promised land,” but like Moses, we don’t know if we’ll ever reach it. Artists have to be incurable optimists, for they keep trying again and again, even though we know human perfection in art will always be out of reach. Yet as Paul reminds us in Romans 3:21-24, if perfection in art eludes us, we can still have “Righteousness through Faith:”
“But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus.”
May we all go onto perfection, with God’s help— Joy and Peace,
Robert Frost, in his poem “Nothing Gold Can Stay,” speaks to the transitory nature of fall colors:
Nature’s first green is gold, Her hardest hue to hold. Her early leaf’s a flower; But only so an hour. Then leaf subsides to leaf. So Eden sank to grief, So dawn goes down to day.
Nothing gold can stay.
When I was in North Carolina recently, I was a tad early for the best colors of autumn, but I didn’t miss the Apple Festival in Waynesville, where I bought a half peck of apples fresh from a local orchard. Every time I encounter the word peck, it it brings back memories of my dad and his older brother schooling us children on the tongue twisters they learned in school. Back in the Stone Age, proper elocution was emphasized, along with cursive writing. To this day, l still hear their dulcet duet:
Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers;
A peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked;
If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers,
Where’s the peck of pickled peppers Peter Piper picked?
Don’t get me started on sister Suzy’s seaside seashells or the amount of wood a woodchuck could chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood. I’d much rather talk about autumn leaves!
Here in Arkansas, our colors up north are about spent, but near and south of the I-40 corridor, peak leaf change generally takes place in early November. The colors usually don’t last long because as soon as the leaves change, strong cold fronts tend to knock off the leaves quickly as we head toward Thanksgiving.
Of course, with climate change, our first frosts are occurring later in the season. In fact, some climate scientists think we could be on the path to two main seasons—winter and summer—with transitional short shoulders of temperate weather we once knew as fall and spring. This will affect not only agriculture’s growing seasons, but also insect populations, flower blooms, and the wildlife dependent upon them, not to mention our utility bills.
After a three week hiatus from art class, I was excited to return. While I was gone, Gail has had many sleepless nights helping with the new grand babies and Mike has been extra busy, as is his normal usual. I was glad to see Erma and catch up with her to give condolences in the passing of her dear husband. COVID has kept us apart and out of touch, so I was late to know this. Others were sick or out of town, so Mike, Gail, and I looked over some art works for inspiration.
The Georgia O’Keefe Leaf painting treated these single shapes as unique objects, a radical idea in its day. This allowed her to limit her color palette and focus her design on the positive and negative spaces. A somewhat similar painting is Norman Black’s surrealist Autumn Leaves. It differs in feeling because the individual leaves are isolated, floating in space, rather than being layered one upon the other like cozy coverlets.
One of the aspects in painting we often overlook is the source of light. Light is what gives our work sparkle, just as the light makes the world visible. As we wake to darkness now, we’ll appreciate the light more and more when we come home in the dark, for the days gradually grow shorter. Most artists pick one direction as the source for their light in the painting. This allows them to control the shadows of the objects in their canvases. They prefer the afternoon or morning light, not just because the sun is lower in the sky, but also because these times have distinctive temperatures. The morning has cooler colors, while the afternoon has warmer colors.
We looked in our cell phones for images of autumn leaves. This is when we discovered our phone search systems aren’t all created equal. While my phone will turn up every single yellow, red, or orange tree or leaf photo, plus a few pumpkins thrown in for good measure, other peoples’ phones list photos by month and date. Technology frustrated us right off the bat. Rather than waste half our class time looking for an image, Gail and I decided on one.
Sometimes the perfect is sacrificed in favor of the good when the time is short. Perfection is a goal, not the necessity to begin the journey. This is why we Methodists say we’re “going onto perfection,” rather than we’ve already arrived.
Mike chose the first one that popped up in his phone. He went straight to work. Gail likes to find the best before she starts. Sometimes we need to accept what is before us and make the best of what we have. The perfect isn’t always available. Also, she was working on too little sleep. Newborn babies will do that to grandmas. We can take a halfway good image from our phone and use it as an inspiration or jumping off point. We don’t have to recreate the image.
When working from a photo, it’s good to crop the image to the same scale as the canvas. This helps you get the proportions of the subject true to form. I also photoshop the colors, sharpness, and contrast. This preparatory work helps the mind sort out the important shapes. Once these decisions are made, drawing the basic shapes on the canvas starts and colors start happening.
Mike got out of the class to get back to the office before I could set a photo of his tree, but I recall it was an overall image with multicolored leaves. I worked from an old autumn photo from the grounds of my condo. I’d pushed the colors past realism in my computer software program, so it was already bold. I eliminated much of the extraneous details and painted just the simplest elements of the landscape. This is called “artistic license.” We don’t have to paint every leaf, but we can paint the shape of all the leaves in the mass together.
Artists and poets both seek to strike a chord in the hearts of their audience: one uses colors, light, shape, and form, while the other creates their images and emotions through word and metaphors.
If we remember nothing about this glorious autumn, let’s remember John 8:12, in which we hear Jesus proclaimed as the Light of the World:
Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”
USGCRP, 2018: Impacts, Risks, and Adaptation in the United States: Fourth National Climate Assessment, Volume II [Reidmiller, D.R., C.W. Avery, D.R. Easterling, K.E. Kunkel, K.L.M. Lewis, T.K. Maycock, and B.C. Stewart (eds.)]. U.S. Global Change Research Program, Washington, DC, USA, 1515 pp. doi: 10.7930/NCA4.2018.
