As we approach the days of Holy Week, life can get busy for people of faith. For those in leadership roles, you likely don’t have time to read. That’s OK. This is a time for you to use your meditation and prayer time to rest in the presence of God’s Spirit. Palm Sunday, April 10, begins the mad dash of multiple planned worship experiences in most churches, and the week usually gets more complicated by the human conflicts that also arrive during the high holy days when more is expected than than can be accomplished by Easter Sunday.
Some of these disasters will be small, such as the child who goes out to make a violet ink from new irises growing by the back porch and messes up her pretty Easter dress. Others will be actual chaos, involving runaway ex-spouses with the non-custodial child. Yes, the holidays can get crazy for families, ordinary and church families both.
The tradition of the icon says these images are “windows into the heavenly spaces.” I offer seven of my interpretations of these windows: Mandylion, or the Image Not Made By Human Hands, Resurrection of Christ, Christ is Lord, The Good Shepherd, and the Mandylion of the Ecological Christ, who proclaims, “All creation shall be renewed.”
Does anyone else find it unusual that Lincoln’s Birthday, the Super Bowl, and Valentine’s Day all fall within a single three day period? When I was young, we celebrated every holiday possible in public school, since these were teaching opportunities. I always loved them for the art periods and the story telling events. Not that I was deeply invested in the facts of history, but I cared about the personalities and the principles of their lives’ work.
This meant February focused on Lincoln and Washington both. Of the two, I always preferred Lincoln, perhaps because my teacher had our class memorize the Gettysburg Address. I was entranced by the thought Lincoln wrote this speech on the back of an envelope on the train ride out to that fateful battle field. It wasn’t true, but that’s just one of the hallowed myths of history we’ve spun about the giants of the past.
Of course, we always celebrated Valentine’s Day in the classroom with decorated boxes or bags for exchanging cards. The rule in class was to bring a card for everyone and leave no one out. No one meant no one. The cards didn’t have to be fancy, but everyone needed to get a card, handmade or bought. Of course, we always had some parental snack provided. I think we overdosed on sugar back in those days.
When we’re young, we don’t really have a sense of history, so we don’t see the connections from one act to the later consequence of another. It takes time for young people to mature, process, and grasp the connections between past, present, and future in order to navigate their place in time. When someone says the past is meaningless to them, they’ve built their house on a foundation of sand. The first lesson I always taught in art class was “Attitude, Behavior, and Consequences.” The second lesson was “Clean up after yourself and leave the art room good for the next group.” That first lesson was about how individual actions affected their own work and grades. The second was about community responsibility. And some folks thought I was just letting the kiddos have fun with colors, scissors, and glue.
But back to this Trifecta weekend. The very first Super Bowl was January 15, 1967. I’ve slept several decades since then, so I don’t remember if I watched it. Super Bowl XXXVI, was the first one held in February, but all of the prior February games have been held in the first week until this LVI event. That’s 56, for the non Romans among us. This is quite a streak, but all streaks are meant to be broken. This is how we get the great Trifecta of Lincoln, Super Bowl, and Valentine’s all in a row.
Back during the Civil War, supplies were scarce. The supply chain nightmare isn’t a recent issue, for during the war, the South lacked supplies due to the Union embargo for imports and their crops were confiscated by both armies as they marched through the areas near the battlefields. One of the touching homemade valentines of the era was made in 1862 from scrounged paper by the Confederate soldier Robert King for his wife. The basket weave folded card, when opened up, showed two crying lovers, a particularly sad foretelling of his death.
Our class brought scrapbook papers, doilies, craft store items, and leftover crafting materials from past projects. All crafters seem to be packrats, but we also share our largess with others. None of us can say NO to the offer of free stuff. Our materials filled one whole table, so settling on a few items was our first choice. Sometimes we get overwhelmed with too many choices, but our group has learned to go with what strikes their fancy first. Digging through everything to look for a better option often is just a waste of time in a short class. Go with what calls your name. As my daddy would say, “Decide to fish or cut bait, honey. The day’s not getting any longer.”
As Lauralei was working on her Valentine, Jerry came into the room. Immediately she called out, “Don’t look—go away!” He laughed, and took a wide berth around our work tables. If you want to surprise someone, it’s hard if they’re also working at the church. I like the energy of the patterns on her Valentine. Love is never a static thing, even if it is steadfast and forever, but it’s constantly reaching out and pulling us toward one another.
Gail added another dimension to her work by bending the central heart image so it would stand up. This gave it depth and made the heart into a basket from which the butterflies could exit into the open space around it. That took an extra level of thought.
The birds and butterflies on the outer cover of Gail’s card are another variation on the theme.
I can always count on Mike to fill the surface with texture and color. He has no fear whatsoever. Exuberance is his middle name. He claims sarcasm is his love language, but that’s just his outward personality speaking. The inner messages on his card to his lovely wife tell her how wonderful she is and how glad he is to be with her.
I made mine as a landscape, rather than a card. The message, “Live, Laugh, Love” is a variation on a message my grandmother often wrote. I’ve always liked both butterflies and flowers, for they remind me both of the beauty and the transient nature of life. My Valentine is for those of blessed memory, as well as for those I love today, and maybe even for those I’ll love in the days to come.
