The Greeks have a proverb: “The heart that loves is always young.” On this Valentine’s Day, and every day, may our hearts be always young. In art class this week, we had a pop up project making Valentine’s cards with mixed media. We brought photographs, glue, leftover scrapbooking materials, and assorted fabric scraps. If this were a pizza parlor, the menu item was “sweep the kitchen.” Eat it before it goes bad has been the source of many a recipe at Cornie’s Kitchen.
Gail brought her grandchildren for their art enrichment opportunity, Lauralei also showed up, and even Brother Russ made an appearance. Mike had court duty and was making his mark at home. Almost all this group is able to manage on their own, with just some technical advice on the best use of the media selected or how to use a tool better. Giving people free reign to let their creative energies come out allows them to discover what’s on their heart.
The Bible uses the word “heart” primarily to refer to the ruling center of the whole person, the spring of all desires. The heart is the seat of the will, intellect and feelings. “Character,” “personality,” and “mind” are approximate modern terms for the Bible’s meaning of heart. Emotions are in the belly or bowels in the ancient worldview.
Jesus said in Mark 7:20-21, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” We can relate to these various vices, for such is the stuff of the nightly news and the entertainment industry. The more lurid life gets, the more eyes and clicks a story gets. A normal story has to get a “click bait” headline just to get readers, whore then disappointed and angry their worst desires weren’t fulfilled. Some days I think we’re on a madcap race to the bottom of a cesspool, but I can’t let this thought corrupt my own heart and life. As my mama used to say, “One bad turn doesn’t deserve another in return. You have to be better than that.”
My people were Methodists. Our favorite Wesleyan standard for Entire Sanctification, “a heart so full of love for God and neighbor that nothing else exists,” is a goal we pursue, even as our Buddhist friends seek enlightenment.
“Only one book is worth reading: the heart,” said the Venerable Ajahn Chah, a Buddhist teacher of the 20th century. He taught with stories, as the great wisdom teachers often do.
“There are so many people looking for merit. Sooner or later they’ll have to start looking for a way out of wrongdoing. But not many people are interested in this. The teaching of the Buddha is so brief, but most people just pass it by, just like they pass through Wat Pah Pong (a monastery in Thailand). For most people that’s what the Dhamma is, a stop-over point. (Dhamma is the teachings of Buddha to overcome dissatisfaction or suffering.)
Only three lines, hardly anything to it: Sabba-pāpassa akaranam: refraining from all wrongdoing. That’s the teaching of all Buddhas. This is the heart of Buddhism. But people keep jumping over it, they don’t want this one. The renunciation of all wrongdoing, great and small, from bodily, verbal and mental actions… this is the teaching of the Buddhas.
If we were to dye a piece of cloth we’d have to wash it first. But most people don’t do that. Without looking at the cloth, they dip it into the dye straight away. If the cloth is dirty, dying it makes it come out even worse than before. Think about it. Dying a dirty old rag, would that look good?
You see? This is how Buddhism teaches, but most people just pass it by. They just want to perform good works, but they don’t want to give up wrongdoing. It’s just like saying ”the hole is too deep.” Everybody says the hole is too deep, nobody says their arm is too short. We have to come back to ourselves. With this teaching you have to take a step back and look at yourself.”
Like many of these wisdom teachings, they appear to focus on what we Christians call “works righteousness,” or an ethical way of living. The ancient proverbs remind us, “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice” (21:3). The original works were animal sacrifices, not the good works which flowed from a heart full of love’s desire to serve God and neighbor.
Another story from the same teacher:
“The Buddha taught that at this present moment, the Dhamma exists here in front of us. The Buddha sits facing us right here and now! At what other time or place are you going to look?
If we don’t think rightly, if we don’t practice rightly, we will fall back to being animals or creatures in Hell or hungry ghosts or demons. How is this? Just look in your mind. When anger arises, what is it? There it is, just look! When delusion arises, what is it? That’s it, right there! When greed arises, what is it? Look at it right there!
By not recognizing and clearly understanding these mental states, the mind changes from being that of a human being. All conditions are in the state of becoming. Becoming gives rise to birth or existence as determined by the present conditions. Thus we become and exist as our minds condition us.”
In art, we have a practice of first seeing things as they are. Once we know the world for what it is, we can create a visual representation of it (realism), or make a different take (abstraction). We can even ignore the world and only play with shapes and colors. Whatever route we choose, we still have to deal with the reality of the work under our hands. Any move we make has consequences, just as in real life our words and deeds affect the outcomes of the next shoes to fall. When we’re first working in a medium, we sometimes get carried away and lose the beauty. This is part of the learning process, for we have to know when to stop. This gives rise to the old adage “Less is more” in art, but not in love, for as the song says, “More love to thee, O Christ, more love to thee.”
Our rock and roll musicians keep cranking out love songs because love never dies. Here’s part of the chorus of Van Morrison’s “I Forgot That Love Existed” (2017):
“If my heart could do my thinking, and my head begin to feel,
I would look upon the world anew, and know what’s truly real.”
Perhaps we should be celebrating Valentine’s Day more often, or realize we’re a people created in the image of a loving God, so we should love not just our chosen beloveds, but also the other humans of God’s world, as well as God’s creation. We’re merely stewards of this green and blue planet for the generations to follow us. Our love for our progeny means we’ll want to hand over an inheritance we can be proud of and will allow them to nourish and care for generations afterwards.
Let’s leave with a blessing from the bard of our age, Bob Dylan:
Every blade of grass outside is a uniform tan, for winter’s pale light has sucked the life and green from its living cells. Each colder breeze separates yet another straggling leaf from a sleeping stick attached to the limbs of a hibernating tree. The sap won’t rise until mid February, when the days are warmer and the nights are still freezing. The ornamental pear trees lining the entry to my condo are beginning to bud, so I’m sure they’ll be covered with snow before Easter. I’m almost wishing for a good snow to change up the colors outside, to cause some excitement of a bread aisle clearing stampede, and the joy of eating pancakes at every meal “just because it’s a snow day.”
Instead, I’ve brightened my interior spaces with fresh flowers. This is an early reminder to all you lovers out there: Sunday, February 14 is Valentine’s Day. Be sweet to the special person in your life by bringing something beautiful or joyful into their life. Our art class has been working with the palette knife instead of the brush lately. This is a different tool to get the paint on the canvas. With the brush, we can make lines and broad strokes, as well as dots or blobs. With the knife, we have to pick up colors on the metal end, push and press with varied strength and wrist twists to get the paint to go where we want it and to mix at the same time.
How does this happen? It’s magic! Or luck, or practice until you figure out how the paint feels under your hands. I can best describe it as being willing to do finger painting, but with a palette knife. We also have to let our adult mind go sit in the corner, while we let our five year old come out and play. Another way to think of this is to compare religion and faith. Religion has rules and boundaries for how to “do it right.” We spend most of our lives in this mode, trying to measure up to a severe standard, rather like the older brother to the prodigal son. In faith, we trust we’re enough and God’s mercy and grace are sufficient for us, so we yearn to please God even more. What we can do in love, for love’s sake, will bring the world into the love of God.
This is why no one copies my art work, but goes on their own journey to find their own way of seeing. This is one of the hardest parts of making a painting, to isolate the primary forms and shapes, and then to set them in a space. As we look at a three dimensional world, we have to come up with our own visual language to write on a two dimensional surface. As we invent our own language, we’re creating a new vocabulary, grammar, and conjugations, which take some time for us and the world to understand. We don’t worry if we’re “good,” for we are painting these to grow our minds, stretch our boundaries, and by learning new skills, building new brain connections and endorphins. We get joy from our work, so it gets us through the doldrums of winter.
There’s a wonderful poem by Robert Frost, of a bouquet of flowers, and two birds in winter:
Wind and Window Flower
Lovers, forget your love,
And list to the love of these,
She a window flower,
And he a winter breeze.
When the frosty window veil
Was melted down at noon,
And the cagèd yellow bird
Hung over her in tune,
He marked her through the pane,
He could not help but mark,
And only passed her by,
To come again at dark.
He was a winter wind,
Concerned with ice and snow,
Dead weeds and unmated birds,
And little of love could know.
But he sighed upon the sill,
He gave the sash a shake,
As witness all within
Who lay that night awake.
Perchance he half prevailed
To win her for the flight
From the firelit looking-glass
And warm stove-window light.
But the flower leaned aside
And thought of naught to say,
And morning found the breeze
A hundred miles away.