“ Good artists copy, great artists steal,” Pablo Picasso once said. If we’re going to learn art, we should learn from the masters, and not from ordinary purveyors of paint. In art school, we often copied the old master paintings and drawings to learn their techniques and develop those traditional styles of execution so we could “break the rules” later on if we so chose.
Learning to paint and draw is a process. In ancient times, young people were apprenticed out to a master. In this workshop, they would learn their trade from the ground up, from cleaning brushes and sweeping the workshop floors, to later mixing colors, and then painting backgrounds. Later on they’d be drawing figures, so when they were competent, they would fill in the lesser people in the painting. By the time they achieved master status and were able to leave and establish a studio of their own, they could paint faces, hands, and the complete figure with appropriately draped clothing. This was about five to ten years of full time work in their master’s workshop and included the journeyman designation by the local guild.
When I taught art in the kindergarten through eighth grades at a private school, I always reminded the high achieving parents, “Your children’s art is an exploratory and experimental exercise. It may not look like a beautiful finished product, although it might have gone through that stage at some point in the process. If it’s a picture of daddy cutting the lawn, but all you see is black circles covering the page, that’s the sound of the lawnmower engine and the smoke it makes as it crisscrossed the yard.” For children that age, the story is more important than the image. For the parents, the image is more important, but parents have to learn where their children are in their development.
We can’t judge a book by its cover, nor can we judge a painting done in a weekly art class the same way we look at a painting in a museum. Still, we look to the better image for our inspiration, rather than to a lesser image, as 2 Corinthians 3:18 reminds us:
And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.
Edgar Degas once said, “Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” The past two weeks our group has been working with faces and master artists. We looked at Picasso in his multiple styles, along with Matisse and his more decorative style. We also painted portraits from our own photos in the styles of these two masters. Both Picasso and Matisse transitioned through several different styles during their artistic lifetimes, so we weren’t limited in our inspiration.
“Creativity is allowing yourself to make mistakes. Art is knowing which ones to keep,” said Scott Adams, the American cartoonist who created Dilbert. Or as the late Bob Ross would say, “There’re no mistakes, only happy little accidents.” Most of us can’t bring ourselves to make mistakes, however, even though mistakes are how we learn. Falling off the bicycle is part of learning how to find the proper balance to stay upright. We take tests in school to discover what we need to restudy. Tests aren’t a measure of our worth, but a measure of our learning. This desire to “appear faultless” often keeps us from trying something new, for fear we might not be good right out of the gate. Mature people know life isn’t a horse race, but everyone has their own gifts and graces to hone and embellish. If we don’t try, we might always be a diamond in the rough. We’ll never rise to our best if we don’t extend ourselves beyond our safe places.
Mike took a look at an image and went to work on his painting. He worked mostly from memory, adding designs and colors as he felt moved to place them on the canvas. “Likeness” wasn’t his goal, but the joy of playing with color and shape instead.
Matisse’s portrait of his wife caused a scandal at the 1905 Salon Exhibition. Matisse’s studio colleagues asked the painter, “What kind of hat and what kind of dress were they that this woman had been wearing which were so incredibly loud in color?” Matisse, exasperated, answered, “Black, obviously”.
“The chief enemy of creativity is ‘good’ sense,” is another Picasso quote. After all, those who always stay within the lines and always color the sky blue won’t be able to imagine sunsets or sunrises. This is why James Whistler said, “An artist is not paid for his labor but for his vision.”
What is vision in the world of art? We’re familiar with visions from God, or the lack thereof in certain times, as when Samuel was called:
Now the boy Samuel was ministering to the LORD under Eli. The word of the LORD was rare in those days; visions were not widespread. (1 Samuel 3:1)
In God given visions, the prophet is open to God’s word, hears God’s voice, speaks for God, calls God’s people back to God, and reminds people of the consequences of their actions, both good and bad. Like a prophet, an artist needs to be open to the same move of the Spirit in the natural world, for the light calls and the trees speak, and the waters whisper of the deep mysteries of God’s Providence for God’s creation. Perhaps we need still hearts and quiet minds to receive these messages, but thankfully nature has a way of renewing the life of the human soul.
As we become more our true selves before God, we begin to find our artistic vision. Cezanne called Monet, who was famous for his Waterlilies, “only an eye, but what an eye!” If the eye is the window into the soul, we also reflect outwards what we are inside. We keep working on both our inner selves and our outer talents, with the thought one day the two might intersect. As Picasso said, “It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child.” He could learn all the art techniques in a short time, but to become his true self, without pretense before others, took him a lifetime.
We Methodists should have a good jump on this goal, since we have the spiritual tradition of “going onto perfection.” This is one of our classic grace teachings. Prevenient grace brings us to know the saving grace of God before we’re even aware of God’s working in our lives. Justifying grace is the work that lets us understand Christ’s gift on the cross for our salvation, and Sanctifying grace empowers our works to renew us in the image of God.
If God’s grace is available for our spiritual development, it’s also there for our personal development. Is art a frill, or a necessity? Those of us who make art, find our lives are enriched by our creative endeavors. Neuroaesthethics is the emerging field in the science of how art affects the brain. These scientists define creativity as “the generation of something new,” and art as “the most homogenous form of total creativity.” However, we still have no understanding of how the brain generates new ideas, despite a tidal wave of neuroscientific research. This is why my art classes have always had learning environments with projects with no one right answer, but rather multiple possible solutions. All art comes from a true self, not from a stockpile of manufactured and multiplied standardized reproductions.
