The point of view determines the perspective of a work of art. One’s point of view, or preconceived bias, can determine how one sees the world and the decisions they make about the information that comes to them. If we think the world is a scary place, resources are few and won’t be enough for everyone, then, we’ll operate from fear and hoarding. If we believe God’s promises are faithful and God will indeed provide for our needs, then we’ll live in trust and hope, even as we order our lives to want less and enjoy simpler pleasures.
I always find it strange how the people in the Bible who have the greatest riches also have the most difficulty following Jesus. Matthew in 16:24-26 speaks to this topic in the section on “The Cross and Self-Denial:”
Then Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?
Of course, even in the 1st century AD, people wanted to have material possessions, a good income, and wealth stored up for the future. When Jesus said, “whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me,” (Matthew 10:38), he invited his followers to enter a despicable journey.
The Via Dolorosa isn’t named the Way of Grief for nothing. People walked it, bearing a heavy cross beam, on the way to an undignified death, a punishment reserved for criminals.
Yet Jesus transformed this ancient punishment into a means of redemption. He took a symbol of death and made it into a hope for new life. Because of this , the author of Hebrews 12:2 could write, “Looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Now we can live the Easter promise written in Ephesians 2:12-18:
“Remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.”
So we who live on this side of the resurrection have a joy to celebrate every day. For us the cross is a sign of victory over sin and death, and the evidence of new life and love God has for God’s world and God’s peoples. As we read in Colossians 1:19-20—
“For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.”
I covered up an old painting I didn’t care about, one of those “unsold inventory pieces,” which inhabit every artist’s storage areas. In the old days, artists would burn their least good works in the winter to stay warm. While we might want to see these works, artists burned them for a reason. They made better fires than art. We artists know art and we know what we like: excellence. If a work doesn’t meet our standards, we can destroy it and move on. Texans have been burning their furniture in the recent winter snowstorm, when their statewide power grid failed. They can always get new tables and chairs, but no one wants to lose fingers or toes.
I used to think my art was a precious thing, as if it were alive. Now I’m more discerning, for a work needs to hold together and still speak to me for a long time for it to be a “quality piece.” Since I’m still pushing the boundaries of an idea, sometimes my work falls short of my goals. Yet if I ever get to the point at which I’m just repeating techniques and forms, I won’t be enjoying myself. I’ll move on to something else, I’ll guarantee you for sure! I was born on a Thursday, and like all such children, I have far to go. I will most likely never stop searching for a better way to express my creative journey or my experiences in this world.
I’ve often wondered about the artists who find one style and work it out infinitely, as compared to those who develop and change over the years. I love the landscape, and have given priority to God’s creation in my own creative endeavors. I feel closest to God in nature and identity with God’s creative energies when I’m making my art. Making art becomes a spiritual experience for me, since it brings me into union with God. I’ve often wondered if the artists who refine only one style ever end up losing their sense of creative joy. While a gallery might find it easier to sell our products if they look like our previous work, artists have to decide if they paint for public approval and sales or for continuous, creative purposes.
This decision is easier for those who have other means of financial support, but for the most part this has been the lot of artists over the years. A few well heeled families may support their creative endeavors, but many others are the starving artists of legend. Most of us end up in the latter category, since we don’t work full time at either our art or our day job. We sacrifice for our muse.
So what does the spiritual life have to do with the life of an artist? Most people think artists spend their lives wantonly drinking in cafes until late at night. These are “artist pretenders,” since actual artists are called to the solitude of their workplaces and the silence of the moving spirit in the pushing and pulling of the media in which they work. If they command their materials, they produce one level of work, but if they surrender to the movement of the spirit, they enter into a dialogue with the work which comes to birth through their hands. In a sense, we cannot “make art,” but we “allow art to become a reality in our presence.”
For those who insist on “tackling their work” or “achieving mastery over a medium,” this attitude of surrendering before the canvas or artwork is difficult to understand. As Jason Nesmith, the captain of the fictional Galaxy Quest spaceship said, “Never give-up, never surrender.” This is such a trope of television writing, the movie makers had to poke fun at it. What’s sad is we confuse our spiritual life with the movies. Sometimes the best course is to surrender. When we realize we’re at the end of our ropes, we don’t tie a knot and hold on. We let go and let God. We quit trying to fix it and control it. We offer compassion to the broken, rest to the tired, refreshment to the hungry, and cheer to the downhearted.
So it is with a painting. It starts with an idea, in this case, I wanted to recycle old material into a new purpose. I also wanted to revisit the aerial view of the lake area where I live, but with snow. I cut and sewed one afternoon until I had enough shapes to glue on my square canvas. You can see the tapestry elements as well as the old embroidery, which I think dates from the 1970’s.Then I set it aside to dry overnight.
The next day, I used my acrylic paints to put the first layers on the canvas. I ended up with more warm colors than I intended, but the under layers were also warm reds and golds. I was losing energy and couldn’t feel the painting speaking to me any longer. This is “artist talk” for losing sensitivity to the changing field of colors on the surface. It’s similar to not being able to recognize the look of boredom on a conversation partner’s face while you go on and on with your tale. In the studio, you lose the work and elsewhere, you lose someone’s attention. When my blood sugar drops, I have to be careful, for I lose my receptiveness to the subtle movements of color and form. If I can no longer hear the work speaking to me,I know I need to stop and come back later.
The next day, I crunched about in the snow for about fifteen minutes, but under the fluff is ice, so I didn’t stay out long. My cozy condo is a better choice. I repainted most of the warm colors with cool blues and pinks, and highlighted the leaf shapes in the “forested area.” We have two large condominium projects near the lakeside and a large highway near the right side of the image. The rest of our landscape is snow covered trees. Once those odd warm areas calmed down, then I could hear again the brighter notes of red and gold against the violets and grays. The hard edges where the fabric joins together follows along the roadways for the most part.
After I completed this work, I hung it on the wall and compared it to one I’d done prior to this which has all the boathouses around our lakeshore area. I decided to repaint the water with the colors of the clouds of the sky. Now I’m happier with the painting because the same families of colors float over both the land and the water areas. It’s more unified.
The good news is while I may not perfect my vision during my lifetime, for I’ll always see more I can do and my hand will surely fail to capture what my imagination can conceive, I’ll always have the assurance of God’s love:
“So we have known and believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us.” ~~ 1 John 4:16-19
The Greeks have a proverb: “The heart that loves is always young.” On this Valentine’s Day, and every day, may our hearts be always young. In art class this week, we had a pop up project making Valentine’s cards with mixed media. We brought photographs, glue, leftover scrapbooking materials, and assorted fabric scraps. If this were a pizza parlor, the menu item was “sweep the kitchen.” Eat it before it goes bad has been the source of many a recipe at Cornie’s Kitchen.
Gail brought her grandchildren for their art enrichment opportunity, Lauralei also showed up, and even Brother Russ made an appearance. Mike had court duty and was making his mark at home. Almost all this group is able to manage on their own, with just some technical advice on the best use of the media selected or how to use a tool better. Giving people free reign to let their creative energies come out allows them to discover what’s on their heart.
The Bible uses the word “heart” primarily to refer to the ruling center of the whole person, the spring of all desires. The heart is the seat of the will, intellect and feelings. “Character,” “personality,” and “mind” are approximate modern terms for the Bible’s meaning of heart. Emotions are in the belly or bowels in the ancient worldview.