“Love never fails, But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears…. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
The verse above is an example of historical consciousness in the arena of faith. All religions “take up the past by telling stories and making visible the arches that span over all times and join them together into a unified whole,” just as writers observe the facts of history and draw conclusions about the streams of history and the direction in which they flow. Yet we humans are also capable of forgetting, sometimes because we don’t want to remember and other times because we can’t recall events due to illness, lack of sleep, or inattention. We depend on trusted others to build the narrative for us, so we need to take care from whom we receive our instruction.
On this Super Bowl weekend, much will be made of the heroic efforts of the athletes on the field. There’ll be hype galore, costly commercials, illustrious and notorious folks in attendance for sure, and excessive eating and drinking across America. It may be a different game day than what we’ve been accustomed to, but then as Bob Dylan sings, “The times, they are a-changing.” If the NFL is writing a different narrative, it’s only because they’re finally including voices once suppressed. We can know the facts of history, yet fail to have an historical consciousness, just as we can identify the different styles of art and put them in historical order, but fail to have an aesthetic appreciation of the art itself.
President Lincoln delivered the 272 word Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863 on the battlefield near Gettysburg, Pennsylvania on the occasion of the dedication of the national cemetery for the war dead. Overall, casualties in that three day battle were enormous. At least 25,000 Confederates fell, representing nearly one-third of its army. One-third (12 out of 53) of Robert E. Lee’s generals were killed, wounded, or captured. More than 20,000 Union soldiers fell; General Meade’s subordinate command also suffered heavy losses. Lincoln helped to reframe citizens’ thinking about the cost and nature of this war.
The Super Bowl extravaganza will last nearly four hours and play $500 million in advertisements (about 70 in all),not to mention a preface of more than three hours of entertainment. Compare that to Lincoln’s speech, which lasted three minutes at most:
“Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, on this continent, a new nation, conceived in liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us—that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion—that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain—that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
When faced with a complicated task, what’s the first thing we need to do? I usually vote to have a cup of coffee and sit down to think about it. Some may call this procrastination, but I call it contemplation. I need to settle my mind, focus my senses, and discern the most important parts of my task. This is necessary, for if I were cutting off a limb from a tree, I’d sure want to get my body placed on the part of the tree that wasn’t going to fall. Keep the most important thing the first thing in mind is always the best practice.
Once our youth group from church went to the Appalachian Mountains for a mission work project. Most of our kids came from poor homes and we arrived in a single church bus, which for some reason the license plate hadn’t got renewed. The group even let me be the navigator. Only by the grace of God did we arrive, for I’m known to be directionally challenged among all my friends.
The other group who attended this session with us came with another truck, complete with all their own tools. Our children were despondent at first, for they felt they couldn’t “compete.” Our adult team leaders reminded them, “We’re here to do the work God has called us to do. This isn’t a contest. Everyone has value and all our work counts toward the greater good.”
That big, well provisioned group got the job of replacing a front porch and a roof. They divided up into a porch and roof team. The porch team finished first, but then they got mad when the roof team had to destroy their work to put the roof on right. They had failed to talk out an overall plan first. If the roofers had started on the porch end, then the porch team could come behind them and work would progress along properly.
This is called team work in groups. Our small group was experienced in talking out the process before we began working, so we knew the consequences of our actions. “If…then” is always an important consideration, especially in our artistic endeavors.
If we’re familiar with the work of Dr. Stephen R. Covey, he talks about putting first things first by organizing and executing around our most important priorities. We live and are driven by the principles we value most, not by the agendas and forces which surround us. Pleasing others isn’t God’s purpose for us, but to do God’s work of loving all and serving the least of God’s people.
When we look at a landscape, we have to select the primary image to emphasize, and relate the other forms around this important image. In the still life, we might drive ourselves crazy trying to paint every single petal, pistil, and leaf of some flowers in a vase, or we could find the most important shapes, which give us enough visual cues to let the viewer say, “Yes, this is a flower painting.” Not every leaf needs to be given the same attention, since our goal is to make a painting, not a rendering of the subject before us.
Some might ask, “Why do we return to this well worn theme from time to time?” The best answer is we continue to learn from our repeated exposure to this theme. For another, our drawing skills improve over time, so we can see our progress. Also, our ability to handle the paint gets better, so we are more comfortable with mixing our colors and planning our composition. Besides, the great artists over the centuries have found this discipline fruitful, so if it benefited them, most likely we’ll get some good from it also. My nanny’s wisdom comes clear here: “What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander.”
When faced with so many shapes of leaves, a central stem, and a glass vase with ridges and reflections, our untrained brain wants to explode. We have to catch our breath, inhale, and exhale to cleanse our nerves. This is the point we begin our first simplification. If we note the proportions, the leaves are about the same height as the vase, and we can set the vase on a plane (the table) so it has depth. We can mark these off on the bare canvas with light pencil or a light wash of yellow paint. We’ll paint over it later.
The next step of simplification is to get the basic lines and shapes down. These don’t have to be perfect, but give you an idea of where you’re going to paint. If you do this in a pale wash, you can paint over it with the heavier colors in the more exact form. In sculpture, Michelangelo was known for chipping away from the stone everything that didn’t look like his subject. In painting, we add color, tint, and shade until it looks like our subject.
