How many colors exist in creation? Many more than we can buy in a tube at the art supply store and even more than the number of paint chips at our local building supply store. Recently I gave my adult art class an assignment to use their primary colors and white only to mix new colors, since I noticed they were not getting middle values in their paintings. I too enjoy the brightness of the primary colors, so this was also a challenge for me.
Power of the Cross
The following week I needed to do less geometry and more nature, but I came back to the cross theme once again, for these flowers are from a photo of the Easter “Living Cross” at my church. While we can’t see the arms of the cross, anymore than we can see Jesus today, we know the cross is there, just as we know Jesus is present for us in the power of the Holy Spirit.
This makes Christ alive, not only in our hearts, but also in the lives of all who suffer: the poor, the immigrant or stranger in our land, and the oppressed. Even the land itself, which suffers from human caused climate change, can be a place where we meet the living Christ.
The Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem is a powerful place, for it was where Christ was handed over to his captors by a former friend. From there he went to death on the cross and resurrection for our salvation. This garden retains this energy of struggle: Jesus prayed to get his will in line with God’s will.
If the story ended here, we’d have no living crosses full of beautiful flowers on Easter Sunday. Out of pain and struggle comes great beauty. Most of us will avoid any challenge in our lives, thinking the easy way is the best way. Intentionally causing others to suffer pain isn’t acceptable for moral reasons: “do no harm” is a good adage, as is “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Setting achievable goals and challenges are different. These cause us to grow. They may also cause us discomfort, but this isn’t pain.
On this canvas, Spring Flowers, I had to overpaint and scumble to create the textured grays of the background. I even had to repaint the wispy border flowers several times to get their petals colored and straight, plus to get the ground varied enough to make them stand out.
One of the artists I most admire is Picasso, for he was always reinventing his style. Today artists pick a style and stick with it. Perhaps this is lucrative and makes economic sense. Still, I wonder what happens to the creative spirit when it’s not nurtured, challenged, and expressed. Of course, this may be the difference between a great artist and a good artist, and only the centuries will tell which among us now will be great.
“You totally (should) become his nature, deny his being apart from you; you should be he himself, not Christians, but Christ, otherwise you will be no use to the coming god.”
—C. G. Jung, The Red Book, p. 137.
“No one can be spared the way of Christ, since this way leads to what is to come. You should all become Christs, says C. G. Jung, in his Answer to Job. He goes on to explain in the divine indwelling of the Holy Spirit in humanity, “a christification of the many arises.” One of the great and simple prayers is “Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in them in them the fire of your love.” When we ask for the indwelling third person of the Trinity, we also ask for the rest of the “family,” for the three are fellow travelers. The Father and the Son aren’t separate entities, even when the Spirit proceeds from the two, just as the Father and the Spirit aren’t off somewhere distant when the Son is suffering on the cross.
In the season of Lent, many people begin with ashes on their forehead as a sign of repentance and fasting for the forty days before Easter. Some give up bacon, others give up alcohol, and some give up social media. Perhaps this is our idea of suffering today, since most of us have our needs for shelter, food, and security met. Modern people tend to suffer emotionally instead, so this may be why we fast from social media. Unfortunately, we don’t have much deep Christian teaching around suffering, mostly because it’s not a happy subject. Nobody likes a downer sermon. Bible studies on Job and the prophets are unpopular too. We don’t like seeing our faces in a BCE Mirror.
I AM THE RESURRECTION AND THE LIFE
Who wants to suffer today? No one! Most of the Christian teaching around the cross concerns a variation on the substitution theory, or Jesus takes on our suffering so we no longer have to endure the agony ourselves. Of course, when we meet trouble in our daily life, we then call into question either the effectiveness of this work on the cross or our faith in his work on our behalf. Did Christ die for everyone else, but not for me? Are there other works besides my faith in Christ necessary for my salvation? Do I need to be a better person to earn my freedom from suffering?
If we understood the nature of the earthbound Christ life, rather than the resurrected Christ life, we’d grasp the essential nature of suffering bound up into this life of flesh and spirit. Christ knew hunger, thirst, loneliness, temptation, disappointments, weariness, rejection, and pain. Worst of all, he tasted the emptiness of death before he knew the fullness of the resurrection.
