Lately I’ve had an extra burst of energy around the house, but this always happens as the light begins to change and the sap rises in the trees. I see the first feathers of blooming green on the tips of trees and realize the grays of winter are no more. The ornamental pears lining our drive are bursting into white and the joy of the pink Japanese magnolias have my spirits and energies both exulting. I was in Kroger looking for the daffodils to bring to art class, but they weren’t in the store yet. I live in a condo, so those jaunty jonquils on our property aren’t mine to cut, since they’re considered community property.
When I arrived at church Friday, it was a fine spring day, the sort most folks would want to be outside digging up a garden. I certainly would, but I have a few pots inside for herbs and call that my “condo garden” instead. Mike and Gail asked, “What? No flowers? We hoped there’d be flowers!”
Yeah, me too. I’m ready for flowers. Just as spring flowers remind us of new life, they also remind us of the fragility of life. In the bulb, there is the promise of the life yet to come, even if it’s hidden underground all winter, just as there’s the promise of our new life to come after our death and burial. When we have a worldwide pandemic of a novel Coronavirus, which has no vaccine as yet to protect us, we depend on common sense behaviors and our faith in times of trial.
For our still life, I appropriated a tea kettle and a frying pan from the church kitchen. Since I returned it, I didn’t use the five finger discount, but merely borrowed it for a bit. As we looked at the still life, I talked about the objects as simplified forms, which we’ve done time and time again. The basic forms may get boring, but they’re the foundational exercises for artists, just as practicing the scales are for musicians.
I pointed out how the tea kettle is more like a big sphere, which has had its bottom sliced off so it can sit on the table. If we can see the ball inside it, then we can capture its fullness. The spout is a cylinder, with a triangular form attached to it. The pan is another sphere, but this one has had its top and bottom cut off. It’s like a globe with only the equatorial latitudes remaining because the top and bottom 45% have been removed. Also, we can see the inside, for it’s been scooped out.
Last week I’d shown Gail the trick of using the brush handle to measure the still life and get similar proportions on her canvas. I showed this to Mike today. This is part of the “secret, gnostic, knowledge, known only to a few, and passed on by word of mouth,” which artists teach to students when they they’re ready to receive it. I usually leave the group alone for awhile, and then get up and make a quick check of their work. Gail and Mike are second year students, so they work more independently. We all paint some more, but on the second check is where we’re more likely to get into trouble.
This second checkpoint is about ninety minutes into a two hour session. Our internal clocks tell us to hurry up and finish, so we begin to paint without thinking or looking at our subject anymore. We’re just doing, but not paying attention. If we were slicing onions with a sharp knife for a restaurant, we might lose a fingertip here. Thankfully we’re only painting shapes, which can get covered over with more paint. Art is much more forgiving than chopping onions. Keeping our focus is a skill just as much as learning perspective, color theory, or value. Learning how to step away and check our work is also important.
What of the subject matter, though? What inspires us to paint? We may be asking the question, “What is beautiful?” A corollary to this is “Does the subject need to be beautiful to be art?” The ancient proverb, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” has been around in one form or another since the 3rd century BCE in Greece. I remember standing in front of J.M.W. Turner’s “Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus” (1829) in the Tate Gallery in London when I spent a winter term there during my grad school days.
I was making a small drawing of the scene, which I remembered well from my days in Latin class, and was paying attention to the details of the one eyed cyclops and the tiny figure shaking his fist in the boat below, when an older gentleman came close, inspected the art work, stepped back, and then looked hard at the painting once more. A brief moment of silence passed as he continued to study the work before him, then he leaned forward once more and read the painting’s title out loud. “Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus—no, I don’t see it. I don’t see it at all.”
I almost dropped my sketchbook in amazement. It was as plain as the nose on this man’s face, but he couldn’t see it. This painting currently isn’t on exhibition, so perhaps many people had the same reaction as the gentleman viewer, and not enough had my joyous response to Turner’s painting. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, an untrained eye won’t recognize esoteric beauty even if it’s labeled “work of beautiful art.” If we don’t have fine arts education in our schools, then children grow up without an appreciation for their creative spirits and their own unique voices. Art is a field of exploration which allows for many types of expression and interpretations of “beauty.”
In our world today, we’ve turned so many activities over to professionals. While I wouldn’t want someone who stayed in a Holiday Inn last night doing brain surgery on me, I’m not ready to let fast food cooks prepare all my meals. This attitude of outsourcing ministry to the professionals is a dated concept, for now the most prevalent understanding is all Christians are called to ministry by virtue of their baptism, and some are set aside for special service to the church and the world through ordination. In art terms, we all are part of the arts and crafts movement, although some of us have special training to elucidate our greater gifts.
Paul explains this in his letter to Timothy:
“In a large house there are utensils not only of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for special use, some for ordinary. All who cleanse themselves of the things I have mentioned will become special utensils, dedicated and useful to the owner of the house, ready for every good work.” ~~ 2 Timothy 2:20-21
Lest we get a swelled head, thinking we’re special utensils, or get depressed believing we’re only ordinary utensils, we all need to remember we’re both useful in our Father’s household. In our everyday lives, we need to care for those in our community who exist on the margins of life, many of whom are hourly workers who stitch together several part time jobs to make ends meet, but don’t get health insurance anywhere.
Our elderly are another marginal and vulnerable group, who often have multiple health conditions and declining incomes, fewer social contacts, and less mobility. Once they were the special vessels, made of gold and silver, but now they get treated like ordinary wood and clay, too easily broken in their fragile days. Our elderly carry the dreams and memories of our history together, so they can tell the stories of perseverance when the times get tough.
The wonderful promise is all of us can be “special utensils,” dedicated to God, ready and useful for every good work. We merely have to show up. We don’t have to hire professionals to do all our work, but we can enjoy the experience of our own creative efforts. Learning new skills builds confidence as well as competency, so we get a double benefit. God will give the promised Holy Spirit to the entire priesthood, for we’re are all called to do God’s good works for the sake of the kingdom.
Still Life with Copper Cauldron (c. 1734–35), Jean-Siméon Chardin. Photo: © Roger-Viollet/Musée Cognacq-Jay, Paris