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.
Metaphors make the world go round, or at least make it spin with interest. Our conversation would be boring if we stuck with flat, non descriptive words to share our thoughts and feelings. Likewise, our artworks die on the wall without emotional inspiration or contrasts in shape, color, value, or dimension.
This Pandemic has stripped many of us of our support structures and social experiences, so we may have become anxious, either because of loneliness or from fear of contracting COVID 19. Others are essential workers on the front lines, who daily risk their health and lives to care for the rest of us. People have taken on tutoring their children or grandchildren. I can remember working with my daughter years ago on fractions, using the “old math.” It was a traumatic experience for both of us. She could have used a paper bag to breathe into to help her calm down instead of hyperventilating. I’ve been on some rough airplane flights for which the paper bag was a comforter.
I have fond memories of the pre Covid days when I could visit the bakery. Entering the front door was a joy, for the mixed smells of hot coffee, fried dough, and sugared toppings could transport me to a happy place just by inhaling those aromas. My anticipation only increased as I hovered before the glass display case, for I was waiting to hear which sweet treat would call my name. Usually it was both the bear claw and the chocolate éclair, but those were the days when I was indulging in over nutrition.
Now comes the Pandemic, and while we can still get our food in a takeout paper bag, we don’t get the opportunity to smell or see the foods. We also miss the interpersonal contact with the workers and with the friends we used to meet for lunch. That same paper bag takes on different meanings depending on its context.
Our first art class back in person was Friday, 130 days since Arkansas entered the Covid Emergency, which was declared on March 11, 2020. That’s about four months, but it seemed longer. Some of my friends have said one day now seems just like another, just like a white paper bag seems to have nothing to distinguish it from the next bag in the package. I’ve set my own personal schedule so I do something different every day. It gives me a reason to look forward to the day, and I don’t get bored.
I have great memories of long, hot summers as a child when I’d make the grave mistake of telling my mother, “I’m bored.” She’d pause her stirring at the stove, look down at me from her grownup height, and reply. “If you’ve got nothing to do, you could dust those shelves full of knickknacks you collect.” Her suggestions were actually directions, but that was how I was raised. After dusting all morning, I’d be glad to entertain myself for weeks without bothering her. My mother might have been the source of my creativity.
If we only see an object or a person for its outward or most functional use, and never dig deeper to know it better or consider it in another environment, we miss its complexity and its richness. If we paint only the outward visage of a portrait, but miss the inner spirit of the person, we’ve done just half the work. If we need practice in this skill, I recommend lying on your back and watching the clouds in the sky above. As the winds above blow, they’ll change shapes. Notice these shapes, call them to memory, associate these shapes with past experiences or make up new stories.
Each person got their own paper bag, so they could hold it, touch it, crumple it, blow it up, fold it, pose it, or whatever they wanted. Because it’s all white, they could choose to paint it in grays, colors, tints, or a monochromatic value scheme. This bag is also a basic perspective lesson also, depending on the point of view. How each person solves it depends on how it speaks to them. Some of us have our art ears plugged up, for listening to the silence of objects is an acquired skill.
Remembering white comes forward and dark recedes is helpful. Sometimes our eye fools us and we paint the opposite of what we see. We get the shape down, but then don’t look again to see where the values are. We just lay on paint. Then we wonder why our image doesn’t match up with our model. Learning to look, paint, look, paint, look, and paint some more is important. We need to be in a continual conversation with the object and our painting.
Glen used to do mechanical and perspective drawings, so he knows how to do this work, but he hasn’t yet found the hidden key to unlock what he already knows from his career so he can apply it to this new activity. This “transfer of learning” means he has skills, but he needs encouragement to use them. I believe he’ll find the key, which is most likely in plain sight.
Gail crumpled her bag and worked quietly in blues to render the various surfaces. We didn’t spend a lot of time talking about our paintings, but hers seemed to be either a stormy sea or a rugged mountain. Life in the Pandemic has given all of us new challenges.
After a lifetime of five different careers caring for other people and working sixty plus hours per week, I’m glad for retirement and the slow lane. I enjoy the quiet and isolation, for I feel like I’m on a long term spiritual retreat. This is a time of joy and creative production, so if my paper bag glows with rainbow tones, this is my pandemic experience.
I’ve always told my students, “Each of you are unique. You look at the world through different eyes. You should make your work as special as you are. Don’t copy anybody else. Be your very best. After all, if our fingerprints are unique and our DNA is singular, why wouldn’t our art work be individual also?”
While the pandemic has given us masks and spread us out for the class sessions, it can’t damage our enthusiasm. I’m looking forward to painting flowers next week.
Life for extroverts in the Age of Social Distancing is difficult. They need people to bounce their ideas off of, friends to hear their tales of daily struggles or victories, and most of all, the transfer of energy between the parties to feel alive. For introverts, most of whom need space and quiet to restore their energies, the “stay at home unless absolutely necessary” directives are more welcome than not. A good book, some quiet music, and a calming drink of herbal tea is a balm for the body and the soul.
Of course, if you have children, activity is your middle name, no matter where you fall on the spectrum of extroversion or introversion. Taking walks in the neighborhood of your city is an opportunity to learn about architecture. How is it built, what are the forms called, and how many styles can you identify as you walk about? You can make an art project from this walk about, by building a shoebox city, a collage from magazines or scrap paper, or making a map.
When my daughter was young, we lived in south Texas, so our walks meant we might stumble upon a limestone fossil creature. She was always amazed some animal from the prehistoric times would find its way into our modern age, even if it were a lifeless stone. To find a treasure from 100,000,000 years ago always added excitement to our jaunts about the home place.