Recent thinking suggests art should be regarded as a cognitive process in which artists engage the most perplexing issues in their present experience and try to find a way of symbolizing them visually so they can bring coherence to their experience. As a result, the definition of art is constantly changing. Understanding how we symbolize our experience, how we use symbolic form to organize our thinking processes, and what are the neuroanatomical corollaries to these processes will have obvious implications for future learning. Additional neuroscience research supports the idea of enhancing transfer of learning abilities from the arts to other cognitive domains. More importantly, as Yayoi Kusama, the painter of polka dotted pumpkins says, “I followed the thread of art and somehow discovered a path that would allow me to live.”
One of the best reasons to pursue art is for our spiritual and mental health, rather than to make salable products. Improvement is a goal in itself, as is persistence. Also, concentrating on creating an object that has no real purpose, but to allow the artist to express their inner emotions and solve the challenges of a three dimensional world on a two dimensional surface. “Life beats down and crushes the soul, and art reminds you that you have one,” said Stella Adler, the American actress. In the studio, we find our true self, not who others think we are or what we do for a living. We can be children once again and paint because we want to.
In art class we lift up “studio habits of mind” or the skills we teach in painting class. For every painting or project, we always first
Observe—to see with acuity
Envision—to generate mental images and imagine
Express—to find their personal voice
Reflect—to think meta-cognitively about our decisions, make critical and evaluative judgments, and justify them
Engage & persist—to work through frustration
Stretch & explore—to take risks, “muck around,” and profit from mistakes
Develop craft skills and
Understand the history of art.
These are thinking or reasoning skills anyone can apply to any area of their lives, even if they’re improvising or “working in the Spirit.” We all can build resilience for our lives through our experiences in art. For some of my former students I taught in the classroom, art class was the only place they were well behaved, for they didn’t have to come up with one right answer, but had the opportunity to discover their own answer within certain boundaries. Also, they were graded on improvement, as well as their work ethic. “Practice makes perfect, or at least improvement, so keep working.”
Just remember what Salvador Dalí said: “The reason some portraits don’t look true to life is that some people make no effort to resemble their pictures.”
I was an art major before I attended seminary at Perkins, where I had the great privilege to take Philosophy from Dr. Billy Abraham. Of course this privilege was extended to me because I failed my one and only philosophy class in undergraduate school. I had taken it pass fail, but hit a terrible depression after my art teacher died. I had no energy to even hand in a paper with my name on it, even though the professor offered this as an act of grace to pass me.
“I’ve not done the work, I’m in over my head, and I haven’t understood any of these concepts in this class,” I said. “I don’t deserve to pass.”
“It’s a pass fail class. It doesn’t count toward a grade average, but it can count against you. Just turn in the paper,” he pleaded.
It didn’t seem appropriate to me, or honorable to take this option, but that could have been my depression coloring my decision making process. Still, I wasn’t raised to take credit for haphazard efforts, and providence ensured my F didn’t count against me when I transferred to art school the next semester, so that F didn’t affect my ultimate grade average after all.
I speak about this because in seminary, Billy Abraham daily stretched the brains of every one of us first year students. First we heard one Greek philosopher say this was “true and real.” Then the philosopher who was his student came along and directly contradicted his old master, saying, “No, instead, something else is true and real.”
We all were in hair pulling mode, not to mention Dr. Abraham’s favorite description, “getting our underwear tied into knots.” I’ve always heard there’s a Rosetta Stone, which can unlock the meaning of an unknown language for those who have the eyes to see it. Perhaps only the creative ones, those who can see the patterns and the similarities, or what the mathematicians call the “sets” and the biologists call the “modules,” can suddenly see the key in plain sight.
I admit I too was floundering until I had the eye opening realization I already held the key in my hand. I’d met this same question before in my art studio and history classes: “What is beautiful and what is truly art?” This definition had changed over the centuries, so why should the ideas of what is “reality and truth” remain fixed? This is a great example of “transfer of learning,” a well known educational concept, which resulted in my “lightbulb moment.”
As I explained to a fellow student, “Think of these as distinct historical ideas, not as your individual truth. It’s like looking at a fashion show from the ancient times to the present: no one expects those clothes to look like what we wear today. Just memorize what each of these styles look like. You don’t have to wear a toga to know what these Greeks thought. We just have to know how these old ideas influence later trends of thought fashions.” This is teaching by analogy, which is familiar to Bible readers as “parables.”
Most people can get over that intellectual hump. Seminary is designed so persons who aren’t agile thinkers will reconsider their educational choices. Philosophy and theology will winnow those who need to be told what to think, rather that learning how to think and understand deeply. Biblical studies will sort out those who aren’t able to interact with more than one voice of biblical interpretation. Then the internships and clinical pastoral settings will further sort those who don’t play well in groups. Finally the supervisory process we all go through toward our ordination into one of the orders of the annual conference is a long period of discernment, for all concerned.
The good news we can all do ministry, for we’re ordained by our baptism into the priesthood of all believers, not only reflect the Christ who lives in us, but to be the Christ in service to our neighbors. As we read 1 Peter 2:9—
But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.
