The new year is always full of hope and promise. If we only look backward, we see what was unfulfilled and unfinished. When I sold insurance, I always had a calendar with my name and phone number printed on it, as a promise to my clients I would be there for them in the coming year. When I taught art, my lesson planner was a guide for the school term. I could plan assignments, each of which would build the skills necessary to complete later and more difficult art projects. Some things you can’t rush. Teaching a child to cut on a fold doesn’t come easy. First they have to handle scissors, then cut on a line, and then be sure to hold the fold in their non cutting hand. It’s not a nursery school achievement, but a five year old should handle it with practice.
Even grownup artists should always be pushing their talents out to the frontiers of the unknown. Of course, when we do this, we’re like golfers who deconstruct their golf swing. It can get ugly for a while, but we have to have faith in the process and the promise of the better outcome on the other side. If we’re chained to the approval of the crowd and need the affirmation of sales or positive critiques, we might take the easy path and continue our “style.”
I could tell I was on the verge of a transformational moment last year, but I was physically run down, suffering from a low grade sinus and bronchial infection. I blame part of it on my inability to accept the image of myself as a sick person, who needs to rest. Also, I don’t want to admit I’m not Wonder Woman, even if I want to maintain this delusion as a fantasy. The golden lasso of truth appeals to me: I should be able to use this on anyone, to know their inner truth. Instead, I depend on the gift of spiritual discernment, which only works efficiently if one stays bound to the God who sends the Spirit into our hearts and minds.
I can tell a real difference in works done when I’m sick and those done when I’m well. I labor over the brush strokes, I paint and repaint, and the results are staid and wooden. The dark evening clouds of my first painting this year belong to this group. This painting is most likely going to become one of the “woven works,” for it’s not satisfying my eye the longer I look at it. If it can’t last a month under my gaze, it’s definitely not ready for prime time.
About ten days later, I painted the rainbow clouds over the lake. The medicine and my willingness to rest finally have had a positive effect. A sense of joy and delight pervades this canvas. If I could give a rainbow sky to everyone, I think we’d all be much happier.
This little square painting is from an arial view of Hot Springs, at the Cornerstone Shopping Center. While it’s not an exact highway and street rendition, it does represent the green spaces near the roads and the mall. Since I do a lot of landscapes, I’m interested in the amount of green spaces our city has. Some people see these empty lots as potential sites for future real estate development, but Hot Springs can keep its health conscious reputation by conserving some of these green areas to keep our air clean.
I hope to stay well in the new year and to focus on my art more. If we are to “Love our neighbors as ourselves,” perhaps we need to truly learn to love ourselves more, so we can better love the neighbors and our neighborhoods.
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.
Here at the beginning of the New Year of 2020, I’m taking time to reflect on the end of an age and the beginning of another. Some will begin the celebration of the new decade now since we’ve moved into the 20’s, but as the mathematicians will tell us, the numbering of years began with a 1, so the old decade ends in the zero year, and the new decade won’t begin for another year. I enjoy parties, so you can invite me to your party this year, and I’ll invite you to my party next year. Twice as much fun for everyone!
Each year brings new changes. We age, get married or divorced, or have children. My daughter, if she had lived, would now be as old as I was when I began my fifth career by answering the call and going to seminary. Time flies when you’re having fun, and it can plumb get away from you when your life is tipsy turvey. Yet, history tells us life has always been turbulent and we don’t live in extraordinary times. The world of the Bible, Shakespeare, and the poets remind us human nature has always been in conflict with God’s plans for peace.
THE SECOND COMING By William Butler Yeats
Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
Surely some revelation is at hand; Surely the Second Coming is at hand. The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi Troubles my sight: somewhere in sands of the desert A shape with lion body and the head of a man, A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun, Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds. The darkness drops again; but now I know That twenty centuries of stony sleep Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle, And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
This poem ends with the famous lines, “And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” Yeats wrote it in 1919, after the end of World War I. This date is significant, for we’re at the centennial celebration of this Great War, but also at a watershed moment in our modern life. H. G. Wells, the sci-fi writer, called it the “war to end all wars,” but later he thought any war was waged with the hope to end war forever.
Today our world seems to be falling apart once again. The center doesn’t seem to hold, but instead the voices of the extremes fill the sound waves and social media. Some of us want to escape under our covers, while others act out in rages. We in the middle keep praying, “Come Lord Jesus!”
