Listening to Flowers

adult learning, art, coronavirus, Creativity, Faith, flowers, grief, Healing, Holy Spirit, Imagination, Painting, pandemic, Reflection, Stress, vision

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.

Listen to the Flowers

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.

Tiger Lily

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.

Carrot Flowers

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.

Blue Violet Flower

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.

Flowers in Vases

Welcome to My World

adult learning, architecture, art, Creativity, Habits, Imagination, Painting, shadows, vision

The Physician

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.

The Scream

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.

Black and White Sketch of Geometric Figures

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.

Moore: Tribune Tower Entry

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.

Martian Landscape

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.

Unfinished Fondant Landscape

Trompe-l’œil Painting
https://jhna.org/articles/gerrit-dous-enchanting-trompe-loeil-virtuosity-agency-in-early-modern-collections/

Gerrit Dou, The Doctor, 1653, oil on panel, 49.3 x 37 cm. Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, inv. no. GG 592. Photo credit: Erich Lessing / Art Resource, NY (artwork in the public domain)

Edward Munch: The Scream
https://www.edvardmunch.org/the-scream.jsp

Dvorak: New World Symphony
https://youtu.be/Qut5e3OfCvg

ICONS OF THE NATIVITY

adult learning, art, Christmas, Creativity, Faith, grief, Health, holidays, Icons, Meditation, Ministry, mystery, Reflection, Spirituality, vision, Work

Icon of the Nativity

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.

Icon of the Burial of Christ

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.

Durer, Perspective Nativity

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.

Rogier van der Weyden, Nativity with the Donor Pieter Bladelin

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.

And they laid him in a dresser drawer, for he was too small for a crib

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.

First stage of the Nativity shed

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.

Vacation is really great

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.

Nativity in a Nimbus

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)

NOTES:

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 Art March Along

adult learning, art, Creativity, Faith, Health, Ministry, Painting, purpose, renewal, Spirituality, vision

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.

Apple

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?

Fruit

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.

Autumn Leaves

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.”

Autumn Leaves

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)

Keep It Simple

adult learning, art, Attitudes, beauty, Creativity, failure, Forgiveness, Holy Spirit, Imagination, Love, nature, Painting, Philosophy, photography, renewal, Spirituality, Strength, trees, Uncategorized, vision

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).

Mike’s Trees

When 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.

Gail’s Trees

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.

Paul Klee Color Study
(Not my work)

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.

So the artist within each of us is always creating a new thing, just as God is creating:        

For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;

the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.

~~ Isaiah 65:17

LESSONS FROM A MASTER

adult learning, arkansas, art, beauty, Creativity, Faith, Icons, Imagination, nature, Painting, photography, purpose, vision

“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.

Stage One

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.

Original Photo

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:

  1. Perspective

  2. Shading in Value & Color

  3. Color Wheel

  4. Drawing & Painting from Life

  5. Still Life

  6. Landscape

  7. Icons

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.

adult learning, art, beauty, Creativity, failure, Faith, garden, Holy Spirit, Icons, Imagination, incarnation, Meditation, ministry, mystery, Painting, poverty, purpose, Reflection, salvation, Spirituality, Stations of the Cross, Strength, Work

PRAYER: Listening to an Icon

Most of us separate our lives into doing and being: we are creatures of comfort at times, and then we expend energy doing chores or work at different times. We live bifurcated lives, even if we’ve heard the admonition to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:16), we work without prayer and pray without working. Then again, some of us have little connection with the spiritual at all, so we miss the mystery and the awe of the dimensions beyond this mundane world. We’re unable to see even the glory and beauty of the creation, since we aren’t connected spirituality to a life beyond this world.

Christ Overcomes the World

The iconographer is more than a painter or a writer: he or she is one who connects this material world with the spiritual world beyond. The icon is a window through which the heavenly and the earthly worlds communicate. It’s like a wormhole, of sorts, in sci-fi language, or a portal passage for direct communication. Of course, we can directly communicate with the Holy Spirit, but not being able to see the Spirit, we can see the icon’s representation of the image of Christ or a saint, and this helps us to focus our thoughts and prayers.

Golden Christ

Some say a candle would suffice, or a text from Scripture, and I agree. Yet not everyone is able to live such a spare life, reduced of images, color, and beauty. Minimalism isn’t for everyone! This is why we have zen gardens as well as romantic English gardens. Some of us need architectural modernism and others like quaint country clutter. The icon tradition comes from the ancient church, for Luke was traditionally ascribed to be the first iconographer, as well as one of the first gospel writers. He painted Mary “the God-bearer” and Jesus.