Jesus said in Mark 7:20-21, “It is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” We can relate to these various vices, for such is the stuff of the nightly news and the entertainment industry. The more lurid life gets, the more eyes and clicks a story gets. A normal story has to get a “click bait” headline just to get readers, whore then disappointed and angry their worst desires weren’t fulfilled. Some days I think we’re on a madcap race to the bottom of a cesspool, but I can’t let this thought corrupt my own heart and life. As my mama used to say, “One bad turn doesn’t deserve another in return. You have to be better than that.”
My people were Methodists. Our favorite Wesleyan standard for Entire Sanctification, “a heart so full of love for God and neighbor that nothing else exists,” is a goal we pursue, even as our Buddhist friends seek enlightenment.
“Only one book is worth reading: the heart,” said the Venerable Ajahn Chah, a Buddhist teacher of the 20th century. He taught with stories, as the great wisdom teachers often do.
“There are so many people looking for merit. Sooner or later they’ll have to start looking for a way out of wrongdoing. But not many people are interested in this. The teaching of the Buddha is so brief, but most people just pass it by, just like they pass through Wat Pah Pong (a monastery in Thailand). For most people that’s what the Dhamma is, a stop-over point. (Dhamma is the teachings of Buddha to overcome dissatisfaction or suffering.)
Only three lines, hardly anything to it: Sabba-pāpassa akaranam: refraining from all wrongdoing. That’s the teaching of all Buddhas. This is the heart of Buddhism. But people keep jumping over it, they don’t want this one. The renunciation of all wrongdoing, great and small, from bodily, verbal and mental actions… this is the teaching of the Buddhas.
If we were to dye a piece of cloth we’d have to wash it first. But most people don’t do that. Without looking at the cloth, they dip it into the dye straight away. If the cloth is dirty, dying it makes it come out even worse than before. Think about it. Dying a dirty old rag, would that look good?
You see? This is how Buddhism teaches, but most people just pass it by. They just want to perform good works, but they don’t want to give up wrongdoing. It’s just like saying ”the hole is too deep.” Everybody says the hole is too deep, nobody says their arm is too short. We have to come back to ourselves. With this teaching you have to take a step back and look at yourself.”
Like many of these wisdom teachings, they appear to focus on what we Christians call “works righteousness,” or an ethical way of living. The ancient proverbs remind us, “To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice” (21:3). The original works were animal sacrifices, not the good works which flowed from a heart full of love’s desire to serve God and neighbor.
Another story from the same teacher:
“The Buddha taught that at this present moment, the Dhamma exists here in front of us. The Buddha sits facing us right here and now! At what other time or place are you going to look?
If we don’t think rightly, if we don’t practice rightly, we will fall back to being animals or creatures in Hell or hungry ghosts or demons. How is this? Just look in your mind. When anger arises, what is it? There it is, just look! When delusion arises, what is it? That’s it, right there! When greed arises, what is it? Look at it right there!
By not recognizing and clearly understanding these mental states, the mind changes from being that of a human being. All conditions are in the state of becoming. Becoming gives rise to birth or existence as determined by the present conditions. Thus we become and exist as our minds condition us.”
In art, we have a practice of first seeing things as they are. Once we know the world for what it is, we can create a visual representation of it (realism), or make a different take (abstraction). We can even ignore the world and only play with shapes and colors. Whatever route we choose, we still have to deal with the reality of the work under our hands. Any move we make has consequences, just as in real life our words and deeds affect the outcomes of the next shoes to fall. When we’re first working in a medium, we sometimes get carried away and lose the beauty. This is part of the learning process, for we have to know when to stop. This gives rise to the old adage “Less is more” in art, but not in love, for as the song says, “More love to thee, O Christ, more love to thee.”
Our rock and roll musicians keep cranking out love songs because love never dies. Here’s part of the chorus of Van Morrison’s “I Forgot That Love Existed” (2017):
“If my heart could do my thinking, and my head begin to feel,
I would look upon the world anew, and know what’s truly real.”
Perhaps we should be celebrating Valentine’s Day more often, or realize we’re a people created in the image of a loving God, so we should love not just our chosen beloveds, but also the other humans of God’s world, as well as God’s creation. We’re merely stewards of this green and blue planet for the generations to follow us. Our love for our progeny means we’ll want to hand over an inheritance we can be proud of and will allow them to nourish and care for generations afterwards.
Let’s leave with a blessing from the bard of our age, Bob Dylan:
Every blade of grass outside is a uniform tan, for winter’s pale light has sucked the life and green from its living cells. Each colder breeze separates yet another straggling leaf from a sleeping stick attached to the limbs of a hibernating tree. The sap won’t rise until mid February, when the days are warmer and the nights are still freezing. The ornamental pear trees lining the entry to my condo are beginning to bud, so I’m sure they’ll be covered with snow before Easter. I’m almost wishing for a good snow to change up the colors outside, to cause some excitement of a bread aisle clearing stampede, and the joy of eating pancakes at every meal “just because it’s a snow day.”
Instead, I’ve brightened my interior spaces with fresh flowers. This is an early reminder to all you lovers out there: Sunday, February 14 is Valentine’s Day. Be sweet to the special person in your life by bringing something beautiful or joyful into their life. Our art class has been working with the palette knife instead of the brush lately. This is a different tool to get the paint on the canvas. With the brush, we can make lines and broad strokes, as well as dots or blobs. With the knife, we have to pick up colors on the metal end, push and press with varied strength and wrist twists to get the paint to go where we want it and to mix at the same time.
How does this happen? It’s magic! Or luck, or practice until you figure out how the paint feels under your hands. I can best describe it as being willing to do finger painting, but with a palette knife. We also have to let our adult mind go sit in the corner, while we let our five year old come out and play. Another way to think of this is to compare religion and faith. Religion has rules and boundaries for how to “do it right.” We spend most of our lives in this mode, trying to measure up to a severe standard, rather like the older brother to the prodigal son. In faith, we trust we’re enough and God’s mercy and grace are sufficient for us, so we yearn to please God even more. What we can do in love, for love’s sake, will bring the world into the love of God.
This is why no one copies my art work, but goes on their own journey to find their own way of seeing. This is one of the hardest parts of making a painting, to isolate the primary forms and shapes, and then to set them in a space. As we look at a three dimensional world, we have to come up with our own visual language to write on a two dimensional surface. As we invent our own language, we’re creating a new vocabulary, grammar, and conjugations, which take some time for us and the world to understand. We don’t worry if we’re “good,” for we are painting these to grow our minds, stretch our boundaries, and by learning new skills, building new brain connections and endorphins. We get joy from our work, so it gets us through the doldrums of winter.
There’s a wonderful poem by Robert Frost, of a bouquet of flowers, and two birds in winter:
Wind and Window Flower
Lovers, forget your love,
And list to the love of these,
She a window flower,
And he a winter breeze.
When the frosty window veil
Was melted down at noon,
And the cagèd yellow bird
Hung over her in tune,
He marked her through the pane,
He could not help but mark,
And only passed her by,
To come again at dark.
He was a winter wind,
Concerned with ice and snow,
Dead weeds and unmated birds,
And little of love could know.
But he sighed upon the sill,
He gave the sash a shake,
As witness all within
Who lay that night awake.