Should we protect our children from suffering? If we mean, should we do our best to feed, clothe, and shelter them, the answer is yes, of course! If we mean, do we protect them from the logical consequences of their acts, I’d say, most likely no. If a child won’t do their own homework, they should get the logical results for their refusal. Physical punishment isn’t a logical result. Poor grades, limits on sports or activities, or staying after school are consequences in line with the poor behavior. Small sufferings now will avoid larger sufferings later. (If they want to jump out of a third story window, that’s another matter. Put some locks on that, parents!)
Of course, to even call these “suffering” shows how far our modern world has moved from the ancient world. Sufferings once were the lot of slaves, who had no authority over their own lives, and could be bought and sold like cattle. They had no agency or control over their fortunes or lots in life. We modern folk are different, unless we buy into the idea we’re rudderless ships upon a stormy ocean. Then we’re merely chaff tossed about by external forces, so we might as well be slaves to our environment.
If we held the whole nature of Christ within us, we’d know both the Christ of suffering and the resurrected Christ of glory. While we ourselves have not yet ascended, we do hold fast to his promise,
“Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we do know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is. And all who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure.” (1 John 3:2-3)
If we live with hope, we can rejoice, and be patient in suffering, while we persevere in prayer.
~~ Romans 12:12
I carry my phone when I walk, so I always have a camera for the scenes of beauty which catch my eye. Since light is ephemeral and these moments are fleeting, catching them as they occur is important. When I come home, I often photoshop the image on my computer or in Instagram to get the emotions, which I experienced when I took the photo.
Winter Lake Reflections
Several winters ago, I took this photo. By the time I painted it this year, I was feeling more optimistic. Back then, I didn’t know if my daughter was alive or dead. I lived in hope, but I also was holding onto some fear, for I knew her drug addiction was going to be difficult to overcome.
The Cloud Rising
This is my most recent landscape. The cloud always reminds me of God’s appearance! Then I think of this verse in Job 38:34, when God asks Job, who’s been questioning God’s intentions and reasons—
“Can you lift up your voice to the clouds,
so that a flood of waters may cover you?”
Poor Job, he’s not God. And neither are any of us. We’d like to make sense of the senseless, right all the wrongs, put order to all the chaos, and make things the way they should be. Of course, if we were in charge, the world would have gone to hell in a hand basket much sooner than it has already.
Maybe we should reread Job 42:3—
‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
In our world today, many changes are happening. Some of us want things to be “the way they used to be.” This would make us feel better and be more comfortable with a known world, but God is always recreating God’s new world–
“For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind” (Isaiah 65:17).
If we are people of faith, we can trust in our God, whose Son Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). If Christ is the same, then God is the same, and so is the Holy Spirit. Does this mean our understanding of the Holy Trinity never changes? No, this means God’s love and mercy for us never changes! We think we can fall outside the bounds of God’s love, but this is only because we have short arms and can’t include all others within our embrace. Just as the water reflects the sky and earth above it, so we’re to reflect the attributes of the holy image in which we’re created and demonstrate the qualities of the heart and the same mind that was in Christ Jesus (Philippians 2:5).
Job, who was well respected and honored in his community, was enamored of his ability to assist others with their needs. He was a big man who used the blessings from God for good purposes. When he lost this status, he was upset. Once he met God face to face, he realized he’d been giving lip service to God, but didn’t actually know God. Many of us today know about God, but haven’t had an encounter or experience with the living God. We can’t reflect a love which we’ve never received, and we can’t share a forgiveness we’ve not known. Perhaps our first work is to seek God’s generosity for our own lives, so we can reflect it outward in the world toward others.
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.
Making Found Object Icons is an art project that evolved out of the Great Macaroni Multimedia Traveling Artandicon Show. In seminary during Art Week our fellow students were horrified we were making sacred images out of edible products, such as macaroni, lentils, peas, and beans.
Jesus is the Bread of Life
“Jesus is the bread of life, and macaroni is just another form of wheat,” we replied.