Sea Changes are Inevitable If we today are in a sea change, we should look back on the times of historic tumult. We need first to give credit to Shakespeare for creating the word and its current meaning in his play The Tempest, from 1610, in which ARIEL sings:
Full fathom five thy father lies; Of his bones are coral made; Those are pearls that were his eyes: Nothing of him that doth fade But doth suffer a sea-change Into something rich and strange. Sea-nymphs hourly ring his knell
Change to a Heliocentric Universe During Shakespeare’s time, the most exciting sea change was the shift from the earth-centric universe to the heliocentric universe. Copernicus had proposed this earlier, but Galileo was able to prove it by direct observation once he had a working telescope. Galileo modified one of the early spyglasses used on ships and made a telescope from it. With it, he was able to see the mountains and craters of the moon, and study the planets as they crossed the sky.
Because the Catholic Church had taught for centuries the earth was the center of the universe, in 1616 Galileo was charged with the crime of heresy, or teaching false doctrines, because of his belief in a sun centered universe. When he published a book of proofs on Copernicus’ Theory in 1632, he was convicted again and sentenced to house arrest for his teachings.
New ideas are hard to accept by even the most learned persons in a generation. We have believed what we’ve known to be true for so long, our minds can’t even flex and bend to a new idea. Some say this is why we can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but that’s not always true. While some think Shakespeare may have known of Galileo’s treatise, Starry Messenger, others disagree. Reputable astronomers, theologians and poets in England continued to cogently defend Ptolemy’s earth centric universe well into the late 17th century.
Still, Shakespeare has his Hamlet dream of infinite space: “O God, I could be bounded in a nutshell and count myself a king of infinite space…” (2.2.55- 56).
Arabic Numerals “unwelcome” to a majority of Americans
Even today, we have difficulty accepting strange or foreign ideas. A recent poll asked, “Should Americans, as part of their school curriculum, learn Arabic numerals?” A Pittsburgh-based research firm CivicScience questioned 3,200 Americans recently in a poll seemingly about mathematics, but the outcome was a measure of students’ attitudes toward the Arab world. Some 56 percent of the respondents said, “No.” Fifteen percent had no opinion.
Those results, which quickly inspired more than 24,000 tweets, might have been sharply different had the pollsters explained what “Arabic numerals” are. There are 10 of them: 0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 and 9.
HOW HAVE OUR IDEAS ABOUT GOD CHANGED ACROSS THE CENTURIES? If Jesus is fully human and fully divine, can he be said to be male in the ordinary sense? When Jesus ascended into heaven, did his full human nature incorporate into the Holy Trinity? Also, does God the Father participate in the same human characteristics of earthly fathers, or is Father a title only which excludes the characteristics of Motherhood?
As we ask these engendered human questions about relationships in the spiritual realm, perhaps we are missing the mark entirely. If we project our human relationship experiences on the Holy Trinity, we attempt to make it in our own image. Instead, we’re called to look at the greater image and remake our own lives to conform with it.
A Closer Look at Engendered Language This means we need to take a closer look at the language used across the centuries of Christian tradition. It has changed with the times, as people of faith have worked out what the faith means. The earliest years involved many of our great doctrines, but that doesn’t mean they’re fixed in concrete. As we revisit them in new contexts and with new insights, we might find fresh expressions of older ideas.
Much has been made over the years of Christian tradition of God the Father and the maleness of the Holy Trinity. Some say this was to separate Christianity from pagan religions, which had both sexes in their pantheon. The doctrine of the trinity also has roots in Greek philosophy. Inspired by the Timaeus of Plato, Philo read the Jewish Bible as teaching that God created the cosmos by his Word (logos), the first-born son of God. By further emanation from this Word, God creates all that there is by means of his creative power and his royal power (conceived of both as his powers, and yet as agents distinct from him) giving him, as it were, metaphysical distance from the material world.
