Keep It Simple

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I awoke Sunday morning to a fog enveloped world. My brain was much the same until I made my morning cup of coffee. Unfortunately, this took longer than I expected, for I had only one tablespoon of grounds and a full bag of beans. I’m glad the electric coffee grinder was standing silent beside the coffee pot, waiting only for its moment to be of service. On any ordinary day, I ignore it completely, just as many of us fail to observe the subtle changing of colors from day to day or how the sunlight of the seasons has a different temperature and feel.

Seeing is a learned skill, but like the ancient, secret, gnostic wisdom known only to a few and passed by word of mouth, seeing is best learned in an art class with one who is an eye already. Cézanne characterized Monet as “only an eye—yet what an eye.” Monet taught students not to think of the tree, the building, or the flowers they painted, but of the colors and shapes they were putting on their canvases. This is a conceptual leap, as if we were translating English into Spanish or Martian (we may need this when we go to Mars).

Mike’s Trees

When faced with all the many impressions daily flooding into our consciousness, most of us have learned to block all these distractions out. We do this to “get our chores done in record time” and “come home to escape from this rat race.” “Out of sight and out of mind” is a phrase I often heard growing up. We are often “unconscious people,” walking about in a fog. My dad grew a mustache and my mother kissed him every night before bed without realizing he’d changed his facial appearance. I came home for a visit and said, “When did you grow the Col. Saunders’s look?” My mother was shocked she hadn’t noticed it.

Our first lessons in art class are drawing the geometric figures, since we can simplify or translate most things in nature to these forms. Bushes are balls, houses are cubes, trees are cones, and so on. Some are multiplications of the forms, such as some tree’s foliage is made up of several ball shapes. You get the idea. This way of looking helps to simplify the details so people don’t get stuck on every single leaf.

Another way to simplify is to leave out some of what you see and focus only on what you think is important. If you were a camera in front of a landscape, your eye would take in everything in front of it. We aren’t cameras, however. We can paint as much or as little of what we see before us as we want. I remember in seminary study groups, we prepared for final exams together. The exam would be 3 hours long and cover a semester’s work, which included all the class notes and 15,000 pages of reading. Some of my pals would write a book length answer to one study question. “Fine, but there’s going to be a dozen other questions, so can you hone this down to an essay?” Keeping it simple is a good motto in art class.

Gail’s Trees

Friday in art class I brought in angel hair spaghetti. If the kids eat it, I’m not worried. Fortunately, my “kids” are grownups, but we like to get our inner child out to play every once in a while. We put paint on the sticks and tossed them down on our canvases wherever luck would have them land. In biblical terms, this is “casting lots.” I had given them some ideas for landscape images or they could do some squares in the style of Paul Klee. They went with trees. Mr. Energy and Exuberance, aka Mike, finished his up with jewel tones. Gail, Thoughtful and Precise, did a hard edge tree with a lightning bolt in the background. I worked on a Klee square piece, but I only got the first layer down. It needs more subtle overpainting.

Paul Klee Color Study
(Not my work)

Learning how to see is a lifetime process. The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance, and this, and not the external manner and detail, is true reality, said Aristotle. Art opens us up not only to the outer world, but also to our inner world. As we see more in the world about us, we find more compassion for its brokenness as well as more love for its beauty. Likewise, we realize we too are both broken and beautiful, so we find we can be more compassionate and loving towards our own selves. As forgiven and reconciled people, we can pour God’s love out into the world and into our art as well.

We discover art isn’t just about decorating a surface with pretty colors and shapes, but art is more about the spiritual process of growing in grace, accepting our lack of strength, and learning to depend on the power of the Spirit moving our hands and hearts. The more we try to impose our power upon the work, the less life it has, but the more we “get out of ourselves,” and let our inner witness work, the more life our creation embodies.

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

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

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

~~ Isaiah 65:17

Homage to Morandi

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Morandi: Still Life

My students in the art class at the church have shown much progress since we began last year. I’m proud of them for sticking in there and taking this journey down a path less traveled by others. Most art education classes begin with the idea of a model and the students should all try to match it. This is typical of “right answers” in most schoolwork, such as math. Indeed, 2 plus 2 should equal 4, and not 3 or 5. We can’t get creative in our answers in math class, but we can have room for creativity in art class. If we have a still life to render on a page, we should have something that’s recognizable as the objects, but Cubism has taught us the objects don’t have to be painted as Realism. We can paint them different, emotional colors, as in Fauvism, or in a monochromatic scheme, like Georgio Morandi.