Perchance he half prevailed
To win her for the flight
From the firelit looking-glass
And warm stove-window light.
But the flower leaned aside
And thought of naught to say,
And morning found the breeze
A hundred miles away.
“Wind and Window Flower,” a poem written by Robert Frost, speaks of how we can sometimes love someone who can’t leave either the safety of their window sill or the prison of their cage. With this in mind, it’s best for the bird to fly on by in order to find true love or purpose somewhere else. Some of us will watch the cold world from a safe distance as it goes by, while others will leave our cozy homes and go out into the cold, sharp winds to seek another path. We may regret leaving the caged bird behind, but we have to go and find our highest purpose in life. I often wonder about the bird left behind, if the cage ever got too small or if security was more important. The fresh flowers won’t ever know the outcome of this story, for they’ll be gone before the week is out.
Even these small and insignificant works of the creator are not outside the care and concern of a loving God. As Jesus says in Matthew 6:26-33—
“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?
And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?
Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.”
“Close Encounters of the Third Kind” might best describe my and Gail’s latest adventure at the Oaklawn art class. Pinterest Fail is another synonym for our latest escapade. If my daddy were to describe the result, he’d say, “Close, but no cigar.” That’s a quintessential American expression, which is little used elsewhere in the English-speaking world. The first recorded use of “close, but no cigar” in print was in Sayre and Twist’s publishing of the script of the 1935 film version of Annie Oakley: “Close, Colonel, but no cigar!” I’m very fond of these ancient phrases, which are daily passing from the common parlance, even as new words are invented. These were our first attempts at this craft, so our learning curve resembled the same disastrous, steep ascent of the daily Covid infection chart.
The 1977 movie title “Close Encounters “ was derived from a classification of close encounters with aliens as set forth by the American UFO researcher J. Allen Hynek. Close Encounters of the First Kind refer to the sighting of a UFO. Physical evidence of a UFO are classed as Close Encounters of the Second Kind. Actual contact with an alien is a Close Encounter of the Third Kind. Therefore, our air dried cornstarch, salt, and baking soda clay objects, which should have looked neat, crisp, and clean, instead came out more like visitors from another planet, whose embodied boundaries were disintegrating in an inhospitable atmosphere.
Yes, I blame the recipes, which said “warm water,” rather than naming an actual temperature. Just as science projects and recipes for bread need accurate measurements and temperatures for success, so does cornstarch clay. Gail mentioned her clay began to heat up under her hands as she worked it. Mine never did, but I had to add rock salt to my mix because I ran out of table salt. Don’t do this! The salt crystals won’t melt and I had chunks in my finished pieces. The proportions of the recipe I used are equal amounts of each ingredient, so if you have just a limited amount of one, measure it and give the others to the main bowl in the same amount.
Once the dough looks like mashed potatoes, don’t eat it. Instead, turn it out on parchment or waxed paper and knead it a bit. Then use a rolling pin to get the dough about ¼ inch thick. Use cookie cutters to get your shapes. Put them on a clean, flat surface, such as the back of a sheet pan. Take a plastic straw to put a hole in the upper part of the cutout. This works best if the shape is a touch dry, since the damp dough will close up. The hole is for the string hanger. The rolling pin might need flouring with corn starch if it sticks to the clay.
I also took some leaves and twigs from the bushes on the church property to use as embossing. I put these down on the cutouts, gave them a rolling pin once over or twice, maybe three, and made sure not to over flatten the shape. You could also use a decorative rolling pin as the last roll to make an all over pattern if you like that idea. A patterned doily or a scrap of lace would make a good pattern also.
When class was over, we cleaned our mess up with hot water and paper towels. I let the water run in the sink to make sure any small remains were washed far down the pipes. All the big scraps should be thrown in the trash. When I got home, I wasn’t in the mood to let these air dry for days and days. They already looked like they belonged on Charlie Brown’s Christmas tree, so I put them in the oven at 200F.
Water boils at 212F, so at 200F these shapes would be slowly drying out. I baked them on a cookie sheet for 30 minutes on each side. I did notice a bit of toasting in places, but I planned on painting these, so I don’t think it matters. I did lose the points off a few stars, but in this year of the Pandemic, perhaps some of us may be able to identify with the brokenness and vulnerability of these imperfect objects. We may want everything and everyone to be perfectly normal, but standard operating procedure isn’t on the menu for this year’s Thanksgiving or Christmas. We’re all suffering in one way or another, just like these ornaments.
I didn’t preheat the oven, for the clay objects don’t need to be shocked into a different temperature. We don’t preheat a kiln before we fire clay pottery, but raise the whole to the same temperature at one time. Of course, if you’re making a recipe with flour, yeast, or eggs, and you need your concoction to rise, you do need a preheated oven. Otherwise, just put the food into a cold oven and let your nose tell you when it’s done. Preheating is a waste of energy if you don’t need it for the recipe. These clay pieces will be hot when you remove them from the oven. Let them cool until you can pick them up without dropping them like a hot potato (a metaphor from the 1800’s).
I did take a sharp paring knife to the edges to smooth them out. Yes, I didn’t like the raggedy look. You can’t do this cleanup roughly or with big whacks. This is the fine tuning of your shape. I used to help a porcelain doll maker back in my home town. I would sand the final shape of the doll baby’s faces, hands, and feet for her to paint. She appreciated my work because I would keep the anatomical details correct and give the little faces individual personalities. Portraits in porcelain aren’t that easy, but I wouldn’t rush to finish. If we’re always on to the next task, we might miss the opportunity to meet God in the work we’re doing in the moment.
Right now in this current crisis, most of us are limiting our time out and about. If we go to the grocery store, we find our goods and get out. I do the self check out or scan and go wherever I am so I don’t have to stand in lines. I do miss the interaction and chats I used to have with folks. I decided recently even if I were masked, I would begin to speak to others. So far on each outing, at least one person has shared their feelings of grief or loss, which are a result of this pandemic. Because we are forced to limit our contacts, we’ve also lost our opportunities to share our daily joys and our challenges. If we don’t use our words, we’ll lose them. We need time to share our lives and be a community for one another, since we’re all in this together. These are God moments in which we can be a blessing to others, as well as to receive a blessing from them.
This loss of conversation will be even grimmer if our loved ones pass on during this pandemic, for their memories will cease to be available to the younger generation, and their stories will no longer be shared. As these old ones age, and their frailties become like the imperfect points on my Charlie Brown stars, we realize we won’t have them much longer. Even more so, we’ve come to realize this pandemic spares neither the young nor the full of life, as more and more of our friends are struck by this disease. Any one of us could become a Charlie Brown Christmas star at any moment. I have family members who’ve had it, friends who’ve died from it, and my heart goes out to all who suffer with it, especially those who have lost their incomes because of it.
Those who now deal with the persisting side effects of this disease don’t get near the encouragement or assistance they need in their recovery, since the rest of us are too worn down from self care and from caring for those who’re newly ill. Even the health care workers, first responders, and essential workers who have to keep the rest of us safe, well fed, and secure are struggling under the long term stressors of this pandemic. We have a responsibility to care for them so they can keep going under duress. All these folks need a sign from us that they aren’t forgotten.