If you live in the countryside, you might have access to the woods or a forest, or you can go there. We haven’t decided to lock down everyone in their home yet. However, it’s my “Dr. Cornie” opinion we all should limit our goings and doings to the utmost necessities of grocery, health, and essential services. While I’m not a “real doctor,” those of us who are “Coronavirus Cathys and Chucks” can spread this disease to others, even if we don’t feel sick or have symptoms.
In this Age of Coronavirus, staying put at home means we “flatten the curve” of the spread of the disease. While many will have a mild disease, too many will have a difficult outcome, especially when they face a lack of hospital beds and equipment to treat them. Let’s think of these others, and not just of ourselves alone.
With this admonition in mind, I invite you to travel virtually in solitude to the woods. Many of my paintings are of nature, for I feel close to God in nature. My parents may have been getting a vacation from me when I went to summer church camp at the old Works Project Administration site at Caney Lake, but I connected with the God who meets us in nature while I was there.
The Germans have a constructed word Waldeinsamkeit, which roughly translates to “the feeling of being alone in the woods.” The structure of the word says it all: “wald” means woods/forest, and “einsamkeit” means loneliness or solitude. The Grimm Brothers wrote many fairy tales, which were also set in the famed German Black Forest: Hansel and Gretel, Rumpelstiltskin, Snow White, and Little Red Riding Hood to name a few.
I don’t know if children read these stories today, since they’re a tad scary, but my parents grew up in the Great Depression and fought the Great War in Europe against the Nazis. They helped us through the imaginary, scary events so we could take on the actual, distressing situations. Practicing the easy operations in a safe space helped us confront our fears in real life.
Sometimes I’ll walk in the woods and hear a voice calling me to turn around. It’s not an audible voice, as if an outside agent were speaking to me. It’s also not my own inner sense, as “I should turn around.” Instead, I perceive a stillness from beyond, and the word I hear is “Turn around and look.”
If nature speaks to us, it’s because “Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things God has made.” (Romans 1:20). Does this mean all persons see God’s hand in creation? Of course not, for some can’t even see the image of God in their own faces when they look in the mirror as they brush their teeth in the morning. Perhaps this is why the city streets are littered, the country roads are trashed, and violence to humanity is a sad trouble in every zip code. If we are God’s people, we’ll care for one another and for God’s world.
Even in the Age of Coronavirus, when our solid underpinnings have been cut down from under us and we have crashed to the ground with the noise of a giant sequoia tearing through its smaller companions, we don’t lose hope and we don’t lose heart. “Even though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed day by day.” (2 Corinthians 4:16)
Walk in the woods, in silence, and renew your soul, with Ralph Waldo Emerson:
Waldeinsamkeit I do not count the hours I spend In wandering by the sea; The forest is my loyal friend, Like God it useth me.
In plains that room for shadows make Of skirting hills to lie, Bound in by streams which give and take Their colors from the sky;
Or on the mountain-crest sublime, Or down the oaken glade, O what have I to do with time? For this the day was made.
Cities of mortals woe-begone Fantastic care derides, But in the serious landscape lone Stern benefit abides.
Sheen will tarnish, honey cloy, And merry is only a mask of sad, But, sober on a fund of joy, The woods at heart are glad.
There the great Planter plants Of fruitful worlds the grain, And with a million spells enchants The souls that walk in pain.
Still on the seeds of all he made The rose of beauty burns; Through times that wear and forms that fade, Immortal youth returns.
The black ducks mounting from the lake, The pigeon in the pines, The bittern’s boom, a desert make Which no false art refines.
Down in yon watery nook, Where bearded mists divide, The gray old gods whom Chaos knew, The sires of Nature, hide.
Aloft, in secret veins of air, Blows the sweet breath of song, O, few to scale those uplands dare, Though they to all belong!
See thou bring not to field or stone The fancies found in books; Leave authors’ eyes, and fetch your own, To brave the landscape’s looks.
Oblivion here thy wisdom is, Thy thrift, the sleep of cares; For a proud idleness like this Crowns all thy mean affairs.
Some people are hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizer in this germ conscious age of Coronavirus, but we who practice the art life are also stocking up on Liquitex heavy body acrylic paint and canvases plus coffee, so we can make the best of a bad situation. We’re also giving encouragement to all we meet or greet, for we know we’re all in this together. When our local officials call for “social distancing,” some think this means individuals have to take care of their own needs only, but this isn’t so. This “social distance” only refers to the space between us, not to our ignorance of the needs of others.
Marcus Aurelius, the Emperor of Rome (2nd CE), wrote in one his Meditations, “What profits not the swarm profits not the bee,” (Book VI, 54). If we don’t work for the good of all, we aren’t doing good for ourselves. I met our condo maintenance man the other day as I was returning from our last art class before spring break. (Our return date is flexible, depending on the coronavirus situation.)
“Did you hear when Walmart runs out of food, they’re going to close it down and not reopen it till all this virus blows over?” “What? That’s crazy. They’ll be selling food till the end of time. Money, honey, they wants it and food, we needs it.”
“That’s what I hear. We’re all gonna starve.” “No, we won’t starve. I have enough dried beans, pasta, canned tuna, and the like to last us a month. It might not be appetizing, but we won’t starve. If you get hungry, you just come to my place and I’ll feed you. Do not worry about food.” “There you go,” he said as he drove away. Maybe he just needed to hear reassurance from someone who wasn’t wearing crazy pants for a change.
Sometimes we get caught up in everyone else’s crazy and forget the words of faith:
“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?” (Matthew 6:26-27).
Worry is a topic in every age. Marcus Aurelius was a Roman emperor in the 2nd CE, who favored the Stoic philosophy. For a Stoic, the vagaries of life didn’t produce happiness or any other emotional experiences, but virtue alone was the source of true happiness. Stoicism was an ethical way of life, in which order and the good of the community were more important than personal indulgence.