The final stage of simplification is to get the background in. Here you can paint up close to the individual shapes and “clean up the edges.” You can add highlights in places to bring out the foreground shapes, and add a shadow in the background for variety. By this time, the vase ought to be dry enough to put highlights on it also. Notice the leaves aren’t all the same color and they don’t bend the exact same way. Nothing in nature is perfect, for each part grows according to the amount of sun, shade, and nutrients it receives. As one of my old teachers reminded me, “Nature has no straight lines, so you never have to worry about that.”
To show you how sustained effort and intentional looking over time can helps student’s work improve, I offer the following examples from February, 2019, and September, 2020. One was the spider plants and the other the daffodils. I’m not sure who did these, so I won’t identify them.
I merely throw these in here because Gail and Mike have been working with me for several years. If practice hasn’t yet made perfect, it certainly has made improvements, and that’s all anyone can ask for. After all, we’re not asked to be perfect, but to go on to perfection (in love of God and neighbor).
For history buffs a side note. Wild indigo is in the genus Baptisia, which derives from the Greek word, βάπτω, which means “to dip” or “immerse,” just as our baptism (βαπτίζω) does. North American indigenous peoples and early settlers would extract yellow, brown, and green dyes from the leaves and stems of wild indigo, notably blue false indigo (Baptisia australis) and other species. Indigo dye was extracted from yellow wild indigo (Baptisia tinctoria), but it proved to be an inferior source compared to the treasured true indigo (Indigofera species).
For years, wild indigo remained an obscure historical relic, its ornamental and ecological contributions undiscovered and under appreciated. Yet, in the springtime, wild indigo produces tall spikes of pea-like flowers that rise above the gray- to blue-green three-lobed leaves to provide nearly a month long display of color. The flowers sustain bumblebees and other winged pollinators, while the leaves feed the larvae of a variety of butterflies that include the wild indigo duskywing, frosted elfin, eastern tailed-blue, silver-spotted skipper, and various sulphurs. If you want to encourage butterflies in your garden, this is a hardy, drought tolerant, and deer resistant plant.
Gail found the plants with their unique seed heads on a hike last week. This subject matter was received with more joy than my suggestion of apples. Evidently, what was good enough for the great master Cezanne is an acquired taste for my students. I might need to bring apple pie to soften them up. I’m not above bribery for a good cause. Besides, pie would be a great still life. Gail got a very detailed drawing of the leaves, the vase, and the grouping’s placement on the table. She sketched in the counterbalanced stick with its mossy growth. This was the quickest I’ve seen her work, for she’s usually very deliberate in her choices.
We had a full house last Friday, so Mike sat at a different table. He had to paint with the added burden of looking over his shoulder periodically to check his work. He began to paint more from emotions than from sight, which isn’t a bad choice. As long as his work carries enough of the vocabulary of the image to speak its message, he’s good with it. It’s the energy, the experience of painting, and using his mind to solve a problem in his own creative way that engages his interest. So if his painting looks “less real” than Gail’s, it doesn’t mean it’s less successful. He began from a different place, so his destination is also different.
A new member of our group, Sally is experimenting with techniques and tools, as well as the paint itself. This week she came with heavy body Liquitex paints, the professional quality paint, which has more pigment than binder. She was so used to the thin bodied paints, however, she watered down these excellent colors. When she asked why they weren’t working like she thought, I pointed out, “You’re supposed to use them straight out of the tube, thick.” This is why we have a group session, so we can learn together. Sally also had a new fan brush, which she used to make brown decorative marks all over her canvas. “I just wanted to try it!” Now that she knows, maybe she’ll plan ahead. I really like the swaying energies of her leaves. They’re happy and full of life. If this were in bright colors, Matisse would be proud.
Lauralei brought an interesting solution to our subject this past week. The clear vase was a little intimidating, so she, like several others, colored it solid. When we first learn to swim, we want the security of water wings or the proximity of the edge of the pool. We all take small steps before we take bigger steps. She got the stick and fringed moss down and the many leaves of the plant.
Making all these decisions takes a lot of energy. Our brains use about 20% of our calories, so if we’re engaged in a new challenge, our blood sugar can dip if we’re not careful. If we aren’t aware of this, we can run out of energy or make careless choices. As someone who has prediabetes, I get low blood sugar easily. Stress and excitement can cause my blood sugar to dip. I always bring a small snack as well as eat a good breakfast with whole grain complex carbohydrates, like old fashioned oats. That snack is important, since I test my blood sugar before I drive home.
I’ve learned the hard way if my blood glucose reading is under 80, it’s falling and my driving skills will be going south too. I usually know I’m having trouble, for I can’t string two thoughts together and I begin to overwork my painting. I can’t make the good decision to stop while I’m ahead. Not everyone has this problem, but learning to recognize when you’re tired or just painting with no purpose in mind, is also an acquired skill. Taking care of our bodies so we can fully enjoy exploring a new adventure is a gift we can give ourselves. We only have one body in which to live out God’s purpose for our lives.
Dusty concentrates well and gets a good shape on his canvas before he sets out to paint. I can’t read his mind, but it seems as he draws, the steps he needs to paint his image come into his mind. This is contemplating at a deep level. It’s not surface thinking, but an inner, deep knowledge that percolates up from within. I mention it’s an icon, for the tablecloth is tipped upward as if it were a background, not a flat plane on which the vase sits. This isn’t something he did by choice, since we haven’t done a lesson on perspective together. In the language of icons, the four cornered shape represents the world and its cardinal directions, or all creation. So we have one plant and all creation, as Paul said to the Romans (8:19-21):
“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.”