Unique stars have always been a herald or sign of unusual events to follow. The gospel of Matthew (2:1-2) records the visit of the magi, astrologers from the east, to King Herod:
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
These foreigners recognized the sea change about to happen in the world, for soon earthly kingdoms would recede in importance, and the powerful would lose their sway. If they could see this sign in the sky, we have to wonder why no one in Israel was considering what the star’s arrival signified. Perhaps the learned priests knew, but didn’t want to tell King Herod the bad news:
Thus says the LORD, who gives the sun for light by day and the fixed order of the moon and the stars for light by night, who stirs up the sea so that its waves roar— the LORD of hosts is his name: If this fixed order were ever to cease from my presence, says the LORD, then also the offspring of Israel would cease to be a nation before me forever. (Jeremiah 31:35-36)
Of course, today most of us no longer believe the stars and planets affect our daily lives, nor are we “born under a bad sign,” as the blues players sing. Once we clean up the Thanksgiving meal, many of us will turn our thoughts to the holiday season. I’ll remove the last of the autumnal gourds and bring out a few winter seasonal objects every week until New Year’s. As the seasons change, we note the changes in our world. If the days are growing shorter and darker, we ourselves can still be lights in the world, as Paul wrote to the Philippians (2:14-15):
Do all things without murmuring and arguing, so that you may be blameless and innocent, children of God without blemish in the midst of a crooked. and perverse generation, in which you shine like stars in the world.
Even if we’re Charlie Brown stars, our lights will be a beacon of hope for all the world to see.
Leonardo da Vinci is the ideal Renaissance man: a supremely gifted painter, scientist, inventor and polymath. Da Vinci has been widely regarded as one of the world’s greatest minds, whose extraordinary talents included painting, mathematics, architecture, engineering, botany, sculpture, and human biology. He once said,
There are three classes of people: Those who see. Those who see when they are shown. Those who do not see.
When small children draw, they first make experiments with whatever medium they have in hand. They’ll put their whole body into it, cover the entire page, and sometimes even eat the materials. Even though they’ve been given a limited arena to explore, such as a sheet of paper, if you turn your back, kids will want to see how the crayons or paint work on a wall, on their bodies, or on the family pet. Parents think of this as more cleanup work, but it’s just another learning experience for the children. The pandemic may have brought this lesson home to roost in more than one home.
Later on, children make symbols for the objects in their world. This is why all early grammar school art looks very similar: the blue line across the paper’s top represents the sky, the yellow sun blazes in an upper corner, a house has exactly one door and two windows, and the ground is green grass. Once a child is 9 to 11 years old, they begin to draw realistically, and over the next few years a child will develop their eye for accurate color and detail.
Sometimes children get the idea they have no artistic ability, and develop a bad case of the “I can’t do this-itis.” When I taught art, I had kindergartners cry when they couldn’t cut out a snowman perfectly on the fold. “Oh, sweetie, no one cuts it perfect the very first time! The first time is just for practice. Let’s see what you were doing that got you two pieces instead of one.”
I knew they were holding the cut side, rather than the folded side, when they made made their cut, but they needed hands on instructions to get the lesson. “Oh, look, you need to hold the fold in your hand, and cut on the flappy sides. That’ll give you the whole piece. Try that while I watch.”
It’s just amazing what happens when the scales fall off their little eyes! In the book of Acts (9:17-18), Ananias laid his hands on Saul and said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus, who appeared to you on your way here, has sent me so that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.” And immediately something like scales fell from his eyes, and his sight was restored. When we find the magic key to unlock the storehouse of hidden knowledge, all the possibilities of the world beyond us seem to be close at hand. It only takes a few successes to gain confidence.
Once young people get up to middle school age, they begin to sort themselves into “groups.” Those who think they’re Michelangelo’s and Leonardo’s heir apparents often think they only need to do a minimum of work, since their native abilities exceed the best efforts of the less talented students. In mandatory art classes, everyone needs to work under the same grading system. Otherwise systemic structures would always prefer and rank higher those students who had the benefit of prior training, cultural experiences, and native talent.
I always leveled the playing field by grading on heavily on the work ethic, the amount of improvement, and then gave the finished product only 25% of the overall total. This meant if Michelangelo goofed off, but dashed off a winning project, he’d most likely fail the first grading period. His parents would get his mind straight and then his art works would begin to improve by leaps and bounds.
Likewise, the students who never had a chance at succeeding in art class could give their best efforts, seek to solve the assignments, and discover they could improve! It was as easy as A—B—C—Attitude, Behavior, and Consequences. If we began with a positive attitude, we made positive actions, and got good grades and improving art works. Plus we began to feel good about ourselves. If we kept a negative attitude, we wouldn’t try, we’d goof off, be slow to improve, and get a bad grade. Why feel bad about yourself when everyone else was having a good time in art?
The fancy name for this process is brain plasticity. Our brains can form new information and structures, not only when we’re young, but also as we age. The brain is a muscle, which we can exercise. If we stop exercising our mental skills, we don’t just forget them: the brain map space for those skills is turned over to the skills we practice instead. You might ask, “How often must I practice tennis, guitar, or math to keep on top of it?” This is the question about brain plasticity, since you’re asking how frequently you must practice an activity to make sure its brain map space is not lost to another. The simple word for this is “Use it or lose it.”
Today we live in a world in which many children don’t get to explore a wide variety of interests. Some of this is because our schools have focused on teaching just the basics, so art and music get shuffled off to the outermost edges, or dropped if finances get tight. We live in a more structured world than fifty years ago, so children don’t often interact with their environment unless they’re camping or on a field trip. Many don’t play sports because teams are competitive, time consuming, and don’t allow children to have outside interests. I’m not sure why we want children to become professionals too early in life, when they could be exploring the world in all its vast wonder instead.
Maybe this is why as adults we come back to discover our true selves and take up a hobby we never thought we’d ever try. We have to drop our preconceived notion that our abilities and success in one area of our lives will mean we’ll quickly progress in a new field. Some have said we need 10,000 hours of practice to attain excellence, but others say it depends on the field. Deliberate practice is only a predictor of success in fields that have super stable structures. In tennis, chess, and classical music, the rules never change, so you can study up to become the best. If we were to start up a brand new business , we might need to break some of the rules.
Leonardo da Vinci wrote in his notebook, “Shadows which you see with difficulty, and whose boundaries you cannot define… these you should not represent as finished or sharply defined, for the result would be that your work would seem wooden.”
We sometimes see with difficulty, and our hand isn’t yet fully connected to our eye, so the boundaries of our shapes don’t match what we see, but we find joy in the act of painting. We keep looking ever more closely, increasing our powers of observation, and training our hand to follow our eye. Some of this is keeping a memory in our mind long enough to put the image on the surface, and the other part is to still the mind of extraneous thoughts so we can hold that thought for the few seconds it takes to make the line.
We do this for our mental health, to keep our neurons fresh and our brains challenged by the problems of representing color, shadows, light, and space. We approach our art work as if we’re little children eager to discover a new way to describe our world. Each time we set brush to canvas, we grow, if only in humility.
Gail brought us some beauty berry bushes. Unlike nearly every other fruiting shrub in North America, beauty berry flowers and fruits in clusters along its stem at the leaf joints, rather than on a separate fruiting stem. Flowers are clustered sprays of pinkish-white tiny blossoms that appear in mid to late summer. Berries are a bright, intense purple, tightly packed in balls of fruit along the stem. The berries are edible when they’re deep purple, but they require lemon juice and sugar to make a good jelly.
