Ready or not, the creative juices must be stirred. If the brain has lain fallow all summer, or it’s been overworked keeping the youngsters occupied, now you can find your own groove again. Yes, it’s time for Adult Art Class at Oaklawn UMC.
Our first meeting will be Friday, September 9, at 10 am in the old fellowship hall. Bring your own acrylic paints, brushes, and a canvas or canvas panel to paint on. We begin with a short visual inspiration from some great art works, I’ll give some direction on the skill we’ll work on in the session, and then everyone is free to bring their own unique expression to their paintings. We don’t copy my work and judge how well a person can match it. We learn from the great masters and stretch our own skills to create something new.
Of course, making great art isn’t our first purpose. As we age, we will lose our ability to learn new skills until we lose our memory of what we just ate for breakfast. Challenging our brains is one of the best ways to keep our brain cells firing and “chatting with one another.” Our brains have the immensely powerful ability to remodel themselves because each of us have 1,000 trillion synapses, which are constantly being modified every second of every day. Socialization and encouragement also helps to keep our brains young.
Of course, we have to give up our desire to be perfect. Perfection comes from practice, or working at it. Every baby stumbles and falls when they learn to walk, but dotting adults encourage every trembling step. This is what art teachers also do. I’ve always had a rule in my classes, especially when I taught in middle school: No Negative Talking about People or Art. This included a student’s own art works. They always had to give at least three positive comments about their work before they spoke about the negative. “My work needs improvement” became the replacement phrase for “My work stinks!”
Of course, we’ve all grown up and worked in environments where negativity is the rule. Art class is a place of grace because this is how life should be. If we can transform a blank canvas into a field of color, why can’t we transform our communities and our world into fields of hope, joy, and love? Perhaps because we try to make everyone copy/fit into our idea of the proper end product, rather than allow everyone discover their own creative response to the given subject of the day. The museums of our world are richer and more vibrant because artists have listened to the Spirit of the Creating God. We might do well to realize God’s creative energies are varied and vibrant also, just as Isaiah wrote about his vision of God’s Glorious New Creation:
“For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth; the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice forever in what I am creating; for I am about to create Jerusalem as a joy, and its people as a delight.” (65:17-18)
I hope to see you there. I don’t charge for the class sessions, since this is one of my ministries as a retired elder in the United Methodist Church. As John Wesley once said, “The World is my Parish.”
Joy and Peace,
Wes Ely: How long covid reshapes the brain — and how we might treat it
The last day of our art class we had a “free for all.” Not exactly a “food fight” or “slug fest” free for all, but a finish up or start a personal project type of day. Our class never disappoints me. Mike brought in his patio parrots, some of which have seen better days. These are papier-mâché sculptures that have been brightly painted and covered with shellac. He hopes to paint over them and repair them so they will look respectable once again in the poolside area. If that’s not possible, I see a vacation south of the border in his future.
Gail brought an icon she didn’t quite finish to add gold outlining to the figures. This detail gave her work an extra embellishment to bring it to life. Before, she’d left an edge of white canvas between the background and the figures. This had the same effect, but also gave her work an unfinished appearance.
I’ve been working on a series of Creation Icons from the first chapter of Genesis. Actually, they’re mandalas, but they serve the same purpose as an icon: to focus the viewer’s sight into the window of the world beyond this one and to contemplate the universal mysteries of the universe and the God who created it. The Creation inspired me because I’ve seen old icons with this theme painted both in figurative and abstract styles.
This one represents Day three and is from The Nuremberg Chronicles (1493). Written by Hartmann Schedel and illustrated with woodcuts by Michael Wolgemut, it represents a monumental place in the history of the printed page. One of the most beautifully illustrated texts of all time, the approximately 600 pages, in-folio, contain 1,804 woodcuts intended to communicate to the public a schedule of events predetermined by God, beginning with the Creation, and ending with the end of time.
My icon is a stylized flower against a blue sky with a cross in the center to remind us, as John 1:1-3 says,
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”
I chose a sunflower as my representative plant, for the young plants constantly track the sun’s transit across the sky each day. The older plants don’t make use of this mechanism of heliotropism, but always face east to wait for the sunrise. The ancient wisdom says when Christ comes in his final glory, he’ll first appear in the east at the Beautiful Gate in Jerusalem. However, the Bible says in Revelation 1:7,
“Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.”
I think it best to be ready, day or night, for like the servants whose master has gone off on a trip, we don’t know when he’s coming back. We should be always ready, always eager to serve. We’re never too young or too old to be a servant for Christ. As we grow older, one of our best gifts is mentoring the next generation for leadership. Perhaps they’ll make mistakes, or maybe they’ll do things differently than we did, but mission and ministry will happen.
Most mistakes don’t matter in the great scheme of life, unless they’re breaking a moral or legal law. If they’re just doing a task in a different order, like my arrangement of the dishes in the dishwasher at my mother’s house, we should probably leave that alone. I went and sat in the den and let my mother load the next evening’s dirty dishes because “If you’re going to rearrange everything, you might as well put them in yourself.” She did that one night and sat in the den the next night. Training is everything. My mom spent years training me, so I learned from the best. When it’s time to let go, you step aside and let them do it on their own. Learning from mistakes is part of leadership.
In art class we also learn from our mistakes. Sometimes we find out our palettes are too small to mix up all the different colors we want. This can limit our color schemes, muddy our colors, or tempt us into putting more color over the old color in the same tiny space for mixing. Then we look at our painting and wonder why it’s grey and dull, but fail to notice how dark our glass of brush water is. When the water gets dark, we need to pour it out and get clean water, or we carry that wash water full of pigments into our painting with our brush. In a like manner, if we hold our grudges or anger over time, these soil and blemish our souls. Washing them clean through prayer to God makes a difference in our countenance and joy. We’re brighter people when we rid ourselves of these burdens.
I’m taking the summer off from teaching. I have an art show planned for August to September at the Garland County Library, so I’ll be finishing up some work for that event. I also have a couple of chores around my condo planned, and more of my SOULJOURNIES blog to put into shape. I’m excited about these creative renewal projects. I’ll see y’all on the flip side.
The mandala is a geometric design representing the universe in Hindu and Buddhist symbolism. It generally has a circular form and can be varied in any number of ways, but it’s always balanced. In the Hindu and Buddhist traditions, mandalas are objects of meditation to aid in one’s spiritual development. The imagery depicts the universe and the symbols represent one’s spiritual journey, the cycles of birth-life-death, and the interconnectedness of all living things.