This is why it’s important we consider such concepts as truth, beauty, and the good. The Greek adjective kalon only approximates English for “beautiful.” Kalon has more of an ethical tone, but doesn’t mean the same thing as agathon or the “good, ” but rather is a special complement to goodness. At times kalon narrowly means “noble,” or “admirable.”
What was true for Plato were the forms, and everything here on earth were mere reflections or imitations of these ultimate truths. The true beauty and the good existed beyond this world, but everything and everyone could aspire to that ideal. Plato thought art and poetry were the arenas of greatest beauty, as Simonides, the Greek poet, drew an explicit analogy: “Painting is silent poetry and poetry is painting that speaks.”
While some say, “Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery,” for Plato imitation is found in the appearance of things, rather than in reality (the forms, which exist in an ideal world elsewhere), so judged on its own terms, the product of imitation has an ignoble pedigree (Republic 603b). Therefore, the imitative arts direct a soul toward appearances and away from proper objects of inquiry, which are the forms. While a mirror reflection might prompt you to turn around and look at the thing being reflected, an imitation keeps your eyes on the copy alone. Imitation has a base cause and baser effects.
Plato also believed poets created their works under irrational conditions, with inspiration arriving sometimes spontaneously, as if it were from the gods, a “divine madness,” as it were. Even today, people think creative types are more likely to be mentally ill, but science doesn’t bear out this romantic notion. Illness isn’t a prerequisite for creativity, even though many artists have suffering in their life histories.
Creativity of any kind—making a collage, taking photographs, or publishing in a literary magazine—tends to make individuals more open-minded, curious, persistent, positive, energetic, and intrinsically motivated by their activity. Those who score high in everyday creativity also reported feeling a greater sense of well-being and personal growth compared to those who engage less in everyday creative behaviors. Creating can also be therapeutic for those who are already suffering. For instance, research shows that expressive writing increases our immune system functioning, and the emerging field of post traumatic growth is evidence we can turn adversity into growth.
Realism was the primary purpose of painting until the 19th century, when the invention of photography took over this task. This freed painters to engage in the higher search for what is beautiful and what is true, rather than to limit a painting to reproducing a likenesses or the mere imitation of nature. Yet many people still judge a work of art by how close it resembles the natural world. Of course, we also say the say the same about the embalmer’s art as we view the deceased in the casket: “My, doesn’t so and so look natural! So lifelike, as if they were asleep.”
For our first lesson back in art class, we worked on seeing the familiar in a fresh way. This isn’t as easy as it sounds. We’re so used to recognizing faces in the ordinary way, to see them in a different way is a struggle. Take the Mona Lisa, by Leonardo Da Vinci. It’s an icon or representative image of the renaissance portrait. No matter what an artist does to it, we still recognize it as the Mona Lisa. Our goal was to take a photo of of someone we know, and push the limits of the facial expression and shapes so it wasn’t like the image we worked from originally.
Mike copied the cover of the Bad Girls of The Bible, and made a good likeness. In between calls from work, he focused on replicating an image he could see. After several years of sincere efforts to paint what he sees, it’s hard to break this habit and paint something beyond his vision.
We’ll take a shot at this again. I a similar lesson early in the group’s existence and I remember it was distressing to them to draw without seeing. We were feeling the objects inside bags, and they didn’t like not looking. Bring out of control was disconcerting.
Gail took her grandchild’s photo and stretched it into another dimension by treating the image as if it were a Night of the Living Dead character or the Scream from the German artist Munch. She had the most success of any of us in terms of breaking the norms of “portrait.”
Sally, new to our group, began a lyrical study of a woman’s head. I confess I never saw the image from which she drew her inspiration. It’s her first try, and we’re glad she got paint on the canvas. We’ll keep working on it together. All art, as is life, a work in progress.
I worked from an icon of Jesus, which I knew would test me to break the form I saw before me. As it turned out, I too couldn’t break it on this first day. When the Platonic Ideal Form exerts its pull on the mind and hand, the artist keeps making the reflection of that form as a work, which exists as an imitation or a window into the true reality where the Holy is found.
After a long summer break with all the Covid isolation a person could stand, I quite forgot how much energy teachers expend in explaining new concepts and in the excitement of the first day back. I noticed about 11 am I was struggling for words and not making good choices with my brush, but I ignored it in the thrill of being back with people. After cleaning up, I always check my blood sugar before I drive home. It was 45. I’d never seen it that low, but I was paying attention to other people, not to my body. I ate the crackers I always carry for just such an emergency.
The Wisdom of Solomon (7:26) speaks about God’s Wisdom personified: “For she is a reflection of eternal light, a spotless mirror of the working of God, and an image of his goodness.”
In Hebrews (1:3), the writer describes The Christ: “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.”
This long discussion on Plato, the true forms elsewhere and the imitations and reflections here help us to realize how much debt Christian spiritually and art history have to Greek thought. Art isn’t just “I know what I like and that’s all that counts.” We can all experience making art and enjoy it on any level. Having the depth of understanding to see how art connects us across the human community will give us a greater appreciation for our common spirit.
I promise I’ll bring a healthy snack to eat during class next Friday! I’ve learned my lesson on this, if nothing else! We’ll work on faces for two more weeks, then we’ll take a short break and come back in October and decorate cookies one week for Day of the Dead and paint an autumn themed subject for the other week.
Joy and Peace,
Simonides on poetry and painting—Plutarch: The Glory of the Athenians 3.1, 346f-347a.