The leaves can be used in nearly every way to fight insects: you can crush them and rub them on yourself for a quick fix, you can make an infusion and dip your clothes in it, you can distill out the essential oils and combine them with other plants to make a bug spray… it all works. And it’s not just folklore, either. In 2006, scientists at the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service working at the University of Mississippi isolated three chemical compounds from beauty berry leaves— callicarpenal, intermedeol and spathulenol. All three proved highly effective as repellents for mosquitoes, biting flies, ticks, fleas, and other pests. Later studies confirmed their findings, and actually proved callicarpenal to be more effective than DEET at repelling insects, without the harsh side effects. The last hurdle is making the process financially feasible.
I brought another of my antique 1930’s glass vases from my grandmother’s house. Filled with water, the stems appear distorted underwater and don’t line up with the stems above water. This proved more difficult to paint, so I suggested to Gail a way to simplify the leaves. If the basic yellow shape were filled in first, then the shades of green could go next, leaving thin streaks of yellow for the veins. This is easier than painting a thin yellow line. A thin red edge could highlight certain areas to get the shadow. This takes a steady hand and controlled breathing. Hurrying to get somewhere fast won’t get it done. She paid close attention to the berries and their highlights.
Mike had an errand of mercy to attend to, so he made an appearance and left to help someone who was in trouble. Trouble is just another word for the opportunity to be the hands of Christ in the world. Anytime I had interruptions in my daily plans, I always knew God’s plans were superseding my well planned calendar.
My little still-life has all the autumn colors. Gail brought in a variety of branches and a red sumac also. We only have about 90 minutes to paint after I show some examples and have time to cleanup afterwards. Therefore, I choose to simplify the subject before me. I decide what is most important and necessary to convey the image, to set it into the space, to give it a mood, and to let it speak. If there’s an air of sadness about it, it’s because I painted it on the anniversary of my daughter’s death. If there’s a mood of mystery within it, the changing season is one of harvest and celebration. The earth gives forth its bounty, then goes into a form of rest, until it rebirths itself in the springtime.
If we’re going to paint not only the subject before us, but also share our true selves in the finished work, we need to become as little children who put their whole selves into their work. Although I’d hope we would have learned by now not to eat the paint.
Next Friday we’re going to make decorations for the harvest season. Mike is bringing in leaves, branches, and spray paint. I’m bringing a drill, glue guns, wire cutters, and wire. If you’re coming to make a wreath or mantle piece, bring your “autumn stuff,” as well as a wreath or log. Please wear a mask.
When the seasons change, I have days when I drag. My get up and go has done got up and went. Perhaps my increasing age has something to do with this feeling, or the pandemic’s lack of social interaction has dulled my senses. Some days I think I’m moving through molasses, and then the next I wake up on a brighter side of the bed.
Occasionally, I wonder where my mind is. I recently had to get the attendant at the Kroger gas station to help me pump the gas. When I used my loyalty card, the pump didn’t reduce my price. I forgot this pump had a screen prompt, which I’d ignored. Once I was retrained, I got the good discount and filled my car up. I really need to get out more. I’m not driving as much as I once did because of this pandemic. I used to say, “My brain has gone to Pluto,” but now it seems to have gone to the pandemic instead. I could always count on the old grey matter making the circuit back to earth, eve if it took 248 years, but until this Pandemic passes, I may be slightly silly. Some of you will say, “No one can tell the difference,” but I know better.
One of the benefits of this enforced solitude, which we’ve all endured, is we’ve had the opportunity to consider everything tried and true, and decide if we need to keep it or do something different instead. Some of us have redecorated our homes, take up a new hobby or occupation, or even become teachers or caregivers. Many of us cleaned out our closets and clutter because looking at it daily was too much. We’ve done what we had to do. Others of us have held on to the old traditions, as if they were security blankets. We won’t change them until our world feels safe again.
To make progress in art or any creative endeavor, sometimes we have to “burn the security blanket” before we can go forward. This is hard to do, for we get comfortable with whatever small success we first make. Basketball great Kobe Bryant would practice by himself for hours before his teammates showed up and would make four hundred shots every single practice. Notice that’s MAKE, not TAKE. Work ethic is a hallmark of greatness. Kobe was never satisfied with only the good, but sought to be his best.
Building a Community of Encouragement
Yet we are also people who need encouragement, and this means we need community. In community we can build each other up by “catching the good each one does.” We can reward and praise this, even though we usually find ourselves pointing out the spot a person missed, or how they could do it better next time. There’s a difference between criticism and critiquing someone’s work. Criticism usually only has negative statements, but a good critique begins with at least three positive comments before it notes what needs improvement and how to accomplish that task.
Artists and creative persons learn over the years to separate their identities from their work. Who we are as God’s beloved children never changes, no matter how badly our work gets panned. Most of us artists think we’re misunderstood anyway, so we go back to our studios and work some more. Words won’t kill us, and plenty of artists were never commercially successful. Most artists or creative people work at their craft because they have an inner need to express their experiences or ideas about the world in which they live.
Finding Our Own Voice
We work to discover who we are and what our voice would say to the world. In most art classes, the teacher makes a model and the students attempt to copy it as faithfully as possible. This process may use the elements of art, the media of art, and the end product may look like art, but the students are imitating someone else’s creative process. Thinking through the problems of shape, shadow, color, composition, and texture are part of the creative process. I’m very proud of our group, for each person is finding an individual voice. You would be able to identify their work, even if it were unsigned.
Season of Harvest
Hoshana Raba (Heb. הוֹשַׁעְנָא רַבָּא; “the great hoshana”) is a name for the seventh and last day of the Sukkot festival, or the Festival of Booths or Tabernacles. Sukkot has a dual significance: historical and agricultural. The holiday commemorates the forty-year period during which the children of Israel were wandering in the desert, living in temporary shelters. Sukkot is also a harvest festival, and is sometimes referred to as Chag Ha-Asif, the Festival of Ingathering.
In the medieval poem “Om ani homah” attributed to Eleazar Kalir, the Israel nation declares ‘I am a wall’. The poem is recited during Hoshana Raba (Great Supplication) which begins this evening.
Ingathering or Harvest Festivals are part of the seasonal experiences of our lives. Last week I brought a bunch of gourds and pumpkins in for class. I gave each person the opportunity to choose the ones that spoke to them to use for their still life. We had quite the variety of solutions.
Gail’s pumpkins were bold and bright, filling the canvas.
Mike’s were exuberant and about to come alive with energy.
Margaret was new in class, and made a highly textured still life, complete with cast shadows.
Mine were socially distant, a commentary on this pandemic life.
I brought the pumpkins and gourds home to grace my altar. It changes with the seasons, so come advent, it takes a more exuberant and celebratory vibe. For autumn, it’s full of natural bounty. When Nehemiah was celebrating the festival of booths and purifying the temple, this was the prayer of the people:
“O Lord, Lord God, Creator of all things, you are awe-inspiring and strong and just and merciful, you alone are king and are kind, you alone are bountiful, you alone are just and almighty and eternal. You rescue Israel from every evil; you chose the ancestors and consecrated them. Accept this sacrifice on behalf of all your people Israel and preserve your portion and make it holy. Gather together our scattered people, set free those who are slaves among the Gentiles, look on those who are rejected and despised, and let the Gentiles know that you are our God. Punish those who oppress and are insolent with pride. Plant your people in your holy place, as Moses promised.” (2 Maccabees 1:24-29)
All good things come from God, and we owe our lives and our living to the Holy God. Help us to care for the least among us, especially those who hunger and thirst at this time of harvest and during this season of change.