The Hindu tradition focuses on the realization of the self as one with the divine. Whereas in the Buddhist tradition, the emphasis is on the potential for enlightenment (Buddha-nature) and the pictures within the mandalas illustrate the obstacles that one has to overcome in order to cultivate compassion and wisdom. Drawing mandalas in this tradition follows strict rules.
Carl J. Jung was the Swiss psychiatrist who introduced to the West the practice of creating mandalas for self-expression, discovery, and healing. He discovered the shapes, colors, and symbols of his mandalas reflected his mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being at the time that he created them. He noticed his mandala drawings changed as his mental and emotional states changed. Reflecting on these mandala drawings, Jung concluded our subconscious and conscious selves are always seeking balance. When Jung worked with his clients, he would have them draw mandalas. He observed through creating mandalas, his patients experiencing chaotic psychological states could regain balance and calm. Jung also identified universal patterns and archetypes that reoccurred in his and his clients’ mandalas.
As in other cultures, the round shape in Christianity represents the universe, and therefore, is seen as a way to connect the earthly and spiritual realms. Whether in the form of windows in a church or as a rosary, mandalas are used to take the time to contemplate the self and the divine. Perhaps the most iconic representation of the Christian mandala is in the majestic stained glass windows that decorate many churches and cathedrals. While some of these are on a far grander scale than others, the stained glass window is often made up of a central point – often the figure or scene being depicted – which is surrounded by a design that is inherently geometric due to the fact that it’s made up of hard-edge pieces of glass.
Some of the world’s oldest cathedrals are home to rose windows. The rose window is one of the most classic examples of the mandala in Christianity, and their origins trace back to the Roman oculi. These windows are created using geometric segments, and can contain extremely intricate patterns made from different colors of glass, all of which extend out from a central starting point in the middle of the circle.
Aside from its famous French Gothic architecture, this venerable cathedral contains some of the most iconic stained glass in the world. Pictured here is the South Rose Window—a gift from King Louis IX of France—which was designed by Jean de Chelles and Pierre de Montreuil. Installed in 1260, the window is 42 feet in diameter and contains 84 panes divided into four circles. It serves as a counterpoint to the window on the north side, which was completed a decade prior.
Of course, we can also see balance and symmetry in architectural designs around and above us, even if they weren’t meant meant to be “symbols of the universe or creation.” We have to ask ourselves, “How do we feel when we enter a space of a particular design?” The architect uses forms, voids, lines, and heights to imbue in us certain emotions, as well as to make the building practical for its intended use. I always know I’ve found my home when I’m house hunting because the place will “call me by name.” I’ll feel at ease when I walk in. It won’t matter how badly the current owners have decorated it, the place will call to me.
This 1899 upmarket department store with a soaring Tiffany-stained-glass ceiling in the lobby was transformed into a luxury hotel in anticipation of the 1968 Olympic Games. The ceiling, which evokes the country’s Mesoamerican heritage with a lively palette of turquoise and gold, was designed by French artisan Jacques Gruber and also features a Louis XV–style chandelier. The domes in the center have a geometric, mandala design.
The Louis Comfort Tiffany dome at the Chicago Cultural Center measures 38 feet in diameter, making it one of the largest stained-glass domes in the world. Held together by an ornate cast-iron frame that features some 30,000 pieces of glass shaped like fish scales, the dome was finished in 1897, the same year the building opened as the city’s first public library. The dome underwent a meticulous restoration in 2008 and is now lighted electrically. Tiffany pushed the art of stained glass to the extreme, but this dome certainly has the wow factor the citizens of that era expected, for Chicago was a world class city experiencing tremendous growth, while attracting such luminaries as Frank Lloyd Wright and hosting the World’s Colombian Exhibition in 1893.
Completed by Catalan Art Nouveau architect Lluís Domènech i Montaner in 1908, this steel-framed concert hall boasts a stained-glass skylight featuring a three-dimensional depiction of the sun. Named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1997, the music hall contains countless other artworks, including the busts of Anselm Clavé and Beethoven flanking the stage. It’s also the only European concert hall to be illuminated only by natural light. The impressive stained-glass ceiling and the way it’s designed allows the Palau de la Música to use only natural light to illuminate the main concert hall during the day.
Designed by Italian architect, Santino Solari, the Salzburg Cathedral in Austria stands out in a city already filled with stunning architecture. Built in the 17th century, the cathedral was the site of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s baptism. In the center of the dome is a sunburst behind a descending dove of the Holy Spirit. The hexagonal shape repeats down through the dome, with window openings ending at the four trapezoid shapes at the column junctions, which contain paintings of the four gospel authors. It is peaceful and serene, ordered and mathematically precise, much like a Mozart composition. It’s said Mozart wrote his pieces almost without correction, as if they came to life fully born, like Athena, who sprang to life in full adult form from Zeus’ forehead when he had a terrible headache.
Our class has painted mandalas before, but this was before Sally had joined us, so it was a novel idea to her. Still, she decided to go for it, using her new favorite color, Manganese blue. The growing and expanding flower shapes show her love and connection to the natural world. She can paint faster than her decision making can override her energy. This takes time to learn the discipline to hold back the hand, or one can choose to paint on a larger canvas to spread that energy around. Sometimes we have to get our tools fitted to our personalities so we can make the art best suited to our energy and creative imagination. Then our work will begin to “speak to others and call to them with the unique artistic voice of the creator.”
Mike’s mandala balances dark and light, circles and squares, and various sizes of triangles. I get a sense it’s a representation of the creation of earth, but I didn’t get a chance to confirm this with him. Mike typically sits down to paint and doesn’t talk much during class. This is his quiet place, his meditation place, and his medicine for his very busy life. The only thing that will get him talking is “Did you hear about those SEC coaches calling each other out? That’s gonna be some kind of hoodoo when they get together.”
I got started on another creation mandala: the plants and vegetation. I’m basing it on the sunflower, but I’ve only just begun. I have the graphite underdrawing, and part of the central image painted. I’m just a bit irritated at the graphite, since it mixes into the paint and grays it out. This is why I usually sketch my initial image in a pale yellow wash, which I can easily paint over.