Arian Heresy (The Son is a Creature) Several hundred years later, in accordance with an earlier subordinationist theological tradition, Arius taught the Son of God was a creature, made by God from nothing a finite time ago. Some time around 318–21 CE, a controversy broke out, with Arius’ teaching opposed initially by his bishop Alexander of Alexandria (d. 326). Alexander examined and excommunicated Arius. Numerous churchmen, adhering to subordinationist traditions about the Son rallied to Arius’ side, while others who favored theologies holding to the eternal existence of the Son and his ontological equality (of the same substance and nature with the Father) joined his opponents. The dispute threatened to split the church, and a series of councils ensued, variously excommunicating and vindicating Arius and his defenders, or their opponents. Each side successively tried to win the favor of the then-current emperor, trying to manipulate imperial power to crush its opposition.
Council of Constantinople By the time of the council of Constantinople (381 CE), an anti-subordinationist reading, vigorously championed by Alexandrian bishop Athanasius (d. 373) had the upper hand; homoousios was understood as asserting the Father and Son to not merely be similar beings, but in some sense one being. While it stopped short of saying that the Holy Spirit was homoousios with the Father and Son, the council did say that the Holy Spirit “is worshiped and glorified together with the Father and the Son”, and added in a letter accompanying their creed that the three share “a single Godhead and power and substance” (Leith 1982, 33; Tanner 1990, 24, 28). Over the ensuing period the same sorts of arguments used to promote the divinity of the Son, were reapplied to the Holy Spirit, and eventually inhibitions to applying homoousios to the Holy Spirit evaporated.
From the standpoint of later catholic orthodoxy, a key episode in this series occurred in 325, when the Emperor Constantine (ca. 280–337) convened a council of bishops and decreed the Father and Son were homoousios (of the same substance or essence). Arius and his party were excommunicated. The intended meaning of ousia here was far from clear, given the term’s complex history and use, and the failure of the council to disambiguate it (Stead 1994, 160–72). They most likely settled on the term because it was disagreeable to the party siding with Arius. This new and ambiguous formula fanned the flames of controversy, as subordinationists and anti-subordinationists understood the phrase differently when signing on to it, and later argued for conflicting interpretations of it.
Athanasius and others in the prevailing party argued the salvation of humans required the Son and Holy Spirit to be equally divine with the Father. This kind of argument depends on various controversial models of salvation, such as the one on which salvation involves the “deification” or “divinization” of humans, which can only be accomplished by one who is himself divine (Rusch 1980, 22–23).
Despite shifting convictions about what salvation is and how God accomplishes it, this basic sort of argument remains popular—that if Christ and/or the Holy Spirit were not in some sense “fully divine”, then humanity couldn’t be saved by their actions. One of the most currently popular arguments is our forgiveness by God, an infinitely valuable being, requires an atoning sacrifice of infinite value. Hence, Christ has to be fully divine, as only a fully divine being has infinite value. Also, Christ must be fully human in order to save all of our humanness. This is usually stated as “Christ became human that we might become divine.”
The Athanasian Creed By the sixth century the Athanasian Creed, written by an anonymous author, announced this image of the Trinity:
The Father eternal, the Son eternal, and the Holy Spirit eternal. And yet they are not three eternals, but one Eternal.
As also there are not three incomprehensibles, nor three uncreated, but one Uncreated, and one Incomprehensible. So likewise the Father is Almighty, the Son Almighty, and the Holy Spirit Almighty. And yet they are not three almighties, but one Almighty.
So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God. And yet they are not three gods, but one God.
St. John Chrysostom St. John Chrysostom, who lived in the 5th century CE, called Christ our “friend, and member, and head, and brother, and sister, and mother”.
St. Anselm St. Anselm, the 11th-century Archbishop of Canterbury, prayed to “Christ, my mother” and called God “the great mother”.
Julian of Norwich Julian of Norwich, an English recluse, in her 14th-Century Revelations of Divine Love says: “Just as God is our Father, so God is also our Mother”. She talks about “our precious mother, Jesus”. She speaks of the Trinity, usually described as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in these terms: “Our Father desires, our Mother operates, and our good Lord the Holy Ghost confirms”.
Modern Worship As for the language of church services, some British denominations have gone ahead of the Church of England into inclusivity. The Methodist Church introduced a new service book in 1999 which uses both male and female language for God, “our Father and our Mother”. The United Reformed Church agreed in 1984 to use inclusive language in all its publications and last year its General Assembly called on all URC congregations to use “inclusive and expansive language and imagery in worship”.