Who had hurricanes named with the Greek alphabet on their 2020 Bingo card? In a season when catastrophic west coast fires cause Pumpkin Spice skies, we shouldn’t be surprised. Heat lightning striking drought parched national forests and a gender reveal party blunder set off the blazes. Over the years, all of the top 10 costliest wild land fires in the country have been in California. The costliest of all was Camp Fire in 2018, which set insurers back over $8.5 billion, according to numbers tallied by the Insurance Information Institute. But the Camp Fire was just one fire. Reinsurer Munich Re estimates the costs for all the wildfires that year to be over $20 billion. So far this year’s fires should bring in a similar calculation.
Hurricane Sally knocked out power to 320,000 people along the Gulf Coast and caused initial damages of over $29 million just to roads and public buildings. Homes and personal property damages have yet to be counted. Folks are waiting for flood waters to recede for that estimate to accrue. Over thirty inches of rain fell at the coast, with lesser amounts inland. A major section of a three mile long bridge collapsed, with no date for repair.
None of the dollar costs account for the loss of precious lives, the impact on businesses, or the quality of live in these hard hit areas. Is New Orleans the same post Katrina? Are Miami and Puerto Rico thriving yet? Most of Houston has recovered from the $127 billion loss due to the 2017 hurricane and flooding of the lowlands in the city, and now a large portion of its residents believe climate change is a clear and present threat to future flooding.
The climatological peak of the Atlantic hurricane season is around the second weak of September, which means that August is normally when we start to see a major ramp up of tropical cyclone activity. The year 2020 being, well, a crazy pants year, 2020 is writing a new script. Records are dropping like flies this season as we’ve come to realize those 21 names aren’t going to be enough. Already Tropical Storm Beta, the second letter in the Greek alphabet, is threatening the Bahamas
According to the National Hurricane Center website, “In the event that more than twenty-one named tropical cyclones occur in the Atlantic basin in a season, additional storms will take names from the Greek alphabet.” In 2005, six storms were named with the Greek letter alphabet. During the Great Depression in 1933, hurricane season was also great, with twenty-seven named storms, which beat the former record of 21 storms, according to NASA. Zeta formed December 30, 1933, after the official end to the season.
The number and cost of disasters are increasing over time due to several causes. These include increased exposure or values at risk of possible loss, and vulnerability or how much damage does the intensity of wind speed or flood depth at a location cause. We also consider how climate change is increasing the frequency of some types of weather extremes that lead to billion-dollar disasters. There were four billion-dollar weather disasters in the United States in August 2020, according to scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: the derecho storm that hit the Midwest, Hurricanes Isaias and Laura, and California’s wildfires.
A wonderful 1934 oil painting, “The Line Storm,” by John Steuart Curry, 1897-1946, possibly inspired by the approach of a derecho-producing storm in Curry’s home state of Kansas, shows the dramatic approach of the shelf cloud driven by the straight line winds.
These storms and their costs weren’t a record, but warming temperatures do account for more frequent and intense weather events. This is important because a report commissioned by President Trump’s Commodity Futures Trading Commission issued dire warnings about climate change’s impact on financial markets, as the costs of wildfires, storms, droughts, and floods spread through insurance and mortgage markets, pension funds and other financial institutions. In calling for climate-driven policy changes, the report’s authors likened the financial risk of global warming to the threat posed by the coronavirus today and by mortgage-backed securities that precipitated the financial crash in 2008. The wildfires in California this year alone have burned 5 million acres of forested lands. To grasp the size, compare Arkansas’s forests, which cover 19 million acres or 56 percent of the State and contain 11.9 billion trees.
Sometimes we’re like Egyptians who live along De-Nile. If we can ignore the problem today, someone else can take care of it tomorrow. Unfortunately, this isn’t the order of God’s world. In the beginning, “God made the two great lights—the greater light to rule the day and the lesser light to rule the night—and the stars.” (Genesis 1:16)
Moreover, “…God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them. God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (Genesis 1:27-28)
To rule and to have dominion are both terms related to sovereignty, just as Christ is Lord. We don’t talk much about kings in a Democratic society, but we humans have authority over nature. Unfortunately, we don’t always use our power well. We waste resources, fill oceans with plastic, or buy single use items destined for landfills that won’t decompose. As we approach autumn stewardship season, we might want to reconsider our attitudes and relationships towards nature.
In the central Great Plains, the 100th meridian roughly marks the western boundary of the normal reach of moist air from the Gulf of Mexico, and the approximate boundary between the semi-arid climate to the west and the humid continental (north of about 37°N) and humid subtropical (south of about 37°N) climates to the east. The type of agriculture west of the meridian typically relies heavily on irrigation. Historically the meridian has often been taken as a rough boundary between the eastern and western United States. This area around the 100th meridian, was settled after the American Civil War, beginning in the 1870s .
In the United States the meridian 100° west of Greenwich forms the eastern border of the Texas panhandle with Oklahoma, which traces its origin to the Adams-Onís Treaty in 1819 which settled the border between New Spain and the United States between the Red River and Arkansas River. Dodge City, Kansas lies exactly at the intersection of the Arkansas River and the 100th meridian. The latitude of Hot Springs, AR, USA is 34.496212, and the longitude is -93.057220. This means we’re east of the 100th meridian and in the “humid, subtropical south” section of the USA. Of course, spending a single summer here in the Spa City would convince any skeptic of the truth of this. We should have no “weather deniers,” even if we have “climate change deniers.”
Yet we here in Arkansas are far removed from the coastlines of our nation. We have our tornadoes and occasional floods, but we think of these as facts of life. If these disasters don’t impact us, or someone we know, too often we can shrug them off as just another sad occasion. We might collect flood buckets or give a few dollars to disaster relief, but the emotional impact of the life and death circumstances of other human beings doesn’t often register in our households. I’ve often wondered about this, but perhaps we grew numb during the Vietnam war to the nightly body counts and the images of war gore on television. About 62,000 service people died in the Vietnam War, a number which pales in comparison to the number of deaths during this pandemic, which now number 204,202 souls.
Since art carries with it the notion it should be “beautiful,” subjects about social commentary or politics often run against this grain. “Executions on the Third of May,” by Francisco Goya is an example. On 3 May 1808, Marshal-Prince Joachim Murat wrote to the Infante Don Antonio Pascual that he had executed about one hundred Spaniards, ‘Peasants . . . our common enemy’. Later police reports recorded that the French executed mainly artisans, laborers, one or two policemen and beggars during the street protests in Madrid.
The Death of Marat, by Jacques Louis David, is another social commentary painting. Marat was a popular radical French politician, political theorist and journalist, who advocated for basic human rights for the poor during the French Revolution. Marie Anne Charlotte Corday, a royalist from Caen, purchased a knife in a nearby store, walked into his home, and stabbed him dead while he was soaking in his bathtub. David, his friend, painted this memorial to the man who was working up to the last moment of his life for the common good of all the people.
