The last day of our art class we had a “free for all.” Not exactly a “food fight” or “slug fest” free for all, but a finish up or start a personal project type of day. Our class never disappoints me. Mike brought in his patio parrots, some of which have seen better days. These are papier-mâché sculptures that have been brightly painted and covered with shellac. He hopes to paint over them and repair them so they will look respectable once again in the poolside area. If that’s not possible, I see a vacation south of the border in his future.
Gail brought an icon she didn’t quite finish to add gold outlining to the figures. This detail gave her work an extra embellishment to bring it to life. Before, she’d left an edge of white canvas between the background and the figures. This had the same effect, but also gave her work an unfinished appearance.
I’ve been working on a series of Creation Icons from the first chapter of Genesis. Actually, they’re mandalas, but they serve the same purpose as an icon: to focus the viewer’s sight into the window of the world beyond this one and to contemplate the universal mysteries of the universe and the God who created it. The Creation inspired me because I’ve seen old icons with this theme painted both in figurative and abstract styles.
This one represents Day three and is from The Nuremberg Chronicles (1493). Written by Hartmann Schedel and illustrated with woodcuts by Michael Wolgemut, it represents a monumental place in the history of the printed page. One of the most beautifully illustrated texts of all time, the approximately 600 pages, in-folio, contain 1,804 woodcuts intended to communicate to the public a schedule of events predetermined by God, beginning with the Creation, and ending with the end of time.
My icon is a stylized flower against a blue sky with a cross in the center to remind us, as John 1:1-3 says,
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”
I chose a sunflower as my representative plant, for the young plants constantly track the sun’s transit across the sky each day. The older plants don’t make use of this mechanism of heliotropism, but always face east to wait for the sunrise. The ancient wisdom says when Christ comes in his final glory, he’ll first appear in the east at the Beautiful Gate in Jerusalem. However, the Bible says in Revelation 1:7,
“Look! He is coming with the clouds; every eye will see him, even those who pierced him; and on his account all the tribes of the earth will wail. So it is to be. Amen.”
I think it best to be ready, day or night, for like the servants whose master has gone off on a trip, we don’t know when he’s coming back. We should be always ready, always eager to serve. We’re never too young or too old to be a servant for Christ. As we grow older, one of our best gifts is mentoring the next generation for leadership. Perhaps they’ll make mistakes, or maybe they’ll do things differently than we did, but mission and ministry will happen.
Most mistakes don’t matter in the great scheme of life, unless they’re breaking a moral or legal law. If they’re just doing a task in a different order, like my arrangement of the dishes in the dishwasher at my mother’s house, we should probably leave that alone. I went and sat in the den and let my mother load the next evening’s dirty dishes because “If you’re going to rearrange everything, you might as well put them in yourself.” She did that one night and sat in the den the next night. Training is everything. My mom spent years training me, so I learned from the best. When it’s time to let go, you step aside and let them do it on their own. Learning from mistakes is part of leadership.
In art class we also learn from our mistakes. Sometimes we find out our palettes are too small to mix up all the different colors we want. This can limit our color schemes, muddy our colors, or tempt us into putting more color over the old color in the same tiny space for mixing. Then we look at our painting and wonder why it’s grey and dull, but fail to notice how dark our glass of brush water is. When the water gets dark, we need to pour it out and get clean water, or we carry that wash water full of pigments into our painting with our brush. In a like manner, if we hold our grudges or anger over time, these soil and blemish our souls. Washing them clean through prayer to God makes a difference in our countenance and joy. We’re brighter people when we rid ourselves of these burdens.
I’m taking the summer off from teaching. I have an art show planned for August to September at the Garland County Library, so I’ll be finishing up some work for that event. I also have a couple of chores around my condo planned, and more of my SOULJOURNIES blog to put into shape. I’m excited about these creative renewal projects. I’ll see y’all on the flip side.
A sunflower follows the sun. Actually, only young sunflowers track the sun across the sky, while mature sunflowers face east. Why is this? Why do we care? As sunflowers fill our Facebook feeds and social media posts, most of us are looking at flowers so we can ignore the awful consequences of this unprovoked war. Right now, many of us are heartbroken because of the humanitarian crisis unfolding in Ukraine. I had only a passing knowledge of this country because of its well known naïve artist, Maria Primachenko and her paintings of fantastic imaginative animals in gardens. They have always been a delight to my soul and a joy to my spirit. Many of her works include the sunflower, Ukraine’s national flower. Sunflowers have been grown in Ukraine since the mid 1800’s, and are not only an important export crop, but also a symbol of peace. When Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in 1994, people planted sunflowers as a symbol of the peace they hoped would follow.