“Does the sun pretend to perform the work of the rain, or Aesculapius that of Ceres? What of the several stars? Are they not different, yet all jointly working for the same end? (Book VI, 43).”
In that ancient age, the Romans thought the sun, moon, and stars were all divine. Asclepius was the son of Apollo, the sun god, and a mortal woman, but he was raised by a centaur, a half horse-half man, who taught him healing powers. Ceres was the goddess of grain and of life itself. Famine, fertility, and the harvest were all under her power. Indeed, for the Romans, the entire cosmos was divine, and was organized in favour of providence. Marcus mentions “the whole cosmos is organised like a city, that is to say, each part is so organized as to serve the good of the whole.”
“Consider frequently the connexion of all things in the Universe, and their relation to each other. All things are in a manner intermingled with one another, and are, therefore, mutually friendly. For one thing comes in due order after another, by virtue of local movements, and of the harmony and unity of the whole (Book VI, 38).”
In the age of coronavirus, we sometimes think if we aren’t at risk, or if the harm is negligible for us or our families, we aren’t obligated to practice the same healthy practices recommended for other risk based groups. We would be thinking wrong, however. If low-risk people don’t socially distance, then the entire containment process is ineffective. Generally, there are fewer high-risk individuals — the sick and the elderly — and they don’t tend to move around as much as lower-risk individuals. Therefore, it’s more likely that a low-risk individual will expose a high-risk individual to the virus.
When we paint a still life of flowers in art class, we have to pay attention to the “harmony and unity of the whole.” Often I show several famous artists’ works before we begin, partly to expose my class to great art, but also to comment on certain design elements that they can incorporate to make their works more interesting. The Cezanne vase of flowers has an off center or asymmetrical subject balanced by the strong linear shapes dividing the background. Sometimes our own lives are off kilter, but we can stay balanced if we make sure to keep the weights on either side of the fulcrum point proportional according to their distance from the balance point. A large mass near the center point will balance out a lesser weight more distant from the pivot point.
We’re talking about the different types of balance in art: symmetrical, asymmetrical, radial, and mosaic (or all over) balance. When our lives become unbalanced, we need to institute order. Some of us house clean, others do home repairs or work on our golf games. Others of us cook up a storm and ignore our normal routines. Lately in this age of coronavirus, folks have taken to panic grocery shopping. I went to Sam’s for some usual bulk items and thought we were going to be hit by a freak one two punch of a spring blizzard and hurricane over the weekend. All the bread, chicken, paper goods, and cleaning products were gone. The next day I went to Kroger and saw the same thing, plus all the vegetables and fresh fruits were wiped out.
I paused to chat with a produce clerk. “I guess I picked a bad day to shop. Has it been like this all day?” She paused her straightening of the half dozen shallots remaining in the empty produce display case. Rolling her eyes, she sighed, “It’s been like this since we opened. Forty people were waiting at the door at 7 this morning.”
“Oh no! That’s too early to be out and about!” “Agreed! They’ve cleaned us out. Buying all that toilet paper, like we wouldn’t get a truck tomorrow.” “You get delivery every day?” “Oh, yeah, this is a big store and everything turns over quick. We’ll always get more tomorrow. “
I wished her luck. She looked tired and overwhelmed, but ten hours of an apocalyptic panic filled crowd had to have been unnerving. If we can’t see the danger beyond us, we often do whatever we can to help us feel like we’re taking charge of the situation. In reality, washing our hands with soap and water is the best way to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. After this, limiting personal interaction or social distancing, is the next good we can do for one another. My old mother had a prescription for trying times: “If you want to feel better during hard times, take care of someone less fortunate than you. Quit worrying about yourself.”
In art class we took some time to share how our lives would be impacted by the closings and postponements of upcoming various events. Some have new babies to celebrate, children to care for when schools close, and I have a 50th college reunion that got cancelled. I have an upcoming art show, which I anticipate will get cancelled also. These things happen, and while I won’t see my girlfriends from long ago, we can possibly make an alternative plan for the art show. If not, there’s next year, and we press on, knowing the year of coronavirus isn’t the end of the world as we know it, but a distraction that will bring out either the best or the worst in us.
Will general conference be postponed or annual conference? We don’t know as yet. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. While we can want our lives to run on our time and our schedules, there is a time and an order that belongs to God alone. Some people of faith can’t allow their minds to include the natural process of death and disease in the workings of God’s providence, while others see these as God’s just punishment for sin.
If God is at work for good in our illness and death, then it’s because God quickens the human heart to help and give care to others, rather than to lead us to care only for ourselves. If the poor and the vulnerable are most at risk in a pandemic, then the pervasive providence of God’s mercy is poured out for them through the hands of those who love and serve God. As people of faith, we believe “all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28).
Fresh flowers are fragile and not long lived. As such, artists choose to paint them in place of human subjects, who also have limited life spans. Flowers have the extra benefit of never complaining, “I’m tired. When can I get up and walk around?” They also don’t fuss if you paint them blue, if their actual color is pink, or say, “Well, I don’t think it looks very much like me.” I vote for flowers any day.
Gail rendered a fine asymmetrical design and paid close attention to the details of the flowers. Mike had an exuberant design with emotional use of color and texture. I asked both of them to try a new technique for mixing colors: pick up several colors on the brush and mix them on the canvas itself, rather than mix up one flat color, as if they were buying a bucket of paint at Lowe’s. I painted over an old canvas from last year. The bright colors of springtime give my spirits a lift, even if I know the skies are gray and drab.