Jung wrote in Memories, Dreams and Reflections, “The mandala is an archetypal image whose occurrence is attested throughout the ages. It signifies the wholeness of the Self. This circular image represents the wholeness of the psychic ground or, to put it in mythic terms, the divinity incarnate in man” ( Pages 334-33). As Philippians 3:21 promises,
“He will transform our humble bodies so that they may be conformed to his glorious body, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.”
Those of us who spend time in meditation don’t do this practice merely to feel better or to relieve stress, but to become one with the creator of the universe. As we come closer to God and Christ, we also become closer to the people for whom Christ gave his birth, life, death, and resurrection. As he said,
“And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself.” ~~ John 12:32
The unity of those for whom Christ lived, died, and was resurrected, is all encompassing. It’s not for a selected few, or for some who look like us or believe like us, but for “all people.” It’s a common fault among human beings to ask, like the lawyer in the parable of the Good Samaritan, “But who is my neighbor?” Jesus led him to understand the one who showed mercy to the hurt one was the true neighbor, even if Samaritans normally were shunned.
If drawing mandalas brings us to understand our Bible, our faith, and our God in a deeper way, I’m all for it. If all we’re doing is making pretty patterns on a blank surface, without contemplating the generous Providence of the God who created and sustains our universe, we might as well be mumbling the Apostles Creed on a Sunday morning without giving a thought to any of the words we say. Both of these can be time fillers, mere mind numbing activities, that keep us from having the inner form of Christ, while we give the outward appearance of Christianity. This would be a waste of time, and as the ancient word concerning the law says,
“Circumcise, then, the foreskin of your heart, and do not be stubborn any longer. For the LORD your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” ~~ Deuteronomy 10:16-19
Next week is our last class for the spring, to let this old teacher have a summer break. We’ll start up again in the fall after Labor Day. If you’ve never painted before, this a one room Art School. Everyone proceeds at their own pace. You only have to give up your competitive spirit and your desire for immediate gratification and perfection. It’s art, not microwave pop tarts. You won’t be Michelangelo and that’s a good thing. He’s dead. We want you to be alive and growing in Christ.
The everyday objects around us are like so much white noise: we know they’re present, but after a while, we tend to ignore them. A running joke among the clergy is “Never move anything at the new appointment for six months because you don’t know what objects are the sacred cows.” I learned this the hard way in my first full time appointment when I suggested we rid ourselves of an aging, olive green, velvet curtain hanging on the back wall of the fellowship hall stage, since “It was just hanging there for no purpose.” Oh, the outcries of rage! Little did I know this was the one and only curtain to survive the fire which destroyed the old church building. The people saw this ragged banner as a symbol of hope for the church they were rebuilding for the future. They had invested spiritual meaning into this curtain, even though it no longer served a spiritual purpose.
In the same way, we treat our Bibles as holy objects because they contain the inspired writings handed down over the centuries. We recognize they tell us important truths about God, humanity, and our relationship with the God whose steadfast love for God’s creation never wavers. In worship, we often say after reading from scripture, “The word of God for the people of God.” When many read John 1:1—
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
These same readers connect the “word of God” with the ”Word and the Word (who) was with God, and the Word was God.” The English translation of LOGOS to WORD derives from the Greek principle of Logos, or divine reason and creative order, which is identified in the Gospel of John with the second person of the Trinity incarnate in Jesus Christ. This is how the early Christian writers argued for the preexistence of Christ and for the existence of the Holy Trinity. When we refer to the Logos/Word of God, we are speaking of Christ. If we read the Old Testament, we’re speaking of the one God who has spoken through the ages, but only revealed God’s Son to humanity during the New Testament era. The Spirit has been active always.
This reminds us to honor the Bible for revealing the Incarnate Christ through inspired words, but not to idolize the Bible as a object greater than the God it reveals. After all, over the centuries, the Bible has been interpreted differently by various schools of thought. This brings up the question of how do we know what we know. There’s a whole body of philosophy dedicated to how we know what we know, called epistemology. There are various kinds of knowing:
Sensory perception or observation of facts
Reason or logic
Authority of tradition or common wisdom
Intuition, revelation, or inspiration
Some of us use one way more than others, but each has both good and bad points. In the case of the authority of tradition or common wisdom, for instance, some have been time tested across the ages, but deference to authority without critical thinking can be a mark of intellectual laziness on our part.
John Wesley’s famous understanding of what we now call the Quadrilateral comes from Albert Cook Outler’s discussion on how Wesley understood authority. When challenged for Wesley’s authority on any question, Wesley’s first appeal was to the Holy Bible. Even so, he was well aware that Scripture alone had rarely settled any controversial point of doctrine. Thus, though never as a substitute or corrective, he would also appeal to ‘the primitive church’ and to the Christian Tradition at large as competent, complementary witnesses to ‘the meaning’ of this Scripture or that.
However, Scripture and Tradition would not suffice without the good offices (positive and negative) of critical Reason. Thus, he insisted on logical coherence and as an authorized referee in any contest between contrary positions or arguments. And yet, this was never enough. It was, as he knew for himself, the vital Christian Experience of the assurance of one’s sins forgiven that clinched the matter.
In reality, Wesley’s diagram for how we know is really a triangle— consisting of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason—which leads to the Christian Experience of being a Child of God, forgiven for our sins. It’s based on the Anglican tripod of the faith: scripture, reason, and tradition. Wesley took the tripod and added the firm “seat of experience” of God’s loving mercy to forgive all our sins. This insight came out of Wesley’s life changing Aldersgate experience, which he recorded in his journal on May 24, 1738.
“In the evening, I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that he had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Wesley understood he could spend his whole life learning about God, reading about God, and even serving God to the best of his ability, but he was in his words, an “almost Christian” because he didn’t have the faith of a son or daughter who served God out of love, but had instead the faith of a slave or a servant, who served only from fear of punishment. One of Wesley’s Standard Sermons is the “Almost Christian,” which you can read in its 18th century glorious English at the link below. Most of us would be glad to be accounted in the “almost” category, but Wesley asks, why don’t we go farther and become “altogether Christian?”
In Methodist terms, this is “entire sanctification,” or “going on to perfection.” We don’t talk much about this any more, but it’s the purpose of our Christian life to be conformed to the image of God. We aren’t trying to be like Beyoncé, JayZ, Taylor Swift, or Jake Owen. Instead we have the promise in Romans 8:29—
“For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn within a large family.”