In our faith life, we first learn to pray for our families, then for our friends. With spiritual growth, we can pray for strangers who are like us, and finally we learn to pray for our enemies. When we grow ever closer to God’s presence, we discover we also grow closer to our neighbors. The lawyer who tested Jesus with the question, “But who is my neighbor?” went on to discover the neighbor is the one who shows mercy to the stranger. If we want to be true neighbors, we must be the first to show mercy to the strangers in our midst, and not wait for them to “deserve it” or “give mercy to us first.”
How can we make emotional connections so we can do this? In art, as in other endeavors, we can stick with analysis and order. This is our problem solving brain. “What’s the quickest route from point A to B?” We look for one and done. That’s how we operate in most of our lives. Creative solutions, however, seek multiple options: “How many uses can I find for a brick? How many ways can I use a stick?” When we paint a still life, often we stick with the problem solving skills of our brains, and under use our emotional skills. Sometimes this has to do with our timidity regarding our technical skills, so eventually we’ll gain more confidence in our handling of the media. The expression will come through once we are comfortable with the media. It’s a matter of practice and time.
Putting emotions into our art work is also difficult because we’ve been trained since childhood to repress our feelings. Many of us can’t own our feelings. Perhaps we grew up in families with substance abuse and saw our parents out of control. If the other parent told us, “You don’t really see this,” or “We’re just fine, so go to your room,” we might be confused about how we actually feel. Learning to sort the truth from the lie is hard, but we can learn it at any age. Others of us have been taught to “get along with others by smiling a lot.” Another way of saying this is “don’t speak about anything that will upset anyone.” It’s also known as Peace at Any Price, or Prilosec for Everyone.
Marsden Hartley painted Ghosts of the Forest in 1938, in the woods of his home state of Maine. He saw the giant logs, felled by the forest industry, as if they were bones leeched white on a desert. He had returned from New York to find his own individual voice in the landscape he knew best, in the place in which he was born. (Hartley also wrote Adventures in the Arts, which you can read as a free ebook through the Gutenberg ebook project).
In art class, we talked about how 2020 has been a snowball rolling down from an avalanche high up in the mountains. It’s been one catastrophe after another. I know some young folks who’ve quit watching the news altogether, since they can’t handle one more piece of fuel thrown onto the conflagration of the chaos of their lives. Older people, who’ve survived other chaotic times, tend to breathe in, exhale, and say to themselves, “Be still, and know that I am God.” We know once this pandemic passes, some other excitement will take its place. We’ve learned to focus our energy on things that matter to us, rather than on the chaos which the world throws at us. Practicing spiritual disciplines helps us to meet the world calmly.
In art, we call this principle imposing order on disorder. Every work of art, no matter how abstract, has an internal order. Sometimes the order is a limited color scheme, such as a cool or warm palette. The balance may be evenly distributed on both sides, as opposed to a large central shape. Each of us has our own personality, of course, so we show our creative streaks differently.
Gail’s energetic painting of the flames eating the trees came from her heart. With her long experience in the park service, nature is a close companion. The fires in California have made a big impact on her, for she can imagine such a fire in the Ozark’s of Arkansas. This is empathy, which is a characteristic of a good neighbor.
Mike’s painting recognizes the need for city planning. Out west, people want to live next to nature, just as we do, but having homes near drought stricken forests is a prescription for calamity and combustion. The beginning of his design reminds me of his last year’s Day of the Dead altarpiece, which was quite the elaborate project. When we learn from other people’s mistakes, folks call us intelligent. If we repeat the same mistakes others have made before us, folks don’t have kind words for us. That’s when we wish they would practice smiling more, and speaking less.
I often do traditional landscapes, with a foreground, middle ground, and background. I’ve always wanted to do some paintings based on maps, or aerial views, so I looked up Oaklawn UMC and the racetrack. I brought some scraps of clothing, canvas, glue, and scissors to add some dimension to my work. While it doesn’t have my usual palette colors of yellows and reds, maybe the grays are like the smoke filled skies overhead. This California smoke has traveled on the jet stream as far as Northern Europe, or about 5,000 miles.
The whole purpose of art is to stretch our minds and push our boundaries. The more we encounter the world around us, the more likely we come close to the edge. That’s scary for some folks, but it’s just paint, canvas, or other materials. We aren’t jumping off a tall building. That would be an irreversible harm to life. If our end product looks sad at the end of the class, we can work it over later on. We get second chances, and another opportunity to improve. We learn from our mistakes. As my grandmother, a portrait painter, used to say, “Fail again, but fail better each time.”
We can also redeem our world, for we still have time. This is how we can live out our image of God, co-creating and recreating a better world.
“When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground.” ~~ Psalms 104:30
Metaphors make the world go round, or at least make it spin with interest. Our conversation would be boring if we stuck with flat, non descriptive words to share our thoughts and feelings. Likewise, our artworks die on the wall without emotional inspiration or contrasts in shape, color, value, or dimension.
This Pandemic has stripped many of us of our support structures and social experiences, so we may have become anxious, either because of loneliness or from fear of contracting COVID 19. Others are essential workers on the front lines, who daily risk their health and lives to care for the rest of us. People have taken on tutoring their children or grandchildren. I can remember working with my daughter years ago on fractions, using the “old math.” It was a traumatic experience for both of us. She could have used a paper bag to breathe into to help her calm down instead of hyperventilating. I’ve been on some rough airplane flights for which the paper bag was a comforter.
I have fond memories of the pre Covid days when I could visit the bakery. Entering the front door was a joy, for the mixed smells of hot coffee, fried dough, and sugared toppings could transport me to a happy place just by inhaling those aromas. My anticipation only increased as I hovered before the glass display case, for I was waiting to hear which sweet treat would call my name. Usually it was both the bear claw and the chocolate éclair, but those were the days when I was indulging in over nutrition.
Now comes the Pandemic, and while we can still get our food in a takeout paper bag, we don’t get the opportunity to smell or see the foods. We also miss the interpersonal contact with the workers and with the friends we used to meet for lunch. That same paper bag takes on different meanings depending on its context.
Our first art class back in person was Friday, 130 days since Arkansas entered the Covid Emergency, which was declared on March 11, 2020. That’s about four months, but it seemed longer. Some of my friends have said one day now seems just like another, just like a white paper bag seems to have nothing to distinguish it from the next bag in the package. I’ve set my own personal schedule so I do something different every day. It gives me a reason to look forward to the day, and I don’t get bored.
I have great memories of long, hot summers as a child when I’d make the grave mistake of telling my mother, “I’m bored.” She’d pause her stirring at the stove, look down at me from her grownup height, and reply. “If you’ve got nothing to do, you could dust those shelves full of knickknacks you collect.” Her suggestions were actually directions, but that was how I was raised. After dusting all morning, I’d be glad to entertain myself for weeks without bothering her. My mother might have been the source of my creativity.
If we only see an object or a person for its outward or most functional use, and never dig deeper to know it better or consider it in another environment, we miss its complexity and its richness. If we paint only the outward visage of a portrait, but miss the inner spirit of the person, we’ve done just half the work. If we need practice in this skill, I recommend lying on your back and watching the clouds in the sky above. As the winds above blow, they’ll change shapes. Notice these shapes, call them to memory, associate these shapes with past experiences or make up new stories.
Each person got their own paper bag, so they could hold it, touch it, crumple it, blow it up, fold it, pose it, or whatever they wanted. Because it’s all white, they could choose to paint it in grays, colors, tints, or a monochromatic value scheme. This bag is also a basic perspective lesson also, depending on the point of view. How each person solves it depends on how it speaks to them. Some of us have our art ears plugged up, for listening to the silence of objects is an acquired skill.