Our art class Tuesday was much diminished by the threat of the coronavirus, but since many of us in the group are older, I’d rather they stay home and stay healthy, so we can meet to paint another day. Many things are changing now, so we need to adjust our minds to the new normal of life in the age of coronavirus. Just as schools are now doing distant teaching via the internet, churches will be live-streaming preaching and using small choral groups or soloists as their musicians. My favorite Starbucks will likely become a drive through, and restaurants will become get and go food distribution sites. Public places, such as movie theaters, museums, and bars will also close their doors. Prepare for the internet to slow down, with everyone streaming entertainment, school lessons, and shopping at home.
Since we don’t know how long this contagion will continue, our art class will not meet together in person until we know we can do no harm to one another by our gatherings. Our usual rule is if the schools are closed, we don’t meet. This more often applies to a weather emergency, but a health emergency is just as dangerous. When we’re cooped up at home for inclement weather, we can keep our spirits up, for we know the days will be temperate or tolerable soon enough. We find a way to keep our hands and minds busy as we mark our time of confinement. It always helps if we keep a sense of calm about us.
The ancient International Wisdom Tradition prized order not only in nature, but also in the community. Those who practiced this way of thinking in the Hebrew world could relate to Ben Sira’s words:
“In the time of plenty think of the time of hunger; in days of wealth think of poverty and need. From morning to evening conditions change; all things move swiftly before the Lord.” (Sirach 18:25-26)
The solid Marcus Aurelius reminds us, “Do you dread change? What can come without it? What can be pleasanter or more proper to universal nature? Can you heat your bath unless wood undergoes a change? Can you be fed unless a change is wrought upon your food? Can any useful thing be done without changes? Do you not see, then, that this change also which is working in you is even such as these, and alike necessary to the nature of the Universe? (Book VII, 18)”
Just remember, as an artist, you are a change agent. This is your nature, your being, and your purpose. You bring beauty to the empty canvas, you make sense of a lump of clay or a slab of rock. You can take cast off objects found on the roadside and recreate them into a new object full of meaning. You can change the fears and anxieties of your community by encouraging others to have hope and optimism. If we find the small ounces of courage within us, and share the teaspoons of it with others, we’ll find more courage welling up within us to flow out to others. By being willing to change our own lives, we can change others, and together we change the world.
I will keep you posted with my plans and projects, for I don’t plan to waste this time of seclusion. It’s a great time to catch up on reading, make some new paintings, try new recipes, and maybe even finish some chores about the home place. We won’t lose connection with each other, for if you keep me in mind and I keep you in mind, we will all keep the same mind that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross (Philippians 2:6-8).
Keep one another safe until we meet again. Joy and Peace, Cornelia
Lately I’ve had an extra burst of energy around the house, but this always happens as the light begins to change and the sap rises in the trees. I see the first feathers of blooming green on the tips of trees and realize the grays of winter are no more. The ornamental pears lining our drive are bursting into white and the joy of the pink Japanese magnolias have my spirits and energies both exulting. I was in Kroger looking for the daffodils to bring to art class, but they weren’t in the store yet. I live in a condo, so those jaunty jonquils on our property aren’t mine to cut, since they’re considered community property.
When I arrived at church Friday, it was a fine spring day, the sort most folks would want to be outside digging up a garden. I certainly would, but I have a few pots inside for herbs and call that my “condo garden” instead. Mike and Gail asked, “What? No flowers? We hoped there’d be flowers!”
Yeah, me too. I’m ready for flowers. Just as spring flowers remind us of new life, they also remind us of the fragility of life. In the bulb, there is the promise of the life yet to come, even if it’s hidden underground all winter, just as there’s the promise of our new life to come after our death and burial. When we have a worldwide pandemic of a novel Coronavirus, which has no vaccine as yet to protect us, we depend on common sense behaviors and our faith in times of trial.
For our still life, I appropriated a tea kettle and a frying pan from the church kitchen. Since I returned it, I didn’t use the five finger discount, but merely borrowed it for a bit. As we looked at the still life, I talked about the objects as simplified forms, which we’ve done time and time again. The basic forms may get boring, but they’re the foundational exercises for artists, just as practicing the scales are for musicians.
I pointed out how the tea kettle is more like a big sphere, which has had its bottom sliced off so it can sit on the table. If we can see the ball inside it, then we can capture its fullness. The spout is a cylinder, with a triangular form attached to it. The pan is another sphere, but this one has had its top and bottom cut off. It’s like a globe with only the equatorial latitudes remaining because the top and bottom 45% have been removed. Also, we can see the inside, for it’s been scooped out.
Last week I’d shown Gail the trick of using the brush handle to measure the still life and get similar proportions on her canvas. I showed this to Mike today. This is part of the “secret, gnostic, knowledge, known only to a few, and passed on by word of mouth,” which artists teach to students when they they’re ready to receive it. I usually leave the group alone for awhile, and then get up and make a quick check of their work. Gail and Mike are second year students, so they work more independently. We all paint some more, but on the second check is where we’re more likely to get into trouble.
This second checkpoint is about ninety minutes into a two hour session. Our internal clocks tell us to hurry up and finish, so we begin to paint without thinking or looking at our subject anymore. We’re just doing, but not paying attention. If we were slicing onions with a sharp knife for a restaurant, we might lose a fingertip here. Thankfully we’re only painting shapes, which can get covered over with more paint. Art is much more forgiving than chopping onions. Keeping our focus is a skill just as much as learning perspective, color theory, or value. Learning how to step away and check our work is also important.
What of the subject matter, though? What inspires us to paint? We may be asking the question, “What is beautiful?” A corollary to this is “Does the subject need to be beautiful to be art?” The ancient proverb, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” has been around in one form or another since the 3rd century BCE in Greece. I remember standing in front of J.M.W. Turner’s “Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus” (1829) in the Tate Gallery in London when I spent a winter term there during my grad school days.