“But it’s so ordinary!”
“Clay is ordinary, and so is stone. Can an object only be worthy of God if it’s made of expensive materials?”
“The value of all the chemicals in a human body is about $5.18, but we’re worth far more than that in the eyes of God. Some say God doesn’t make junk, yet too many people of faith despise and debase the body. I’ve always wondered why this was so, since the Son of God came to earth in human form, and as the great hymn in Philippians 2:5-11 (NRSV) says—
“Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.”
When we meet Christ at Christmas, we can get all warm and fuzzy because who doesn’t like a warm, cuddly baby? Maybe I have a soft spot for babies, but I really don’t trust people who don’t get a little ga-ga when the little ones coo and smile. I can understand folks getting squeamish at Good Friday and the cross. Most of us avoid as much pain as possible. Humility and obedience to God are not high priorities these days for many people.
Flight into Egypt
Many tend to ignore this wonderful call to the Christ-like life, preferring instead the cop out of “Keep awake and pray that you may not come into the time of trial; the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak,” (Mark 14:38, NRSV). “Forgive us,” we say, but we hold others up to high standards.
We make a distinction between our dual natures of the flesh and the spirit, a concept inherited from the Greco-Roman culture. It’s notable that the often quoted verse, “If you sow to your own flesh, you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the Spirit, you will reap eternal life from the Spirit,” is found in Galatians 6:8 (NRSV), for this was a Roman province.
The ancient Mediterranean area had a knowledge/mystery tradition. The Greeks had their cult of Bacchus, the Egyptians the cult of Isis, and the Jewish had their mystical Kabbalah. The Romans had their dying and rising god cult of Mithras, the bull. Entry into all of these groups was by word of mouth only, given to a special few, and all had secret rites known to the members only. Most promised salvation through secret knowledge, and the true world for them was spiritual rather than the physical world in which we live today. Ecstatic worship separated the believer from the body and the ordinary world.
You might recognize these traits in your own church or worship community today, except for the ecstatic and enthusiastic worship brought about by mood altering substances. That’s not my church anyway! How do we come close to God? Across the centuries, the tradition has discovered contemplative prayer, singing, searching the scriptures, serving the poor, attending the sacraments, and creating art for God or the Holy Icons.
Making an object for the glory of God, to enhance the worship experience, and to honor God is a gift of the artist’s time and talent. No artist is ever paid what their training and talent is worth, for it’s a treasure from God to begin with—it can’t be valued. Artists have learned over the centuries to live simply, accept fame if it comes, and put a fair price on their work.
They get value in the spiritual real from the work they do, for the icon opens a window into heaven. As they arrange the jewels and found objects, and move them to a better position, the icon comes alive under their hands and begins to breathe. Only the person, who will be still long enough to hear the silence from beyond the open window, can hear the voice of God in this world. For this person, the icon is a treasure, and a place of holy focus, no matter how small or how simple the materials.
This is the reason the artist makes an icon—to have a moment of mystery, a time of intersection, and a communion with the holy. In today’s hurried world, each of us wants a place in which we can experience for a moment the timelessness of heaven.
When we return in the New Year, we’ll begin painting our own holy icons. The process is a spiritual journey, more than a destination or the attempt to reach perfection. We only need to “go toward perfection” each day!
Some things I take for granted, since I had the great privilege of knowing my great grandmother in her last years. I knew all but one of my grandparents, since my daddy’s father died when I was only a year old. Even my daughter knew both her Nana and all four of her grandparents. Growing up we attended family reunions or homecomings every summer without fail. We renewed ties with the distant or “kissing cousins” who also showed up for the food and fellowship. I also have family members who care about genealogy, especially if this gets them into exclusive organizations, but I’ve never joined these.
The Mexican festival for the Day of the Dead pays respects to the ancestors. In truth, we don’t need to know who they are, or to have had an intimate relationship with them. After all, I certainly didn’t know my great great ancestors! I can appreciate I wouldn’t be here without their gift of life to my more proximate relatives. This is what the writer of Hebrews means by, “we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” (12:1).