“Wind and Window Flower,” a poem written by Robert Frost, speaks of how we can sometimes love someone who can’t leave either the safety of their window sill or the prison of their cage. With this in mind, it’s best for the bird to fly on by in order to find true love or purpose somewhere else. Some of us will watch the cold world from a safe distance as it goes by, while others will leave our cozy homes and go out into the cold, sharp winds to seek another path. We may regret leaving the caged bird behind, but we have to go and find our highest purpose in life. I often wonder about the bird left behind, if the cage ever got too small or if security was more important. The fresh flowers won’t ever know the outcome of this story, for they’ll be gone before the week is out.
Even these small and insignificant works of the creator are not outside the care and concern of a loving God. As Jesus says in Matthew 6:26-33—
“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?
And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?
Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
In 1938, Jung had the opportunity, in the monastery of Bhutia Busty, near Darjeeling, of talking with a Lamaic rimpoche, Lingdam Gomchen by name, about the khilkor or mandala. He told the famous psychologist , “the true mandala is always an inner image, which is gradually built up through (active) imagination, at such times when psychic equilibrium is disturbed or when a thought cannot be found and must be sought for, because it is not contained in holy doctrine.” (Psychology and Alchemy, Princeton University Press, 1993, paragraph 123.)
Today, in 2021, over eighty years later, a lot of folks must have their psychic equilibriums out of kilter. They look for certainty in an uncertain world. They seek a savior in a frail human being. They make war to bring about their peace. Whatever angers and fears stir their soul, they act on them, to the detriment of the common good. They are like unbridled, runaway horses, stampeding to a cliff edge without awareness of the consequences of the fall.
The mandala is a graphical representation of the center or the Self. It is unique to each person and would be different from day to day. Jung believed the circle invited conflicting parts of our nature to appear and allowed for the unification of opposites in order to represent the sum of who we are. He found this sense of wholeness was reflected in the lives of his patients, as he was able to trace the progression of an individual’s psychological recovery by correlating it with the coherence of the mandalas they drew. Jung believed making the mandalas over time would help a person gain insight into their Totality or their Wholeness, or “True Self,” as we say today. Totality or Wholeness is the psychic stage in which the union of the unconscious with the consciousness has been achieved. It is the final aim of Jung’s psychotherapy.
The Self was a term coined by Jung and reflected the Hindu Upanishads and its depiction of the higher personality, or atman. It’s considered to be the central archetype of the collective unconscious and serves as the organizing principle of the individual personality. The most familiar way the Self can make its presence known in Jungian work is through dream imagery, but this isn’t the only way. Another possibility, and one which had a particular fascination for Jung is the mandala.
For Jung, the individual consciousness is only the flower and fruit of a season that grows out of the perennial rhizome under the earth, and it finds itself better attuned to the truth when it takes the existence of the rhizome into account, for the root system is the mother of all.” This imagery begins to unfold in the mandala imagery. We can imagine a half circle below the earth, where the seed is planted just below the ground, and another half circle above the ground, where the flower will blossom, and then recall the Christian symbolism in the parable of the fertile soil in Luke 8:1-15, which states at the end of this section, “This is the meaning of the parable: The seed is the word of God.”
In art class, we worked for several weeks at the beginning of the year on our personal mandalas. Since each of us have unique personalities and come from different experiences, we each create a different design. After all, as the Psalmist says to God in 139:14, “I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.” Gail designed her mandala in the form of a Passion Flower, a wild vine of various colors, with a circular crown in the center. This form suits her background and service in the national parks system. She has an affinity for nature.
Jung knew he needed to maintain a balance between his inner and outer worlds by whatever means, whether it was by painstaking anamnesis (the remembering of things from a supposed past existence), creative activity, and yoga activities or by any other means. He knew his family and patients depended on him, so even though he was in personal crisis, with an unconscious that could have “driven him out of his wits,” he maintained through his obligations of the here and now. Jung was also aware of the possibility of being whirled around by “the winds of the sprit”, since he had observed his colleague, Nietzsche, who “lost ground under his feet because he possessed nothing more than his inner thoughts.” Jung described Nietzsche as being possessed by it, rather than him possessing it, and so succumbed to exaggeration and unreality. To Jung this was horrible state, for he aimed for this life and this world.
Of the things that kept his balance, creative activity, which would manifest in his active fantasies and paintings, allowed Jung to become certain he had to delve into these primordial experiences himself, in order to be able to help his patients. If he had gone through it, he may be able to bring the light of understanding to the existential darkness that his patients experience. He could be a spiritual guide, so to speak. This is why he spent time creating the mandalas from his own experience.
Mike’s mandala was created from his inner imagination. His legal work is with persons who are either in trouble with the legal system or need the legal system to bring justice to their cause. Sometimes this is an all day marathon in the courthouse. Keeping all these people, their situations, and the details of the law organized might require a lot of psychic energy. Mike went with a free form design, a choice that might have been a very relaxing and refreshing change from his daily life.
Mandala is the Sanskrit word for circle, but it’s a very special kind of circle. As a magic circle, it encompasses the circumference (perimeter) and the center, but not just ordinary space. The mandala has become a word that is synonymous with sacred space. The very presence of mandalas in the world remind the viewer of the sacred in the universe and in oneself. In some of India’s earliest and most important pre-Buddhist philosophical texts, the mandala already signifies a sacred enclosure and is at times understood to mean a place created for the performance of a particular ritual or practice, or for the use of a great teacher or mystic.
Structurally, the mandala is a combination of a circle and a squared form, usually a variation on a cross. Designs that integrate the circle and a four pointed theme, or one in which the circle is squared represent a mandalic space, or a geometric symbol of life. The four points can symbolize time and space, the equinoxes and solstices, or the four seasonal turning points in the year. In terms of space, it is the four directions. The circle with no beginning and no end is a symbol for the eternal whole which contains time and space. Jung stated that the mandala is the archetype of wholeness, relating it to the Self. He thought a mandala revealed “the center of personality, a kind of central point within the psyche, to which everything is related, by which everything is arranged, and which is itself a source of energy.” Others have stated, a mandala ‘‘expresses the totality of the psyche in all its aspects, including the relationship between (a person) and the whole of nature.”
Therefore, the mandala is one of the image archetypes that often emerges spontaneously when people are in the healing process, either in artwork, or in dreams. Creating mandalas has been found to help the physical healing process as well when they are used in conjunction with meditation. In dreams, mandalas show up in many ways in imagery that shares its geometry or meaning, such as a flower, a square in a village or town, or a fountain. Jung encountered several common symbols when he or his patients drew and interpreted mandalas. These included circular or egg-shaped formations, flowers or wheels, circles within a square or squares within circles. He frequently saw the number four or its multiples in mandalas, which was often represented by squares, crosses or suns or stars with four or eight rays.
Mandala work is very useful in therapy. Art therapists generally simply draw a circle, or have the client draw a circle, and use that as the start of the mandala. This creates an inner and an outer space. If we remember the principle of balance and repetition when we begin to add the shapes to our mandala, we’ll discover its power to unify and center our own energies. In spiritual traditions throughout the world, mandalas focus and reflect the spiritual content of the psyche for both the creator and the viewer. Jung believed that creating mandalas offered a “safe refuge of inner reconciliation and wholeness,”providing a sacred space into which we can invite the Self. He also noticed that creating mandalas had a calming, focusing effect on his patients’ psychological states.
We also see examples of mandala in all the ancient cultures, even in Christianity in designs with animal images representing apostles (and the zodiac), such as the small Chapel of St. Zeno, off the right aisle of the Basilica of Santa Prassede, which was built as a mausoleum for Paschal’s mother Theodora. It’s the only chapel in Rome entirely lined with mosaics. It is an extraordinary sight, as this chapel has the only 9th century Byzantine mosaics in Rome.
For Christians, the Self is a a complicated and mostly negative notion. We usually use the notion in a negative sense, as in “selfish, thinking of our personal needs, rather than the good of the community.” As Philippians 2:3-4 reminds us, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” This doesn’t wipe out our individual needs, however, for we’re also called to “Love our neighbor as our self.” How can we love our neighbors if we can’t honor and love our Self?
This is why we Christian believers can find benefits from introspection and spiritual guidance with the help of a trained person. We shouldn’t take this journey alone, for we need someone with experience who can help us to “test the spirits,” as it were. Above all we should remember the words from Colossians 3:9-11—
“Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator. In that renewal there is no longer Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave and free; but Christ is all and in all!”
Our search for the True Self is a quest to be renewed in the image of God and conformed to the nature of Christ. As Paul wrote to the Philippians (3:12-14)
“Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.”