Remembering white comes forward and dark recedes is helpful. Sometimes our eye fools us and we paint the opposite of what we see. We get the shape down, but then don’t look again to see where the values are. We just lay on paint. Then we wonder why our image doesn’t match up with our model. Learning to look, paint, look, paint, look, and paint some more is important. We need to be in a continual conversation with the object and our painting.
Glen used to do mechanical and perspective drawings, so he knows how to do this work, but he hasn’t yet found the hidden key to unlock what he already knows from his career so he can apply it to this new activity. This “transfer of learning” means he has skills, but he needs encouragement to use them. I believe he’ll find the key, which is most likely in plain sight.
Gail crumpled her bag and worked quietly in blues to render the various surfaces. We didn’t spend a lot of time talking about our paintings, but hers seemed to be either a stormy sea or a rugged mountain. Life in the Pandemic has given all of us new challenges.
After a lifetime of five different careers caring for other people and working sixty plus hours per week, I’m glad for retirement and the slow lane. I enjoy the quiet and isolation, for I feel like I’m on a long term spiritual retreat. This is a time of joy and creative production, so if my paper bag glows with rainbow tones, this is my pandemic experience.
I’ve always told my students, “Each of you are unique. You look at the world through different eyes. You should make your work as special as you are. Don’t copy anybody else. Be your very best. After all, if our fingerprints are unique and our DNA is singular, why wouldn’t our art work be individual also?”
While the pandemic has given us masks and spread us out for the class sessions, it can’t damage our enthusiasm. I’m looking forward to painting flowers next week.
My family has a tradition of handcrafts and needle working skills, passed down from generation to generation, as do many Southern families. I admit I didn’t care much for the sitting still part when I was young, but I really liked the bright sequins and beads of the tree skirts we embellished with the symbols of the Twelve Days of Christmas. The first six days were overloaded, while the last few had only a sprinkle of sparkle stitched to the colored felt, but then we were coming in under the wire by Christmas eve and Santa wouldn’t visit our house if we didn’t get into bed as soon as possible. We just barely made it.
Most of our projects didn’t have such a time limit, however. I remember learning to make doll clothes on a toy sewing machine before my mother trusted me on the electric machine. I made tiny tucks across the bodice of these outfits from the scraps of the materials my mother used to make my school clothes. My Nannie had an old foot powered sewing machine on her back porch. It was often hidden under piles of newspapers or canning jars resting on their journey to the garage out back. From her I learned to sew straight seams, unbeknownst to my mom. My small foot wasn’t able to power the treadle of the old machine very fast and I’d been warned within an inch of my life to keep my fingers a good distance from the needle. I was doing this sub rosa, and that added to my excitement, but my mother probably knew. I only thought I was doing something forbidden.
Soon after this, my mother decided I needed to learn to make simple clothes from a pattern. Not that I would do it unsupervised, but she did have a degree in home economics and a lifetime teaching certificate. I made one of those easy patterns with only a front, a back and a neck binding. Of course, I was too young to need to worry about darts yet, so this wasn’t the most difficult project in the sewing room. I did learn how to pin, cut, and sew with the right sides together so the seam would be on the inside.
Later I’d learn to hem my clothes. My mom always thought I sewed backwards. I suppose since she sewed in the opposite direction, I was backwards. I’ll blame this on my being a breech birth, for if I came into the world backwards, I can do things in an opposite manner if I want to. Sometimes it takes a person who sees the world from a different viewpoint than everyone else to help others make sense of the world, especially when the world isn’t in the order we’ve come to expect it to be.
July is the season of the year when active Methodist clergy move to new churches. I’d hear my friends say, “I’m going to hit the ground running and show them I’m ready!”
I’d nod my head, and reply, “I’m going to take my time, get to know folks, find out where they are, and what they need. Then we’ll figure out where we need to go together.” I was past the age of running anywhere, since ministry was my fifth career.
This pandemic has changed many of our rituals and routines. Gone are our potlucks and coffees, our get togethers and small group sessions. We now meet from afar and we’ve learned to like it, or else we live in isolation, and we’ve learned to endure it. I told a friend, “I’m blessed to be single, because if I get on my nerves, I’ve got no one to blame but me! If I get that upset with myself, I go down to the exercise room for a walk.”
As this pandemic has stretched out, I’ve come to realize treating it like a new appointment might be the best practice. Ministry is more of a marathon than a sprint, for we need to keep a steady pace for a long distance, rather than run fast for a short initial spurt. Throwing all our energies at it in the first few months, especially now when everyone is socially distanced, isn’t going to be the most effective use of our potency.
This is where quilt making comes into play. Quilts can have a structured pattern or they can be various strips of cloth sewn together until they make a square or an entire top. Right now, we’re in crazy quilt land, while we wish we were in structured pattern quilt land. We have to make do with the materials we have at hand and make the most beautiful work with what we have. This is the creative work of the Holy Spirit, which binds the people together, no mater how separated and isolated the community is.
I pulled out some fabric from one of my boxes to make a patchwork pillow. I had no plan, for mostly I was distressed at the brokenness and sickness of our world. I thought if I stitched some strips of fabric together, I would find some order, and perhaps some beauty. Of course, I kept stitching and realized I had more than enough for a pillow, but not enough for another project. I looked at my plain jean jacket and thought it could be improved. I kept stitching, so soon I had enough for the jacket and yet another pillow! This is enough. I’m going to put up my machine and go back to my easel for a while.
I know I miss my friends and family, for they’re like the strips of cloth I’ve sewn together. I try to connect with them by writing my blogs and sharing my spiritual pages, so I can give a voice to the emotions others perhaps are feeling. I write because I’ve never been accused of saying too little, but more often of not knowing when to quit. That’s ok, for someone needs to put into words the feelings this pandemic is putting many of us through.
I hope you’re finding some creative project to do during this pandemic time. I suggest a journal, to write out your memories of your life before this strange time. We don’t know what our future will bring us, and the generations who follow us will wonder what an ordinary life was like back in the day. If we write about the pandemic itself, we may fail to touch the grief of what we’ve lost, and only write about our grievances of today. If we can find an opportunity to note the small blessings of each day, perhaps we can access our memories of our past lives also.
My granddaddy hung his dress jacket in the old wood chifforobe on that back porch where the antique sewing machine resided. The cabinet retained the aroma of his favorite chewing gum, even when he was gone from the house. I can still smell today the juicy fruit chewing gum my granddaddy always carried in his coat pocket.
I hope you’re finding moments of joy and peace amidst this time of pandemic and uncertainty. I’ve attached a poem at the end I think you might enjoy.
Memories are worthy treasures, as this poem reminds us. This is a true story, for the author finished the quilt in 2017. Her husband’s mother had started it and was about a third done with the quilting when she passed away in 1986.
Thirty Years By Ruth Poteet
My closet’s free of a strange parolee, coldly imprisoned for thirty long years; gone with the rest of my walk-in’s debris, I’d marked it “Goodwill” with cynical cheers.
Rescuing the box, my mind shifted gears. And ready to face fair verdict instead, a quilt, yet unquilted, moved me to tears. At seventy-three I finished this spread.
It took just three weeks, while my fingers bled, now “thirty years” rests proudly on my bed.