I was making a small drawing of the scene, which I remembered well from my days in Latin class, and was paying attention to the details of the one eyed cyclops and the tiny figure shaking his fist in the boat below, when an older gentleman came close, inspected the art work, stepped back, and then looked hard at the painting once more. A brief moment of silence passed as he continued to study the work before him, then he leaned forward once more and read the painting’s title out loud. “Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus—no, I don’t see it. I don’t see it at all.”
I almost dropped my sketchbook in amazement. It was as plain as the nose on this man’s face, but he couldn’t see it. This painting currently isn’t on exhibition, so perhaps many people had the same reaction as the gentleman viewer, and not enough had my joyous response to Turner’s painting. If beauty is in the eye of the beholder, an untrained eye won’t recognize esoteric beauty even if it’s labeled “work of beautiful art.” If we don’t have fine arts education in our schools, then children grow up without an appreciation for their creative spirits and their own unique voices. Art is a field of exploration which allows for many types of expression and interpretations of “beauty.”
In our world today, we’ve turned so many activities over to professionals. While I wouldn’t want someone who stayed in a Holiday Inn last night doing brain surgery on me, I’m not ready to let fast food cooks prepare all my meals. This attitude of outsourcing ministry to the professionals is a dated concept, for now the most prevalent understanding is all Christians are called to ministry by virtue of their baptism, and some are set aside for special service to the church and the world through ordination. In art terms, we all are part of the arts and crafts movement, although some of us have special training to elucidate our greater gifts.
Paul explains this in his letter to Timothy:
“In a large house there are utensils not only of gold and silver but also of wood and clay, some for special use, some for ordinary. All who cleanse themselves of the things I have mentioned will become special utensils, dedicated and useful to the owner of the house, ready for every good work.” ~~ 2 Timothy 2:20-21
Lest we get a swelled head, thinking we’re special utensils, or get depressed believing we’re only ordinary utensils, we all need to remember we’re both useful in our Father’s household. In our everyday lives, we need to care for those in our community who exist on the margins of life, many of whom are hourly workers who stitch together several part time jobs to make ends meet, but don’t get health insurance anywhere.
Our elderly are another marginal and vulnerable group, who often have multiple health conditions and declining incomes, fewer social contacts, and less mobility. Once they were the special vessels, made of gold and silver, but now they get treated like ordinary wood and clay, too easily broken in their fragile days. Our elderly carry the dreams and memories of our history together, so they can tell the stories of perseverance when the times get tough.
The wonderful promise is all of us can be “special utensils,” dedicated to God, ready and useful for every good work. We merely have to show up. We don’t have to hire professionals to do all our work, but we can enjoy the experience of our own creative efforts. Learning new skills builds confidence as well as competency, so we get a double benefit. God will give the promised Holy Spirit to the entire priesthood, for we’re are all called to do God’s good works for the sake of the kingdom.
I’m currently reading Noah Gordon’s The Physician, the story of a Christian masquerading as a Jew so he can study in the ancient medical school in Persia during the Middle Ages. Authors have to describe their characters and the world they inhabit in order for the reader to imagine a realistic place, even if the location could only exist in the imagination. I find this book a great escape from the histrionics of the recent news cycles.
An artist who wants to render a three dimensional scene on a two dimensional surface has the extra challenge of learning a new visual language to describe the scene. Drawing in perspective is a brand new way of seeing and rendering a multidimensional world on a flat surface so the appearance of depth and solidity is realized. In some paintings, the artist’s style of painting depicts objects with photographically realistic detail. These works can “fool the eye” of the viewer.
The realism of Gerrit Dou’s “The Doctor” allows us to see the portrait of the physician through a window niche. The bas relief sculptural rendering on the wall is partly covered by a luxurious rug, on which a burnished copper dish rests. The window behind the Doctor adds a back light, but he uses the primary light from the niche opening to observe the liquid in the specimen container. His assistant is in the dimmer light of the background. We are looking through this window and watching him pursue his calling.
In other art works, the “realism” isn’t so much concerned with photographic accuracy, but with the emotional experience of the space rendered. The Scream, painted in 1893 by Edvard Munch, uses classical one point perspective to introduce the sensation of depth with the bridge. The two people walking away balance the one facing forward, who screams from the gut. The colors and shapes of the landscape are emotional reflections of the interior, psychic experiences of the screamer.
In art class last year, we had several lessons on perspective. Most students, no matter what their age, dislike these basic lessons. They want to jump right in and learn to paint a still life, figure, landscape, or a building. Unfortunately, if they jump over these basic instructions in drawing, they struggle to set a form in space or have difficulty getting the proportions of the objects correct in relation to eschew other. Art school students usually have have an entire semester class devoted to the multiple forms of perspective. I remember drawing the overhead pipes, book shelves, the corners of rooms, and anything else that had a vanishing point.
Perspective teaches us how to see by eliminating the extraneous and unnecessary information and concentrating instead on only the simplest and essential forms and lines. We can hold our paint brush handle up to the objects to measure them. This helps us know if the cone is twice the height of the cube, or 2.5 times. When we lay in our first sketch in a pale yellow wash, we don’t worry if it isn’t exact, we can adjust it with the paint. Why don’t we draw it in pencil? This tool tends to confine our creativity, since we’re used to small movements for writing and filling in correct answers from our school days. It has an eraser, so we struggle to get it “right.” Then we don’t paint with our hearts, but mechanically fill in the lines of a paint by number design.
Last week I was sick, and when I came back from the dead, others were down for the count, working the polls, or working in the salt mines. Gail and I were the only ones in attendance. She’d had the benefit of doing this lesson before, so I suggested we take the setup as a springboard for our imagination. We looked at some modern architecture, which depend on geometric forms for their design interest. One that caught our eye was a simple stacked design of rectangular blocks in a smoky atmosphere: Charles Willard Moore’s “Late Entry to the Tribune Tower Competition, Perspective,” 1980.