A mandala is easy to draw. All you need is a circle and a straight edge, if you’re into perfection. You can do the work freehand if you like. The mandala doesn’t force you into any forms. You make the mandala from your own gut. It will change from day to day and week to week. This too is part of the mandala experience. You can cut it out of paper, use crayons, pencils, ink, or even make it on your computer. If you want to doodle the design on the side of a page, consider it a sketch from your inner spirit, responding to the Holy Spirit, who is calling out to you.
David Miller, Ph.D.: MANDALA SYMBOLISM IN PSYCHOTHERAPY: THE POTENTIAL UTILITY OF THE LOWENFELD MOSAIC TECHNIQUE FOR ENHANCING THE INDIVIDUATION PROCESS, The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, 2005, Vol. 37, No. 2 http://www.atpweb.org/jtparchive/trps-37-02-164.pdf
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” might best describe my and Gail’s latest adventure at the Oaklawn art class. Pinterest Fail is another synonym for our latest escapade. If my daddy were to describe the result, he’d say, “Close, but no cigar.” That’s a quintessential American expression, which is little used elsewhere in the English-speaking world. The first recorded use of “close, but no cigar” in print was in Sayre and Twist’s publishing of the script of the 1935 film version of Annie Oakley: “Close, Colonel, but no cigar!” I’m very fond of these ancient phrases, which are daily passing from the common parlance, even as new words are invented. These were our first attempts at this craft, so our learning curve resembled the same disastrous, steep ascent of the daily Covid infection chart.
The 1977 movie title “Close Encounters “ was derived from a classification of close encounters with aliens as set forth by the American UFO researcher J. Allen Hynek. Close Encounters of the First Kind refer to the sighting of a UFO. Physical evidence of a UFO are classed as Close Encounters of the Second Kind. Actual contact with an alien is a Close Encounter of the Third Kind. Therefore, our air dried cornstarch, salt, and baking soda clay objects, which should have looked neat, crisp, and clean, instead came out more like visitors from another planet, whose embodied boundaries were disintegrating in an inhospitable atmosphere.
Yes, I blame the recipes, which said “warm water,” rather than naming an actual temperature. Just as science projects and recipes for bread need accurate measurements and temperatures for success, so does cornstarch clay. Gail mentioned her clay began to heat up under her hands as she worked it. Mine never did, but I had to add rock salt to my mix because I ran out of table salt. Don’t do this! The salt crystals won’t melt and I had chunks in my finished pieces. The proportions of the recipe I used are equal amounts of each ingredient, so if you have just a limited amount of one, measure it and give the others to the main bowl in the same amount.
Once the dough looks like mashed potatoes, don’t eat it. Instead, turn it out on parchment or waxed paper and knead it a bit. Then use a rolling pin to get the dough about ¼ inch thick. Use cookie cutters to get your shapes. Put them on a clean, flat surface, such as the back of a sheet pan. Take a plastic straw to put a hole in the upper part of the cutout. This works best if the shape is a touch dry, since the damp dough will close up. The hole is for the string hanger. The rolling pin might need flouring with corn starch if it sticks to the clay.
I also took some leaves and twigs from the bushes on the church property to use as embossing. I put these down on the cutouts, gave them a rolling pin once over or twice, maybe three, and made sure not to over flatten the shape. You could also use a decorative rolling pin as the last roll to make an all over pattern if you like that idea. A patterned doily or a scrap of lace would make a good pattern also.
When class was over, we cleaned our mess up with hot water and paper towels. I let the water run in the sink to make sure any small remains were washed far down the pipes. All the big scraps should be thrown in the trash. When I got home, I wasn’t in the mood to let these air dry for days and days. They already looked like they belonged on Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, so I put them in the oven at 200F.
Water boils at 212F, so at 200F these shapes would be slowly drying out. I baked them on a cookie sheet for 30 minutes on each side. I did notice a bit of toasting in places, but I planned on painting these, so I don’t think it matters. I did lose the points off a few stars, but in this year of the Pandemic, perhaps some of us may be able to identify with the brokenness and vulnerability of these imperfect objects. We may want everything and everyone to be perfectly normal, but standard operating procedure isn’t on the menu for this year’s Thanksgiving or Christmas. We’re all suffering in one way or another, just like these ornaments.
I didn’t preheat the oven, for the clay objects don’t need to be shocked into a different temperature. We don’t preheat a kiln before we fire clay pottery, but raise the whole to the same temperature at one time. Of course, if you’re making a recipe with flour, yeast, or eggs, and you need your concoction to rise, you do need a preheated oven. Otherwise, just put the food into a cold oven and let your nose tell you when it’s done. Preheating is a waste of energy if you don’t need it for the recipe. These clay pieces will be hot when you remove them from the oven. Let them cool until you can pick them up without dropping them like a hot potato (a metaphor from the 1800’s).
I did take a sharp paring knife to the edges to smooth them out. Yes, I didn’t like the raggedy look. You can’t do this cleanup roughly or with big whacks. This is the fine tuning of your shape. I used to help a porcelain doll maker back in my home town. I would sand the final shape of the doll baby’s faces, hands, and feet for her to paint. She appreciated my work because I would keep the anatomical details correct and give the little faces individual personalities. Portraits in porcelain aren’t that easy, but I wouldn’t rush to finish. If we’re always on to the next task, we might miss the opportunity to meet God in the work we’re doing in the moment.
Right now in this current crisis, most of us are limiting our time out and about. If we go to the grocery store, we find our goods and get out. I do the self check out or scan and go wherever I am so I don’t have to stand in lines. I do miss the interaction and chats I used to have with folks. I decided recently even if I were masked, I would begin to speak to others. So far on each outing, at least one person has shared their feelings of grief or loss, which are a result of this pandemic. Because we are forced to limit our contacts, we’ve also lost our opportunities to share our daily joys and our challenges. If we don’t use our words, we’ll lose them. We need time to share our lives and be a community for one another, since we’re all in this together. These are God moments in which we can be a blessing to others, as well as to receive a blessing from them.
This loss of conversation will be even grimmer if our loved ones pass on during this pandemic, for their memories will cease to be available to the younger generation, and their stories will no longer be shared. As these old ones age, and their frailties become like the imperfect points on my Charlie Brown stars, we realize we won’t have them much longer. Even more so, we’ve come to realize this pandemic spares neither the young nor the full of life, as more and more of our friends are struck by this disease. Any one of us could become a Charlie Brown Christmas star at any moment. I have family members who’ve had it, friends who’ve died from it, and my heart goes out to all who suffer with it, especially those who have lost their incomes because of it.
Those who now deal with the persisting side effects of this disease don’t get near the encouragement or assistance they need in their recovery, since the rest of us are too worn down from self care and from caring for those who’re newly ill. Even the health care workers, first responders, and essential workers who have to keep the rest of us safe, well fed, and secure are struggling under the long term stressors of this pandemic. We have a responsibility to care for them so they can keep going under duress. All these folks need a sign from us that they aren’t forgotten.
Unique stars have always been a herald or sign of unusual events to follow. The gospel of Matthew (2:1-2) records the visit of the magi, astrologers from the east, to King Herod:
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
These foreigners recognized the sea change about to happen in the world, for soon earthly kingdoms would recede in importance, and the powerful would lose their sway. If they could see this sign in the sky, we have to wonder why no one in Israel was considering what the star’s arrival signified. Perhaps the learned priests knew, but didn’t want to tell King Herod the bad news:
Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar— the LORD of hosts is his name: If this fixed order were ever to cease from my presence, says the LORD, then also the offspring of Israel would cease to be a nation before me forever. (Jeremiah 31:35-36)
Of course, today most of us no longer believe the stars and planets affect our daily lives, nor are we “born under a bad sign,” as the blues players sing. Once we clean up the Thanksgiving meal, many of us will turn our thoughts to the holiday season. I’ll remove the last of the autumnal gourds and bring out a few winter seasonal objects every week until New Year’s. As the seasons change, we note the changes in our world. If the days are growing shorter and darker, we ourselves can still be lights in the world, as Paul wrote to the Philippians (2:14-15):
Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked. and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.
Even if we’re Charlie Brown stars, our lights will be a beacon of hope for all the world to see.
Leonardo da Vinci is the ideal Renaissance man: a supremely gifted painter, scientist, inventor and polymath. Da Vinci has been widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest minds, whose extraordinary talents included painting, mathematics, architecture, engineering, botany, sculpture, and human biology. He once said,
There are three classes of people: Those who see. Those who see when they are shown. Those who do not see.
When small children draw, they first make experiments with whatever medium they have in hand. They’ll put their whole body into it, cover the entire page, and sometimes even eat the materials. Even though they’ve been given a limited arena to explore, such as a sheet of paper, if you turn your back, kids will want to see how the crayons or paint work on a wall, on their bodies, or on the family pet. Parents think of this as more cleanup work, but it’s just another learning experience for the children. The pandemic may have brought this lesson home to roost in more than one home.
