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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Leonardo da Vinci said, “There are three classes of people: Those who see. Those who see when they are shown. Those who do not see.” The task of the teacher is to help the student to see more clearly, not just in art, but also in life.
When I was in seminary, I realized the search for beauty was similar to the search for truth, and each generation had its own notions of what was beautiful and true. When I made this connection, a light came on in my mind and I could see what my professors were showing me. Before this, I was stumbling about in a dark room, banging my toes against unseen couches and table legs. I had the sense of the objects, but not the full understanding of them. Once the light came on, I could see these pieces of furniture for what they were–the color, design, embellishments, and placement in the space were easy to define. They were no longer obstacles, but resting points on the way to the next room on an historic journey.
PAINTING FASTER ALL THE TIME
Some of my compatriots struggled because one philosopher would define truth a certain way and his famous student then would describe it differently. These modern day students didn’t have art backgrounds, but thought of truth as what we know only as true today. Perhaps they also didn’t have much of an historic worldview either.
When Leonardo speaks of those categories of people who see, I think first of children, who seem naturally to see. If we give a child some art tools and a jumping off idea, they’ll run with it. Children love the experience of the materials and get excited when they can use their imagination. They feel empowered when they bring an image to life with their own hands.
SUN, MOON, AND SEASHELL
Older teens and adults are more concerned about what other people think of their work, so they often won’t even begin. Other times they start and can’t deal with the disconcert between their conception and execution. Every artist who aspires to do quality work is always unsatisfied with either the concept or execution! As Leonardo once remarked, “I have offended God and mankind because my work didn’t reach the quality it should have.”
I brought seashells to class for our painting experience, but before we began our work, I had the students experience a guided meditation. The seashells were hidden underneath a cloth. This is an opportunity to know the shell personally, rather than to see it as a mere form. This “seeing” involves the inner emotions, which affect the energy and spirit with which we create our art. As the master says, “Where the spirit does not work with the hand there is no art.”
1. Study all the surfaces under the cloth before you begin to put marks on your canvas.
2. Are the edges round, rough, sharp, jagged?
3. Do you recognize this object from experience?.
4. What memories or emotions does it evoke in you?
5. What colors do these experiences bring to mind?
6. Is there a person or place connected with this object?
7. What age were you? Would you want to visit this place again at your present age?
8. Remove the cover and look at the object.
9. Does it look different now from an ordinary object?
10. Does entering into an emotional give and take open your eyes to more of the possibilities of the object?
11. Choose a “pose” for your subject and compose a portrait of its personality.
The creative life and the faith life are not just about following a set of rules, although rules exist in both worlds. These two lives are more about what is good, beautiful, and true, and how we artists as people of faith can be a blessing in the world in which we live. As in art and philosophy, the good, beautiful, and the true may be different in different times and ages, but “one can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself.”
“I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” ~~ Job 42:3-4
The life of one who pursues Art and Faith has many overlapping points. One of these is the search for perfection. The French artist Marcel Duchamp quit painting to play chess, saying he couldn’t create a greater work. However, he was still working on one last piece in secret in his studio. Artists are driven toward this ultimate prize, just as people of faith are called to grow towards perfection in faith and love.
The difference between perfectionism and Christian perfection is huge! The first seeks flawlessness in self, others, and in all things. I know people who get up in the middle of the night to rearrange the shoes in their closets. Shoes must not dance! While I do alphabetize my spice rack, I can leave my closet’s contents to party at will while I sleep all night. I learned from experience early on not to concentrate in any one area of my artwork, since all my many teachers drilled this lesson into my head. Overworked areas of wet paint also get muddy, for the colors blend together into a sad grey. Experience is a good teacher.
Christian perfection is a heart so full of love of God and neighbor nothing else exists. By definition, our hearts would be also full of love for our own selves, since we are made in God’s image. This is why in art class we use ABC: attitude, behavior, and consequences. Positive ABC gets praise, and negative ABC gets redirected to a better place. If we can reframe our attitudes, we can change our behaviors, and then we’ll have different consequences. Sometimes we need an attitude adjustment.
Art classes aren’t easy, but neither is the Christian life. We need to face our limitations, and this is humbling. We aren’t strong or powerful, nor have we achieved anything close to perfection in any part of our own life. This doesn’t make us bad people, but it does make us drop the false mask we’ve been wearing in the world. The best art will come from an open heart, or from transparency to God and others. We’re so used to hiding our true self from others, we think we can hide it from God also. Art will reveal our true self, however.