Also some parts of Judaism are exploring more inclusive language for God. In 1975, in the US, Naomi Janowitz and Margaret Wenig produced a version of the prayer book Siddur Nashim, which used female pronouns and images for God. In 1996, Gates of Repentance, the High Holy Day prayer book of Reform Judaism, was published, calling God “sovereign” instead of “king”, and “source” or “parent” instead of father.
There has been no comparable movement in Islam, which is less open to this kind of reinterpretation. Christianity and Judaism, however, seem to be in the process of a major continuing realignment. This sea change is comparable to the shift a century ago when the familiar Newtonian world collapsed and Einstein shook the scientific foundations with his Theory of Relativity.
The shift from Newtonian to General Relativity The old empires and European houses which had thrived for centuries had collapsed into conflict, paving the way for a new world to emerge. Similarly, Einstein’s theories had set the world of science at each other’s throats. As The Observatory said: “Many eminent men of science had refused to accept Einstein’s theory; this was probably due in part to the upsetting of old and ingrained ideas that it caused.”
By the time Albert Einstein had corrected his mathematical mistakes and published the completed theory of general relativity, World War I was in full swing. Afterwards, Germany was in shambles, and too wrecked to mount expeditions to the distant parts of the world where an eclipse in 1919 would be visible. In the midst of war, with no peace plans in sight, Sir Arthur Eddington and Sir Frank Watson Dyson plunged ahead to prove Einstein’s theory. The war ended, and they brought back photographic evidence of the shift of light from the stars during the eclipse, which Einstein had predicted.
General relativity abandoned Newton’s idea that gravity is a force pulling objects together. It reimagined gravity as a warping of time and space — a distortion in the fabric of the universe. According to the mathematics of relativity, light traveling through this distortion will change its path, accommodating the universe’s warps and wefts. The more massive an object, the bigger the distortion, and the more its gravity can bend light.
Newton’s theory of gravity made a competing prediction, worked out in detail by a German astronomer in 1801. His math suggested a shift only half as large, based on the notion that the force of the sun’s gravity would pull on the distant stars’ light particles.
Still, general relativity itself wasn’t immediately accepted. Some scientists had trouble understanding it. “The complications of the theory of relativity are altogether too much for my comprehension,” American astronomer George Ellery Hale confessed in a letter, which also celebrated the results from the 1919 eclipse. Others looked for alternative explanations for the moving stars, clinging to Newton’s vision of the universe.
However, Lick astronomers confirmed relativity again during the 1922 and 1923 eclipse observations in Australia and Mexico. Meanwhile, observations of the star Sirius B seemed to support another prediction, that the gravity of stars stretches the light waves they emit. Quasars, which send out powerful radio waves, also confirm Einstein’s theory of general relativity, for astronomers can measure how the sun bends those radio waves.
Read below an interesting poem, written by Sir Arthur Eddington, director of the Cambridge Observatory, who was a math prodigy and devout Quaker. Ready to be imprisoned as a conscientious objector, Eddington, like Einstein, believed in pacifism. He had acquired a copy of Einstein’s theory and was one of the few English-speaking scientists who had a thorough understanding of general relativity. He teamed up with Astronomer Royal Sir Frank Watson Dyson to persuade his nation in 1919 to put relativity to the test.
A Poem by Sir Arthur Eddington Oh leave the Wise our measures to collate One thing at least is certain, LIGHT has WEIGHT, One thing is certain, and the rest debate — Light-rays, when near the Sun, DO NOT GO STRAIGHT.
Discovery of The Dark Side Now scientists believe only 5% of the universe is matter, but the rest of the universe is made up of dark matter and dark energy, both of which are hard to quantify. Yes, this is a sea change that rocks our fragile boats on the very large ocean of space. Once upon a time, we human creatures thought we had knowledge locked down, but now we’ve discovered once again, we know even less than Shakespeare did. We have the whole brave, new world before us, and may we be good enough to inherit it.
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)
I awoke Sunday morning to a fog enveloped world. My brain was much the same until I made my morning cup of coffee. Unfortunately, this took longer than I expected, for I had only one tablespoon of grounds and a full bag of beans. I’m glad the electric coffee grinder was standing silent beside the coffee pot, waiting only for its moment to be of service. On any ordinary day, I ignore it completely, just as many of us fail to observe the subtle changing of colors from day to day or how the sunlight of the seasons has a different temperature and feel.