Later on, children make symbols for the objects in their world. This is why all early grammar school art looks very similar: the blue line across the paper’s top represents the sky, the yellow sun blazes in an upper corner, a house has exactly one door and two windows, and the ground is green grass. Once a child is 9 to 11 years old, they begin to draw realistically, and over the next few years a child will develop their eye for accurate color and detail.
Sometimes children get the idea they have no artistic ability, and develop a bad case of the “I can’t do this-itis.” When I taught art, I had kindergartners cry when they couldn’t cut out a snowman perfectly on the fold. “Oh, sweetie, no one cuts it perfect the very first time! The first time is just for practice. Let’s see what you were doing that got you two pieces instead of one.”
I knew they were holding the cut side, rather than the folded side, when they made made their cut, but they needed hands on instructions to get the lesson. “Oh, look, you need to hold the fold in your hand, and cut on the flappy sides. That’ll give you the whole piece. Try that while I watch.”
It’s just amazing what happens when the scales fall off their little eyes! In the book of Acts (9:17-18), Ananias laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. When we find the magic key to unlock the storehouse of hidden knowledge, all the possibilities of the world beyond us seem to be close at hand. It only takes a few successes to gain confidence.
Once young people get up to middle school age, they begin to sort themselves into “groups.” Those who think they’re Michelangelo’s and Leonardo’s heir apparents often think they only need to do a minimum of work, since their native abilities exceed the best efforts of the less talented students. In mandatory art classes, everyone needs to work under the same grading system. Otherwise systemic structures would always prefer and rank higher those students who had the benefit of prior training, cultural experiences, and native talent.
I always leveled the playing field by grading on heavily on the work ethic, the amount of improvement, and then gave the finished product only 25% of the overall total. This meant if Michelangelo goofed off, but dashed off a winning project, he’d most likely fail the first grading period. His parents would get his mind straight and then his art works would begin to improve by leaps and bounds.
Likewise, the students who never had a chance at succeeding in art class could give their best efforts, seek to solve the assignments, and discover they could improve! It was as easy as A—B—C—Attitude, Behavior, and Consequences. If we began with a positive attitude, we made positive actions, and got good grades and improving art works. Plus we began to feel good about ourselves. If we kept a negative attitude, we wouldn’t try, we’d goof off, be slow to improve, and get a bad grade. Why feel bad about yourself when everyone else was having a good time in art?
The fancy name for this process is brain plasticity. Our brains can form new information and structures, not only when we’re young, but also as we age. The brain is a muscle, which we can exercise. If we stop exercising our mental skills, we don’t just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead. You might ask, “How often must I practice tennis, guitar, or math to keep on top of it?” This is the question about brain plasticity, since you’re asking how frequently you must practice an activity to make sure its brain map space is not lost to another. The simple word for this is “Use it or lose it.”
Today we live in a world in which many children don’t get to explore a wide variety of interests. Some of this is because our schools have focused on teaching just the basics, so art and music get shuffled off to the outermost edges, or dropped if finances get tight. We live in a more structured world than fifty years ago, so children don’t often interact with their environment unless they’re camping or on a field trip. Many don’t play sports because teams are competitive, time consuming, and don’t allow children to have outside interests. I’m not sure why we want children to become professionals too early in life, when they could be exploring the world in all its vast wonder instead.
Maybe this is why as adults we come back to discover our true selves and take up a hobby we never thought we’d ever try. We have to drop our preconceived notion that our abilities and success in one area of our lives will mean we’ll quickly progress in a new field. Some have said we need 10,000 hours of practice to attain excellence, but others say it depends on the field. Deliberate practice is only a predictor of success in fields that have super stable structures. In tennis, chess, and classical music, the rules never change, so you can study up to become the best. If we were to start up a brand new business , we might need to break some of the rules.
Leonardo da Vinci wrote in his notebook, “Shadows which you see with difficulty, and whose boundaries you cannot define… these you should not represent as finished or sharply defined, for the result would be that your work would seem wooden.”
We sometimes see with difficulty, and our hand isn’t yet fully connected to our eye, so the boundaries of our shapes don’t match what we see, but we find joy in the act of painting. We keep looking ever more closely, increasing our powers of observation, and training our hand to follow our eye. Some of this is keeping a memory in our mind long enough to put the image on the surface, and the other part is to still the mind of extraneous thoughts so we can hold that thought for the few seconds it takes to make the line.
We do this for our mental health, to keep our neurons fresh and our brains challenged by the problems of representing color, shadows, light, and space. We approach our art work as if we’re little children eager to discover a new way to describe our world. Each time we set brush to canvas, we grow, if only in humility.
Gail brought us some beauty berry bushes. Unlike nearly every other fruiting shrub in North America, beauty berry flowers and fruits in clusters along its stem at the leaf joints, rather than on a separate fruiting stem. Flowers are clustered sprays of pinkish-white tiny blossoms that appear in mid to late summer. Berries are a bright, intense purple, tightly packed in balls of fruit along the stem. The berries are edible when they’re deep purple, but they require lemon juice and sugar to make a good jelly.
The leaves can be used in nearly every way to fight insects: you can crush them and rub them on yourself for a quick fix, you can make an infusion and dip your clothes in it, you can distill out the essential oils and combine them with other plants to make a bug spray… it all works. And it’s not just folklore, either. In 2006, scientists at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service working at the University of Mississippi isolated three chemical compounds from beauty berry leaves— callicarpenal, intermedeol and spathulenol. All three proved highly effective as repellents for mosquitoes, biting flies, ticks, fleas, and other pests. Later studies confirmed their findings, and actually proved callicarpenal to be more effective than DEET at repelling insects, without the harsh side effects. The last hurdle is making the process financially feasible.
I brought another of my antique 1930’s glass vases from my grandmother’s house. Filled with water, the stems appear distorted underwater and don’t line up with the stems above water. This proved more difficult to paint, so I suggested to Gail a way to simplify the leaves. If the basic yellow shape were filled in first, then the shades of green could go next, leaving thin streaks of yellow for the veins. This is easier than painting a thin yellow line. A thin red edge could highlight certain areas to get the shadow. This takes a steady hand and controlled breathing. Hurrying to get somewhere fast won’t get it done. She paid close attention to the berries and their highlights.
Mike had an errand of mercy to attend to, so he made an appearance and left to help someone who was in trouble. Trouble is just another word for the opportunity to be the hands of Christ in the world. Anytime I had interruptions in my daily plans, I always knew God’s plans were superseding my well planned calendar.
My little still-life has all the autumn colors. Gail brought in a variety of branches and a red sumac also. We only have about 90 minutes to paint after I show some examples and have time to cleanup afterwards. Therefore, I choose to simplify the subject before me. I decide what is most important and necessary to convey the image, to set it into the space, to give it a mood, and to let it speak. If there’s an air of sadness about it, it’s because I painted it on the anniversary of my daughter’s death. If there’s a mood of mystery within it, the changing season is one of harvest and celebration. The earth gives forth its bounty, then goes into a form of rest, until it rebirths itself in the springtime.
If we’re going to paint not only the subject before us, but also share our true selves in the finished work, we need to become as little children who put their whole selves into their work. Although I’d hope we would have learned by now not to eat the paint.
Next Friday we’re going to make decorations for the harvest season. Mike is bringing in leaves, branches, and spray paint. I’m bringing a drill, glue guns, wire cutters, and wire. If you’re coming to make a wreath or mantle piece, bring your “autumn stuff,” as well as a wreath or log. Please wear a mask.
One of the best genres of painting is still life: it doesn’t move, it never gets tired, and it never fusses about sitting in one place for a longtime. It’s only drawback is it might rot if you take too long to do your art work. Most of us won’t have this problem, since we’ll either take a photo of the piece or go on to paint something else before that happens.
Still life painting as an independent genre or specialty first flourished in the Netherlands during the early 1600s, even though parts of earlier paintings paid detailed attention to flowers or fruit within the whole. The rise of still life painting in the Northern and Spanish Netherlands, mainly in the large city trade centers, reflected the increasing urbanization of Dutch and Flemish society, which brought with it an emphasis on the home and personal possessions, commerce, trade, learning—all the aspects and diversions of everyday life. These still lifes featured imported flowers and fruits plus expensive objects such as Chinese porcelain, Venetian glassware, and silver-gilt cups and trays, all of which were usually rendered in a glistening light and with a velvety atmosphere.