In Philippians 3:12-16, Paul talks about Christian perfection, so I’ll add some notes about the search for artistic perfection. In class we drew the negative or empty spaces of a wooden dowel construction I rigged up for the center of the table. I tossed in an extension cord for good measure.
Drawing the negative space is a new concept. Most of the time we’re outlining the object itself, but not focusing on the empty space. Then we wonder why our object looks cattywumpus. By drawing the emptiness, we end up with the positive figure. This is a backwards thought process. We’re so trained to look at the object, we forget the empty spaces are a design element also. Drawing the negative space helps us to find the true object in its actual location in three dimensions and translate this into a two dimensional space. This is a complex form of thinking, which is why age 9 or the ability to write in cursive has been the usual cutoff age for formal art training.
MIKE, negative image & DUFY, GATE
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal—by this Paul means Christian perfection, or having the full love of God and neighbor within our hearts. We artists will work all our lifetimes to achieve perfection. If we’re truly growing as artists, rather than just repeating variations on a theme, our style will change. Monet once destroyed multiple Waterlily canvases right before an exhibition, having deemed them inadequate for the show. We artists are our greatest critic. The day we’re satisfied is the day we begin to repeat ourselves.
GAIL, negative image & DUFY, Room with Window
but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own—of course, the Holy Spirit empowers this spiritual quest for complete love, or we’d never achieve this goal alone. I believe all persons have a creative spirit within them. If we’re made in the image of God, who is the creator and is creating all things new again, we must share this attribute in part. Moreover, I think of it as a spiritual gift, for we enter into the mystery of God when we let go of our ego’s organizational skills and allow a greater hand to move our own as we create.
Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own—the mark of a spiritually mature person is recognizing how far from the perfection of God all of creation will always be. Yet God can refine and renew any imperfection in our spiritual and physical lives. The consequences of our acts will stay with us, however.
At the end of a studio session, I sometimes tell myself, “I’ve learned all I can from this one. It’s time to go onto the next piece and do better.” I don’t expect a masterpiece every time. I do expect to learn from my mistakes. I own my mistakes! I’ll keep the work around for several months. If it doesn’t fall apart, I let it out to show. If it doesn’t sell in three years, I destroy it and move on. I can’t stay attached to it, although I once did. Now I see my work as an opportunity to share the beauty and joy of God’s inspiration with others. I’d be selfish to hoard it all to myself.
but this one thing I do—Paul stays focused on the ultimate prize, not just on the easy gains. “We have stress enough in our daily world, so why can’t we just come and be comfortable in our sanctuary or in our art class?”
If we were hot house tomatoes being prepared for the salsa factory, this might be an acceptable choice, but we’re human beings who’ll be tested and tried in the world beyond the security of our sacred spaces and quiet studios. We need controlled challenges, just beyond our reach, to strengthen us for the days ahead. Even the most famous artists will struggle with success, so having a goal beyond this world is important. The rest of us will struggle with failure and rejection, so we need to learn resilience and fortitude, and the strength of power available to us from on high.
forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead—most of us carry baggage from our earlier days when we made poor choices and did dumb stuff. If we don’t have several suitcases, we at least have a closet full of T-shirts from Been There Done That Land. In art, we eventually will make enough work to break out of our old patterns, or we can enter into a studio teaching environment and accelerate the process. The trained teacher gives positive criticism and guidance, just as we can give the keys to a novice driver with a licensed driver in the car. We could let the novice driver out on their own, but a cow pasture would be a safer choice for this unsupervised driving experience than a city street.
I press on toward the goal for the prize of the “heavenly” call of God in Christ Jesus.—the Greek word is “upward” call, or “higher” call. This call is more important than any other in our lives. If our only goal is to be a good person, but not loving person, we need a higher goal! Why are we satisfied with less when God is so much more of everything?
Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind;—just as our challenge in faith is to always grow in grace and love, so our goal in life is to always grow and learn. What we fail to use will atrophy and die. If we don’t love from the depths of God’s inpouring and abundant love, our own ability to love will wither and die. Burnout is a spiritual condition first, then it becomes a physical problem. The ancient icon painters prayed as they “wrote” the images of Christ. If we offer up our time in the studio as a prayer to God, we will better connect to God’s deep well of hope and compassion, which can recreate our lives and the world.
and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you.—I happen to be a slow learner, but better a slow learner than one who never learns at all. Some of us need repeated lessons before the scales drop from our eyes, but once we see clearly, we’re zealous to convert the rest of the world. Once the flame of love burns brightly, it wants to spread and replicate itself. One light wants to set the other coals aflame. Still not everyone wants to set themselves on fire! They’re perfectly willing to watch someone else burn brightly and bask in their glow.
Price’s Law is a good example in real life. Price’s law describes unequal distribution of productivity in most domains of creativity. The square root of the number of people in a domain do 50% of the work. In a group of 100, 10 do 50% of the work and 90 do the other 50%. This seems to hold true in business and in volunteer groups. Some Elijahs love to work, but don’t know how to replicate their Elishas. They rob the future Elishas of the blessings of service.
In art everyone has to do their own work, and some have difficulty if the work doesn’t look as good as their neighbor’s efforts. Since everyone begins at a different point, each person improves from that beginning. Each has to be considered as an individual. No one is compared to anyone else, even in a graded system. Art is the best class of all, for if you work the whole class, turn in all your work on time, and meet the criteria of the project, you get an A. There is a “works righteousness” in the studio, even if we’re saved by grace in faith.
Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.—I find many folks want to quote this verse only, but not the whole of the Philippians text. They use it as an excuse to stand still without reflecting on their faith, which they inherited from their ancestors. Worse, they don’t read the Bible with a heart or mind open to the fresh winds of the Holy Spirit. Then they wonder why joy and peace are merely limited gifts in their lives. We prosper, not by material wealth, but in our relationships with one another and with God.
In art, we’d rather copy our teacher’s example and match it to the best of our ability, instead of coming up with solutions unique and personal to our own spirit. Thinking uses energy, but it also builds resourcefulness and new cognitive pathways, as well as increasing confidence.
The former is the standard teaching technique in most departments of education, but it has nothing to do with engaging creativity. Instead it assumes a single right answer, but the history of art is replete with multitudes of many answers and solutions to the questions of the moment. When we ask, “What is beauty, truth, and good in art,” we answer, “Across the years and with different artists in different cultures, it varies.”
With this in mind, as artists and people of faith, we can hold certain truths across all the years, artists, and cultures, but other truths may be variable. Certainly overworking the person and the painting hold true everywhere. Many of us hunger for approval from human sources, and work ourselves sick trying to please too many masters.
In art school I had several master teachers. One day I was drawing in an empty classroom. The department head came by and asked, “Who are you working for, me or Mr. Sitton?”
“I’m drawing,” was my noncommittal answer.
He returned a short while later to ask the same question and I gave the same answer. Not long after that, he popped his head into the door, pointed his pipe at me, and asked again, “Who are you working for, me or Mr. Sitton?”
By this time I was irritated to no end. I’d been polite twice, but this third time was too much! I snapped around on the stool and snarled, “ I’m working for myself, thank you! Now quit bothering me so I can draw in peace!”
He laughed as if I’d finally passed some rite of passage. “That’s what I wanted to hear you say the first time!” Some art lessons aren’t given in a class, and they aren’t about design and color, but about your calling and your purpose.
Who are you working for in this world: the praises of ordinary people, or the eternal voice of the master, who paints the dawn and sunset from a palette of glorious colors?
Flowers please us because of their colors and forms, but also because of their fleeting beauty. While the class was painting, I threw some colors on an old canvas. It is a sketch, since never got to the dark accents of the petals. The paint was wet, so I would have had mud, not two distinct colors!
In our weekly adult painting class at church, we talked about Van Gogh’s sunflowers, Gauguin’s friendship with him, and how other artists have approached the subject of flowers. Not painting every petal or detail, but capturing the energy and emotion of the flowers is more important.
This requires a leap of faith! Of course, if we aren’t sure of how to mix a color, or how to draw a shape or make a form, a student is loathe to move off a safe path. Van Gogh had this struggle also. His early paintings were dark and lacking the energy of his late works.
Still Life with Earthenware, Bottle, and Clogs
Van Gogh, Sunflowers
Unfortunately some of Van Gogh’s most iconic floral artworks in the Van Gogh Museum, painted in 1888 and 1889, are now facing the test of time.