Welcome to September, my rabbit friends! For most all of the bunny world, this means books, pens, pencils, and papers are now our daily tools of the trade instead of our preferred recreational plaything. Even the bunny parents are on the education time table. As I was exiting a lane in the store, I almost crashed my grocery cart into a lady who was racing to finish so she could pick up her darlings when school closed for the day.
Indeed, except for a brief break for Labor Day on Monday, September 6, we’re now living in what we working bunnies call “normal time.” The chronologists may have standard and daylight savings time, the meteorologists their seasonal times, but old school teacher rabbits know the only true time which counts is classroom time. Of course, the best teachers recognize teaching happens all the time, for the best classrooms have no walls and no fixed time for learning. Once rabbits quit learning, they begin to die.
I’ve always pitied the poor rabbit students who thought they could learn everything they needed to know to get them through the rest of their lives after they left the classroom. “Do you think the world is going to stand still just for your benefit?” Often they’d try to argue they didn’t need to know more because they could get a job right of school. They never think about the possibility their jobs might be phased out due to automation or irrelevance.
Then again, perhaps I value education more than the average rabbit. My grandfather worked for fifty years on the railroad, beginning at the tender age of fifteen. Why did he begin so early? His father had abandoned the family, so he worked to help his mother raise the baby rabbits left at home. When his own bunny sons were growing up, he made sure they got an excellent education. They both became doctors. My mother was a teacher and one of my several careers was art teacher.
We live in a time when history is being made daily, but no one seems to remember yesterday because the news media obsess over the latest hot button story. The next day they might have a new focus to fill the hours of coverage and keep our rabbit eyes fixated on the glowing screen. We don’t have to do this, for every tv has a remote to switch the channel and an off button. As a back to school exercise, I thought we might travel back in time when we colonists were in rebellion against the King of England in our War for Independence. So buckle your seatbelts, bunnies, we’re throwing the wayback machine into full reverse. Next stop, 1776 and the War for American Independence.
Most people know our Declaration of Independence was signed on July 4, 1776, but after that, our historical memories are iffy. In fact, the British had been fighting the colonists since 1775 in various skirmishes, and continued with greater frequency in 1776-1777, with neither side gaining much headway.
In our first war, our fledgling army had lost 6,800 men in battles and another 17,000 to disease. It wasn’t a good time for health care or sanitation. The British captured our young nation’s capital of Philadelphia in September, 1776, but the army and the state militias kept on fighting. The British moved their war efforts to the southern half of their colonies, thinking they’d find loyal supporters there, but none were found.
By December 19, 1777, Washington had decamped to Valley Forge with what was left of his ragtag army. From there, he wrote letters to every state except Georgia to plead for supplies and reinforcements, for without these, he was certain the war would be lost.
This was the first large, prolonged winter encampment the Continental Army endured—nine thousand men were quartered at Valley Forge for a six-month period. During that time, some two thousand American soldiers died from cold, hunger, and disease. About 22% didn’t survive that terrible winter. Perhaps we’re fortunate we didn’t have a 24 hour news cycle to keep a body count, or we’d remember this event as a catastrophe, instead of a “heroic perseverance and endurance under harsh conditions, which only made the survivors stronger.”
It was during this hard time of close confinement, the future president of our country had all the Continental Regular Troops inoculated against the smallpox virus. At the time, 90% of the war casualties were due to disease, so Washington took the bold move to vaccinate the troops. The British troops were already safe from this contagion, and this leveled the playing field.
In 1781, Lord Cornwallis surrendered at Yorktown after a siege of three weeks, during which the town took heavy bombardment from American and French troops. After six years, both sides were tired of fighting, plus the British had another war back on the continent to deal with. Two years of negotiations later, the United States of America had its recognition among the governments of the world.
If any rabbit tells you winning is easy, and anyone can do it, they aren’t paying attention to history. Yet, we overcame many obstacles, adjusted our courses of action, somehow survived, and became a nation. It’s significant that our nation was founded by people with the historical tradition of a parliamentary form of government. In 1215, King John agreed to Magna Carta, which stated the right of the barons to consult with and advise the king in his Great Council. That’s a full 500 years of shared representation, from which our government takes its form of checks and balances.
Our heroic image was bruised and bloodied over two centuries after the War for Independence when the twin towers fell on 9/11, and the Pentagon was hit by a falling airplane. The only reason we didn’t also lose the White House is because the ordinary passengers of an everyday airline flight suddenly reached down deep and found the hero who lives inside each and every one of us. Some say rabbits are meek and weak, but they don’t know the true heart of the one who will give up his or her life for the sake of another.
We rabbits like our chaos neatly packaged and tied up neatly with a bow. The beginning of every school year has its own chaos, for suddenly rabbit families have to once again be on time, have all their paperwork together, and make sure they don’t leave their brains at home as they rush out the door. After a long lazy summer, we rabbits aren’t in the mood to be reminded of how fragile life can be.
When we watch the scenes unfolding in Afghanistan as people try to emigrate to the United States, we share the collective trauma along with the ones who actually experience it. Add that to our own stress about the unknowns of our current pandemic, our griefs for the losses of those who died, the fears we have for our loved ones, and the extra burdens of cleaning, masking, washing, and scheduling this Covid world now requires, and well, (breathe) it gets a bit much.
But we rabbits have risen to the occasion from time immemorial: we pull together as one, for the good of all. If we live in families, and live in neighborhoods, and live in communities, we find we need to lend a helping hand to others from time to time. Likewise, we band together to protect the vulnerable, whether those are our children, our elderly, or our less abled friends. This is what we call our civic duty, or our moral obligation to do unto others as we’d have them to do for us, or the “golden rule.”