Seeing is a learned skill, but like the ancient, secret, gnostic wisdom known only to a few and passed by word of mouth, seeing is best learned in an art class with one who is an eye already. Cézanne characterized Monet as “only an eye—yet what an eye.” Monet taught students not to think of the tree, the building, or the flowers they painted, but of the colors and shapes they were putting on their canvases. This is a conceptual leap, as if we were translating English into Spanish or Martian (we may need this when we go to Mars).
faced with all the many impressions daily flooding into our consciousness, most
of us have learned to block all these distractions out. We do this to “get our
chores done in record time” and “come home to escape from this rat race.” “Out
of sight and out of mind” is a phrase I often heard growing up. We are often
“unconscious people,” walking about in a fog. My dad grew a mustache and my mother
kissed him every night before bed without realizing he’d changed his facial
appearance. I came home for a visit and said, “When did you grow the Col.
Saunders’s look?” My mother was shocked she hadn’t noticed it.
Our first lessons in art class are drawing the geometric figures, since we can simplify or translate most things in nature to these forms. Bushes are balls, houses are cubes, trees are cones, and so on. Some are multiplications of the forms, such as some tree’s foliage is made up of several ball shapes. You get the idea. This way of looking helps to simplify the details so people don’t get stuck on every single leaf.
Another way to simplify is to leave out some of what you see and focus only on what you think is important. If you were a camera in front of a landscape, your eye would take in everything in front of it. We aren’t cameras, however. We can paint as much or as little of what we see before us as we want. I remember in seminary study groups, we prepared for final exams together. The exam would be 3 hours long and cover a semester’s work, which included all the class notes and 15,000 pages of reading. Some of my pals would write a book length answer to one study question. “Fine, but there’s going to be a dozen other questions, so can you hone this down to an essay?” Keeping it simple is a good motto in art class.
Friday in art class I brought in angel hair spaghetti. If the kids eat it, I’m not worried. Fortunately, my “kids” are grownups, but we like to get our inner child out to play every once in a while. We put paint on the sticks and tossed them down on our canvases wherever luck would have them land. In biblical terms, this is “casting lots.” I had given them some ideas for landscape images or they could do some squares in the style of Paul Klee. They went with trees. Mr. Energy and Exuberance, aka Mike, finished his up with jewel tones. Gail, Thoughtful and Precise, did a hard edge tree with a lightning bolt in the background. I worked on a Klee square piece, but I only got the first layer down. It needs more subtle overpainting.
Learning how to see is a lifetime process. The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance, and this, and not the external manner and detail, is true reality, said Aristotle. Art opens us up not only to the outer world, but also to our inner world. As we see more in the world about us, we find more compassion for its brokenness as well as more love for its beauty. Likewise, we realize we too are both broken and beautiful, so we find we can be more compassionate and loving towards our own selves. As forgiven and reconciled people, we can pour God’s love out into the world and into our art as well.
We discover art isn’t just about decorating a surface with pretty colors and shapes, but art is more about the spiritual process of growing in grace, accepting our lack of strength, and learning to depend on the power of the Spirit moving our hands and hearts. The more we try to impose our power upon the work, the less life it has, but the more we “get out of ourselves,” and let our inner witness work, the more life our creation embodies.
the artist within each of us is always creating a new thing, just as God is
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
As part of my ministry in retirement, I take my prior callings as an artist and a pastor with equal passion and joy. I call my studio ARTANDICON because my paintings aren’t just pretty colors, but always have a spiritual content. You may think I’ve painted a pleasing landscape, but my intent was to glorify the God who created this world and gave us the mandate to care for God’s creation.
In art class we not only learn art lessons, such as how to render a realistic 3-dimensional geometric form on a flat piece of canvas in perspective using size and scale, but we also learn about the color wheel. Colors which are warm tend to come forward, and cool colors tend to recede. These examples from last week’s class are a case in point.
I didn’t make it easy on them, for we learn more when we’re faced with a challenge. Adults in particular need to have continuous learning experiences to keep their minds nimble and active. Learning new and complex skills is one of the six pillars of Alzheimer’s prevention, along with social engagement, regular exercise, healthy diet, quality sleep, and stress management.