Vincent Van Gogh painted his iconic Sunflowers in vibrant yellows and golds, but after 130 years, his bright lemon-yellow hues have begun to wilt into a brown muddle. A new X-ray study confirms what researchers and art lovers have long suspected: Van Gogh’s paints are fading over time. In 2011, Sarah Zielinski at Smithsonian.com reported that chemists were looking into how the old colors were holding up. They found exposure to UV light—both from sunlight and the halogen lamps used to illuminate paintings in some museum galleries—had led to oxidation of some paint pigments, causing them to change color.
A 2016 study looked deeper into the matter to find one of the bright yellow paints Van Gogh liked, a mix between yellow lead chromate and white lead sulfate, was particularly unstable. Under UV light, the unstable chromate changed states and the sulfates began to clump together, dulling the color. Unfortunately, the process is not currently preventable. Currently, the darkening of the paint and the wilting of the sunflowers is not visible to the naked eye.
As the book of James (1:11) reminds us about impermanence:
“For the sun rises with its scorching heat
and withers the field;
its flower falls, and its beauty perishes.”
In class, we talked about light permanence and pigment choice. If we want to make works of art for posterity, we should choose pigments able to stand up to the test of time. I choose lightfastness I when I work. Likewise, if we are going to be in business or relationships, we want to use the highest ethical principles so we can have long lasting interactions and high quality products. Cutting corners with people or resources will always come home to roost eventually.
The rest of the verse in James continues,
“It is the same way with the rich;
in the midst of a busy life,
they will wither away.”
Of course, if we put God first in our lives, rather than our own priorities, we will pay attention to the “first things,” and fading away like a sunflower will be the least of our worries.
Joy and Peace,
To read the whole discussion on paint discoloration and how museums are conserving art works to prevent further damage from light read:
How to do it as an artist or any other professional.
Or lollygagger in the workplace.
I personally like #8—Why don’t you ever paint landscapes in normal colors?
I get this question all the time. How do we know our greens and blues of today are “normal?” We live in creation after the fall, not in God’s original creation, as God’s hand first formed it and God’s mind first imagined it. What if all the rainbow of colors was God’s Plan A for the earth?
Of course, I get a blank stare from almost everyone, since most aren’t used to thinking about the created order and our relationship to it. Even fewer think of the fall, or what that means, for this world is all they know.
If they press me on it, I tell them, “I like colors and the emotional joy they express. And I’m not fond of wide swaths of green.”
They nod. I nod. They walk away. They probably haven’t quit talking about me. A voice comes into my head, “These are not the patrons you seek. Move along now. The Force will be with you.”
We hear that same word from the Apostle Paul, spoken long ago to the people in Galatia:
“Am I now seeking human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still pleasing people, I would not be a servant of Christ.” (Galatians 1:10)
At some point in time, we each have to hear the inner voice and make the choice to take the well trod path or the path less travelled. Each one has its own consequences, both for ill and for good. If we make fame or prosperity into a god, we might start churning out well pleasing pieces for our market, but our creative inspiration might begin to suffer, to the detriment of our souls. This can lead to various self medicating behaviors, none of which are good. It also leads to depression or anxiety, as 1, 3, 7, and 10 incite these conditions.
We can develop the good qualities needed for our futures. Independence is a character trait of leaders. An artist spends a good amount of solitary work inside the studio, and faces rejection for many years. Cold calling for Insurance might be the only worse occupation for rejection. I’ve done both.
My old teachers used to egg me on when I was studying in art school. “Who are you working for, me or the other class?” I’d be bothered, but I’d answer, “I’m working in my sketchbook.”
About the third time he passed by to interrupt my work, I’d had enough of his gruff. “I’m working for myself–go away and leave me alone!”
“That’s what I was waiting to hear you say,” he smiled and stuck his pipe back in his mouth as he strode off. I didn’t see him anymore except when I was in class with him.
Doing art in solitude is preferable to cold calling because the rejection is at the end of the process and you have beautiful work to appreciate, whereas with cold calling, all you get is a list of numbers crossed out and the hope 3% of the people will give you a reason to call back. In all this we remember,
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (John 14:27)
Most of us try to put our best foot forward every day. If we have the means, we want to wear nice clothes for work and put on our “game face.” In private, we might “let it all hang out” and put on our sloppy clothes, but only if we’re staying inside. This is why the pajamas at Walmart memes persist as the walk of shame from sea to shining sea.