Mary Macaroni

Our art class is moving out of its comfort zone in the painting of icons. We can learn about the spiritual life in the art class every time we meet. In fact, every time we try something new or challenging, we learn about ourselves and the spiritual life. A close inspection of the gospels shows a Jesus who was always challenging the status quo. The only time he was comforting people was when they were dispossessed, marginalized, or disrespected. “Blessed are the poor…” was his first choice, not blessed are the rich or powerful!

When we are weak and powerless, when we struggle and fall short of success, and that will be. Every. Single. Day. In. Art—We are then most able to lean on the one who for our sakes became weak so we can become strong. Then we’ll come back and fail again and remember the times Christ stumbled on the rocky road to the crucifixion. What seemed like a failure to everyone gathered about, and didn’t make logical sense to wisdom seeking people, nevertheless served a higher purpose. By uniting all of our human failures and faults in one person, God could experience all of them in God’s own image, the icon we know as Jesus Christ.

Crucifixion

If there’s any reason to attempt a Holy Icon in this modern world, we paint and pray to unite our work and spiritual into one. Usually only the clergy have this privilege, and they can too easily burn out if they do too much and pray too little. Lay people underestimate the amount of prayers necessary for effective work. The older I get, the more prayer time I need. Of course, work takes more out of me now, but I’m a refugee from the dinosaur age. I used to be an energizer bunny back in my fifties, but working thirty hours a week painting and writing is enough for me today.

Any art work, whether a landscape, portrait, or an icon, can be alive or dead, depending on how the artist approaches the work. If we draw the lines, fill in the colors, and never pay attention to the energy of the art itself, we’re just filling up time. If we’re thinking about our grocery list, what to make for dinner, or the errands we have to run, we aren’t on speaking terms with our artwork. On the other hand, if we’re paying attention, sharing in the conversation, listening to what our work is telling us, we can respond to the push and pull of the conversation. Our work will tell us what it needs if we’ll only listen to it. If we trust and listen to the Holy Spirit, we’ll paint a true icon, and the window into heaven will open for all who want to listen.

Christ Blessing the World

ICONS: A Moment of Mystery

adult learning, Altars, Christmas, Creativity, Faith, Food, Forgiveness, Holy Spirit, Icons, Imagination, incarnation, Ministry, mystery, New Year, Prayer, purpose, Reflection, renewal, salvation, Secrets, Spirituality, vision

Making Found Object Icons is an art project that evolved out of the Great Macaroni Multimedia Traveling Artandicon Show. In seminary during Art Week our fellow students were horrified we were making sacred images out of edible products, such as macaroni, lentils, peas, and beans.

Jesus is the Bread of Life

“That’s sacrilegious!”

“Jesus is the bread of life, and macaroni is just another form of wheat,” we replied.

“But it’s so ordinary!”

“Clay is ordinary, and so is stone. Can an object only be worthy of God if it’s made of expensive materials?”

“Well….”

“The value of all the chemicals in a human body is about $5.18, but we’re worth far more than that in the eyes of God. Some say God doesn’t make junk, yet too many people of faith despise and debase the body. I’ve always wondered why this was so, since the Son of God came to earth in human form, and as the great hymn in Philippians 2:5-11 (NRSV) says—

“Let the same mind be in you 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.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.”

Jeweled Cross

When we meet Christ at Christmas, we can get all warm and fuzzy because who doesn’t like a warm, cuddly baby? Maybe I have a soft spot for babies, but I really don’t trust people who don’t get a little ga-ga when the little ones coo and smile. I can understand folks getting squeamish at Good Friday and the cross. Most of us avoid as much pain as possible. Humility and obedience to God are not high priorities these days for many people. 

Flight into Egypt

Many tend to ignore this wonderful call to the Christ-like life, preferring instead the cop out of “Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak,” (Mark 14:38, NRSV). “Forgive us,” we say, but we hold others up to high standards. 
We make a distinction between our dual natures of the flesh and the spirit, a concept inherited from the Greco-Roman culture. It’s notable that the often quoted verse, “If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit,” is found in Galatians 6:8 (NRSV), for this was a Roman province. 
The ancient Mediterranean area had a knowledge/mystery tradition. The Greeks had their cult of Bacchus, the Egyptians the cult of Isis, and the Jewish had their mystical Kabbalah. The Romans had their dying and rising god cult of Mithras, the bull. Entry into all of these groups was by word of mouth only, given to a special few, and all had secret rites known to the members only.  Most promised salvation through secret knowledge, and the true world for them was spiritual rather than the physical world in which we live today. Ecstatic worship separated the believer from the body and the ordinary world. 
You might recognize these traits in your own church or worship community today, except for the ecstatic and enthusiastic worship brought about by mood altering substances. That’s not my church anyway! How do we come close to God? Across the centuries, the tradition has discovered contemplative prayer, singing, searching the scriptures, serving the poor, attending the sacraments, and creating art for God or the Holy Icons.
Making an object for the glory of God, to enhance the worship experience, and to honor God is a gift of the artist’s time and talent. No artist is ever paid what their training and talent is worth, for it’s a treasure from God to begin with—it can’t be valued. Artists have learned over the centuries to live simply, accept fame if it comes, and put a fair price on their work. 