Sometimes we don’t want to work for the common good, but work for our own interests only. We like to win, because it suits our belief about our invincible self. Most of us have been taught a “heroic myth” about our founding fathers, so we aren’t aware of the struggles they endured to wrest our independence from the British. They didn’t do it alone, but together. If the French had not entered the war for independence on our behalf, we might still be singing “Hail to the Queen.” If we’re going through a rough patch now, we have to get our act together and work to make life better for all.
In my bunny life, when I taught art, I soon learned the beginning of school was the time I would lose my car keys, and I wouldn’t be organized enough to cook dinner. Once I raced out of the house without putting underpants on my little girl. Young mother bunnies don’t have access to their entire brain in the first week of school, but at least the kindergarten had a change of clothes for her. By the second week, I usually found the other half of my brain, and life went much smoother. Life is always a roller coaster, so when ever we make a big change, we need to give ourselves some grace until we get adjusted to that ride.
“This too shall pass,” an apocryphal phrase from the mid 1800’s, seems applicable to this era also, for we’re now on the cusp of autumn. That heat stress driving us to crank up our air conditioning has turned some leaves on our lakefront trees to yellow, so they gleam like lemons against the bright green canopy. The Autumn Equinox will occur on Wednesday, September 22, 2021, at 2:21 pm CDT. Of course, my late rabbit mother would have me retire all my light colored summer clothes by Labor Day, for “no self respecting child of mine should wear white in the fall.” Autumn in the South is just another word for summer. My fall clothes were still light weight cotton, but in darker shades.
Rosh Hashanah on September 6, beginning at sunset, is the celebration of the Jewish New Year, and the creation of the world. It’s one of the holiest days of the Jewish year. Ten days later is “Yom Kippur” or the “Day of Atonement.” This is a day set aside to atone for sins, with prayer, fasting, and attending the synagogue. No work is done on this day, which is one of the most important days in the Jewish calendar. During Yom Kippur, people seek forgiveness from God, and seek to give and receive forgiveness and reconciliation with others.
September 21 is the Chinese Moon Festival, a harvest celebration which dates from about 1000 BCE. The early emperors offered sacrifices to the moon, believing this would result in good harvests the following year. During the Tang Dynasty four centuries later, the noble classes and wealthy merchants imitated the emperor, while the citizens prayed to the moon. Beginning around 1000 CE, the festival took on general acceptance.
Moon cakes arrived in the 14th C, and have retained their popularity. This is not only a family celebration, but a community ritual for connection of relationships. While the cakes themselves aren’t costly, the packaging makes the gift impressive. People can say more by the wrapping’s elegance than by the contents. Moon cakes aren’t for individual consumption, but are meant to be shared, much like life’s joys and sorrows.
The fourth Saturday in this month is International Rabbit Day. Rabbits are the third most popular family pets, after dogs and cats. The care and feeding of a small animal requires attention, patience, and affection, not to mention consistency. How we treat our pets tells the world how we treat humanity. As Mother Teresa once said:
“The hunger for love is much more difficult to remove than the hunger for bread.”
I recommend for your September reading homework The Universal Christ, by the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr. Drawing on scripture, history, and spiritual practice, Rohr articulates a transformative view of Jesus Christ as a portrait of God’s constant, unfolding work in the world. “God loves things by becoming them,” he writes, and Jesus’s life was meant to declare that humanity has never been separate from God—except by its own negative choice.
When we recover this fundamental truth, faith becomes less about proving Jesus was God, and more about learning to recognize the Creator’s presence all around us, and in everyone we meet. Until October, my bunny friends, I wish each of you may find in the present moment God’s
George Washington and the First Mass Military Inoculation (John W. Kluge Center, Library of Congress) Amy Lynn Filsinger, Georgetown University & Raymond Dwek, FRS, Kluge Chair of Technology and Society. Dr. Dwek is Professor of Glycobiology on leave from Oxford University. https://www.loc.gov/rr/scitech/GW&smallpoxinoculation.html
9/11/2001—Attack on The World Trade Towers and The Pentagon
10/7/2001—“Operation Enduring Freedom”—Beginning of Afghan War with attacks against terrorist groups in Afghanistan
5/2003—Donald Rumsfeld announces the end of major military operations. The USA and NATO begin nation building and restoration of the poor country, which had gone through two wars and a foreign occupation.
Although there were early successes, such as women’s access to education and entry to politics and jobs, corruption was a way of life, so the money never flowed through the government out into the cities and countryside to help the people.
5/2011—Osama Ben Laden killed in Pakistan by Navy SEAL team
12/31/2014—President Obama decides to end major military action in favor of training the local Afghan army
2/2020—Trump administration negotiates a deal with the Taliban in which they promised to cut ties with terrorist groups, reduce violence, and negotiate with the current government. Unfortunately, there were no sanctions to enforce it.
9/2021—Today—The best laid plans of Mice and Rabbits usually end up in chaos
Autumn is just around the corner: I know this in my heart of hearts. My friends, who have lost hope in this endless pandemic, tell me, “It’s heat stress, nothing more.” I persist in my belief the bright yellow leaves scattered among the green canopies and the orange and red tinged foliage are the harbingers of the cool breezes of fall.