This is the 2nd year of our class and they’re showing improvement over last year. They can draw the forms better and we’re working now to free them from making a line and filling it in like a coloring book. This is a sign of “needing to get the design right before I start.” Most of us are “afraid” most of our lives—will we measure up, what will people think of me, what if I make a mess, and worst of all, can I live with myself and know I’m not perfect?
Each person in art starts from where they begin. Art is one of the few classes in which working hard will help improve your skills. Plus students aren’t judged against against an abstract criteria, but for how well they managed to fulfill the parameters of the lesson and their overall improvement. Faith, not works, may get us to heaven, but works, not faith, get us an art work.
In art class, we have to drop all these false masks of “competence and perfection.” Every day is a learning experience and every work we do will have some small part which we know “I could have done this better.” Yet we have to let this work go out from under our hands and take this lesson to the next work. If we truly learned that lesson, we’ll learn a new one on this next work, and the cycle repeats. We call this the growth cycle in art. In life, it’s called “growing pains” or suffering. All artists “suffer for their work” if they’re making progress and growing.
In the spiritual life we can be comfortable or suffering. Those of us who are comfortable aren’t aware of the suffering of others, the injustice of systemic oppression, or environmental harm. We aren’t meant to merely co-suffer, but are called to act to relieve suffering and change the systems that cause suffering in the world and her peoples.
In art class, students tend to draw one object at a time, without checking the scale of it to the nearby objects. Then when they paint it, they focus on getting the one object looking good, even if they ignore the original shape. Rather than correct the other shapes of their drawing, they go ahead and fill in the lines. This is a problem many of us have in life. We pay too much attention to one thing, to the detriment of everything else. We work on it, trying to get it right and then everything else is out of whack. We’re like a three year old who gets the scissors in hand and works diligently to even out his or her selfie haircut. It doesn’t go well for us. It’s like cleaning the kitchen, but letting the rest of the house go to pot or worse.
Art class is a place where you learn life lessons as well as art. Art is for life. It’s a place where you can get encouragement for your best efforts. We all make the same mistakes. Great artists can see flaws in their own work the average person doesn’t have the eye to see. If they are truly great, they’ll be truly humble, for they know how much more they have to learn. If we could bring these art lessons to life, many of our interpersonal relationships would be much more successful.
“And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” ~~ Romans 5:3-5
My students in the art class at the church have shown much progress since we began last year. I’m proud of them for sticking in there and taking this journey down a path less traveled by others. Most art education classes begin with the idea of a model and the students should all try to match it. This is typical of “right answers” in most schoolwork, such as math. Indeed, 2 plus 2 should equal 4, and not 3 or 5. We can’t get creative in our answers in math class, but we can have room for creativity in art class. If we have a still life to render on a page, we should have something that’s recognizable as the objects, but Cubism has taught us the objects don’t have to be painted as Realism. We can paint them different, emotional colors, as in Fauvism, or in a monochromatic scheme, like Georgio Morandi.
Another growth area we have is continuing to observe the subject while we draw and paint. Children draw the idea or symbol of the thing they’re representing. If we’re attempting to render a realistic subject, we need to constantly check back to the objects to notice the negative spaces and the shadows, as well as the forms themselves. This is a matter of discipline, which all artists have to undergo. I spent many an hour in art school drawing models without ever being able to look at my work—this is how you train your brain to connect to your hand. The first efforts are pretty goofy looking, for sure. You have to leave your ego at the door if you want to become an artist.
All beginning artists try to make a shape perfect first and then color it in, much like filling in the black lines of a coloring book. This year we’re working on losing our need to be perfect from the start, and begin to paint from the first. This lets us have more emotion and feeling in our work. We do this by drawing with a brush and a light, yellow wash on the canvas. We can easily paint over it with our thicker paints. If we don’t get it right, we can scribble over it, or use a pale pink wash to make a different line.
About the age of nine, children begin to draw what they see, but still have no real sense of perspective or scale. The most important object is the largest. About the time they become teenagers, they show an interest in realism and the artistic skills needed to produce these tricks of the eye. More precocious children will begin earlier, and others may never show an interest at all. Some naive painters will retain childish forms, but have strong pattern and design elements, such as Grandma Moses, who painted the memories of her childhood.