A noted Flemish master of the 17th century, Jan Davidsz de Heem, enjoyed combining multiple flowers from different seasons along with ears of corn, a spider, a ladybird, ants, and butterflies in a glass vase on a slate ledge with red currents, a violet, a snail, and a caterpillar. Photorealistic paintings like this were in vogue then, but as the years rolled on, modern artists began to explore other directions. Cezanne retains the luxurious drapery of earlier still life paintings, but simplifies the forms of everyday objects. He’s the father of the cubist painters, represented by Picasso’s bottle still life.
Another artist shows us how to handle the reflection of the background in a glass vessel. Matisse freely paints the colors and shapes of the plants, the window, and the bright goldfish plus all the highlights from the light sources. He even lets some of the white of the unpainted canvas show throughout his work to add to the feeling of airiness.
A current painting from Pinterest is a quieter and more sedate rendering of the goldfish theme. The overall drawing is good, but it lacks energy. There’s no vibrancy in the light coming through the window and the shadows on the goldfish are too dark. Muting the values of the colors toward grey and brown will decrease the “pop” of a painting every time.
We also looked at a painting of a clear bottle with lemons in the background. Objects behind a glass will often be displaced by the surface, just as water also shifts the position of anything underwater. We’ve tried bottles and jars before, but this is the first time we’ve focused on them entirely. As a collector of ancient and odd things, these are old beer and soda bottles I’ve found over the years. They aren’t THAT old, with the oldest being about 1905. They’re all mould blown and have distinctive air bubbles and seam lines.
One is from the bottling company of my hometown, the Star Bottling Company, which first produced the Uncle Joe and Aunt Ida soft drinks, before becoming part of the Coca Cola bottling family in 1904. Before the Coca Cola Company created a line of flavored drinks, most of the bottlers created their own brands, with orange, root beer, strawberry, grape and fruit-flavored drinks. Because they weren’t allowed to put them in bottles with the “Coca-Cola” script, the bottlers developed their own “flavor bottles.”
The writing on many of these bottles indicated they were property of the local Coca Cola bottling company. Collectors can find an enormous variety in flavor bottles, and most are very inexpensive to collect. Mine are of the nondescript, ordinary variety, but I have fond memories of the experience of finding them. Plus the excitement of a field trip to the bottling plant, which both got us out of school for a morning and introduced us to the wonders of industry.
The earliest known man made glass date back to around 3500 BCE, with finds in Egypt and Eastern Mesopotamia. Discovery of glassblowing around 1st century BCE was a major breakthrough in glass making. Archaeological findings in Egypt and Eastern Mesopotamia indicate the first manufactured glass dates back to 3000 BCE. The oldest fragments of glass vases found in Mesopotamia date back to the 16th century BCE and represent evidence of the origins of the hollow glass industry. Beside Mesopotamia, hollow glass production was also evolving in the same time in Egypt, in Mycenae (Greece), China and North Tyrol (now part of Austria). The first glassmaking manual from the library of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal (669-626 BCE) dates back to around 650 BCE.
Because glassmaking was slow and costly, it was luxury item and few people could afford it. Around the end of the 1st century BCE, Syrian craftsmen discovered the new technique of “glass blowing.” This revolutionary event made glass production easier, faster and cheaper, so that glass, for the first time, became available to ordinary citizens. The tools and techniques of glass blowing have changed very little over the centuries.
The Romans traded glass across the vast RomanEmpire and beyond. They were the first to use glass for architectural purposes when clear glass was discovered in Alexandria around 100 CE. Venice was the center of the glassmaking craft.
The art of glass making flourished during the Roman Empire and spread across Western Europe and the Mediterranean. Glass was one of the most important items of trade beyond the borders of the Roman Empire. The Romans were the first ones who began to use glass for architectural purposes, when clear glass was discovered in Alexandria around AD 100.
Other examples in the image above of the Roman expertise in glass blowing include a pale green bottle, with the four-sided mould-blown body with rounded shoulder and tapering cylindrical neck, the wide strap handle attached to the shoulder and curved under the lip, 5¾ in. (14.5 cm.) high; a pale green jug, the squat spherical body with diagonal ribs, a pinched handle attached to the flaring neck with trailed ring, 4¾ in. (12 cm.) high; and a pale yellow unguentarium, 4 5/8 in. (11.8 cm.) high. These were from an auction lot at Christie’s.
A flourishing glass industry was developed in Europe at the end of the 13th century when the glass industry was established in Venice by the time of the Crusades (1096-1270 CE). Despite the efforts of the Venetian artisans who dominated the glass industry to keep the technology secret, it soon spread around Europe. Eventually all the great gothic cathedrals of Europe would have stained glass curtains or large windows of colored light illuminating their interiors.
Because stained glass is translucent, we see both the color and the light. When we paint with acrylic colors, the light reflects back from the pigments in the binding medium. In watercolor, the white paper adds brightness since the colors are transparent. This means we have to “fool the eye” and use highlights plus color values near to the background colors to give the illusion of clarity.
Gail is getting good at analyzing the shapes and setting them down on a small canvas during our short class period. This still life had both the extra solid apple and the very clear bottles in contrast. It was more challenging than it sounds. How do you balance the heavy with the light, the solid with the transparent, and the cool blues with the warm reds? Adding a strong background color helps tie the two together.
Another way to bring everything together is to ignore the apple all together, as Mike did. This is called artistic license. He included the red in a cloth crossed by another golden fabric. He uses multiple viewpoints, for the base of the bottles are on one plane and the tops are flipped forward. I don’t know if he changed position or just sat up straighter when doing the bases. I also gave him one of my brushes to use in class, since he’s been using the same one forever. He wants to paint a straight line, but is using a round brush. He needs to take a lesson from Tim, the Tool man Taylor, and “use the right tool for the right job.” Of course we all know that means the one with “more power!”
“Here, use this flat edge artist’s brush. I think you’ll like it.” “Wow, it really paints a smooth edge.”
“Yep, I been suggesting you get a better brush, but you keep using the old one. I finally decided you needed to experience what a real brush feels like in your hand.”
“If I go in the store, do I need a special license to buy a real artist’s brush?”
“They’ll take your money. That’s the only license you need.”
He laughed. I’m glad he has a sense of humor. We’ve been doing this class for about two years now. It takes us a while to learn from each other. We have to learn how to be transparent and open to one another, much as a clear glass bottle is open to light shining through it. The greatest challenge for any of us as adults is accepting any instruction or critique at all. In seminary, I always opened my tests and papers after I repeated my mantra, “I am not my grade.” If I got a good score, I didn’t let it go to my head, but worked even harder on the next effort. If I didn’t score well, I took that grade as an opportunity to define my arenas of insufficient knowledge. I could work on that for the next time.
As we read in the scriptures, the apostle Paul writes: All scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, so that everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work. ~~ 2 Timothy 3:16-17
If we weren’t willing to be transformed, why would we read our Bibles or attend to the teachings of God’s holy word? If we let the good word go in one ear and out the other, and it never makes an impact on our hearts, minds, or lives, we’re dead in our faith. We’re called to have a living faith, one full of hope, and actively bring that same hope to our hurting world.
Johnny Nash, who recently passed away, had the number one song on Billboard’s Hot 100 song list in 1972, called “I can see clearly now.”
I can see clearly now the rain is gone I can see all obstacles in my way Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day
I think I can make it now the pain is gone All of the bad feelings have disappeared Here is that rainbow I’ve been praying for It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day
Look all around, there’s nothing but blue skies Look straight ahead, there’s nothing but blue skies I can see clearly now the rain is gone I can see all obstacles in my way Gone are the dark clouds that had me blind It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day
It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day
It’s gonna be a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day
Oh what a bright (bright) Bright (bright) sunshiny day
I hope you have a bright, bright, sunshiny day, Cornelia
When the seasons change, I have days when I drag. My get up and go has done got up and went. Perhaps my increasing age has something to do with this feeling, or the pandemic’s lack of social interaction has dulled my senses. Some days I think I’m moving through molasses, and then the next I wake up on a brighter side of the bed.
Occasionally, I wonder where my mind is. I recently had to get the attendant at the Kroger gas station to help me pump the gas. When I used my loyalty card, the pump didn’t reduce my price. I forgot this pump had a screen prompt, which I’d ignored. Once I was retrained, I got the good discount and filled my car up. I really need to get out more. I’m not driving as much as I once did because of this pandemic. I used to say, “My brain has gone to Pluto,” but now it seems to have gone to the pandemic instead. I could always count on the old grey matter making the circuit back to earth, eve if it took 248 years, but until this Pandemic passes, I may be slightly silly. Some of you will say, “No one can tell the difference,” but I know better.