We’ll take Friday, February 4, off due to the frozen roads. On February 11, we’ll do paper Valentine collages. Y’all stay warm and safe. Eat hearty soups and enjoy the beauty of the snow.
Joy and peace,
Manet: Chrysanthemums and Clematis in a Crystal Vase, 1882, oil on canvas, Musée d’Orsay, Paris, France.
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,
Does God, who knows all things, also have a memory, or can God choose to forget?
I often wonder about such ideas, for when we ordinary folk experience horrific traumas, we often say, “This is going to be with me for the rest of my life. I’ll never get over it.” In some cases this may be true, especially if the person doesn’t seek long term counseling and faith support to deal with the soul damaging harm. With assistance, one can heal from the pain, even while remembering the injury, just as a broken bone can be mended over time.
Those who’ve been wounded and healed can go on to help others heal from their pain and brokenness. The memories of the wound remain, just like a scar on the skin, but they don’t interfere with living a positive and productive life. For those whom Henri Nouwen called “wounded healers,” and who find meaning in their suffering, their lives are a model for others to emulate, for their memories don’t destroy them.
If we look at the nature of God—the one who is, the one who will be, and the one always becoming—we can understand better the discussion between Jesus and the Temple authorities in John 8:56-59–
“Your ancestor Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day; he saw it and was glad.”
Then the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?”
Jesus said to them, “Very truly, I tell you, before Abraham was, I am.”
So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.
Jesus made the claim to the I AM name and being of God, an act of blasphemy, which the devout Jews found outrageous, since it made him equal to God. Their memories of Moses meeting God in the burning bush are to this day a seminal recollection of their liberation story from their Egyptian captivity:
But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?”
God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.’ ” (Exodus 3:13-14)
Can one who always lives in the present have a memory of the past, or envision the future? I met a lady at Sam’s Club in the days before the July 4th weekend. She was standing in the center of the entrance while folks were pushing baskets quickly past on either side of her. I thought she looked like the choose cone at a NASCAR restart. Bewildered and worried, she was looking for someone who wasn’t to be found. I asked her if she needed help, and she was even uncertain about this request. I suggested we walk over to customer service. On the way, I discovered her name and that her people had walked off to shop without waiting for her. She didn’t know their names, but she did know hers.
I thought about my own daddy, who had Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases. He progressively lost the memory of our family members: first my younger brothers, then me, and finally my mother became “the lady who came to kiss him every afternoon at 4 o’clock.” However, he could remember every bit of his medical training, even when he slipped and fell. On entry to the ER, he began ordering the medical staff about as if he were in charge. They tried to shush him up, until they realized he was running the accustomed intake drill.
Memories are like this, for we keep some which we find necessary and yet lose some very important ones we’d really like to hold onto. We also keep painful memories longer than happy memories, perhaps as a survival instinct. We won’t touch that hot stove again! This doesn’t bode well for our overall optimism, however, if we end up seeing the world as a fraught and dangerous place. How we imprint the emotions on our memories is still debated, for we tend to assign positive or negative emotions to events of our past. Then these affect our future experiences. This is why some of us fear dogs, while others of us approach them with respect, allowing the animal to sniff us out and accept us before we interact with them. We can change our future reactions to old memories, but this is a work in process.
God never gets old, even though God is eternal. If God is always I AM, or I AM WHAT I AM or I WILL BE WHAT I WILL BE, then God is a very present god and as well as a God of the future. If the past is also the present for God, then perhaps the past may be also as the future. In fact, for all we humans know time, as we understand it, may have no meaning for God, and what we think of as past, present, and future, God may experience as the eternal NOW. This may be how we understand Hebrews 13:8— “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.”
Recently I’ve been finding old mementos, souvenirs of my youth. Some are faded newspaper clippings, others are letters from old boyfriends, and then there’s the strange and esoteric memorabilia that somehow survived over half a century in storage along the various stages of my journey. My people are genetically predisposed to collecting. Did I ever mention my grandmother’s ball of tinfoil she kept on the kitchen window sill next to the sweet potato plant she was growing in the old mason jar? I come by this habit through my maternal line.
As I’ve been going through these, I had no difficulty throwing away utility bills from the early 2000’s, but then I found the college freshman beanie from my childhood boyfriend. He lived thirteen houses down the street from me. We had a thing for each other all through junior high and high school. For some reason, he gifted it to me. That motive is lost to the fog of memory now. Perhaps as Isaiah 43:18 says:
“Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”
When I picked up this ancient cap of shame, for that’s exactly what it is, since it marks its wearer out as the low man on the totem pole, I marveled at how small the hat was. I don’t remember my beloved having a pinhead! In fact, I mooned and pined over his handsome and athletic form. Then again, I was young. As I held it in my hands, I felt the need to recreate something new from it. I had a landscape painting which had gone poorly because I was ill. I decided to paint over it, using the hat as the central tree structure, and adding some cut fabric trees to balance it. I also found some printed butterflies I cut out for embellishment. Once I glued those shapes on the canvas, I could repaint the canvas.
As I destroyed the old canvas and remade it into a new creation, the words from the prophet Isaiah (43:25) came to mind:
“I, I am He, who blots out your transgressions for my own sake, and I will not remember your sins.”
