I carry my phone when I walk, so I always have a camera for the scenes of beauty which catch my eye. Since light is ephemeral and these moments are fleeting, catching them as they occur is important. When I come home, I often photoshop the image on my computer or in Instagram to get the emotions, which I experienced when I took the photo.
Several winters ago, I took this photo. By the time I painted it this year, I was feeling more optimistic. Back then, I didn’t know if my daughter was alive or dead. I lived in hope, but I also was holding onto some fear, for I knew her drug addiction was going to be difficult to overcome.
This is my most recent landscape. The cloud always reminds me of God’s appearance! Then I think of this verse in Job 38:34, when God asks Job, who’s been questioning God’s intentions and reasons—
“Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
so that a flood of waters may cover you?”
Poor Job, he’s not God. And neither are any of us. We’d like to make sense of the senseless, right all the wrongs, put order to all the chaos, and make things the way they should be. Of course, if we were in charge, the world would have gone to hell in a hand basket much sooner than it has already.
Maybe we should reread Job 42:3—
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
In our world today, many changes are happening. Some of us want things to be “the way they used to be.” This would make us feel better and be more comfortable with a known world, but God is always recreating God’s new world–
“For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind” (Isaiah 65:17).
If we are people of faith, we can trust in our God, whose Son Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). If Christ is the same, then God is the same, and so is the Holy Spirit. Does this mean our understanding of the Holy Trinity never changes? No, this means God’s love and mercy for us never changes! We think we can fall outside the bounds of God’s love, but this is only because we have short arms and can’t include all others within our embrace. Just as the water reflects the sky and earth above it, so we’re to reflect the attributes of the holy image in which we’re created and demonstrate the qualities of the heart and the same mind that was in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5).
Job, who was well respected and honored in his community, was enamored of his ability to assist others with their needs. He was a big man who used the blessings from God for good purposes. When he lost this status, he was upset. Once he met God face to face, he realized he’d been giving lip service to God, but didn’t actually know God. Many of us today know about God, but haven’t had an encounter or experience with the living God. We can’t reflect a love which we’ve never received, and we can’t share a forgiveness we’ve not known. Perhaps our first work is to seek God’s generosity for our own lives, so we can reflect it outward in the world toward others.
If we do the same thing over and over again, we’ll get the same results. Most of us will take the same road to our favorite restaurant, choose the same menu items, and call it a night at about the same hour. We are that predictable. A certain structure in our lives is necessary to keep us on an even keel. Mass marketing depends on people like us, since we have reliable and time tested tastes. Great art is different from the decorative arts, however, and it’s unlike the mass produced pieces which are good for covering a section of a wall in an office or residence.
Likewise, if we want to break through from the ordinary to the better, or if we want to improve upon our former work, we have to break our old habits and train ourselves in new habits. Why do world champion golfers reconstruct their swings in the middle of their careers? Their bodies are aging and changing. They can no longer swing with the abandon of younger and more limber persons. To continue playing at a high level, they must learn anew. This learning, forgetting and learning again is related to John 12:24–“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
In art classes, we’re always unlearning our yesterdays and starting over with fresh eyes and a renewed spirit in the morning. The day we start repeating ourselves, we’ve decided we’re good enough. We’ve settled, rather than continuing to push on to see how far we can go. Some of us will do this because we’re finally making a living. No one can fault this. Taking care of our families is important.
Yet if we fail to care for the artist within us, if we aren’t reaching deep within to wrestle with the challenge to risk trembling on the edges of beauty and chaos, we won’t be happy coloring canvases to satisfy the needs of those who see our art as an appendage to their furnishings rather than an object in its own right.
The art class was somewhat nonplussed when I suggested we use sweet potato slices to print or paint with, as well as the big pretzel rods. Gail brought some large okra from her garden too, so we added this to the equation. If we always draw with the pencil and fill in with the paint brush, we get paintings which resemble coloring books. Then they came up with some original solutions. I knew they had it in them!
Mike used the actual potato as a paint tool, while Diana used the cut okras as textures and patterns. Dustin took the shape for bowling pins, and Gail doubled up sweet potatoes for mountains. I discovered the woven surface I was using wasn’t really conducive to the printing process, whereas the flat papers the class used worked fine. I got enough paint on it to get started and finished it at home.
In Richard Rhor’s book, Immortal Diamond, he says, “Your True Self is that part of you that knows who you are and whose you are, although largely unconsciously. Your False Self is just who you think you are—but thinking doesn’t make it so.”
In art, we practice over and over again, until we can drop all the artifices of the False Self (the constructs which the world rewards) and work freely for the rewards which are pleasing to God. To do this, we need to allow ourselves to be freely loved by God and let ourselves freely love God’s entire creation. If nothing is outside God’s love and providence, then we too are called to love and care for God’s creation. This attitude will show in our art and heart.
In faith and art, we’re always dying to our old self and rising to our new self. Therefore we won’t be imitators of others, but we’ll be conformed instead to the image of God.
Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.
~~ Colossians 3:9-10
My newest painting is full of energy and colors, for it’s a study of autumn leaves and tree branches, which I saw in the forest surrounding my home. Nature doesn’t plan out how the pine needles fall from the trees, nor how the ornamental pear tree leaves blow up the hill into the shade. Tree branches fall down when they come to the end of their usefulness on the tree. The oaks and sycamores might not be as bright in color, but they too will add their bodies to make the soil richer for the surrounding trees.
This painting is more about my joy of having a brush in my hand and paint on the canvas than it is about any attempt at any realism or representation of my original photo. Layering the colors; changing the background blues; marching the pine straw lines; and even losing the big, bottom sycamore leaf (it became amorphous, overlapping leaf shapes) was a sunny morning’s delight.