We don’t do this on our own, but with the assistance of the Holy Spirit. That’s why the Spirit is called a helper, for it’s a coworker in the process of perfection or sanctification. This epistemology for knowing is useful for art classes also. Some of us believe we need to be perfect from the get go and can’t accept our raggedy messes we produce as we learn the techniques of color mixing and shading, much less the fine motor coordination required to connect our thoughts with our hand movements. If we aren’t able to endure the rough edges of imperfection as we “go on to perfection,” we won’t last long in art class. Just learning how to see the three dimensional world and translate it onto a two dimensional surface is a Mount Everest accomplishment in itself. Some days we have no energy to cope, and that’s when we need to come for support and encouragement.
Last Friday we painted chairs. Every artist’s work we viewed for inspiration had a different take on the chair. We no longer have to make a photographic rendering of an object because we have cameras for this purpose. We can use the chair as a reason to break up the picture plane and organize the spaces. I found a funny little poem called “The Chair,” by Theodore Roethke:
A Funny Thing about a Chair: You Hardly Ever Think it’s There. To Know a Chair is Really It, You Sometimes have to Go and Sit.
As the class went on, Sally decided she wanted to copy one of the inspiration images. She’s new, so she was practicing color mixing with her limited palette. When she couldn’t get the bright turquoise color, I brought my manganese blue over and mixed it with her titanium white. The color she wanted came popping out, much to her delight. “I’m going to buy me some of that color.” Sometimes all we need is the right materials.
Lauralei’s humor takes the cake with her shower chair. She can imagine the model chairs in a new environment. She doesn’t let the reality limit her options.
Gail divided up the canvas into various planes of colors, which sing for joy. I think she had fun. As the only one of our group who took the challenge of the entire scene, Mike took a bird’s eye view of the table and chairs. I hear he may be traveling again, or at least yearning to fly away from the day to day grind of full time work to something closer to retirement.
I can understand that feeling. After years of teaching school, I look forward to summer vacation. We’ll have art class on the last two Fridays of May, and then take the summer off. Our current plan is to return on September 9, the first Friday after Labor Day. In the meantime, if you want to know how God really is,
“Be still, and know that I am God!” ~~ Psalms 46:10
A fun summertime activity is building a chair fort or a chair cave. All you have to do is turn over a couple of chairs on the floor and throw a sheet or blanket over them. This provides a quiet place for a child of any age to have a “time out” alone during a long summer. I recommend a quiet place for children of all ages, even those who’re long of tooth.
In art class, I taught our group the time honored technique of using a cartoon to transfer an image to another surface. Of course, their first reaction was, “Are we watching Saturday morning cartoons today?”
“No, it’s Friday. We’re going to make our own carbon paper,” I said, as I showed them how artists of old would rub graphite on the back of their drawings and then outline the major lines onto the wall or the canvas to transfer the image. The J. Paul Getty Museum has a great video on YouTube explaining this process.
“You mean we’re going to paint by number?” “Not a chance. You still have to make your own color decisions and shading choices.” Really, by now you’d think they know my opinion on the easy way. As Jesus says in Matthew 7:13—
“Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it.”
I didn’t bring any complicated images of the holy icons. I brought only ones with simple outlines. I knew this project wasn’t going to be as easy as people first thought. It’s not as simple as coloring within the lines.
An icon is an image of a holy person, but it isn’t a mere representation of the individual. When we make photographs or even painted portraits, we seek to make “likenesses” of the individual, and capture their outward details and idiosyncrasies. If we can also capture their inner spirit, we take the image to a master level. Icons, however, are more concerned with representing the inner, spiritual nature of the person, rather than their outward nature. After all, we don’t have any images of how the holy ones from the earliest days of faith actually looked. We only have their acts and the symbols connected with them, so in the iconography we can identify them by these qualities. The word iconography comes from the Greek: eikōn ‘likeness’ and -graphia ‘writing’, so when we paint, we’re actually “writing a likeness” of the holy image.
In the iconographic tradition, all of the faces are broad across the brow, to represent the holy wisdom of God residing in the saints, just as their elongated figures and extremities accent this holiness. The eyes, windows into the soul, are large compared to a natural face, while the mouth is small. The small mouth indicates the saint has conquered bodily passions. There’s always an ear open on an icon, for the icon needs to “hear our prayers.” Not that the icon is alive, but it’s more like an open window into heaven. Therefore, the saint’s ear is the open window through which our prayers flow into the golden light of the mysterious world beyond this material one in which we dwell both in shadows and light.
The color in icons also plays an important role. Red belongs to martyrs. Blue stands for wisdom. White symbolizes paradise and chastity. Green is the color of the Venerable Fathers. Gold symbolizes sanctity.
The icon painter and teacher of St. Tikhon’s Orthodox University, Svetlana Vasyutina once described an experience before the iconostasis or screen of images of the saints in the church. “A while ago, I was tortured by the question why it is golden. Once I was standing at a church, looking at the iconostasis. Suddenly, they turned off the electric lights, and only candles before the icons were burning. The golden traces were shining, giving back the light. It was as if, not the candles, but the halos, were radiating light. I was amazed; the light seemed not material, not as comes from a candle or a lamp. The golden color shows the person painted in the icon was granted a different kind of light.”
According to St. Paul, glory (doxa) appears where the form and the idea of God, which inhabits it, become one. This is especially true where form becomes a place of theophany (a visible manifestation to humankind of God or a god), where the body becomes the temple of the Holy Spirit. This glory is represented by the nimbus or halo of the saints. We hear Paul speak of this power in Philippians 3:21—
“He will transform our humble bodies that they may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.”
The disciples first saw this glory descending upon Christ on the Mount of the Transfiguration, as recorded in Matthew 17:2—
“And he was transfigured before them, and his face shone like the sun, and his clothes became dazzling white.”
To become completely transformed by the Holy Spirit wasn’t only a special gift given only to the saints alone, but it was meant for all believers. As Paul mentions in 2 Corinthians 4:7 (American Standard Version)—
“But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, that the exceeding greatness of the power may be of God, and not from ourselves.”
A famous story in the Eastern Orthodox Monastic tradition follows:
Abba Lot went to see Abba Joseph and said to him, “Abba, as far as I can I say my little office, I fast a little, I pray and meditate, I live in peace and as far as I can, I purify my thoughts. What else can I do?” Then the old man stood up and stretched his hands towards heaven. His fingers became like ten lamps of fire and he said to him, “If you will, you can become all flame.”