God is a forgiving god, but more importantly, God is a forgetting god. How many times do we say, “I’ll forgive, but I won’t forget?” We might as well say, “I’m not forgiving or forgetting, because I’m going to carry this wound or harm or slight FOREVER.” So much for our going onto perfection in love, or learning to love as God loves.
The cornerstone of all forgiveness is self-forgiveness. Too many of us believe the verse from John 3:16 only applies to the world, but not to themselves individually—
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
If we can’t forgive the darkness within us, or the mistakes we’ve made, or allow God to forgive us, how are we to forgive others? In fact, if we tell God our sins are too great for God to forgive, we’ve set ourselves above God’s authority to forgive sins. This is pride, authority, and idolatry all wrapped into one. We’ve made ourselves into a god, rejecting God. The Pharisees of old rejected Jesus for this very reason.
Who was the most forgiving person in all of scripture? Jesus, of course, for he claimed authority to forgive sins just as God did, as when Jesus healed the paralytic whose friends let him down through the roof (Luke 5:20-24). Those who were nearby wondered at his boldness, but he asked, “What’s easier, forgiving sins or saying stand up and walk?” If we’re going to claim the name of Christ, we too are going to be forgiving people. Forgiving is an act that heals not only the other, but also ourselves. If we can’t forgive, we’ll never be able to forget, or transform our painful memory into one which God can use for the healing of others.
In a sense, we make a new map in our minds and hearts of our old landscapes of pain and sorrow. What once were places of despair can become fertile fields, if not gardens of delight. Our wounds become the tender points which open us up to the suffering of others, and allow us to minister to their needs. Our healing is part of God’s steadfast love. As Jeremiah reminds us:
“No longer shall they teach one another, or say to each other, “Know the LORD,” for they shall all know me, from the least of them to the greatest, says the LORD; for I will forgive their iniquity, and remember their sin no more.” (31:34)
When I think of the faithfulness of God, I also believe in the timelessness of God. When Jesus meets his disciples in Galilee to give them the Great Commission in Matthew 28:20, he says, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” When this present age ends and God renews the heavens and the earth, how will we experience time in the new creation? Surely, if God is making all things new, we won’t be in this same world anymore and the rules it follows won’t be the same. We aren’t thinking boldly enough or big enough if we limit God to only recreating only the current fallen and broken world we have now.
Maybe if more of us began to think on the world a forgiving and loving God could create, we could begin to remake this present world into the new creation. If we were to make acts of love and forgiveness more prominent in our daily lives, we might restore our neighbor to fellowship and community. We can forgive even those who don’t seek it, for they’re the ones who’re most in need of forgiveness. With a forgiving and loving God’s help, we can do this.
Picasso is often thought to have said, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life.” However, just as we tend to view anything on the internet as true, along comes a meme from Abraham Lincoln reminding us of the exact opposite proposition. As one of my old debate team mentors in high school used to say, “Consider the source. Use a verified source. Use a trusted source. Use a legitimate source. Facts, not opinions, count in the argument.” This is the flag we raised, put a light on it, and saluted every day in speech class. This also limited my library quest, for my search engine of choice in those low technology days was the card catalog at my neighborhood library and rummaging through whatever national news magazines came on subscription there.
As much as I love this quote, “Art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life,” and resonate with it, it doesn’t sound like Picasso. He’s also purported to be the source of “Others have seen what is and asked why. I have seen what could be and asked why not.” It’s not too different from “Some men see things as they are and say why? I dream things that never were and say why not?” This latter is a famous line paraphrasing George Bernard Shaw’s play Back To Methuselah, and was spoken at Robert F. Kennedy, Jr’s funeral elegy.
Perhaps it doesn’t matter we aren’t original thinkers, but only that we stretch our thinking beyond what we already know. In 1982, futurist and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller estimated that up until 1900, human knowledge doubled approximately every century, but by 1945 it was doubling every 25 years. By 1982, knowledge doubled every 12-13 months. Today, knowledge doubles about every 12 hours! For some people, this is absolutely too much to bear, and for others, it’s a reason to yearn for simpler times. However, I’m not willing to give up the GPS and maps in my vehicle, for I have a tendency to be chronically lost. I do find some interesting backroads along the detours I take in error. I just get lost less often than I once did.
Art and other creative ventures are the means by which we deal with our anxieties of this world, for if we have pain and troubles there, we can either create a world of beauty to balance our struggles or we can let all that pent up energy out so it doesn’t eat us up from the inside out. If we’re making landscapes, we might have butterflies or forest fires, depending on how we process our soul journeys.
Margaret’s landscape has the breeze blowing through the trees and flowers. The clouds are also carried along by these same winds. She was wanting to paint a flittering butterfly, and wondered out loud “How does a butterfly fly?”
I didn’t know exactly, and wasn’t into acting out my inner butterfly, but Apple Music has a wonderful tune by Ludovico Einaudi called “Day 1: Golden Butterflies.”
I found it on my phone and played it for her. Art class calls upon all the senses, just as reading a biblical text does. How can we get into a mood or intention of a writer or an artist if we don’t use every one of the senses the good Lord gifted us with? Art isn’t just for the eyes, but we should appreciate the textures even if we don’t actually touch them.