Sunflowers, when young, follow the sun on a 24 hour circadian cycle, just as our bodies have a similar cycle keyed to the light and dark. When the flowers are growing, they maximize their time facing the sun, but once they’re mature, they set their face toward the east, since this gives the head maximum warmth. Bees love warmth, so keeping the buzzing crowds near is in the sunflowers’ best interest for pollination and reproduction.
Most of us prefer the sunny days. Clouds, storms, and distress aren’t our first choices. After the last few years of pandemic stresses, we’re unprepared for yet another crisis, even if it seems to be on a distant continent. Our own supply chain for reserves of caring and concern have been stretched thin by the nearly million deaths from COVID in our nation alone, not to mention the worldwide death toll of over 6 million. On Friday in Sam’s Club, I met a lady who complimented me on my flowered pants, which I was wearing in honor of the Ukrainian folk painter, whose museum had been bombed by the Russian army.
“I can’t bear to even listen to the news any more. It’s all so awful,” she said.
“I know. It reminds me too much of domestic violence cases, where the man decides he’ll punish the ex by killing all the children and taking himself out also.”
My blood sugar usually drops low on Friday after art class, before I eat lunch, so I don’t have my usual, civilized filter on my mouth. The look of awareness on her face was the sudden recognition of a truth she had refused to see before. Sometimes we need to face our fears and deal with them. This is the hero journey. None of us can travel it alone, but far too many fail to ever set out on it at all, even with a spiritual companion or guide. My failure to snack at art class upset her comfortable apple cart and caused her distress. She ran out of Sam’s in a heartbeat. I was able to chat with a baby and her mom later on, who was amazed her child wasn’t at all afraid of this stranger. Food is a medicine for my mood and a bridle for my mouth.
On a sunny day, we can see our shadow. Most of us are afraid of our own flickering shadows. We don’t want to see the darkness within us, even though we’re ever ready to see the sinister images of others. Like a sunflower, we’ll turn instead to the light and only see the good, the beautiful, and the true.
A story I remember from my classical art studies regards Alexander the Great and the shadows. His father Phillip II, the ancient king of Macedon, had a difficult, high strung horse, which no one had been able to ride. In fact, it was downright vicious and unmanageable, which made it less of a “gift” to the ruler. Alexander, even though a youth, noticed the handsome horse was disturbed by his own shadow, so he turned the animal’s head into the sun, attached the bridle, and was able to mount him. Alexander rode Bucephalus until the horse’s death at the Battle of the Hydaspes in 326 B.C.E. In his honor, Alexander named a local city, Bucephala (sometimes identified with the modern Jhelum, in the Punjab province of Pakistan), after him.
“Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes,” Carl Jung wrote to one Fanny Bowditch, on the eve of his entry into military service during the First World War. Jung believed as long as you looked at other people and projected your own psychology into them, you could never reach harmony with yourself. Jung taught all persons had a shadow side to their personality, or those aspects of ourselves which we’ve repressed. These may be both bad or good aspects, for some of us have yet to realize our own brutal natures, as well as the heroic figures which we’ve also buried inside.
My old granddaddy was fond of saying, “When you point out another’s failings, you have three fingers pointing back at yourself.” I came to learn I couldn’t recognize the fault in others unless I could claim it also in my own self. This keeps one humble for sure, but it also keeps a person from thinking he or she has any godlike or dictator qualities.
This brings me to another famous shadow story involving Alexander the Great. After his father’s death, he visited Corinth, where Diogenes the Cynic lived in 326 BCE. Diogenes was famous for carrying a lamp in the middle of the day in his “search for an honest man.” In the most famous exchange of this meeting, Alexander asked Diogenes whether there was anything he could do for him. Diogenes, who was enjoying the warmth of the autumn sun, answered, “Stand aside to stop blocking the sun.”