Many of us are barely alight with the fire of Christ, and we wonder why the glory of God doesn’t shine through us. Others of us hide our light under a bushel so we don’t stand out from the crowd. If we wonder why we aren’t going onto Christian Perfection in love of God and neighbor, or being a witness to Jesus Christ for others to follow, then we might need to read Abba Joseph’s recommendation once again: “If you will, you can become all flame.”
When we paint an icon, we participate in a spiritual endeavor in which we are coworkers with the Holy Spirit. We enter into a kairos time, or God’s creating time, and are no longer only working only in human, chronological time. This is a mystery, not to be understood in ordinary terms, even if we begin at 10:15 in the morning and stop to cleanup at 11:45. Like the golden background, time has no meaning while we paint the icon. Our cares and concerns of this world can be given to the icon, and thus to God.
We make our prayer gifts in two ways: we hope to become more conformed to the image of God and we hope our images conform better to the icon before us. We’re going on to perfection, one bit at a time. In faith, we expect to be made perfect in love in this life, by the power of the Holy Spirit, or at the moment of our death, as the classic Wesleyan teaching states. The Orthodox doctrine of theosis, union with God, from which our Methodist teaching of sanctification derives, teaches we can have real union with God, just as Jesus had, being fully human and fully divine. We don’t become gods, but we participate in the full image of God, in which we were first created.
We can contemplate these beautiful words of St. Athanasius of Alexandria (+373), in his treatise On The Incarnation, against the Arian heresy:
‘God became “sacrophore”—bearer of our flesh—so that mankind might become “pneumatophore—bearer of the Holy Spirit.’” (Michael Quenot, THE ICON, p 55)
When we keep our heart set on the image of Christ, we remember his undying love for all creation. Then we learn the meaning of the faith of a loving son or daughter, in comparison to that of an unwilling servant. This is how John Wesley saw his own conversion at Aldersgate:
“I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”
Once we realize the law of sin and death no longer holds us in chains, we can freely live in life and love, now and always, if we conform our image to Christ.
A sunflower follows the sun. Actually, only young sunflowers track the sun across the sky, while mature sunflowers face east. Why is this? Why do we care? As sunflowers fill our Facebook feeds and social media posts, most of us are looking at flowers so we can ignore the awful consequences of this unprovoked war. Right now, many of us are heartbroken because of the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ukraine. I had only a passing knowledge of this country because of its well known naïve artist, Maria Primachenko and her paintings of fantastic imaginative animals in gardens. They have always been a delight to my soul and a joy to my spirit. Many of her works include the sunflower, Ukraine’s national flower. Sunflowers have been grown in Ukraine since the mid 1800’s, and are not only an important export crop, but also a symbol of peace. When Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in 1994, people planted sunflowers as a symbol of the peace they hoped would follow.
Sunflowers, when young, follow the sun on a 24 hour circadian cycle, just as our bodies have a similar cycle keyed to the light and dark. When the flowers are growing, they maximize their time facing the sun, but once they’re mature, they set their face toward the east, since this gives the head maximum warmth. Bees love warmth, so keeping the buzzing crowds near is in the sunflowers’ best interest for pollination and reproduction.
Most of us prefer the sunny days. Clouds, storms, and distress aren’t our first choices. After the last few years of pandemic stresses, we’re unprepared for yet another crisis, even if it seems to be on a distant continent. Our own supply chain for reserves of caring and concern have been stretched thin by the nearly million deaths from COVID in our nation alone, not to mention the worldwide death toll of over 6 million. On Friday in Sam’s Club, I met a lady who complimented me on my flowered pants, which I was wearing in honor of the Ukrainian folk painter, whose museum had been bombed by the Russian army.
“I can’t bear to even listen to the news any more. It’s all so awful,” she said.
“I know. It reminds me too much of domestic violence cases, where the man decides he’ll punish the ex by killing all the children and taking himself out also.”
My blood sugar usually drops low on Friday after art class, before I eat lunch, so I don’t have my usual, civilized filter on my mouth. The look of awareness on her face was the sudden recognition of a truth she had refused to see before. Sometimes we need to face our fears and deal with them. This is the hero journey. None of us can travel it alone, but far too many fail to ever set out on it at all, even with a spiritual companion or guide. My failure to snack at art class upset her comfortable apple cart and caused her distress. She ran out of Sam’s in a heartbeat. I was able to chat with a baby and her mom later on, who was amazed her child wasn’t at all afraid of this stranger. Food is a medicine for my mood and a bridle for my mouth.
On a sunny day, we can see our shadow. Most of us are afraid of our own flickering shadows. We don’t want to see the darkness within us, even though we’re ever ready to see the sinister images of others. Like a sunflower, we’ll turn instead to the light and only see the good, the beautiful, and the true.
A story I remember from my classical art studies regards Alexander the Great and the shadows. His father Phillip II, the ancient king of Macedon, had a difficult, high strung horse, which no one had been able to ride. In fact, it was downright vicious and unmanageable, which made it less of a “gift” to the ruler. Alexander, even though a youth, noticed the handsome horse was disturbed by his own shadow, so he turned the animal’s head into the sun, attached the bridle, and was able to mount him. Alexander rode Bucephalus until the horse’s death at the Battle of the Hydaspes in 326 B.C.E. In his honor, Alexander named a local city, Bucephala (sometimes identified with the modern Jhelum, in the Punjab province of Pakistan), after him.
“Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes,” Carl Jung wrote to one Fanny Bowditch, on the eve of his entry into military service during the First World War. Jung believed as long as you looked at other people and projected your own psychology into them, you could never reach harmony with yourself. Jung taught all persons had a shadow side to their personality, or those aspects of ourselves which we’ve repressed. These may be both bad or good aspects, for some of us have yet to realize our own brutal natures, as well as the heroic figures which we’ve also buried inside.
My old granddaddy was fond of saying, “When you point out another’s failings, you have three fingers pointing back at yourself.” I came to learn I couldn’t recognize the fault in others unless I could claim it also in my own self. This keeps one humble for sure, but it also keeps a person from thinking he or she has any godlike or dictator qualities.
This brings me to another famous shadow story involving Alexander the Great. After his father’s death, he visited Corinth, where Diogenes the Cynic lived in 326 BCE. Diogenes was famous for carrying a lamp in the middle of the day in his “search for an honest man.” In the most famous exchange of this meeting, Alexander asked Diogenes whether there was anything he could do for him. Diogenes, who was enjoying the warmth of the autumn sun, answered, “Stand aside to stop blocking the sun.”