When we got busy painting, I put on Dvorak’s New World Symphony, since we were creating a new world for our new buildings to inhabit (the link below is to you tube, if you want to listen along). I also ate a few Girl Scout Samoas, since I bought several cookie boxes from Gail. They reside in the freezer now so I don’t eat them all before Easter. I’m sure Gail can supply you if you want cookies.
While painting, I often lose track of time, perhaps because I enter into this “other world” of my creation. I focus on the image I see and the image I paint on the canvas. My problems fade away, for all I can think about are how to bring the form closer to the foreground: do I need a lighter, brighter color or do I need to change the direction of my brush stroke too? I may need to darken the shape behind or the shadow below it to best evoke the depth of space. Sometimes just a line across the back is enough to set the objects in space, but if we’re trying to build a new world, we might have to indicate some form of landscape.
We talked about the science fiction movies which invent an entire language complete with syntax and vocabulary for the various peoples and architecture suitable for their worlds. If we lived on a planet of crystalline structures, we’d always see the individual parts of white light. Then we’d be people who analyzed the world about us and looked for multiple meanings in the simplest of sayings. If we lived on a hot desert world, we might yearn for cool, dark places, so caves would be our preferred dwelling places. There’s a home for each person, for as Jesus reminded his disciples in John 14:2—
“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”
What is real, you ask, and what is true? What comes from the heart and mind of the artist is real and true. It may not be of high quality, but proficiency comes from putting your true self into your work, without holding back. As the hand gains competence, the heart and mind have to struggle to remain true to the unique person who creates the work. The great danger is we become proficient at pleasing others for the sake of fame or fortune. Then we make pretty pictures, which will decorate walls and match furniture, but we may not reach the depths of the human heart and emotion required to produce lasting works of art.
None of us in our art class are here for fame and glory, yet we are progressing as the weeks go by. I like the rich texture of Gail’s Martian landscape and the red dust filled atmosphere of her painting. The odd geometric shapes look right at home on the extra planetary body. My landscape has a spring fondant look of a non-Lenten pilgrimage hostel or BNB. If anyone wants to journey elsewhere, the road is open before us, and is limited only by our imagination. Art class is where we let our minds stretch to consider the impossible and then create a structure to take us there. This is why VISION, HOPE, and OPTIMISM are also part of the artist’s toolbox.
I’m one of the world’s worst worriers. I can make a mountain out of a molehill. This doesn’t bode well for living life to the fullest, for none of us know for certain what’s coming up around the corner, much less further down the road. This knowledge paralyses some of us, so that some of us cannot make choices until we have more information.
The fear of making a poor choice keeps some of us confined to our beds, for what happens if we get out on the wrong side of the bed? Our whole day might be ruined. We’ll choose to stay in bed, rather than risk making this first bad choice of many. After all, there’s no sense of starting a day that will only go downhill from the gitgo.
In times of stress, I have repeated this sentence as if it were a mantra: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” ~~ 1 John 4:18
When faced with a blank canvas, we all have choices. If we use a pencil to draw the shapes, then we try to fill in the exact lines, even though we may not have yet found the perfection of form of the object we are representing. I always recommend drawing the general shape of the subject matter with a brush dipped in a wash of yellow paint. This helps the artist do two things: set the general composition and forms on the canvas, and provide an opportunity to correct any first misperceptions, since the pale yellow is easily over painted.
Of course, most of us have not lived in a world of unconditional love, even in the church. We Methodists are traditionally called to go “onto perfection in love of God and neighbor until our hearts are so full of love, nothing else exists.” Judgement causes fear, so people are afraid to give what they have or to serve with their gifts, if others tell them how poorly they are doing.
In art class, we have a rule of positive critiques. First we find three constructive statements to make about a student’s work. Then we talk about what can be improved. It takes time to move people’s minds from thinking negatively about their own work, to believing positively in their capabilities to learn. In this aspect, I confess to a belief in “works righteousness,” for persistence will pay off. While we may not become Matisse or Michelangelo, we can enjoy the pleasures of color and the creative act of making art in our own way.
We had a full class last Friday when I brought a small still life. The objects were a small clay lamp from the Holy Land, a white stone scraper I found on an arrowhead hunt with my family, my grandmother’s darning egg, a stone fossil from my San Antonio neighborhood, and a leaf I picked up in the parking lot. Artists can make anything interesting, for we don’t need to have luxurious items for our subjects. Each person brought elements of their own personality to the subject at hand.
Mike is one of my repeat students, who loves texture and mixing colors. You can see he favored the lamp, the scraper, and the fossil, for these have these best rendering. The rest are suggested just enough to balance the others.
Erma is new to the class and comes from a mosaic background. Her shapes are true and carefully drawn. Working to get the dimensional qualities is a challenge for everyone. This comes from learning to see the light and darks. Last year the class had traditional perspective drawing classes. I may have to do this again for this group, now that I see where they are.
Tatiana has a fine drawing of the leaf and the fossil. Her colors are natural. Getting shapes down is the first goal. Later we’ll work on highlights and shadows.
I was glad to see Glenn back after his health issue. Can’t keep a good man down. He was in good humor the whole class and was a blessing to all of us. He got the basic shapes of the still life on the canvas. Next time, we’ll work on filling more of the canvas, so it won’t feel so lonely.
Gail is on her second year of art classes. She’s either a glutton for punishment or she’s getting some pleasure from them. She is an example of persistence leading to improvement. Her objects are to scale, relative to each other. We see highlights from the light source, as well as the cast shadows, both of which emphasize the sense of solidity of the objects represented. She has marked off a front plane from the blue background.