The Day of the Dead is celebrated on or around All Saints Day, and sometimes for several days on either side of it. It began with an Aztec custom, and blended into the Catholic tradition. This is a time for feasting, celebrations, and joy, to make memorable the experience of recalling the lives of the ancestors. Sweet foods shaped like skulls are one of the traditions.
Michael worked on a pyramid of foam core boards, which he painted to look like stones. He decorated it with store bought skulls and a photo of his deceased brother. He has more nuts and bolts from a found object stash to add to it. Telling the story of his beloved one is part of the project. Art is part therapy and part project. We may work with our hands, but our hearts and minds are also involved.
Gail worked on a tombstone painting with images of her ancestors and their pets. She figured our how to transfer photos to cloth via the printer! Technology! I was impressed! Plus Gail made coffee for my sake, and it was a means of grace, since I’ve had a serious sinus infection that won’t go away. Coffee really is a blessing.
I’m slowly working on a new box for my daughter’s memory. This is the third anniversary of her death. When we think of the Dead, we remember
we believe “he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive” (Luke 20:38). So we don’t grieve like others do, for our loved ones aren’t lost to us. Since God is close to us, and our loved ones are with God, this means our loved ones are always as close to us as God is.
In these past three years, grief has roiled not only our nation, but the nations of the world. Since 2015, more than 33,000 Americans have died as a result of the opioid epidemic, but drug overdose deaths overall are even larger. In 2015 alone, 52,404 people died from a drug overdose and 64,070 died in the year ending in January, 2017. Across the world, 2015 was remarkable for forcibly displaced persons: 21.3 million refugees, 40.8 million internally displaced persons, and 3.2 million asylum seekers. The photo of the drowned Syrian boy, who washed up on a Turkish beach, helped open Europe’s doors to people fleeing the war torn country they once called home. Now we have neighbors from the south fleeing gangs and corruption in the hope of a place to work and give their families a better life.
Perhaps we’ve had so much of our own grief, we can’t deal with any more. We’ve become numb to the pain of others. If this is the case, we are dead inside, and others need to grieve for us. The fancy name for our condition is “compassion fatigue,” for we hear folks saying, “We should take care of our own first,” but our own go hungry and sleep in the bushes behind our churches or on our city streets.
To live with joy isn’t easy in the early days after the death of a loved one, but as our journey progresses toward recovery, we come to remember who we are and whose we are. Making a scrapbook, writing a journal, or building an altar are all physical means to engage the senses. Once we tap these, we can open the floodgates to our emotions and thoughts, and then healing can begin. We aren’t healed in a moment, but by a process over time.
“Hear, LORD, and be merciful to me; LORD, be my help.
You turned my wailing into dancing;
you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy”
~~ Psalms 30:10-11
NEXT WEEK: We begin a new still life painting series—Ornamental Gourds.
No, we aren’t painting ON the gourds…Bring paints and a canvas!
After all is said and done, the taste of victory will not be sweet for the winning side. They will be eating a roast beast cooked to ashes. It will feed them, but it won’t nourish them for the long haul.
The agony of this latest defeat for the survivors, who came out of hiding to share their stories of pain in solidarity with others, is just a minor setback, for their bravery has been honed by years of struggle. One skirmish doesn’t make a battle, anymore than one person can make or break our spirits. We know our worth and identify is located in our being loved by God and loved into the image of God.
Yet, if we listen to the news feed of any political persuasion, either “the kingdom has come according to God’s will,” or “the apocalypse is upon us now!” I admit to being one of the latter, but even I can put on my drama queen crown for a day. Television, social media, and our instant society push us in this direction. We are seduced into overconsumption of media during times of high drama, especially when an unusual event occurs, such as a natural disaster or a Supreme Court appointment.
Why would we even care, as people of faith, about a political appointee? While this government position is technically separate from the church, the people who rule make decisions affecting God’s people and God’s world–especially the poor, the marginalized, and the dispossessed. We want to know that all 114 of the justices since 1789 not only are well qualified in matters of the law, but have the “temperament suitable for the highest court of the land.”