One of the benefits of this enforced solitude, which we’ve all endured, is we’ve had the opportunity to consider everything tried and true, and decide if we need to keep it or do something different instead. Some of us have redecorated our homes, take up a new hobby or occupation, or even become teachers or caregivers. Many of us cleaned out our closets and clutter because looking at it daily was too much. We’ve done what we had to do. Others of us have held on to the old traditions, as if they were security blankets. We won’t change them until our world feels safe again.
To make progress in art or any creative endeavor, sometimes we have to “burn the security blanket” before we can go forward. This is hard to do, for we get comfortable with whatever small success we first make. Basketball great Kobe Bryant would practice by himself for hours before his teammates showed up and would make four hundred shots every single practice. Notice that’s MAKE, not TAKE. Work ethic is a hallmark of greatness. Kobe was never satisfied with only the good, but sought to be his best.
Building a Community of Encouragement
Yet we are also people who need encouragement, and this means we need community. In community we can build each other up by “catching the good each one does.” We can reward and praise this, even though we usually find ourselves pointing out the spot a person missed, or how they could do it better next time. There’s a difference between criticism and critiquing someone’s work. Criticism usually only has negative statements, but a good critique begins with at least three positive comments before it notes what needs improvement and how to accomplish that task.
Artists and creative persons learn over the years to separate their identities from their work. Who we are as God’s beloved children never changes, no matter how badly our work gets panned. Most of us artists think we’re misunderstood anyway, so we go back to our studios and work some more. Words won’t kill us, and plenty of artists were never commercially successful. Most artists or creative people work at their craft because they have an inner need to express their experiences or ideas about the world in which they live.
Finding Our Own Voice
We work to discover who we are and what our voice would say to the world. In most art classes, the teacher makes a model and the students attempt to copy it as faithfully as possible. This process may use the elements of art, the media of art, and the end product may look like art, but the students are imitating someone else’s creative process. Thinking through the problems of shape, shadow, color, composition, and texture are part of the creative process. I’m very proud of our group, for each person is finding an individual voice. You would be able to identify their work, even if it were unsigned.
Season of Harvest
Hoshana Raba (Heb. הוֹשַׁעְנָא רַבָּא; “the great hoshana”) is a name for the seventh and last day of the Sukkot festival, or the Festival of Booths or Tabernacles. Sukkot has a dual significance: historical and agricultural. The holiday commemorates the forty-year period during which the children of Israel were wandering in the desert, living in temporary shelters. Sukkot is also a harvest festival, and is sometimes referred to as Chag Ha-Asif, the Festival of Ingathering.
In the medieval poem “Om ani homah” attributed to Eleazar Kalir, the Israel nation declares ‘I am a wall’. The poem is recited during Hoshana Raba (Great Supplication) which begins this evening.
Ingathering or Harvest Festivals are part of the seasonal experiences of our lives. Last week I brought a bunch of gourds and pumpkins in for class. I gave each person the opportunity to choose the ones that spoke to them to use for their still life. We had quite the variety of solutions.
Gail’s pumpkins were bold and bright, filling the canvas.
Mike’s were exuberant and about to come alive with energy.
Margaret was new in class, and made a highly textured still life, complete with cast shadows.
Mine were socially distant, a commentary on this pandemic life.
I brought the pumpkins and gourds home to grace my altar. It changes with the seasons, so come advent, it takes a more exuberant and celebratory vibe. For autumn, it’s full of natural bounty. When Nehemiah was celebrating the festival of booths and purifying the temple, this was the prayer of the people:
“O Lord, Lord God, Creator of all things, you are awe-inspiring and strong and just and merciful, you alone are king and are kind, you alone are bountiful, you alone are just and almighty and eternal. You rescue Israel from every evil; you chose the ancestors and consecrated them. Accept this sacrifice on behalf of all your people Israel and preserve your portion and make it holy. Gather together our scattered people, set free those who are slaves among the Gentiles, look on those who are rejected and despised, and let the Gentiles know that you are our God. Punish those who oppress and are insolent with pride. Plant your people in your holy place, as Moses promised.” (2 Maccabees 1:24-29)
All good things come from God, and we owe our lives and our living to the Holy God. Help us to care for the least among us, especially those who hunger and thirst at this time of harvest and during this season of change.
Who had hurricanes named with the Greek alphabet on their 2020 Bingo card? In a season when catastrophic west coast fires cause Pumpkin Spice skies, we shouldn’t be surprised. Heat lightning striking drought parched national forests and a gender reveal party blunder set off the blazes. Over the years, all of the top 10 costliest wild land fires in the country have been in California. The costliest of all was Camp Fire in 2018, which set insurers back over $8.5 billion, according to numbers tallied by the Insurance Information Institute. But the Camp Fire was just one fire. Reinsurer Munich Re estimates the costs for all the wildfires that year to be over $20 billion. So far this year’s fires should bring in a similar calculation.
Hurricane Sally knocked out power to 320,000 people along the Gulf Coast and caused initial damages of over $29 million just to roads and public buildings. Homes and personal property damages have yet to be counted. Folks are waiting for flood waters to recede for that estimate to accrue. Over thirty inches of rain fell at the coast, with lesser amounts inland. A major section of a three mile long bridge collapsed, with no date for repair.
None of the dollar costs account for the loss of precious lives, the impact on businesses, or the quality of live in these hard hit areas. Is New Orleans the same post Katrina? Are Miami and Puerto Rico thriving yet? Most of Houston has recovered from the $127 billion loss due to the 2017 hurricane and flooding of the lowlands in the city, and now a large portion of its residents believe climate change is a clear and present threat to future flooding.
The climatological peak of the Atlantic hurricane season is around the second weak of September, which means that August is normally when we start to see a major ramp up of tropical cyclone activity. The year 2020 being, well, a crazy pants year, 2020 is writing a new script. Records are dropping like flies this season as we’ve come to realize those 21 names aren’t going to be enough. Already Tropical Storm Beta, the second letter in the Greek alphabet, is threatening the Bahamas
According to the National Hurricane Center website, “In the event that more than twenty-one named tropical cyclones occur in the Atlantic basin in a season, additional storms will take names from the Greek alphabet.” In 2005, six storms were named with the Greek letter alphabet. During the Great Depression in 1933, hurricane season was also great, with twenty-seven named storms, which beat the former record of 21 storms, according to NASA. Zeta formed December 30, 1933, after the official end to the season.
The number and cost of disasters are increasing over time due to several causes. These include increased exposure or values at risk of possible loss, and vulnerability or how much damage does the intensity of wind speed or flood depth at a location cause. We also consider how climate change is increasing the frequency of some types of weather extremes that lead to billion-dollar disasters. There were four billion-dollar weather disasters in the United States in August 2020, according to scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: the derecho storm that hit the Midwest, Hurricanes Isaias and Laura, and California’s wildfires.
A wonderful 1934 oil painting, “The Line Storm,” by John Steuart Curry, 1897-1946, possibly inspired by the approach of a derecho-producing storm in Curry’s home state of Kansas, shows the dramatic approach of the shelf cloud driven by the straight line winds.
These storms and their costs weren’t a record, but warming temperatures do account for more frequent and intense weather events. This is important because a report commissioned by President Trump’s Commodity Futures Trading Commission issued dire warnings about climate change’s impact on financial markets, as the costs of wildfires, storms, droughts, and floods spread through insurance and mortgage markets, pension funds and other financial institutions. In calling for climate-driven policy changes, the report’s authors likened the financial risk of global warming to the threat posed by the coronavirus today and by mortgage-backed securities that precipitated the financial crash in 2008. The wildfires in California this year alone have burned 5 million acres of forested lands. To grasp the size, compare Arkansas’s forests, which cover 19 million acres or 56 percent of the State and contain 11.9 billion trees.
Sometimes we’re like Egyptians who live along De-Nile. If we can ignore the problem today, someone else can take care of it tomorrow. Unfortunately, this isn’t the order of God’s world. In the beginning, “God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars.” (Genesis 1:16)
Moreover, “…God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:27-28)
To rule and to have dominion are both terms related to sovereignty, just as Christ is Lord. We don’t talk much about kings in a Democratic society, but we humans have authority over nature. Unfortunately, we don’t always use our power well. We waste resources, fill oceans with plastic, or buy single use items destined for landfills that won’t decompose. As we approach autumn stewardship season, we might want to reconsider our attitudes and relationships towards nature.
In the central Great Plains, the 100th meridian roughly marks the western boundary of the normal reach of moist air from the Gulf of Mexico, and the approximate boundary between the semi-arid climate to the west and the humid continental (north of about 37°N) and humid subtropical (south of about 37°N) climates to the east. The type of agriculture west of the meridian typically relies heavily on irrigation. Historically the meridian has often been taken as a rough boundary between the eastern and western United States. This area around the 100th meridian, was settled after the American Civil War, beginning in the 1870s .