Some say artists never use logic, or the left side of their brains, but I’d disagree with this. Back in the 1970’s, the commonly held theory was creativity’s location was in the right side of the brain, but today neuroscientists believe both logic and creativity use both sides of the brain at once. While speech and sight are located in certain areas, which if damaged, can affect these abilities, logic and creativity are spread out across many areas of the brain, says Dr. Kara D. Federmeier, who is a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she’s also affiliated with the Neurosciences Program and The Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology.
As we age, older adults tend to learn better how to be both logical AND creative. This may occur because this kind of a shift is helpful to bring extra processing resources to bear on a task to compensate for age-related declines in function. Or it might be a sign that the brain is simply less good at maintaining its youthful division of labor. Understanding hemispheric specialization is thus also important for discovering ways to help us all maintain better cognitive functioning with age.
Those folks who say “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” haven’t been to an art class. We don’t teach, we give opportunities to learn. Every day in my own studio, I learn something new about myself, the paint, my world, my calling, and my vision for the future. I never reach perfection, but at least I’m going on to perfection. My little still life has a mosaic quality, because I took an old canvas, which didn’t meet my expectations, and I sliced it up into evenly spaced vertical cuts. I took another poorly done old work, cut it up into horizontal strips and wove it into the first canvas. Then I painted over what was underneath. Yes, I had to pile the paint on thickly, but that gives it a rich effect, as opposed to a thinned out, watercolor feeling. While I made no clear line of demarcation, the color change denotes the difference between the table and the background.
I do not know what tomorrow will will bring, or what will come to life on the blank canvas before me. If we will trust the one who lived, died, and rose for us, we can live and work in perfect love every moment of our whole lives. I know I trust the word of our Lord who always will be there for us in our futures to make our mountains into molehills.
“But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” ~~ Mark 14:28
Happy New Year to everyone! I like nothing better than putting an old year down for the count, cleaning off my desk, and starting fresh. While I may be the same old gal, at least I have good intentions of improving myself over the next year. Since we have an extra day in 2020, I might meet my goal! My first act in the studio was to clean my palette, since it had an accumulation of color layers. I find the old colors distracting when I want to paint a new color scheme.
I was glad to meet some new students at Oaklawn UMC, where I volunteer to teach an art class for adults on Fridays. In addition to Gail and Mike, who’ve learned my own language and now need minimal guidance, I’m blessed with some new folks who’ll get an opportunity to get out of their houses and into the creative spirit.
Exploring the creative process is a wonderful way to come close to the God who created us in God’s own image. Since God is always creating, we who’re made in this image are also creating. Sometimes we make art, design homes, style our clothing choices, or plant gardens. Also we’re making families, cooking meals, or building birdhouses. Even in our sleep, we create a dreamworld unlike anything anyone else can imagine. We’re all artists, but most people quit thinking they can “do art” about the age of eight. This Is a sad commentary on peer pressure, but it also reflects our society’s preference for professional specialists. We tend to identify talent early and track students accordingly.
The practice of making art is beneficial at any age. Our goal doesn’t have to become the next Picasso or Michelangelo. In art class we learn new skills and put them to use in our own unique solution. This bolsters problem-solving skills and satisfaction that we can take into everyday life. I always tell my classes, “I expect everyone to find a different solution, since you’re all different personalities.” They never disappoint me!
Art class gets us out of the house, so we’re not looking at our own four walls. It can help alleviate boredom and keep our minds busy, and may even help prevent feelings of depression. It also helps with hand-eye coordination, cognitive abilities, and concentration.
I’ve always subscribed to the “works righteousness” school of teaching art: those who work will improve more than those don’t. If we keep on working, over time, we’ll show improvements. This will foster self-esteem and self-awareness and cultivate emotional resilience. We have to trust the process.
When we critique a work, it’s not to criticize or only to give negative feedback. A work always has positive aspects, those parts which meet the goals of the day, and negative aspects, or room for improvement. Approached in this manner, students can grow in their skills because the critique reduces and resolves conflicts and distress, which comes from being judged, and it helps to promote insight into their work for the future. As an aside, it might even enhance social skills, if they begin to speak this way in their own conversations outside of class.
Art class isn’t about being the best artist in the room. It’s about the connections between creative choices we make and our inner life. Too many of us are so busy taking care of others, we haven’t time to listen to God or to ourselves. If we take two hours on a Friday to do this, we can touch the part of us that yearns to speak within the silence, and give voice to the creative spirit within our lives.
I hope I assigned the correct name to each person’s art. I may be old and could claim “sometimer’s disease,” but I have the school teacher’s DNA which causes me to mangle my students’ names for the first month. I’ve done this since I was in my 20’s, so I might be incurable. I can edit this, however, if I’ve accused folks wrongly. Doing Art is wonderful, for we learn from our mistakes, so they bring us closer to perfection, rather than diminishing our goodness.
What is the most important image of the birthplace of Christ? For some of us, it’s a stable filled with hay and animals, in which the Holy Family fill with divine light. For others, the essence is the Holy Family alone. For others, those who brought various gifts take prominence. The early icons describe a dark cave, similar to the tomb in which Christ was laid after his crucifixion. This shouldn’t surprise us, for his birth made him at-one-with-us, just as his death and resurrection made at-one-ment for us. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the icons are worth a million words, or a whole theological thesis.
The cave, manger, and swaddling clothes are indications of the kenosis (emptying) of the Godhead, His abasement, and the utter humility of Him who, invisible in His nature, became visible in the flesh for humanity’s sake, was born in a cave, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and thus foreshadowed His death and burial, in the sepulcher and the burial clothes.
The icons are a window into the holy spaces, into the heavenly realm, or the spiritual world, whereas western paintings from the renaissance onward are representations of our three dimensional world on a flat surface. Icons have their own vocabulary and forms, so a wonder working icon from the 4th century would be copied over and over again into the present age. Modern icon painters would reinterpret the themes of the ancient icons, but until these images prove themselves to be “spiritual windows,” they’ll be mere paintings, but they won’t be true icons.