This is like the classic “sorting hat” of Harry Potter fame—or the Southerner’s expression “couth”—you either have it or you don’t. If you have to ask what it is, you don’t have it. Mostly down South, we easily recognize “uncouth.” That is plain as the nose on you face or people screaming at you to listen when your mind is already made up.
So the vote to confirm the 114th was close, but affirmative, and we now have a new Associate Justice on the Supreme Court. People think Justice Kavanaugh will tilt the Court to the right, since there’s no swing vote currently among the nine. Since I’m afflicted by the dread disease of chronic optimism, and infected by family systems thinking, I don’t believe in static systems. After all, every place I’ve ever been and every job ever had, both secular and sacred, all had the same people and conditions, but when you replace one key person (or change the way the key person relates to the others), change happens.
I observed an interesting effect of Family Systems behavior patterns when an extroverted clergy pal, who led youth groups, and I were part of a leadership training seminar. Our normally reserved group leader began to toss the dinner rolls across our restaurant table as he called out our names. The more he “acted out,” the straighter and quieter my friend became! I was dying laughing inside, but I couldn’t laugh out loud at her expense.
DELEE—Ripples in Water of Lake Hamilton
When we throw a rock into a lake, it creates a ripple. We may think these waves dissipate after a few feet, but under the water are small fish who felt the water’s expansion, so they moved to another part of the lake. Perhaps the fisherman, whose luck was poor all day long, made one final cast and caught the bigger fish that had moved over to seek the small fish from our tossed pebble area. We may have given him a meal for his family or just made his day glad. We’ll never know the results of the small acts or decisions we make.
Likewise, when a new Justice arrives into the very small pond—there’s only nine of them—it’s bound to make a ripple. If we believe “God is working for good in all things, for those who love God and are called according to God’s purposes,” then by faith we’d trust God will work in this small pond to move the hearts and minds of these justices. In their discussions and interactions, they would affect one another. They don’t make decisions in an ivory tower, for they’re not like a judge in an individual court, but colleagues who come to a consensus opinion, even if one may write a dissent on the side.
As a stone sharpens a blade, we can hope and pray for the light of God’s love to illumine both the mind and heart of all who serve on our high court. They’ll have many important questions to come before them. Our hope is they and we always remember psychologist Ellen Langer’s advice for making tough choices: “Don’t make the right decision. Make the decision right.” Since we never have enough information to make the best choice, all we can do is make the best of the choice we’ve made.
If we remember we’re all children of God and all of God’s children are well loved, then we can go forward without rancor to recreate the world anew. If the current occupants of political office aren’t responding to this transformative calling, we should run, organize, vote, and elect others who will work together for the good of all, not just for a few. This takes vision, planning, and a long term view.
Most of us will only think about as long as it takes our double shot white mocha latte with soy to come over the counter at our favorite cafe spot, if that long. Plan for a major holiday? Five year plan? Plan out the church year in advance? No wonder we don’t even know what we’re doing this weekend. Most of us are just trying to get through the day. No wonder we live moment to moment and crisis to crisis. We don’t ever pull back and reflect on where the ripples go when the stone drops. All we do is keep throwing stones. This isn’t evidence of a life of faith and purpose. Calendars are going on sale now. It might be time to make some prayers and plans.
I haven’t read this book, but the New York Times gives it a rave review.
“Farsighted,” Steven Johnson’s riveting new book on how we make tough long-term decisions, uses compelling stories that reveal surprising insights, and explains how we can most effectively approach the choices that can chart the course of a life, an organization, or a civilization. “Farsighted” will help you imagine your possible futures and appreciate the subtle intelligence of the choices that shaped our broader social history.
If we do the same thing over and over again, we’ll get the same results. Most of us will take the same road to our favorite restaurant, choose the same menu items, and call it a night at about the same hour. We are that predictable. A certain structure in our lives is necessary to keep us on an even keel. Mass marketing depends on people like us, since we have reliable and time tested tastes. Great art is different from the decorative arts, however, and it’s unlike the mass produced pieces which are good for covering a section of a wall in an office or residence.