Last year I started the class on basic perspective. It might have been too difficult for some, or too uninteresting for others. Yet basic perspective is a building block lesson for any art lesson that is more than decorating a flat surface with pretty colors. Likewise, making a shadow study of basic geometric forms is important because all objects in nature can be reduced to a geometric form: tree trunks are cylinders, fir trees are cones, oak trees are spheres, houses and churches are rectangular solids and pyramids, and bridges are rectangular solids supported by piers, which are more of the same. A complex landscape becomes easier to sketch out in block shapes if the artist can identify the basic components of what he or she sees.
People think art is “Just something I can do when I feel like I’ve got nothing else to do.” This is the description for finger painting for kindergarteners, if you think about it. Art is for both thinking and feeling, since both the brain and the heart need to be active at the same time. Some say only the heart needs to be active, but the head is exercising choices and making decisions to limit the red or to add more yellow or to rip a huge black down the side of the canvas. Only the artists who are unintegrated will contend they work only from the mind or from the heart. We actually work with both, even if one is diminished in nature.
If the great commandment, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind,” means anything in the art life, it’s we aren’t meant to separate any one part of our experience from any other part. In our art expressions, as in our faith expressions, our heart, soul, and mind needs to be fixed on love of God, as well as love of neighbor, for loving our neighbor, in whatever form, fashion, or fix our neighbors find themselves in, is the same as loving the image of God in which they were also made. By loving our neighbors, we love ourselves also. If we hate our neighbors, we hate ourselves. God didn’t mean for us to hate God’s image.
These are the wonderful spiritual truths we learn in art class. It’s more than learning how to mix colors or draw a box in perspective. These are art skills. Life skills are way more important. Take a look at the work from last year and this year. You can still join this class. You aren’t competing with anyone, but you will be working to improve over time. Going onto perfection takes time. Now is a good time to begin!
The heat of summer hasn’t yet passed, even though we’re past “seasonal summer” and are almost at “meteorological fall.” Yes, the autumnal Equinox is almost upon us, arriving on September 23, at 2:50 am CDT. Even though the term means “equal night,” the day is longer than 12 hours on an equinox because Earth’s atmosphere refracts sunlight. Why does day insist on exceeding its boundaries, you ask, and not be content with with “equality?”
Refraction, or bending of the light, causes the Sun’s upper edge to be visible from Earth several minutes before the edge actually reaches the horizon. The same thing happens at sunset, when you can see the sun for several minutes after it has actually dipped under the horizon. This causes every day on Earth – including the days of the equinoxes—to be at least 6 minutes longer than it would have been without this refraction. The extent of refraction also depends on atmospheric pressure and temperature. It’s the nature of days to want to be longer, or if they’re like my little girl, to want one more story or just one more drink of water before the lights go out for nighty night.
This is the season of sunflowers, and they bring light inside when we want to keep the shades down or the curtains drawn to keep the hot sun from cooking our dwellings and driving up our air conditioning bills. I’d bought some blooms to brighten my home and enjoyed them while I repainted my condo. They died during this weeklong endeavor. Afterwards I took a break from wall painting to do some canvas painting. I decided to paint the dying sunflowers.
Van Gogh painted numerous sunflowers, often in vases, but he also painted canvases of the flowers with no background or container. One had double heads, but the other larger one had four life sized dried heads and is approximately 24” x 39.” He painted it between August and October, 1887. Van Gogh often painted flowers to practice color combinations. Some think he saw the sunflower as a symbol for the bright sun of the south of France, the light of which permeates his paintings. His friend and art colleague, Paul Gauguin traded his work for one of Vincent’s dried sunflower paintings.
Van Gogh’s Four Dried Sunflower Heads
Doing a homage to a masterpiece helps an artist grow. The artists of old never worried about their “brand” or “style,” for they made the art they needed to make. It also helps to identify areas the artist needs to develop, such as color combinations, design, drawing, negative vs. positive space, texture of paint, and light vs. dark. Because the artists aren’t invested in “their own motifs or symbols,” they can concentrate on these focused areas.
Of course, none of us can make an exact copy, for we don’t bring the emotions or vision of the original creator to the piece. This is especially true if we use live objects rather than making a direct copy of the original painting. Not many of us have the intensity of Van Gogh’s short and chaotic life. I’m not given to sticking with natural color, so my five sunflowers all have different seed heads, rather than the same brown. The stems change color, but not as much as Van Gogh’s painting.