This abrupt response, showing Diogenes’ utter contempt for the power and prestige craved by Alexander, inspired many artists over the years. Although Alexander’s attendants took offense at Diogenes’ rudeness to their king, Alexander himself wasn’t displeased. Leaving, Alexander was said to reply, “If I were not Alexander, I would want to be Diogenes.”
When I brought these delightful images from Maria Primachenko to class, Gail and Mike were amazed at how bright, flat, and clean her designs were. Partly this is due to her use of gouache, an opaque water based color paint. She also uses repeated motifs, symmetry, and clean lines with sharp color contrasts to make her images “pop,” as the decorators say. Mike, who favors textures, was thrilled to see another artist who paints like he does. Gail was glad to process the distressing news through flowers and the yellow and blue of the national flag of Ukraine.
Often we don’t feel “safe” speaking about dark or upsetting experiences, preferring instead to bury them deep inside. This is maybe the worst decision we can make, for like a poison or an infection, what we refuse to bring to the light will fester and grow. Then it further sickens the body or the mind until it becomes unrecognizable and unhealthy. Perhaps this is when we move from being rational to irrational. As I always tell folks, “Just because you think the world operates on reason and order, doesn’t make it so.” By this I mean, we live in a world with accidents, change, disease, sociopaths, and greed. In biblical terms, we live in a broken and fallen world, one in which even those of us who are “saved by the blood of Christ” from the wages of sin are “not yet perfected in the love of God and neighbor.”
This is what it means as a Christian to carry the Jungian shadow within us. If we believe keeping a law is the best evidence of our faithfulness, we can overlook the moral quality of the law itself and find ourselves carrying out harm, rather than doing good. As the writer of Hebrews explains in the platonic argument of Christ’s Sacrifice Once for All:
“Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who approach.” (10:1)
If we want to be law keepers, we can’t be picking and choosing which laws we want to keep, as if the law were a cafeteria or buffet table. Jesus certainly knew what potholes lay ahead of him after his baptism in the Jordan River. A forty day fast in the wilderness is great for getting your head together and dealing with our human nature’s dark side of desire for security, power, and equality with god.
I post my Artandicon blog on LinkedIn as well as on my various spiritual formation Facebook pages which I manage. I sometimes get a message from folks there. One was from a friend, who mentioned she really wanted to get back into her art, “for it brings her peace.” I tell people, “the process of making art brings satisfaction, but we’re not ever satisfied with the work itself.” If we were ever to be satisfied with the work, if we thought we could reach no higher, or if we thought so highly of ourselves that we’d made the last best artwork for all times, then we’d have to quit and make pancakes, until we’d perfected those. And then we’d find a new obsession.
My favorite monsters are those from the Japanese nuclear monster movies of the 1950’s. They are both kitschy and scary. The sunflowers destroyed by these monsters of war will fall to earth and be reborn once again in ever increasing numbers. If hope is the last to die, it’s also the first to rise again. As long as one has breath, one can hope. As Paul wrote to the believers in Rome long ago,
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (15:13)
Making art is a metaphor for the hero’s journey. Jung believed art was important because often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain. We don’t know what battle or monster awaits, but we also don’t know what divine spirit will come to our aid. Along the fantastic inward journey, we’ll meet the very same creatures who are outside of us. They arise in our dreams, but they were planted in our awakening moments. We may have been turning our faces towards the sun, like the baby sunflowers or the horse Bucephalus, but soon enough we’ll trust the one who guides us and we’ll go wherever it’s necessary.
The journey toward Christian perfection in love is a heroic journey, one which we can only undertake with the help of the Holy Spirit. Along the way, we also travel with others on same road: mystics, saints, and holy persons from yesterday and today. As the old camp song refrain goes,
“And they’ll know we’re Christians by our love, by our love, They’ll know we’re Christians by our love.”
The following prayer, Psalm 23, has comforted people for thousands of years in times of trouble and grief. Here in the English Standard Version, if you have fears, trepidations, or trembles, it might help you to calm your spirit. As you speak it aloud to the rhythm of your inhalation and exhalation of breath, remember those who have given up their lives rather than reject their faith: Christian martyrs in the Roman coliseum, Jewish martyrs in the holocaust, and democratic freedom fighters around the world. Let your voice be heard, even as their voice is being silenced:
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
Are we our works? Are we valued by our works? Is work a noun or a verb? The child in me asks these questions until the parent in me wants to answer, “I don’t know. Go ask Alexa!”
We’ve all been there with the rug rats of our families and kinfolks. Children are curious and for this we’re grateful. This incessant questioning is their way of learning about the world. It’s altogether better than a puppy’s chewing on every new object it comes across. If families are to encourage their child’s interest, they get them a library card so they can have internet access and books to read, and they answer as many questions as possible. If they don’t know the answer, “Go look it up in Google or the encyclopedia.”
In ancient Greece, Socrates taught by asking his students questions, a technique we call the Socratic Method. Some of us teach art in this way also. When we see the student at a stopping point, we teachers ask, “Are you having a problem and not figuring out a solution?”
The student can usually point out what they want to change on their work, but they don’t have the experience or prior learning to drawn upon to solve it. For instance, if the flower petals all look flat because they’re painted in one color, the beginning student knows this doesn’t look right, but they need a trained eye to point out the variety of values in the petals. Once they see the gradation of light to dark, it’s never again unseen. We know it’s there.
Teachers can point out the range of values from dark to light that make up the visual vocabulary of shading a two dimensional image so it looks like a three dimensional shape. Students can learn this technique and master it over time. Mastery then becomes a matter of hand and eye coordination. In a sense, we have to lose ourselves in the subject matter so we can let its energies enter into our hearts and minds, and quicken our hands. The rest is a matter of practice and learning how our egos can quit controlling the outcome.
The spiritual writer and Jesuit priest Richard Rohr speaks of the three eyes in his book, The Naked Now. The first eye grasps what the senses can understand, the second eye understands the science and poetry, while the third eye is aware of all of the above, but especially how all things connect as part of God’s great mystery. When we enter into this “now,” we’re present not only to God, but to all creation, as well as our own selves. This is the contemplative spirit for which the artist strives, and not just for the mastery of the materials or for the rendering of the subject matter.