Likewise, if we want to break through from the ordinary to the better, or if we want to improve upon our former work, we have to break our old habits and train ourselves in new habits. Why do world champion golfers reconstruct their swings in the middle of their careers? Their bodies are aging and changing. They can no longer swing with the abandon of younger and more limber persons. To continue playing at a high level, they must learn anew. This learning, forgetting and learning again is related to John 12:24–“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
DIANA—Painting with a Bell Pepper
In art classes, we’re always unlearning our yesterdays and starting over with fresh eyes and a renewed spirit in the morning. The day we start repeating ourselves, we’ve decided we’re good enough. We’ve settled, rather than continuing to push on to see how far we can go. Some of us will do this because we’re finally making a living. No one can fault this. Taking care of our families is important.
GAIL—Painting wit an Okra Pod
Yet if we fail to care for the artist within us, if we aren’t reaching deep within to wrestle with the challenge to risk trembling on the edges of beauty and chaos, we won’t be happy coloring canvases to satisfy the needs of those who see our art as an appendage to their furnishings rather than an object in its own right.
MIKE—Trees Painted with a Sweet Potato
The art class was somewhat nonplussed when I suggested we use sweet potato slices to print or paint with, as well as the big pretzel rods. Gail brought some large okra from her garden too, so we added this to the equation. If we always draw with the pencil and fill in with the paint brush, we get paintings which resemble coloring books. Then they came up with some original solutions. I knew they had it in them!
DUSTIN—Bowling Pins shaped like Sweet Potatoes
Mike used the actual potato as a paint tool, while Diana used the cut okras as textures and patterns. Dustin took the shape for bowling pins, and Gail doubled up sweet potatoes for mountains. I discovered the woven surface I was using wasn’t really conducive to the printing process, whereas the flat papers the class used worked fine. I got enough paint on it to get started and finished it at home.
CORNELIA—(Sweet Potato) Cloud on the Horizon
In Richard Rhor’s book, Immortal Diamond, he says, “Your True Self is that part of you that knows who you are and whose you are, although largely unconsciously. Your False Self is just who you think you are—but thinking doesn’t make it so.”
In art, we practice over and over again, until we can drop all the artifices of the False Self (the constructs which the world rewards) and work freely for the rewards which are pleasing to God. To do this, we need to allow ourselves to be freely loved by God and let ourselves freely love God’s entire creation. If nothing is outside God’s love and providence, then we too are called to love and care for God’s creation. This attitude will show in our art and heart.
In faith and art, we’re always dying to our old self and rising to our new self. Therefore we won’t be imitators of others, but we’ll be conformed instead to the image of God.
Do not lie to one another, seeing that you have stripped off the old self with its practices and have clothed yourselves with the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge according to the image of its creator.
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?
Famous artists throughout the ages have chosen apples for their still life paintings. Apples are known for sitting still, they have a long shelf life, and they work for cheap. Moreover, when the painting is done, they make an excellent pie. We can’t do this with our human models, since this involves non ethical principles such as “Do not take a human life or do not murder.” So, apples are good for starving artists everywhere.
In art class last Friday, the adult students learned even a simple apple and its shadows can be challenging, but the fruit of the quest is worth it. Integration of the object and the ground isn’t easy! If we focus only on the form, it’ll float like a butterfly above the ground. The shadow ties the form to the ground and tells us more about object’s shape and location in space. The line behind the objects determines the point of view. It becomes our horizon line, so we know if we’re looking above or below the objects.
We can use our brushstrokes can to shape the apple’s form too. Then if we use the same brush technique for our ground, we haven’t separated the object from the ground. We end up with the famous magic “cloak of invisibility,” which is great in a Harry Potter novel, but not so great if we want to separate our apple from the ground.
These are all areas of growth, however. As my old teachers all said, “There are no mistakes–only attempts to gain mastery over the techniques until you find your own voice.”
Next week we’ll look at negative space. So far we’ve been drawing the objects, but now we’ll look at the space in between them! Oh–who knew we’d pay attention to the empty spaces or they’d have so much meaning!
“Guard me as the apple of the eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings…”.