When the thermometer kisses 100 F and the heat factors have blown past that number like a NASCAR driver taking a hot lap for the pole position, my body only wants to swill decaf iced tea and stay close to the air conditioning. When I taught art back in Louisiana, my art rooms were in an old wooden shotgun shack. It wasn’t air conditioned because “it’s tradition, so it won’t be air conditioned, no matter how much you ask for it.” Private schools have their “traditions,” some of which aren’t healthy for either the teachers or the students.
Two days into the school year, I fainted from the heat. A visit to the nurse’s station got me glasses of sugary iced tea and cold compresses, plus it was air conditioned. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. Someone drove me to my dad’s office in the Medical Arts building across from the hospital. I got the once over and was sent home to rest, drink plenty of fluids, and not go outside. My couch never looked so good to me. Mom and dad even kept my little girl so I could rest.
I learned later I had a brush with death. Passing out with other people there allowed me to be helped. People who are alone in the heat aren’t so fortunate. Heat can kill a person. The hurricane Ida is already taking out the utilities in south Louisiana, which means they might not be back for weeks. The hospitals full of Covid patients hope to have ten days of power and food, but that’s just to get them through until relief supplies can roll in.
I actually repainted this canvas a second time, since I wasn’t thoroughly pleased with it on the first go round. The Airport image above is the first incarnation of this painting. While I don’t mind the colors in the ground, the overall texture of the work didn’t appeal to my senses and the runway with its numeral stuck out like a sore thumb. It was either going into the trash bin of my work, or I’d leave it alone long enough to find the inspiration to cure it.
Painting is a journey in itself, as the white canvas disappears under the brushstrokes of color. We can think of a pristine sand beach in the early morning, and its well marked surface erased by the high tide under the moonlight, only to be marked again when the sun rises. As Benjamin Disraeli, the British Prime Minister in the 19th century once said:
“Like all great travellers, I have seen more than I remember, and remember more than I have seen.”
Sometimes we can better solve a problem by ignoring it, for the the problem will find its own solution. Trying to impose our solution upon it just leads to more death, but not to life. Letting the painting come into being in its own time is a better choice, for it can’t be born before its time. In the spiritual life, kairos time is God’s time, while chronos is human time. When we work on deadlines or punch a clock, we operate on chronological, human time, but if we wait for the inspiration from the divine energy, we’re operating in the God moment, or the propitious moment for decision or action.
Along my life journey, I’ve made some unique handmade preaching stoles. When I decided I no longer had use for them in retirement, I decided to cut them up. This is why some of the pieces are the same rectangular size, such as the gold and silver diamonds pattern with the blue and white diagonal stripe in the upper left corner. Some of the pieces are the backings, and others are deconstructed sections. I incorporated several types of gold: acrylic paint, embroidery thread, and a metallic candy wrapper. I also used multiple textures of lace and fabric, some of which I overpainted. All of these come from recycled fabrics. In life, nothing is wasted.
Perhaps this no longer looks like a map of an airport, but more like a place remembered in a dream, when one wants to travel on the whiff of a breeze, which has brought a half remembered smell of a time in the past or a love long lost. Autumn can bring those memories to mind, as well as our hopes for a more beautiful future, for just as a leaf flutters free from its tree, our thoughts can fly away: golden leaves on silver breezes.
Look for the golden leaves, my friends, and let them call to mind those of fond memory and the dreams of journeys yet to come.
If we watch the evening news on television, read a newspaper, or check our Twitter feed, bad news seems to fill the whole of it. Sometimes it gets to be too much, and we turn it all off, for we can’t cope with the next straw; it will break our camel’s back and we won’t be able to go on. Or we may already be broken by all the grief and pain, wounded by the wounds we can’t heal or by those wounded ones who wound others, rather than seek healing. I often thought I spent 50% of my pastoral care on 10% of my congregation, the “broken” ones.
After a while, we can feel like Elijah, who was worn out from doing great things for the LORD, and felt “I alone am left.” God comes to remind him he’s not alone. John Donne was very ill when he wrote this famous meditation. The artists all are from the margins, or made their art during a time of suffering. Yet, what beauty they found in this time. Artists often find their way back into the unity of all things by joining in the creating spirit of God.
Sam Doyle, who was on born and died St. Helena Island, SC (1906-1985), was a self taught Gullah artist, who painted the local stories of his community on anything he could find. He covered the walls of his home, as well as scraps of metal and wood with iconic figures of his people. You can read about this richly talented primitive artist at https://www.soulsgrowndeep.org/artist/sam-doyle
Hilda Wilkinson Brown was born in Washington, DC 1894 and died there in 1981. She was an African American artist and art educator who brought her love of education and creativity to everything she did. Her work was mostly “under the radar,” except for in her own community. Yet she persisted. As a teacher, she’s best remembered for introducing individual creativity as a goal, rather than having students mimic the teacher’s model. Unfortunately, art education classes are still teaching mimicry.
Myrna Báez of Puerto Rico (1931-2018), painted this lush field of plantain trees, a crop long wedded to concepts of Puerto Rican identity and sovereignty. She depicted the crop’s large leaves as they reflect the tropical sun and delighted in her manipulation of paint on unprimed canvas. Báez’s belief in Puerto Rican independence manifests in her impulse to look, depict, and therefore possess the island’s landscape on her own terms. Puerto Rico is currently an unincorporated territory of the United, in which the people are American citizens, but have no vote, unless they move to the mainland.