In our Friday art class, I always show examples of how other artists have approached our theme for the day. I collect them in my Pinterest account. For Spring Trees, the goal is to use the cool side of the palette, with a variety of greens, and add spring colored flowers of white, pink, or yellows. Blues and violets also show up with wisteria and bluebells. As I showed the group about a dozen different artists’ works, I reminded them: “You can’t go wrong! Every one of these artists solved spring trees in a different way. Some painted only the tree, some painted just the reflection in the water, others painted the whole landscape. Some focused on the people more than the trees. If your colors stay cool, if we can tell these shapes are trees, and if you use your own ideas to elaborate on this basic format, you’ll do a great job! We can always improve on the next one.”
People are so worried about pleasing others, or not measuring up to some standard. What standard are we setting for ourselves anyway? If we want to shoot baskets like LeBron James or Stephen Curry, we’d better be prepared to work. Curry shoots around 2,000 shots a week: He takes a minimum of 250 a day, plus another 100 before every game. It’s a counterintuitive fact that a player with the supplest shot in the NBA, whose overarching quality is feel, has the hands and work habits of a woodchopper. Likewise, LeBron works out even on his “off day,” with only Sunday as a day of rest. Check out this workout. This is why he’s called the “King.”
If we were writing poetry, would we fail to start because we couldn’t produce from our heart and hand the words which move us, as do the passionate lines of Shakespeare’s pen? He had to start somewhere, for sure. “While salvation is by faith,” I always tell folks, “proficiency in arts and crafts usually comes from works.” The more we practice, the better we become. Some of excellence results from acquiring good eye hand coordination, or fine motor control, but also we begin to learn what our media can do and what it won’t do. We enter into a friendship and then into a love affair with it. We begin to anticipate where it will go, just as we often can finish our best friend’s sentences for them. Take a break and read Shakespeare’s 18th sonnet out loud for a moment:
Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate: Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May, And summer’s lease hath all too short a date;
Sometime too hot the eye of heaven shines, And often is his gold complexion dimm’d; And every fair from fair sometime declines, By chance or nature’s changing course untrimm’d;
But thy eternal summer shall not fade, Nor lose possession of that fair thou ow’st; Nor shall death brag thou wander’st in his shade, When in eternal lines to time thou grow’st:
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see, So long lives this, and this gives life to thee.
“The artist is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web,” Picasso told Alfred H. Barr, Jr. Just as everything is grist for the poet’s mill, so we bring all that we are to our art experiences. If we’re glad, sad, angry, or any other emotion, this gets poured out into our work through the colors we choose, the subject matter, or the way we use the media. This pandemic will be remembered not only for its cruel loss of life, but also for its neurological complications for the post COVID survivors, since a high percentage have mood and anxiety trouble diagnoses for the first time within six months of their infection. This is how we know COVID isn’t just a bad flu.
I omit the state of depression, for if one feels blue, one can work, but true depression takes away the will to work, to get out of bed, get dressed, or have the energy to brush one’s teeth. No one gets out of that state alone. Help and intervention are needed. I’ve been a chronic depressive for over half a century, and “snapping out of it” isn’t possible for people with this health condition. If I have a sunny and positive outlook on life, it’s because I’ve learned to think optimistically and I’m medicated properly. Plus I attend counseling sessions so I can keep a good perspective on life. If life is getting you down now, please seek help from a trusted medical provider or a pastor. Jesus meant it when he said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). Faith healing also comes from ordinary means.
Our art class gives our group a safe place to stretch their minds, to take self care time, and to try a new skill that won’t kill anyone. It’s not like chainsaw juggling , where if you miss, you get a free ride to the ER or the funeral home. We don’t do that sort of thing. That’s more excitement than I can stand. I used to teach middle school art classes, so I had days, when the moon was full, that I sometimes thought I was juggling chain saws. Juggling plastic spoons is more my style today.
Gail is supervising home schooling during the pandemic. I don’t know how all the other parents and grandparents are doing in this particular time, but I remember the chaos which ensued one spring break as the pink eye ran amuck through the elementary school at which I taught. The headmaster gave everyone an extra week for spring break, an act which caused my students’ parents to call me in a panic, “What am I going to DO with my child for a WHOLE WEEK?!”
I laughed and said, “Keep them away from children who have pink eye.” I suppose I didn’t commiserate with them, as they thought I should. These people are now grandparents and I hope that one week back then showed them they could manage a whole pandemic today.
Gail’s trips to fuel her caffeine need causes her to visit different coffee shops. The cup sleeves come in different patterns of corrugated cardboard. Of course, this paper product originally came from a tree, so she brought them in to be recycled and repurposed into an art piece about spring trees. Since she worked for the forest service, this is right in line with her love of nature and concern for stewardship of our natural resources. Gail also likes to plan and think her way through a theme.
Mike gets his idea in a big, global whole. Then he seems to boil it down to a manageable size in a few moments, as he mentally discards the least workable parts. In a few minutes, he’s ready to paint a scene from memory or from his imagination. He applies lessons learned from other classes. For instance, painting in the background first is easier than trying to paint up to foreground details. This painting began with the stream, the green trees, the white trees, and then the popping pink trees for an accent.
I was painting trees with wisteria vines from a photograph I took near my home. The coffee spot at the Airport and MLK Freeway had moved, so when I turned in that driveway, I came to the notice of one of Hot Springs Finest. As he rolled down his window, I turned around and smiled.
“Hello, I’m just taking photographs of the wisteria in the trees.”
“I saw your car and thought you might be in trouble.”