If we allow this energy to move our hands, does that mean our work also becomes part of us? If we baked a simple yellow cake out of a box, we might not ask that question. When we start decorating a cake made from scratch and adding frillies of frosting, then we start identifying with the cake. Should someone smash the cake enroute to the soirée, there’ll be hockey sticks to pay.
I remember almost fainting in Italy when I saw a glue blob on one of my delicate watercolor paintings, which had just been framed for an exhibition there. A stiff shot of some unknown alcohol brought me back to life. The framer made it good, for the glue was water soluble, so we could gently lift it up. I was more of a drama Queen in my 20’s also. I take things as they come these days. I also was more immature, for I didn’t separate my work from my identity.
Some say we are what we eat, so then are we what we create? Jesus had an answer in Mark 7:18-19 for those who thought certain foods were unclean, or forbidden to eat:
“He said to them, “Then do you also fail to understand? Do you not see that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile, since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer?” (Thus he declared all foods clean.)”
That fancy dinner we ate two nights ago leaves us after a few cups of coffee in the morning. We don’t recognize it and most of us don’t even inspect it as we flush it down the toilet on its way out the sewage pipes to the sanitation station. Of course, only parents can get excited about their two year olds who manage to do their “business” in the toilet instead of in their diapers. I know I was one of those. If Facebook had been invented back in the day, I’m sure I’d have posted an update.
As we grow older, we enjoy making and crafting for the experience of the textures and the command of the materials. Children have fun pushing the paints, papers, and glue all around the surface of their artwork. Parents often look askance at the grey, scribbled messes their children excitedly present to them for the honored place on the refrigerator display, but these muddy creations are the result of a dramatic story of their child’s imagination. “Interesting, why don’t you tell me what’s going on here?” Is an adult’s best response in this situation.
I’ve had kindergarten children meltdown because they had difficulty cutting a snowman on the fold. It’s hard to be five years old and live in a home in which the parents don’t want their children to make a mess. These children, as a result, have poor fine motor skills, have difficulty writing, and handling scissors. Even folding a piece of paper is tough. Then they miss the important information: hold the fold, and cut on the flaps. If they hold the flaps instead, they end up with two halves of a snowman. And a meltdown into tears.
“I’ll never be able to make a snowman! My snowman is cut in two pieces. Why can you make a perfect snowman and I can’t?”
This lesson always called for me to wear my therapy hat, and remind my five year old students I’d been making folded snowmen for a very long time and my first ones looked just like theirs did. There was hope for them. We just needed to go over the directions again and make one together. Sometimes we miss a step, and that’s ok. It’s just a piece of paper. It’s not like we took away recess from everyone forever.
Usually when we went over the directions again, I could remind them of the way to hold the fold and cut the flaps. Then they’d all be amazed at how easy the project was. “Everything is easier when you follow the directions.” They’d laugh and start decorating their snowman, all their meltdowns forgotten.
Most of us aren’t successful the first time we attempt a new experience. If we were all extraordinary artists right off the mark, none of us ever would get excited about Michelangelo, Rembrandt, or Picasso. If we could all pick up a musical instrument and play it well right off the bat, who’d have the need for civic symphonies or even bar bands? We’d all be happy making our own music. The truth is some of us not only have the interest and inclination, but also the will to spend not just hours, but years, honing our craft, until we sing our notes purely or paint with a master’s hand.
If we all aren’t masters, we all can enjoy the journey if we learn to detach our egos from our products. When I wrote papers in seminary, before I opened up my graded work, I’d repeat the mantra, “I am not my grade. I am a daughter of the living God, chosen for God’s work.” Then I’d look at the markings on the inside. This helped me to remember who I was, whose I was, and what my purpose was. I was also two decades older than that fainting child in Italy.
As I would tell visitors to Perkins, “If your well-being is wrapped up in your grade average, you might want to rethink either that notion or choose another school.” “Oh, really?”
“Yes, if you’re going on for a PhD, you’ll get over a 90 in your classes. The top grade for the Mdiv is 89. If you get any grade higher than that, the professor thinks you could do PhD level work.” “That doesn’t seem right,” they said.
“It’s a curve. If you go elsewhere for a DMin, those schools know Perkins’ grading system. Think of it as an A at 89 and don’t worry about it.”
Some people can’t restructure their world so their 89 is an A, but if that’s the system they’re in, that’s how it is. If they have in their mind nothing less than a 95 will validate their worthiness, then if they do their degree work at Perkins, they’ll always be up against the immovable wall. When they go out into ministry, they’ll discover everyone they meet has a grading system. That can drive a person crazy, unless he or she decides the ultimate approval they seek comes from the one who says, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
Likewise, if we’re beginners in art, we have to suspend our criticism of our imperfections in our work. Instead, we reframe our critiques into “areas which need improvement.” Even now, after decades of working in my studio, I’ll let a canvas rest near me in my living room. I’ll eye it in different lights, until I hear it call my name. I’ve totally repainted some of these, and others I’ve destroyed. A few I leave alone. All of us will keep learning something new, both from our “good paintings “ and our “need improvement works.” Most likely, artists quit painting when they they think they have nothing left to learn, or when they lose the courage to risk moving into the unknown mystery, as it’s written in 1 Corinthians 2:9—
“What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him.”
Paul also writes in Romans 8:27-28,
“And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God. We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
So we too ask the Spirit to work more in us and free us from attachment to our need to be loved and affirmed by our works, since God is already working for good for those who love God and who are called according to God’s purpose. As we drop our old ideas and preconceived notions of the good, we become open to God’s good and God’s purposes. Releasing control to God is an act of humbleness and faithfulness, both of which are contrary to our modern belief in self-actualization and autonomy. This is the way of the mystic, or the contemplative, and the inspired artist.
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.
As an itinerant Methodist pastor I, along with my sisters and brothers, have had the privilege of answering God’s call to minister in different cities and towns. Sometimes I questioned the wisdom of the Holy Spirit working through my district superintendents and bishop, but I wasn’t alone in this. Other clergy have wondered why they were sent to “exile cities, ” just as our congregations often wondered why the bishop sent them the very last person at the bottom of the clergy bucket.
The prophet Jeremiah spoke to the people taken from their homeland into exile in Babylon after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE:
“But seek the welfare of the city where I have sent you into exile, and pray to the LORD on its behalf, for in its welfare you will find your welfare.” (29:7)
God has a way of putting us where we need to be, just as God has a way of providing the leaders we need. Maybe not the leader we want, but the leader we need. Also maybe not the location we’d put at the top of our bucket list, but the place where God needs us to be in this present moment.