In the United States the meridian 100° west of Greenwich forms the eastern border of the Texas panhandle with Oklahoma, which traces its origin to the Adams-Onís Treaty in 1819 which settled the border between New Spain and the United States between the Red River and Arkansas River. Dodge City, Kansas lies exactly at the intersection of the Arkansas River and the 100th meridian. The latitude of Hot Springs, AR, USA is 34.496212, and the longitude is -93.057220. This means we’re east of the 100th meridian and in the “humid, subtropical south” section of the USA. Of course, spending a single summer here in the Spa City would convince any skeptic of the truth of this. We should have no “weather deniers,” even if we have “climate change deniers.”
Yet we here in Arkansas are far removed from the coastlines of our nation. We have our tornadoes and occasional floods, but we think of these as facts of life. If these disasters don’t impact us, or someone we know, too often we can shrug them off as just another sad occasion. We might collect flood buckets or give a few dollars to disaster relief, but the emotional impact of the life and death circumstances of other human beings doesn’t often register in our households. I’ve often wondered about this, but perhaps we grew numb during the Vietnam war to the nightly body counts and the images of war gore on television. About 62,000 service people died in the Vietnam War, a number which pales in comparison to the number of deaths during this pandemic, which now number 204,202 souls.
Since art carries with it the notion it should be “beautiful,” subjects about social commentary or politics often run against this grain. “Executions on the Third of May,” by Francisco Goya is an example. On 3 May 1808, Marshal-Prince Joachim Murat wrote to the Infante Don Antonio Pascual that he had executed about one hundred Spaniards, ‘Peasants . . . our common enemy’. Later police reports recorded that the French executed mainly artisans, laborers, one or two policemen and beggars during the street protests in Madrid.
The Death of Marat, by Jacques Louis David, is another social commentary painting. Marat was a popular radical French politician, political theorist and journalist, who advocated for basic human rights for the poor during the French Revolution. Marie Anne Charlotte Corday, a royalist from Caen, purchased a knife in a nearby store, walked into his home, and stabbed him dead while he was soaking in his bathtub. David, his friend, painted this memorial to the man who was working up to the last moment of his life for the common good of all the people.
In our faith life, we first learn to pray for our families, then for our friends. With spiritual growth, we can pray for strangers who are like us, and finally we learn to pray for our enemies. When we grow ever closer to God’s presence, we discover we also grow closer to our neighbors. The lawyer who tested Jesus with the question, “But who is my neighbor?” went on to discover the neighbor is the one who shows mercy to the stranger. If we want to be true neighbors, we must be the first to show mercy to the strangers in our midst, and not wait for them to “deserve it” or “give mercy to us first.”
How can we make emotional connections so we can do this? In art, as in other endeavors, we can stick with analysis and order. This is our problem solving brain. “What’s the quickest route from point A to B?” We look for one and done. That’s how we operate in most of our lives. Creative solutions, however, seek multiple options: “How many uses can I find for a brick? How many ways can I use a stick?” When we paint a still life, often we stick with the problem solving skills of our brains, and under use our emotional skills. Sometimes this has to do with our timidity regarding our technical skills, so eventually we’ll gain more confidence in our handling of the media. The expression will come through once we are comfortable with the media. It’s a matter of practice and time.
Putting emotions into our art work is also difficult because we’ve been trained since childhood to repress our feelings. Many of us can’t own our feelings. Perhaps we grew up in families with substance abuse and saw our parents out of control. If the other parent told us, “You don’t really see this,” or “We’re just fine, so go to your room,” we might be confused about how we actually feel. Learning to sort the truth from the lie is hard, but we can learn it at any age. Others of us have been taught to “get along with others by smiling a lot.” Another way of saying this is “don’t speak about anything that will upset anyone.” It’s also known as Peace at Any Price, or Prilosec for Everyone.
Marsden Hartley painted Ghosts of the Forest in 1938, in the woods of his home state of Maine. He saw the giant logs, felled by the forest industry, as if they were bones leeched white on a desert. He had returned from New York to find his own individual voice in the landscape he knew best, in the place in which he was born. (Hartley also wrote Adventures in the Arts, which you can read as a free ebook through the Gutenberg ebook project).
In art class, we talked about how 2020 has been a snowball rolling down from an avalanche high up in the mountains. It’s been one catastrophe after another. I know some young folks who’ve quit watching the news altogether, since they can’t handle one more piece of fuel thrown onto the conflagration of the chaos of their lives. Older people, who’ve survived other chaotic times, tend to breathe in, exhale, and say to themselves, “Be still, and know that I am God.” We know once this pandemic passes, some other excitement will take its place. We’ve learned to focus our energy on things that matter to us, rather than on the chaos which the world throws at us. Practicing spiritual disciplines helps us to meet the world calmly.
In art, we call this principle imposing order on disorder. Every work of art, no matter how abstract, has an internal order. Sometimes the order is a limited color scheme, such as a cool or warm palette. The balance may be evenly distributed on both sides, as opposed to a large central shape. Each of us has our own personality, of course, so we show our creative streaks differently.
Gail’s energetic painting of the flames eating the trees came from her heart. With her long experience in the park service, nature is a close companion. The fires in California have made a big impact on her, for she can imagine such a fire in the Ozark’s of Arkansas. This is empathy, which is a characteristic of a good neighbor.
Mike’s painting recognizes the need for city planning. Out west, people want to live next to nature, just as we do, but having homes near drought stricken forests is a prescription for calamity and combustion. The beginning of his design reminds me of his last year’s Day of the Dead altarpiece, which was quite the elaborate project. When we learn from other people’s mistakes, folks call us intelligent. If we repeat the same mistakes others have made before us, folks don’t have kind words for us. That’s when we wish they would practice smiling more, and speaking less.
I often do traditional landscapes, with a foreground, middle ground, and background. I’ve always wanted to do some paintings based on maps, or aerial views, so I looked up Oaklawn UMC and the racetrack. I brought some scraps of clothing, canvas, glue, and scissors to add some dimension to my work. While it doesn’t have my usual palette colors of yellows and reds, maybe the grays are like the smoke filled skies overhead. This California smoke has traveled on the jet stream as far as Northern Europe, or about 5,000 miles.
The whole purpose of art is to stretch our minds and push our boundaries. The more we encounter the world around us, the more likely we come close to the edge. That’s scary for some folks, but it’s just paint, canvas, or other materials. We aren’t jumping off a tall building. That would be an irreversible harm to life. If our end product looks sad at the end of the class, we can work it over later on. We get second chances, and another opportunity to improve. We learn from our mistakes. As my grandmother, a portrait painter, used to say, “Fail again, but fail better each time.”
We can also redeem our world, for we still have time. This is how we can live out our image of God, co-creating and recreating a better world.
“When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” ~~ Psalms 104:30
What is Real? What is True? What has Meaning for our shared lives in community? Is there an Authority for any of these questions, or are we all on our own when we try to figure out how to make sense of our world? The ancient Greeks were onto these questions long before the fateful day when Pilate asked Jesus, “What is truth?”
Today we have a branch of philosophy which studies how we know things. It’s called epistemology. The word comes from the Greek words episteme and logos. Episteme can be translated as knowledge, understanding, or acquaintance, while logos is often translated as account, argument, or reason. Logos also means word, saying, speech, discourse, thought, proportion, ratio, and reckoning. In some strains of Greek thought, the Logos was the rational principle which governed and developed the universe. In early Christianity, the Christ was the Logos or Divine Word through which God created and ordered the universe.
Normally, in ordinary conversation, we don’t throw around these fifty cent words, but prefer instead the nickel and dime ones of our fast food conversations. “How was your day?” We answer, “Fine,” but don’t pull up the deeper words of our emotions to share with the ones we love the most. Eventually we come to a quiet acceptance of togetherness, but perhaps also an inherent loneliness also. The isolation of this Pandemic has cut us off from sharing with others, so now we may feel this inner pain more acutely.
I personally miss the brief give and takes between the random strangers whom I meet in the grocery store or at the coffee shop. Just the opportunity to compliment a stranger or to help an elderly shopper find a product makes me feel good. Likewise, if someone does the same for me, I also feel better about myself. Making connections gives us a sense of community and unity in this trying time.