“Not this time, but thanks for checking on me. I often stop to take pictures of our beautiful city.”
While we were talking, his radio went off and he had to go help someone else. Life interrupts our time together, and we don’t know how much time we have on this side of heaven. Many of the things we fight over will be meaningless in the great arc of history. When we meet each other on the other side, we won’t care about these things, for our whole attention will be God and the Lamb who sits upon the throne. If on this side of heaven, we learn to love more and forgive better, we’ll all be going on to perfection, whether we are in life or art.
The Greeks have a proverb: “The heart that loves is always young.” On this Valentine’s Day, and every day, may our hearts be always young. In art class this week, we had a pop up project making Valentine’s cards with mixed media. We brought photographs, glue, leftover scrapbooking materials, and assorted fabric scraps. If this were a pizza parlor, the menu item was “sweep the kitchen.” Eat it before it goes bad has been the source of many a recipe at Cornie’s Kitchen.
Gail brought her grandchildren for their art enrichment opportunity, Lauralei also showed up, and even Brother Russ made an appearance. Mike had court duty and was making his mark at home. Almost all this group is able to manage on their own, with just some technical advice on the best use of the media selected or how to use a tool better. Giving people free reign to let their creative energies come out allows them to discover what’s on their heart.
The Bible uses the word “heart” primarily to refer to the ruling center of the whole person, the spring of all desires. The heart is the seat of the will, intellect and feelings. “Character,” “personality,” and “mind” are approximate modern terms for the Bible’s meaning of heart. Emotions are in the belly or bowels in the ancient worldview.
Jesus said in Mark 7:20-21, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” We can relate to these various vices, for such is the stuff of the nightly news and the entertainment industry. The more lurid life gets, the more eyes and clicks a story gets. A normal story has to get a “click bait” headline just to get readers, whore then disappointed and angry their worst desires weren’t fulfilled. Some days I think we’re on a madcap race to the bottom of a cesspool, but I can’t let this thought corrupt my own heart and life. As my mama used to say, “One bad turn doesn’t deserve another in return. You have to be better than that.”
My people were Methodists. Our favorite Wesleyan standard for Entire Sanctification, “a heart so full of love for God and neighbor that nothing else exists,” is a goal we pursue, even as our Buddhist friends seek enlightenment.
“Only one book is worth reading: the heart,” said the Venerable Ajahn Chah, a Buddhist teacher of the 20th century. He taught with stories, as the great wisdom teachers often do.
“There are so many people looking for merit. Sooner or later they’ll have to start looking for a way out of wrongdoing. But not many people are interested in this. The teaching of the Buddha is so brief, but most people just pass it by, just like they pass through Wat Pah Pong (a monastery in Thailand). For most people that’s what the Dhamma is, a stop-over point. (Dhamma is the teachings of Buddha to overcome dissatisfaction or suffering.)
Only three lines, hardly anything to it: Sabba-pāpassa akaranam: refraining from all wrongdoing. That’s the teaching of all Buddhas. This is the heart of Buddhism. But people keep jumping over it, they don’t want this one. The renunciation of all wrongdoing, great and small, from bodily, verbal and mental actions… this is the teaching of the Buddhas.
If we were to dye a piece of cloth we’d have to wash it first. But most people don’t do that. Without looking at the cloth, they dip it into the dye straight away. If the cloth is dirty, dying it makes it come out even worse than before. Think about it. Dying a dirty old rag, would that look good?
You see? This is how Buddhism teaches, but most people just pass it by. They just want to perform good works, but they don’t want to give up wrongdoing. It’s just like saying ”the hole is too deep.” Everybody says the hole is too deep, nobody says their arm is too short. We have to come back to ourselves. With this teaching you have to take a step back and look at yourself.”
Like many of these wisdom teachings, they appear to focus on what we Christians call “works righteousness,” or an ethical way of living. The ancient proverbs remind us, “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice” (21:3). The original works were animal sacrifices, not the good works which flowed from a heart full of love’s desire to serve God and neighbor.
Another story from the same teacher:
“The Buddha taught that at this present moment, the Dhamma exists here in front of us. The Buddha sits facing us right here and now! At what other time or place are you going to look?
If we don’t think rightly, if we don’t practice rightly, we will fall back to being animals or creatures in Hell or hungry ghosts or demons. How is this? Just look in your mind. When anger arises, what is it? There it is, just look! When delusion arises, what is it? That’s it, right there! When greed arises, what is it? Look at it right there!
By not recognizing and clearly understanding these mental states, the mind changes from being that of a human being. All conditions are in the state of becoming. Becoming gives rise to birth or existence as determined by the present conditions. Thus we become and exist as our minds condition us.”
In art, we have a practice of first seeing things as they are. Once we know the world for what it is, we can create a visual representation of it (realism), or make a different take (abstraction). We can even ignore the world and only play with shapes and colors. Whatever route we choose, we still have to deal with the reality of the work under our hands. Any move we make has consequences, just as in real life our words and deeds affect the outcomes of the next shoes to fall. When we’re first working in a medium, we sometimes get carried away and lose the beauty. This is part of the learning process, for we have to know when to stop. This gives rise to the old adage “Less is more” in art, but not in love, for as the song says, “More love to thee, O Christ, more love to thee.”