In the western world, we’re more likely to consider the narrative in traditional art, so the story details are as important as the design and color elements. Over the centuries the style changes with the artists,, but the main elements tend to stay the same.
With the Renaissance, artists and their patrons were more interested in the humanity of Christ, as well as the human figure itself. The landscape gets rendered in all its glory, and the architecture of the towns calls us to take a walking tour through it. By the baroque period, artists create a full scale Broadway production scene on their canvases. A “cast of thousands” seem to heighten the importance of the event portrayed.
Our class worked these past two weeks on The Nativity. Gail’s memory of her family incubating a premature baby in a dresser drawer became her Jesus in the Manger. While this may sound strange to some folks, my great grandparents also nursed a premie in this same manner in rural Louisiana. Adding layers of color to her ground, as Rothko did in his color field paintings, was her goal. I failed to get another photo. She’s still working on it.
Mike was working on a shed and the sky. This was more exciting to him than anything else. The figures came later. I also failed to photo them.
He had a coworker pass away during this time. If his mind wasn’t in this work completely, I could understand. His vacation painting of the beach chair at sunset was more of what he can do when his mind is free and his heart is at peace.
When I’m sick, I have limited artistic ability. By this, I mean I have no spiritual sensitivity to the world. I can’t feel connected to the shapes, colors, or forms. I’m “dead to this world” as well to the world beyond this one. My hand feels like lead, and my one brain cell which hasn’t gone to Pluto is only working at 20% power. I don’t do sick well, for I take it as a great inconvenience, if not an insult to my nature. I have people to see and paintings to make. I may destroy this little work, but it does have the traditional icon themes of the cave and the swaddling clothes of the birth and death of Christ.
When we go back and sit before an icon, we’re struck by the silent voice of the image. We have a choice: we can dismiss this still, small voice, or we can pause and listen to the voice of God speaking to our heart. I hope we don’t race off to do yet one more of the many “got to do lists” of the Christmas season, but sit for a moment, with a hot cup of our favorite beverage and a little cookie, and mingle with the mystical voices from heaven. We will be choosing the better part, just as Jesus said to Martha, “You are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)
Best source for Icons: Ouspensky & Lossky, The Meaning of Icons
Rogier van der Weyden, Nativity with the Donor Pieter Bladelin, center panel of the Middleburg (Bladelin) Altarpiece, ca. 1445, oil on panel, 91 x 89 cm. Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin, inv. no. Nr. 535 (artwork in the public domain)
Time and the tide waits for no one, we’re certain of this, for we can no more wrestle the waters of the sea to keep the waves from their constant flowing in and out than we can stop the minutes and seconds from slipping into the past, where they’ll be only a memory for a while.
As a mother, I endured the pains of childbirth for excruciating moments, but when I held my beloved daughter in my arms, I immediately began to replace those difficult memories with the present joys of her new life and my new hopes for our life to come. I learned how quickly a newborn child could grow, for she hardly had a chance to wear those cute 3 month old clothes before she outgrew them. When she was six, I bought her lace Sox and white patent leather shoes two weeks before her baptism, but she out grew them and walked to the font barefooted to receive the sacramental water.
I was appalled, but children’s feet don’t pay attention to parent’s pocketbooks or church calendars. Besides, God called her to holy ground, so her feet needed to be bared. The rest of us were just doing church. Time and tide, as well as the Holy Spirit, can’t be controlled by any human means. We have to ask, what does this have to do with art?
Samuel Johnson, the English author said, “The true art of memory is the art of attention.” To what do we pay attention?
1. To the various lists of chores we need to do before we can do something for our own joy or spiritual health?
2. To our list of fears and anxieties about what others will think of our choice to do an activity?
3. To our feelings of inadequacy if we don’t achieve instant success?
I could name others, but in truth, the true art of memory, which is the art of attention, is being present to oneself and to the present moment. We aren’t asked to be in the future or the past, but in the now. This isn’t as easy as it seems, but it’s extremely rewarding. When an artist “gets into this zone of the present moment,” all cares fall away, thinking about pains and problems ceases, and only the creative process and the creation becomes important. In a sense, the artist enters into the life of the creating God. How is this so? God is I AM, or the one who is I AM BECOMING. God is also I WILL BE, for God’s name is all of the “being and becoming” verbs at once.
I began formal art lessons at age 8 years old, but not everyone has that opportunity. Grandma Moses began painting at 78 years of age. Some people paint for fame or to try to earn a living. That was my goal before God called me to the ministry. Now I see my art as the opportunity for others to grow closer to God as a form of meditation. It’s also a good way to challenge the brain, since learning new things helps to keep the mind sharp. Adults need this, along with exercise, a healthy lifestyle, and companionship.
Over the last year, two students have persisted. Both have improved their drawing skills, they are better able to make self directed choices, they are better problem solvers, they see better, and their painting skills are improving. Moreover, while they say “I really don’t have time for this, but if I don’t do it, I get overwhelmed by too many other things. Art class helps me clear out a space for myself.”
In a sense, painting is like prayer. If we don’t have time for prayer, we can find our lives cycling out of control. We are ships on tides we can’t control and live from day to day, watching the leaves of our calendars fly past us, never to return again. Some of us may like living in chaos, since it gives us the feeling of being alive. Others choose to live in chaos because then they don’t have to deal with their feelings, but can spend their time putting out the fires. If we stop for prayer, or stop to paint, these feelings will come to the surface. At least in prayer or in art class, we’re in a place where God is close at hand. As the scriptures promise,
“The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth.” (Psalms 145:18)