If we put on a brave face, smile, and say, “I’m fine,” are we being Real, True, or merely hiding behind what society has determined is the appropriate response to this time and place in which we find ourselves? Artists find themselves in this position every single time they approach a blank canvas, a lump of clay or a block of stone. “Am I going to do what all the artists before me have also done, or will I look at this in a new light and make an entirely new expression?” When the first Cubist paintings went on exhibit in France in 1911 at the Salon of the Independents, the people who attended were outraged, for the artists had broken every rule of “good painting,” which the attendees could see first hand in the other exhibits.
Cubism broke the plane of the canvas into an overall fractured space, rather than an attempt to render a three dimensional subject on a flat surface. It presented multiple viewpoints of the objects at once, rather than a single view. Picasso and Braque challenged the accepted representation of art: does art have to represent the world as we see it? Do we instead carry the ability to disassemble reality and reassemble it in a way that’s not limited to the dimensions of the real world? These artists were groundbreaking because they actively deconstructed the real form to illustrate the chaotic and puzzling side of the real world. For cubists, artists aren’t just people who paint beautiful things, but people who give others the chance to think about the world they’re living in through artistic expression.
Traumatic events like September 11th and this Pandemic also “disassemble our reality” and may cause us to reject it outright, hide from it, deny its impact, or find a way to make sense of a fallen and broken world. We can either become wounded healers or we can become wounded people who keep on wounding others. Nothing can take away the losses we’ve suffered, but we can learn to make use of our grief to help others get to better places in their own lives.
Art often serves as therapy for traumatized persons, as does journaling. This is because both are physical means of expression and both require focused breathing. I find I can’t paint when I’m agitated, but if I do a little cleaning of my palette and preparing of my work area, I begin to calm down enough to concentrate. With writing, I like using old fashioned pen and ink on paper to let the good ideas flow, but I can also tap, tap on the iPad if I have a well conceived idea beforehand.
If we let the thoughts inside of us come up to the surface, we can become aware of them and deal with them. Sometimes we don’t like these painful images that arise, for they remind us of old trauma and grief, which may depress or anger us. We need to look these feelings in the face for what they are: emotions only, but they aren’t the definition of our eternal Truth. These are mere moments in time, not forever moments, unless we choose them to be. As a person living with chronic depression, I had to learn how to think positively and stay appropriately medicated, as well as to do the healthy self care behaviors to enhance my ability for an optimistic outlook on life. We can be survivors, not victims. If I ruminated on my sad thoughts or anxious feelings, I wouldn’t be able to take positive steps forward. Learning how to refocus my thoughts took time and practice, but the effort was worth it.
Art pushes our boundaries outward, so we are more resilient when we meet struggles in the world. If we struggle and fail on a painting, we still learn from our work some lessons to apply on the next one. Art is a series of building up of failures until you get competency surrounded. One day your hand, eye, heart, and mind all click into one circuit. Suddenly your art looks like you seem to know what you’re doing. It has a voice unique to you and begins to speak to the world beyond. This is the moment when your inner spirit and emotions are at work, for you have enough technical ability to get the meaning across.
How long does this take before your work takes on its own personality? We all have it from the beginning, for we each have our own unique insight into the world built up from our past experiences. The better question we ask is “when does our work look good?” At this point we’re asking, “Is it Beautiful, Technically Competent, Engaging, or Appealing?” Sometimes we’re asking, is it commercially viable, or will someone buy it? If the test of great art is someone will purchase it, Rembrandt’s later works and most of Van Gogh’s oeuvre don’t make the cut. Yet, history proves these are museum worthy paintings. This means we don’t need to concern ourselves with this question, but we shouldn’t quit our day job anytime soon.
A recent study found if a family has an annual income of $100,000, a child is twice as likely to become an artist, actor, musician or author than a would-be creative with a family income of $50,000. Raise the annual income to $1 million and $100,000, respectively, and the stakes become even higher, with members of the first household nearly 10 times more likely to choose a creative profession than those from the second. Overall, for every additional $10,000 in total income, or pre-tax earnings of immediate family members, a person is two percent more likely to enter a creative field. This is why we see so few persons of color in the art world today, for historically their art was not only disparaged in early American history, but today people of color have lower median incomes than whites, partly due to systemic racism resulting from inequalities in education, but also lack of entry into home ownership due to redlining.
Art is like ministry: we don’t do it to get rich. We do it to live our best life. We do it because we have a need to express the deeper voice which we hear in the depths of our hearts and mind. It isn’t the call of the world, but the mysterious calling of the Divine Word, which we remember from John 1:1-5, was “The Word Became Flesh:”
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 were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.
When we make art of any kind, we reassemble a new reality, for we proclaim we’re living in the power of the creating God. We know we aren’t a god, but we share God’s image and God’s work of creation. Because of this, we can rebuild the broken world, heal the broken people, and show love and compassion to all we meet. For many of us who grieve or judge ourselves harshly, maybe self compassion and self love is the first reconstruction of our world we should work on. If we aren’t painting or sculpting, we can bake pies or cookies, keep gardens, grow flowers or veggies, or do any other life giving endeavors.
Art gives us an safe space and an opportunity to build a new world. If it doesn’t hang together, we can always paint over it and try again. Or we can start afresh on a brand new canvas. How many of us wish we could wipe yesterday from our memories? Or come to tomorrow clean and new? We can have hope, as Jeremiah 29:11 reminds us:
For I know the plans I have for you, declares the LORD, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.
Listening to God is one of the hardest tasks most of us will ever undertake. How can we hear God’s voice, which has been described as the sound of sheer silence, when we live in the midst of the furious cacophony of our frantic world? If we do take time to be still, our own thoughts jump around inside our skull as if they were so many monkeys in a tree. We also find obstacles to our being still enough to listen to this silence, for there’s people who need us, work to be done, cattle to rustle, and snakes to kill. Even in the midst of a pandemic, life goes on.
The pandemic has also added extra levels of pain to our lives, for we’ve not only lost the support of our communal practices and our social experiences, but many of us have lost a friend or loved one to the coronavirus. We grieve for the life we used to live before social distancing and we grieve for the lives we’ve lost to the disease itself. Then there’s doom scrolling, the unfortunate habit too many of us find ourselves drawn to when we can’t draw ourselves away from the latest post on social media or update on breaking news about the latest indignity or harm this virus has done to humanity. All this wearies us and as we grow more tired, we lose our sensitivity to the small and quiet things.
It’s alright to admit we’re struggling, for then we can truly live out the verse,
“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).
As I’ve continued my painting in my own studio, I recognize I have ebbs and flows of energies. This is normal in every creative person’s life and work. We work through the rough times so if inspiration happens to fall upon us from on high, we’ll be there to receive it. If this doesn’t happen, the canvas can get painted over, cut up and rewoven, or eventually destroyed altogether. It’s a painting, an object from which to learn and to listen as we gain skill in our craft.
When I was younger, however, I treated my works as if they were precious and alive, like a child. Perhaps I hadn’t made enough of them, and I also hadn’t had my own flesh and blood child. Once I had a child, I learned I couldn’t do what I thought was best for her, but I needed to listen to her and figure out what she needed. Since babies cry and don’t talk right away, this took some doing. But there were signs, of course: if I’d just fed her, she might need burping or a diaper change. If she woke up from a nap, nursing and rocking was a good choice. Later as she got older, I had more to learn, but it was a while before she said words.
Our paintings never speak out loud, yet we need to listen to what they tell us, just as our subject matter never communicates a word to us, but we hear it calling to us, “Paint me!” In class this week, Tatiana brought flowers from her gardens for us to paint. She focused on the tiger Lilly and got a good rendering of it. She had some new paints, so she laid the color down thick. It would have to dry before she could straighten up any details.
Gail was finishing up the carrot flowers. She had roughed in the shapes with lights and darks last week. This week, getting the lacy details of the flower heads needed a plan. We looked at Seurat, the French pointillist painter, who set dots one beside another to make the shapes and to mix the colors. This was a new technique that she modified for her own.
Glen was painting a violet flower, and had a tender rendering in pink. It was quite well drawn, with good highlighting. I suggested he put a light blue wash on it. He must have enjoyed the blue, for he painted out his beautiful flower. I’ve done this myself. I keep going until lose it, and then I regret it. When an artist is learning a new technique, he or she will often over do it until the painting feels dead. This happens to me when my blood sugar dips and not enough energy gets to my brain. I can even feel it coming on and I have to stop myself before I begin to lose my fresh hand.
This is why an artist always has to be listening to the flower, if that’s the subject matter of the day, and also to the artist’s own self, as well as the painting. I think of this as a lesser trinity. Just as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all listen and commune together, so the artist, the subject, and the art work need to listen and communicate together. If we would quiet ourselves so we could hear the voice of the flower speaking to us or our art work telling us what it needed, we might be more likely to hear the still, small voice of the God, who is Three in One.