Our rock and roll musicians keep cranking out love songs because love never dies. Here’s part of the chorus of Van Morrison’s “I Forgot That Love Existed” (2017):
“If my heart could do my thinking, and my head begin to feel,
I would look upon the world anew, and know what’s truly real.”
Perhaps we should be celebrating Valentine’s Day more often, or realize we’re a people created in the image of a loving God, so we should love not just our chosen beloveds, but also the other humans of God’s world, as well as God’s creation. We’re merely stewards of this green and blue planet for the generations to follow us. Our love for our progeny means we’ll want to hand over an inheritance we can be proud of and will allow them to nourish and care for generations afterwards.
Let’s leave with a blessing from the bard of our age, Bob Dylan:
“You totally (should) become his nature, deny his being apart from you; you should be he himself, not Christians, but Christ, otherwise you will be no use to the coming god.”
—C. G. Jung, The Red Book, p. 137.
“No one can be spared the way of Christ, since this way leads to what is to come. You should all become Christs, says C. G. Jung, in his Answer to Job. He goes on to explain in the divine indwelling of the Holy Spirit in humanity, “a christification of the many arises.” One of the great and simple prayers is “Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in them in them the fire of your love.” When we ask for the indwelling third person of the Trinity, we also ask for the rest of the “family,” for the three are fellow travelers. The Father and the Son aren’t separate entities, even when the Spirit proceeds from the two, just as the Father and the Spirit aren’t off somewhere distant when the Son is suffering on the cross.
In the season of Lent, many people begin with ashes on their forehead as a sign of repentance and fasting for the forty days before Easter. Some give up bacon, others give up alcohol, and some give up social media. Perhaps this is our idea of suffering today, since most of us have our needs for shelter, food, and security met. Modern people tend to suffer emotionally instead, so this may be why we fast from social media. Unfortunately, we don’t have much deep Christian teaching around suffering, mostly because it’s not a happy subject. Nobody likes a downer sermon. Bible studies on Job and the prophets are unpopular too. We don’t like seeing our faces in a BCE Mirror.
I AM THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE
Who wants to suffer today? No one! Most of the Christian teaching around the cross concerns a variation on the substitution theory, or Jesus takes on our suffering so we no longer have to endure the agony ourselves. Of course, when we meet trouble in our daily life, we then call into question either the effectiveness of this work on the cross or our faith in his work on our behalf. Did Christ die for everyone else, but not for me? Are there other works besides my faith in Christ necessary for my salvation? Do I need to be a better person to earn my freedom from suffering?
If we understood the nature of the earthbound Christ life, rather than the resurrected Christ life, we’d grasp the essential nature of suffering bound up into this life of flesh and spirit. Christ knew hunger, thirst, loneliness, temptation, disappointments, weariness, rejection, and pain. Worst of all, he tasted the emptiness of death before he knew the fullness of the resurrection.
Should we protect our children from suffering? If we mean, should we do our best to feed, clothe, and shelter them, the answer is yes, of course! If we mean, do we protect them from the logical consequences of their acts, I’d say, most likely no. If a child won’t do their own homework, they should get the logical results for their refusal. Physical punishment isn’t a logical result. Poor grades, limits on sports or activities, or staying after school are consequences in line with the poor behavior. Small sufferings now will avoid larger sufferings later. (If they want to jump out of a third story window, that’s another matter. Put some locks on that, parents!)
Of course, to even call these “suffering” shows how far our modern world has moved from the ancient world. Sufferings once were the lot of slaves, who had no authority over their own lives, and could be bought and sold like cattle. They had no agency or control over their fortunes or lots in life. We modern folk are different, unless we buy into the idea we’re rudderless ships upon a stormy ocean. Then we’re merely chaff tossed about by external forces, so we might as well be slaves to our environment.
If we held the whole nature of Christ within us, we’d know both the Christ of suffering and the resurrected Christ of glory. While we ourselves have not yet ascended, we do hold fast to his promise,
“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.” (1 John 3:2-3)
If we live with hope, we can rejoice, and be patient in suffering, while we persevere in prayer.
~~ Romans 12:12
Famous artists throughout the ages have chosen apples for their still life paintings. Apples are known for sitting still, they have a long shelf life, and they work for cheap. Moreover, when the painting is done, they make an excellent pie. We can’t do this with our human models, since this involves non ethical principles such as “Do not take a human life or do not murder.” So, apples are good for starving artists everywhere.
In art class last Friday, the adult students learned even a simple apple and its shadows can be challenging, but the fruit of the quest is worth it. Integration of the object and the ground isn’t easy! If we focus only on the form, it’ll float like a butterfly above the ground. The shadow ties the form to the ground and tells us more about object’s shape and location in space. The line behind the objects determines the point of view. It becomes our horizon line, so we know if we’re looking above or below the objects.
We can use our brushstrokes can to shape the apple’s form too. Then if we use the same brush technique for our ground, we haven’t separated the object from the ground. We end up with the famous magic “cloak of invisibility,” which is great in a Harry Potter novel, but not so great if we want to separate our apple from the ground.
These are all areas of growth, however. As my old teachers all said, “There are no mistakes–only attempts to gain mastery over the techniques until you find your own voice.”
Next week we’ll look at negative space. So far we’ve been drawing the objects, but now we’ll look at the space in between them! Oh–who knew we’d pay attention to the empty spaces or they’d have so much meaning!
“Guard me as the apple of the eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings…”.