Gail’s Cross

They get value in the spiritual real from the work they do, for the icon opens a window into heaven. As they arrange the jewels and found objects, and move them to a better position, the icon comes alive under their hands and begins to breathe. Only the person, who will be still long enough to hear the silence from beyond the open window, can hear the voice of God in this world. For this person, the icon is a treasure, and a place of holy focus, no matter how small or how simple the materials. 
This is the reason the artist makes an icon—to have a moment of mystery, a time of intersection, and a communion with the holy. In today’s hurried world, each of us wants a place in which we can experience for a moment the timelessness of heaven. 
When we return in the New Year, we’ll begin painting our own holy icons. The process is a spiritual journey, more than a destination or the attempt to reach perfection. We only need to “go toward perfection” each day!

The Struggle is Real

adult learning, art, beauty, Creativity, Faith, righteousness, risk, Spirituality, United Methodist Church, Van Gogh

One of the most difficult struggles in art, sports, faith, or anything else in life is knowing what you want to achieve, but finding yourself lacking the skills to accomplish it. Some people give up right away, since they can’t master it well. Art takes a lifetime to master, so even the best of us will be struggling to get better until our last breath. Perfection is highly overrated! All artists are their own worst critics! At least in faith we have God as our coworker.

In art a beginner can set aside this quandary and say, “Well, I just need more practice and I’ll get there soon enough.” The intermediate practitioner contends with a little more skill, and could push his or her technique over the edge attempting to discover the heart and soul of their expressions as they seek their own way to speak of the beautiful and the true in color and forms.

Sometimes a seasoned artist comes to a growth point. Even one who, perhaps from their past work in a certain style, has some following and financial success, when they come to the daily search for truth and beauty, will discover the old beauty no longer attracts them. So while they may have all the technical ability to continue creating their old works, they find this no longer is their truth and they can’t in good conscience continue to produce in the same vein.

Our Still Life

The search for truth and beauty is like the search for God and our inner truth as artists and people of faith. If we’re only working for fame and gain, maybe we should have listened to those who said, “Don’t quit your day job.” Or thought of Rembrandt and Van Gogh, who found both success and poverty, but at different times. Our inner search for truth and beauty is just as fraught.

Will we take the risk and try something new? This week l brought the class a shade of my former self, no inspirational paintings of old masters, and only a variation on last week’s still life. Afterwards I was traveling up to the doctor‘s poffice for “the cure to end my misery.” After a few days on sinus medications, I can hold two thoughts together again.

To really look at life and look inside oneself is the best way to discover truth and beauty. Some folks don’t want to look inside for fear they’ll see ugly things, long buried secrets, pains, and memories best forgotten. We need to see these, recognize them, and let Jesus take them into his already redeemed life. If we can let these painful parts be transformed by his graceful healing mercy, then we can use his renewing power in our own lives to bring truth and beauty to the life of others.

Some people look out and only see ugliness, decay, and despair. I imagine if they look inside, they also see the same things. They need to remember the nature of all things is not in itself beautiful or ugly, just as they themselves aren’t ugly or beautiful. Beauty is a standard, like a Virtue, which is an ideal characteristic, and it’s beyond anything here on this world. We’ll probably understand Truth and Beauty in the eternal world, when we have the opportunity to participate with God in the fullness of time.

Gail—Day of the Dead image in process

If beauty were only to exist in the eye of each and every beholder, and each one of us could determine our own standards of beauty according to our own experience and criteria, then all the plains would be level and no mountains would exist. Yet, we know this isn’t so, for my icebox door may be decorated with my grandchildren’s crayon drawings, but they wouldn’t be hanging in an art gallery in any creative district anywhere.

Mike—Basket of Veggies against a Yellow Wall

If art isn’t a challenge, if life isn’t a pursuit of excellence, and if we are content to rest at the foot of the mountains, then I really wonder why God created the heights, if not for us to aspire to them? If there’s mountains in this world, why are so many content to climb just the hills, but call them mountains? Most of the struggles we have in life are actually molehills, but we blow them out of proportion and call them mountains! The biggest successes come from the accumulation of many small failures. We’re just training until we hone our muscle memory to a fine edge. This is why we say works can’t save you in faith, but art is all about the work ethic.