Mike’s Most Recent Work

Another growth area we have is continuing to observe the subject while we draw and paint. Children draw the idea or symbol of the thing they’re representing. If we’re attempting to render a realistic subject, we need to constantly check back to the objects to notice the negative spaces and the shadows, as well as the forms themselves. This is a matter of discipline, which all artists have to undergo. I spent many an hour in art school drawing models without ever being able to look at my work—this is how you train your brain to connect to your hand. The first efforts are pretty goofy looking, for sure. You have to leave your ego at the door if you want to become an artist.

All beginning artists try to make a shape perfect first and then color it in, much like filling in the black lines of a coloring book. This year we’re working on losing our need to be perfect from the start, and begin to paint from the first. This lets us have more emotion and feeling in our work. We do this by drawing with a brush and a light, yellow wash on the canvas. We can easily paint over it with our thicker paints. If we don’t get it right, we can scribble over it, or use a pale pink wash to make a different line. 

Gail’s Most Recent Work

About the age of nine, children begin to draw what they see, but still have no real sense of perspective or scale. The most important object is the largest. About the time they become teenagers, they show an interest in realism and the artistic skills needed to produce these tricks of the eye. More precocious children will begin earlier, and others may never show an interest at all. Some naive painters will retain childish forms, but have strong pattern and design elements, such as Grandma Moses, who painted the memories of her childhood. 

Last year I started the class on basic perspective. It might have been too difficult for some, or too uninteresting for others. Yet basic perspective is a building block lesson for any art lesson that is more than decorating a flat surface with pretty colors. Likewise, making a shadow study of basic geometric forms is important because all objects in nature can be reduced to a geometric form: tree trunks are cylinders, fir trees are cones, oak trees are spheres, houses and churches are rectangular solids and pyramids, and bridges are rectangular solids supported by piers, which are more of the same. A complex landscape becomes easier to sketch out in block shapes if the artist can identify the basic components of what he or she sees.

Last Year: Boxes on Top of Boxes

People think art is “Just something I can do when I feel like I’ve got nothing else to do.” This is the description for finger painting for kindergarteners, if you think about it. Art is for both thinking and feeling, since both the brain and the heart need to be active at the same time. Some say only the heart needs to be active, but the head is exercising choices and making decisions to limit the red or to add more yellow or to rip a huge black down the side of the canvas. Only the artists who are unintegrated will contend they work only from the mind or from the heart. We actually work with both, even if one is diminished in nature.

Cornelia’s Homage to Morandi

If the great commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” means anything in the art life, it’s we aren’t meant to separate any one part of our experience from any other part. In our art expressions, as in our faith expressions, our heart, soul, and mind needs to be fixed on love of God, as well as love of neighbor, for loving our neighbor, in whatever form, fashion, or fix our neighbors find themselves in, is the same as loving the image of God in which they were also made. By loving our neighbors, we love ourselves also. If we hate our neighbors, we hate ourselves. God didn’t mean for us to hate God’s image.

These are the wonderful spiritual truths we learn in art class. It’s more than learning how to mix colors or draw a box in perspective. These are art skills. Life skills are way more important. Take a look at the work from last year and this year. You can still join this class. You aren’t competing with anyone, but you will be working to improve over time. Going onto perfection takes time. Now is a good time to begin!

Work in Progress

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

Work in Progress

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

Garvan Woodland Gardens

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

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

Reflections of God

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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.

Winter Lake Reflections

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.

The Cloud Rising

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.

Now For Something Completely Different

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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.”

DIANA—Painting with a Bell Pepper

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.

GAIL—Painting wit an Okra Pod

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.

MIKE—Trees Painted with a Sweet Potato

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!

DUSTIN—Bowling Pins shaped like Sweet Potatoes

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.

CORNELIA—(Sweet Potato) Cloud on the Horizon

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

Autumn Study

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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.

EPIPHANY SNOW

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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!)

NOTES ON A FAMILY TREE

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DeLee: In This Place, acrylic on canvas, 30 x40, $350

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.