It’s been a long time, for I haven’t felt good enough to do anything creative in my studio. What happens to the artist who can no longer feel? Sickness can dull the senses, so the hand can no longer feel the touch of the brush against the canvas or the weight of the paint on the brush. These are minuscule amounts, for sure! One needs to be well to tell the difference and know when to keep going or let go of the stroke. Also one can overwork an area or the whole painting. I have several of these disasters which I’ve decided not to share with you all. (Although I admit I might be my own worst critic. However I do have loads of experience and high expectations!)
Depression, a form of sickness, is worse than feeling sad for a few days. It is a loss of interest in the experiences which once gave you joy, and it’s isolation from the living world because you feel dead inside. When I lost my daughter, I began to crawl in a hole. Then I got physically sick, and my blood pressure medication was working too well. I was one of the walking dead. Once my doctors got the physical problems cleared up, I realized I was also depressed. Now my new “brain chemistry ” is making me feel like “my old self!” I’m thankful I’m able to do creative work again.
A verse which has steadied me through this difficult journey from Isaiah 57:18-19–
I have seen their ways, but I will heal them;
I will lead them and repay them with comfort,
creating for their mourners the fruit of the lips.
Peace, peace, to the far and the near, says the Lord;
and I will heal them.
Autumn Study, 12″ x 16″, acrylic on canvas, $100.
The snow arrived overnight, as promised! Just enough to change the landscape of winter on the lake in Arkansas. The trees, mountain, and grey sky are just shades of black and white. Snow changes our perception of the landscape, so it is an epiphany of its own kind.
On the twelfth day of Christmas, or the night before Epiphany, folks used to take down their decorations and trees. They gave each other the last of the Christmas gifts, though I’m sure no one ever got “twelve drummers drumming ” as the old song goes, unless they were a rented band who went about drumming for hire.
Today we celebrate National Take Down the Christmas Tree Day on the same day as Epiphany, for folks who aren’t in a rush and have lost the connection to the spiritual reason for the season. Epiphany celebrates the visit of the wise men at the birth of Jesus. The word means “reveal,” so God revealed the divine presence in Jesus to the nations of the world when the wise men visited the rude accommodations of the savior’s birth. The poor shepherds had already seen his glory in the manger, as well as the creation, represented by the animals in the stable.
Who was missing from the Twelve Days of Christmas and Epiphany? The extended families of Mary and Joseph aren’t ever mentioned, yet our modern celebration of this revelation of god to the world is celebrated primarily in the home, not amongst the poor or the outsiders. We focus on the giving of gifts to our families and friends. Shoppers around America planned on spending an average $929 on gifts in 2016. Religious organizations had average donations of $1,703 (secular households donate $863 on average to other causes) (2012).
I mention this, since nowhere in scripture can we find a proof text to affirm going into debt to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child. We can find multiple texts in which God forgives debt, but Mastercard does not forgive debt. John Wesley asked his clergy, “Are you so in debt as to embarrass yourself?” The wags among us answer, “I’m not embarrassed if you’re not embarrassed!” The correct answer is “NO.”
Sometimes it takes an epiphany, a revelation of divine insight, if you will, to realize Christmas isn’t a day, but an emotion. Even if we take down the decorations, put away the carols and stockings, and return our homes to “ordinary time,” we can always live in the season of welcoming Christ into the world. If we look upon the face of the poor, or the least of these my brothers and sisters, we are seeing Christ. If we look upon the natural world, we are seeing representatives of those who first saw his glory. If we see our families, we see those who failed to attend this miracle, and we give them the gift of grace, for we too were off doing other more important things those twelve days of Christmas long ago. We can gift ourselves a little grace also.
Today is Epiphany. We can have the revelation anew because God is always inbreaking into our world of grey, or black and white. I see the world in shades of grey, rather than strictly either/or, but an epiphany will light up the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome this light.
Happy New Year to everyone! May you keep Christmas in your heart every day! May an epiphany be yours at the right time. (God’s time is the right time, so be open!)
I’m finishing up my grandchildren’s family history scrapbooks. I got to thinking about our family tree. The high holy days between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanza, and the year end festivities bring families together. This often results in a few fireworks or flamethrowers at some of these gatherings. I suspect alcohol may be involved in some of this, but old grudges and scores, which haven’t been settled in decades, won’t get settled on this holiday either.
My mother’s sister claimed our family goes back to the Baronial Order of the Magna Charter. These are a distinct group of the descendants of the signers of the 1215 document, in which King John of England granted the principles of constitutional law. The most important was each person, even the king, was subject to the law.
For my family, the real importance was our Anglo Saxon ancestry was ancient and noble, as well as white. Our linage also qualifies us for membership in the DAR, Daughters of the American Revolution, and DOC, Daughters of the Confederacy, two more all white groups. Both of these are institutions of a bye gone age and a bifurcated society. I have folks in my family tree who liked to put on “airs,” as folks in the country like to say. All the old ones in my family tree went to their graves holding these beliefs firmly. I loved them anyway.
Trees are meant to live by breathing fresh air and growing new leaves and branches. Even if trees only propagate by pollinating with their own kind, each tree is part of a giant forest of many species of trees. If a forest were a monoculture, a single disease or pest could wipe out the entire growth. If the forest consists of many different plants and trees, the destructive organism has to work very hard to destroy the whole, for the different and unlike species provide protection for one another. The variety of a diverse culture is its strength.
If we human creatures took note of our surroundings more, we would not fear the Others, but would embrace them. We would make them our friends, and we’d defend one another from harm.
The next generation of my family tree, I hope, is learning to love the other families of this diverse and wonderful world. I hope the branches of your family tree are open, growing, and renewing. Perhaps your branches can provide a shelter and make America friends again.