DeLee—Work in Progress

Our biggest challenge this week in class was the woven basket. Some of us had never woven anything in youth groups, so experiences I took for granted as a child growing up (weaving situpons and potholders) weren’t in some people’s backgrounds. Learning to look, follow the weave, see the play of light along the wave of the reeds, and the shadows as they dip under the warp bands took a bit of doing. We’re also beginning some Day of the Dead related works. We’ll work in these in October. I was so sick, I failed to photo everyone’s work. I should be in better shape next week!

Joy and Peace, Cornelia

For now we remember, as the apostle Paul sighed,
“For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.”
~~ Romans 7:19

And he leaves us with these words of hope,
“We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”
~~ Romans 8:28

The Sea Shell

adult learning, art, Children, Creativity, Faith, Holy Spirit, Imagination, Love, mystery, Painting, salvation, seashells, shadows, Uncategorized, vision

I have hidden inside a sea shell

but forgotten in which.

SEASHELL AND DRAGON FRUIT

Now daily I dive,

filtering the sea through my fingers,

to find myself.

Sometimes I think

a giant fish has swallowed me.

Looking for it everywhere I want to make sure

it will get me completely.

DRAGON FRUIT MONSTER

The sea-bed attracts me, and

I’m repelled by millions

of sea shells that all look alike.

Help, I am one of them.

If only I knew, which.

BIRD ON A SHELL

How often I’ve gone straight up

to one of them, saying: That’s me.

Only, when I prised it open

it was empty.

In art, beginners can get so caught up with drawing the forms and representing reality, they lose sight of the emotions and meaning of their work. Small children, on the other hand, will take an idea such as a snowman in a snowstorm, and completely obliterate their surface with white swirls until all sight of the ground, the snowman, the house and the children who built it are covered up. Their work is more about the experience of the falling, swirling snow than it is about the distinctive parts. We hang this on our refrigerators and exclaimed with amazement when they tell us the story.

In a year, they’ll be interested in the separate objects and have a well defined ground and sky, even if their objects aren’t in realistic proportions. The proportions are sized according to the child’s interest, and by age 12 most children want to create drawings with realistic perspective and images. Sometimes as they age, they begin to lose their sense of magic and mystery, and need their imagination primed more, but this isn’t impossible.

Adults often have difficulty using their imaginations, for they’ve had too many years of completing to do lists, getting things done, and unfortunately, much work is mind numbing. Some of them also are products of schools that taught to the test and to the “right answer,” rather than teaching thinking or logic skills or creativity.

The disciples asked, “Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3-4)

For us as artists or as people of faith, to enter into the humility of a child is a counter cultural act, both today and in ancient times. We don’t find self help gurus preaching simplicity or poverty, but we do find plenty selling the siren call of prosperity and power. Jesus always speaks of the least of all as being the most of all, which is why the smallest child has more honor and greatness in the kingdom of heaven than the most important citizens of this world.

Some of us hear this text as a call to never question the faith we learned as a child. Unfortunately when we hit the stumbling blocks of adulthood, we find our simple faith’s pillars of belief are on shaky foundations. We can either crash and burn, or we can ask the questions of trusted and learned guides who have gone on the path before. Then we can shore up our foundations with mature understandings, or remodel our understanding so we can live with joy anew.

In art, we can either repeat the same forms over and over, or we can critique our work. In the school I attended, we had a routine—the first three comments had to be positive, then the next had to be those which needed improvement. Since we never called anything “bad” or “wrong,” the person on the hot seat never felt diminished. “You could have darkened the background more, so your foreground objects would have been more prominent.” This is better than saying, “You didn’t make the objects in front stand out,” since it doesn’t offer a solution.

It’s humbling to receive criticism, even positive feedback, because we want to be accepted just as we are, especially in faith. Yet Jesus didn’t die on the cross to leave us just as we are (justifying grace), but rose from the dead to perfect us and make us holy, just as he is (sanctifying grace). In faith, we come as humble children to grow in grace before God and to come to full perfection of love of God and neighbor that is entire sanctification. In art, we work each day to join our hand, our hearts, and our vision into one spiritually inspired whole. The more we know ourselves and can connect with the spirit of the creating God, the better we’ll make art with an inner life.

Sometimes in art, we decide to repeat a certain set of forms because we get approval from others for our work. We do this to the danger of our very lives. While we may continue to sell our work and earn the acclaim of critics, if we aren’t pushing the boundaries of artistic creativity, we are stagnating and not growing. The greatest artists–Picasso, Rembrandt, Matisse, and Michaelagelo–never quit growing. In faith, we work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, knowing “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).

Poem translated by Michael Hamburger. Published in 1983 by Bloodaxe Books. http://www.bloodaxebooks.com

Source: Selected Poems (Bloodaxe Books, 1983)