Georgia O’Keeffe, who was born in Sun Prairie, WI in 1887 and died in Santa Fe, NM in 1986, painted this exquisite “Hibiscus with Plumeria,” (oil on canvas, 1939, Smithsonian Institute). Intrigued by the opportunity to paint tropical flora, O’Keeffe accepted an offer from the Dole Pineapple Company for an all-expenses paid trip to the state of Hawaii to create a painting for the company’s 1939 advertising campaign. It was a perfect escape from the stress of her husband, Alfred Stieglitz’s ongoing affair with Dorothy Norman, the beautiful young wife of an heir to the Sears, Roebuck & Co fortune.
She visited Maui, O’ahu, Hawai’i, and Kaua’i, painting the islands’ dramatic gorges, waterfalls, and tropical flowers, among them Hibiscus with Plumeria. Pink and yellow petals towering against a clear blue sky transform the delicate blossoms into a joyous monumentality. But of the twenty canvases of Hawaii she completed, none showed a pineapple. Only after Dole had one flown to New York did she finally, if reluctantly, paint the desired fruit.
George Bellows was born in Columbus, OH in 1882 and died when his appendix ruptured at the age of 42 in New York City in 1925. He’s best known for his “outsider” subject matter: tenement life, New York street scenes, and boxing subjects. While Bellows was famous for his fight scenes, he recovered his soul in the landscape, such as this Vine Clad Shore on Monhegan Island, Maine.
Frank Wilbert Stokes (born Nashville, TN 1858-died New York City 1955) was the artist member of Robert Edwin Peary’s Greenland Expeditions. He did small works such as this one on site as a record of the journey. Stokes spent eight weeks in the Arctic, the first painter to work on the ice fields, where he had to learn a method as he went, mixing kerosene into his pigments to stop them freezing and sketching outdoors through indistinguishable Arctic days and nights. Based in his studio at Bowdoin Bay, Stokes would spend fourteen months in all working in this extraordinary Arctic environment:
The outside winter temperature was frequently forty degrees below zero Fahrenheit. The lowest temperature experienced was frequently sixty-five degrees below zero. In order to prevent his colours from freezing, [Stokes] mixed them with petrol and poppy oil and kept his colour box in a deerskin bag. Lieutenant Peary’s general orders forbade any member of the party to go more than a quarter of a mile from the main camp. This restriction was relaxed in the case of Mr. Stokes, who frequently went four or five miles in moonlight or starlight, during the polar night, to study effects which he had declared to be indescribable in words, but which are shown by his pictures.
Thomas James Delbridge (born Atlanta, GA 1894-died Long Island, NY 1968) painted this view of Lower Manhattan, an oil on canvas, in 1934, which is now in the Smithsonian Institute. It was part of the Federal Work Projects Administration, which gave support to “starving artists” during the Great Depression. Lower Manhattan’s glorious skyscrapers inspired all New Yorkers, including the city’s artists, through the worst hardships of the Great Depression.
Looking from the dock of a harbor island, Thomas Delbridge showed the dark mouths of Manhattan’s ferry terminals; above them ever taller buildings climb out of red shadows into gold and white sunshine. The crisply outlined forms evoke such famous structures as the Woolworth Building to the left and the Singer Building to the right without placing the buildings precisely or describing specific details. The skyscraper at the center suggests the mighty Empire State Building as it had stood incomplete before its triumphant opening on May 1, 1931. Even as the stock market foundered and thousands were thrown out of work, New Yorkers had gathered in excited throngs to watch their tallest tower rise. The Manhattan skyscrapers in the painting appear to be pushing back dark clouds, creating an oasis of brilliant blue around the island. (1934: A New Deal for Artists exhibition label)
Does art come only from the mind, or does it come from the greater depths of our souls and our hearts or guts? If we reduce art to only its analytical forms and colors, we may rob ourselves of the deeper experiences of the art itself. Likewise, if we put on our false face of “I’m fine,” but in fact we’re falling apart inside, pretty soon our facade will crack open too. Then folks will say, “What happened there?” And perhaps we’ll be too ashamed by then to speak of it, for we lied about our truth too long.
My recent canvas is another cognitive map, for it deals with the changing landscape and our changing climate. It uses paper scraps, lace trims, the button row of an old outfit, and old blue jean seams all glued on the canvas in the proximate place of the main roads of the Dixie Fire out in California. I painted flame colors over the surface, but left some greens for where the fire hadn’t yet spread. Then I took out my handy Bic torch lighter to sear some of the cloth additions. Even acrylic paints, if overheated, will combust, as I soon discovered, for I burned two holes in the painting. They look like the black holes of outer space or the dark night of the soul in our spiritual lives.
When I think of all the needless deaths from the coronavirus since we’ve have the introduction of our current safe and effective vaccines, I feel very sad for every life lost. Even with nearly 4.4 million deaths worldwide and almost 639,000 deaths in the USA alone, I’m not so inured to the loss of my brothers and sisters that I can just shrug it off. I know very few of those Covid has taken from us, but the world is a lesser place without those millions.
And so I leave you with this famous meditation. Donne didn’t know if he was on his deathbed or not when he wrote it. I’m pretty sure I won’t leave behind such immortal words when I think my end is near.
No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were. as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were. Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind; and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
~~ John Donne, “Meditation 17,” (1623, transcribed into modern English)
“It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. For the one who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one Father. For this reason Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters.” —Hebrews 2:10-11 NRSV