We like our art “pretty” also. Indeed, if it doesn’t match our current decorating theme, we don’t buy it. We want our art to fade into the wall and not interact with us. If this is our attitude, we aren’t candidates for an icon in our space. The icon is meant to open up a conversation with the viewer and with the Holy Spirit. The icon opens a window into the world beyond this reality, into eternity, in which the Holy Trinity and the communion of saints live forever. While the image itself isn’t Holy, what it represents is Holy. Therefore the icon is venerated, but not worshipped. Only God is worshipped.
Because most of us like our images beautiful, we prefer gold and silver over fading and flaking. We also like polished and pleasant more than brutal and broken. This is why most of us like Christmas more than Good Friday, even though both are necessary to understand at-one-ment and atonement.
The oldest icons often show the ravages of age. Centuries of use, with smoking candle soot and oils from many hands, have worn their surfaces raw. Many of us also show the scars of Time, but we also are the image of God, just as Christ is the living image of God. We are like the ancient icons, worn and weathered. If we were given an ancient holy icon, damaged by circumstances or desecrated by human hands, we would treat it with tenderness, reverence, and compassion. We wouldn’t pay attention to the damaged parts, or to the tragedy of the act of damage, but we’d focus on what is left of its beauty, not what was lost.
Only those who are rapidly aging may be able to understand this concept, or those who’ve suffered. Yet, the Man of Sorrows icon exists for those who know life isn’t always a bowl of cherries and even the best people will suffer. The suffering servant contradicts the promises of prosperity gospel, but the icon reminds us we aren’t alone when hard times strike.
The Virgin Hodegetria and the Man of Sorrows
This double-sided icon in the National Gallery of Art, in Washington, D. C., depicts two of the most influential images in Byzantine art. On the front, the Virgin Hodegetria (“she who points the way”) gestures toward the Christ child as the path to salvation.
The image derives from a venerated model, which was legendary. Saint Luke was the purported artist who painted the original from life in Jerusalem and others brought it to Constantinople in the fifth century. Pilgrims flocked to the Monastery of the Hodegon to revere the original icon, which was paraded weekly through the streets of the capital. Widely copied, it’s one of the most common types of images of the Virgin.
On the other side is the icon of Christ after the Crucifixion, laid out for burial with his arms at his sides. This is the earliest known panel painting of the Man of Sorrows, a name taken from an Old Testament description of the Messiah: “He is despised and rejected of men, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3).”
Called Akra Tapaneiosis (Ultimate Humiliation) in the Greek Orthodox Church, the subject originated in Byzantium in the 11th century in response to liturgical changes and became widespread in the medieval West. This icon dates from the last quarter of the 12th century.
The Kastoria icon imbues the traditional Virgin Hodegetria with heightened emotion found also in hymns and sermons, especially after Iconoclasm. Her sorrowful expression and furrowed brow suggest that she foresees her son’s death. On Mary’s grief at the Crucifixion, the ninth-century bishop George of Nicomedia wrote,“Who will enumerate the arrows that penetrated her heart? Who will recount in words her pains that are beyond words?” His sermon served as the lesson on Good Friday when this icon was displayed during the church service commemorating Christ’s Crucifixion.
I can’t express to you how glad I am to be with people who understand the scriptures which underpin my art. Others appreciate the art itself, but not the faith walk behind it. Y’all get both.
Thank you again. As an extrovert, your affection and affirmation encourages me in my journey and in my spiritual practices. I would do my work anyway, but like everyone, I enjoy the sharing of our lives and our ministries across the years. This makes our annual conference a means of grace for me. I hope it does the same for you.
THE MOMENT BEFORE
I’m glad to report I’ve made two new patrons of the arts today. These paintings will go to new homes to bless those spaces and provide an island of peace or a place of spiritual focus for those who come into their presence. Also a former patron showed up to take home the silver PIETA.
The purpose of the icon is to open a window into the holy, so we can see the face of Christ more clearly and know the presence of God more nearly. If my art can do this for folks, then it is also a modern icon. Thank you for being part of ARTANDICON, my friends. I’ll be back at the arena Wednesday morning until noonish.