Making a painting has some of this same expectation and disappointment. In class we had the inspiration of “The City.” We don’t paint just the shapes, but also the emotions we feel about the subject matter. If we like the city, we’ll respond well, but if the idea of the city is distressing to us, we might not even be able to work at all. If I don’t have sufficient caffeine by 10 am, my creative juices don’t flow swiftly.
This was one of the inspiration images. It may be best understood as, “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men? The Shadow knows!” Also a poem, “The Cities Inside Us,” by Alberto Ríos, says “what the Shadow knows:”
We live in secret cities And we travel unmapped roads.
We speak words between us that we recognize But which cannot be looked up.
They are our words. They come from very far inside our mouths.
You and I, we are the secret citizens of the city Inside us, and inside us
There go all the cars we have driven And seen, there are all the people
We know and have known, there Are all the places that are
But which used to be as well. This is where They went. They did not disappear.
We each take a piece Through the eye and through the ear.
It’s loud inside us, in there, and when we speak In the outside world
We have to hope that some of that sound Does not come out, that an arm
Not reach out In place of the tongue.
These brightly colored houses are the last layer of a heavily overpainted canvas. Underneath the house shapes with their gabled roofs, we can still see the faint images of rectangular buildings. The artist also scratched through the paint in places for texture and stumbled colors on top of other colors. This technique takes more time than two hours, since the bottom layers need to dry before the upper layers are added. The quality of paint is different also, since thin paint isn’t able to handle this type of work. It yields a much livelier and more optimistic image than the dark one above.
This image has not only the brightly colored houses of a seaside city, but also their reflections in the water below. The sky is broken up into planes of various tints of blue. There’s three distinct sections: foreground, middle ground, and background. It’s located in a real space, even though it’s rendered in flat and decorative colors.
Dusty painted his buildings on a green lawn for a nice landscape setting. While he didn’t have time to render any details in our short class time, I could tell he was thoughtful about the placement of his colors and shapes.
I asked Mike what his Myers Briggs Type was, since he has no trouble making a plan and executing it. My guess his first and last letters are E and J, and most likely S and T in the middle. Not everyone can make a plan right away, but some have to work on the canvas and let the painting begin to call itself into being. It becomes more of a conversation between the artist and the artwork.
Mike enjoyed bringing to life the night sky with its clouds and full moon. The mystery of a city and its buildings’ windows blazing with light in the night must be a memory he holds dear.
Lauralei’s city had some moody, overhanging clouds. The buildings underneath were transparent and fragile. It was as if they were a glass city, and a threatening storm cloud hung over the city. Worry and stress can wear a person down. I know anxiety is something I’ve had to deal with my whole life. “You can’t cross the bridge until you get to it,” my mother always said. My Nannie would chime in, “Today’s trouble is enough. Don’t go borrowing trouble from tomorrow!” It’s best sometimes to put the work down and try again after giving our concerns over to God:
“The prayer of the humble pierces the clouds, and it will not rest until it reaches its goal; it will not desist until the Most High responds.” ~~ Sirach 35:21
Sally would have liked to work some more on last week’s painting, but tried this project instead. She’s still learning the limits of her paints, so this is why the building on the left has one green dot darker than the others. It was painted into the wet ground, so it picked up that color and dulled it. I saw that move out of the corner of my eye and suggested she let the building dry first. If we work all over the surface, or “do the big before the small,” we have a good chance our colors will stay clean and fresh. If we want grayed colors, we go ahead and paint into wet areas. The orange and blue complementary colors contrast nicely with the grays and violets.
Gail used a photo to do her painting at home while under quarantine. She made a good rendering. I’d suggested to the group the week before we would do a city scene, so if they had a photo on their phone, or a postcard from a vacation, they were welcome to bring it. I guess the dog ate everyone’s homework! Except for Gail.
My work went through several stages, rather like our continuing COVID pandemic. The map covers the area between our two city hospitals, National Park Medical Center and CHI St. Vincent. The former is at 100% occupancy in its ICU beds and the latter is at half capacity. National Park’s regular beds are almost 80% full, while CHI’s are about 55% full. In class time, I laid down some base colors according to a pattern from Google maps. Then it was time to pick up, clean our tools, and go home.
At home, after I recovered from a weekend of four exciting football games, I took several of my oldest fabric face masks, which are inadequate for our latest highly transmissible omicron variant. Abandoned masks are a common sight, joining the rest of the urban detritus that sully our city sidewalks now. I also added some of my grandmother’s crocheted rickrack for one of the main streets. I overpainted the bright colors with dark blue colors. Somehow rolling into the third year of this pandemic has sucked some of the energy out of me.
The dark night of COVID couldn’t last long for me, for I always have hope. I picked up my iridescent colors: silver, gold, and bronze. Mixing these, as I scumbled them over the base colors, I thought of the Psalmist (104:30):
“When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.”
I wasn’t truly satisfied until I pulled the gold, silver, and bronze mix over all the whole surface. Only a few of the bright colors from the original under painting remained as key notes to bring the eye around the canvas. I think I might have to make more three dimensional areas in another work. This one doesn’t have quite enough.
When I taught young children, I used to remind their parents children have a different purpose in art than adults do. Children are excited about the process, while adults want a finished image. Kids will push a work beyond its “boundary” just to experience the activity of making art, while adults often hold themselves back for fear they might go over the edge. We grownups need to have more of that childlike abandon, since going over the edge in art isn’t going to threaten life or limb.
This week we’ll paint from wildflowers. Drawing from our imagination is difficult if we haven’t practiced this skill. Drawing from an object we can see is much easier. We can look at it and sort out the basic shapes and lines. We can check the proportions to see if they relate to one another correctly. Sometimes we discover drawing from real life is actually just as hard as making something up out of our own creative ideas. Actually, everything about art is equally easy and difficult at one and the same time. We just have to relax and make the colors and shapes appear on the surface.
Remember the words of hope from Jeremiah to the captives in Babylon:
“For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope. Then when you call upon me and come and pray to me, I will hear you. When you search for me, you will find me; if you seek me with all your heart, I will let you find me, says the LORD, and I will restore your fortunes and gather you from all the nations and all the places where I have driven you, says the LORD, and I will bring you back to the place from which I sent you into exile (29:11-14).”