We can aspire to perfection, but attaining perfection is difficult. All artists and creative types have to learn to deal with this incongruity of life and work. Even in the spiritual life, we can know the truth that sets us free, but live a life in bondage, for we don’t allow God to work in our lives and set us free. It’s as if we can know the laws of perspective, but not execute them on the paper, with the result our drawings of buildings look out of sort.
I make a painting, hang it on my wall, and I can almost immediately see room for improvement. Sometimes I work some more on it, other times, I call it good for now, and go on to the next canvas. A year or so later, I might repaint it, or cut it up and reweave it into a new opportunity for creativity. This sunflower poem by William Blake speaks to the aspirations of our earthly journeys for their ultimate destination with the holy.
By William Blake
Ah Sun-flower! weary of time,
Who countest the steps of the Sun:
Seeking after that sweet golden clime
Where the travellers journey is done.
Where the Youth pined away with desire,
And the pale Virgin shrouded in snow:
Arise from their graves and aspire,
Where my Sun-flower wishes to go.
Of course, we don’t need to die to unite with the holy, for we can become one with God when we dedicate our lives to loving God and neighbor with all our hearts, minds, bodies, and spirits. Doing art is a form of meditation, for if you focus on the image before you and the act of painting, you aren’t thinking of politics, eating, paying bills, hurricanes, or family problems.
“Doing it right” means losing track of time, learning from your mistakes, and keeping a positive mental attitude. It also means giving yourself some grace, for your desire to do better is only a challenge, not a barrier. It’s also what fuels your energy to get up every day to say, “What beauty can I bring to the world today?”
Don’t worry about perfection, but keep on painting or creating! Each day is another step towards your ultimate goal. We can’t climb Mt. Everest if we don’t leave home and travel to Tibet. Like the ancient desert dwellers, we travel by stages, from one oasis to another. Sometimes we rest a bit at each place, as we gather strength for the next part of the journey. Picasso, Rembrandt, and other famous artists developed several styles along the way, since they lived long lives. Those artists’ lives whose were cut short didn’t have such an opportunity.
May you live long and splash joyful color throughout your days,
“Only when he no longer knows what he is doing, does the painter do good things.”
Edgar Degas, the French artist known for his ballerina paintings, is a good teacher from whom to learn. A true artist learns something new every day and isn’t afraid of failure. Failure is just another word for discovering what won’t work. As artists and as Christian believers, we are a people of hope. In fact, one might say we’re afflicted with chronic optimism. Even when our work fails to satisfy us, we can say, “Look at what I learned on this, and what I can carry over to my next work.”
North Carolina Sunlit Path
This little landscape is the second stage of a previous painting, one which I began while I was ill with a sinus infection. If I wasn’t at my best, I also wasn’t at my worst, so I was painting at my easel. I knew I wasn’t happy with it, but I thought I’d live with the painting until I heard it tell me what was needed.
The trees of the finished work are more slender, more shaped by the wind of the Carolina coastline. The bush masses are larger and have more contrast, while the sky is more evenly colored. Even the path has more sunlight and less shade.
Artistic license is the ticket to drive we all got as children with crayons and poster paint. We could paint the sky red if we took a notion to do so, give our dogs blue tongues, or paint the grass orange. Only the grownups among us squelched our creative spirits. Sometimes we have to learn to forget ourselves on purpose to learn art, faith, love, compassion, or joy.
I’m going to teach Friday morning art classes again at Oaklawn UMC. You bring your materials, I volunteer my years of experience teaching K-12 and adults. You get to learn real art:
Shading in Value & Color
Drawing & Painting from Life
One thing you’ll never do is copy anything I’ve already done or come home with a work that looks similar to one of your classmates. Art is about expression of your inner truth. You get to do you, and have a safe place to grow and struggle.
As G. K. Chesterton said in Orthodoxy:
“Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination.”
We artists will not go mad, but we will stretch our minds, deepen our souls, and gain a greater appreciation for the creative struggle.
The first class will begin Friday, September 6 at 10 am, and meet on Fridays afterwards. We’ll break for thanksgiving and Christmas. I’ll get a material list to the church office soon.