This abrupt response, showing Diogenes’ utter contempt for the power and prestige craved by Alexander, inspired many artists over the years. Although Alexander’s attendants took offense at Diogenes’ rudeness to their king, Alexander himself wasn’t displeased. Leaving, Alexander was said to reply, “If I were not Alexander, I would want to be Diogenes.”
When I brought these delightful images from Maria Primachenko to class, Gail and Mike were amazed at how bright, flat, and clean her designs were. Partly this is due to her use of gouache, an opaque water based color paint. She also uses repeated motifs, symmetry, and clean lines with sharp color contrasts to make her images “pop,” as the decorators say. Mike, who favors textures, was thrilled to see another artist who paints like he does. Gail was glad to process the distressing news through flowers and the yellow and blue of the national flag of Ukraine.
Often we don’t feel “safe” speaking about dark or upsetting experiences, preferring instead to bury them deep inside. This is maybe the worst decision we can make, for like a poison or an infection, what we refuse to bring to the light will fester and grow. Then it further sickens the body or the mind until it becomes unrecognizable and unhealthy. Perhaps this is when we move from being rational to irrational. As I always tell folks, “Just because you think the world operates on reason and order, doesn’t make it so.” By this I mean, we live in a world with accidents, change, disease, sociopaths, and greed. In biblical terms, we live in a broken and fallen world, one in which even those of us who are “saved by the blood of Christ” from the wages of sin are “not yet perfected in the love of God and neighbor.”
This is what it means as a Christian to carry the Jungian shadow within us. If we believe keeping a law is the best evidence of our faithfulness, we can overlook the moral quality of the law itself and find ourselves carrying out harm, rather than doing good. As the writer of Hebrews explains in the platonic argument of Christ’s Sacrifice Once for All:
“Since the law has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities, it can never, by the same sacrifices that are continually offered year after year, make perfect those who approach.” (10:1)
If we want to be law keepers, we can’t be picking and choosing which laws we want to keep, as if the law were a cafeteria or buffet table. Jesus certainly knew what potholes lay ahead of him after his baptism in the Jordan River. A forty day fast in the wilderness is great for getting your head together and dealing with our human nature’s dark side of desire for security, power, and equality with god.
I post my Artandicon blog on LinkedIn as well as on my various spiritual formation Facebook pages which I manage. I sometimes get a message from folks there. One was from a friend, who mentioned she really wanted to get back into her art, “for it brings her peace.” I tell people, “the process of making art brings satisfaction, but we’re not ever satisfied with the work itself.” If we were ever to be satisfied with the work, if we thought we could reach no higher, or if we thought so highly of ourselves that we’d made the last best artwork for all times, then we’d have to quit and make pancakes, until we’d perfected those. And then we’d find a new obsession.
My favorite monsters are those from the Japanese nuclear monster movies of the 1950’s. They are both kitschy and scary. The sunflowers destroyed by these monsters of war will fall to earth and be reborn once again in ever increasing numbers. If hope is the last to die, it’s also the first to rise again. As long as one has breath, one can hope. As Paul wrote to the believers in Rome long ago,
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.” (15:13)
Making art is a metaphor for the hero’s journey. Jung believed art was important because often the hands will solve a mystery that the intellect has struggled with in vain. We don’t know what battle or monster awaits, but we also don’t know what divine spirit will come to our aid. Along the fantastic inward journey, we’ll meet the very same creatures who are outside of us. They arise in our dreams, but they were planted in our awakening moments. We may have been turning our faces towards the sun, like the baby sunflowers or the horse Bucephalus, but soon enough we’ll trust the one who guides us and we’ll go wherever it’s necessary.
The journey toward Christian perfection in love is a heroic journey, one which we can only undertake with the help of the Holy Spirit. Along the way, we also travel with others on same road: mystics, saints, and holy persons from yesterday and today. As the old camp song refrain goes,
“And they’ll know we’re Christians by our love, by our love, They’ll know we’re Christians by our love.”
The following prayer, Psalm 23, has comforted people for thousands of years in times of trouble and grief. Here in the English Standard Version, if you have fears, trepidations, or trembles, it might help you to calm your spirit. As you speak it aloud to the rhythm of your inhalation and exhalation of breath, remember those who have given up their lives rather than reject their faith: Christian martyrs in the Roman coliseum, Jewish martyrs in the holocaust, and democratic freedom fighters around the world. Let your voice be heard, even as their voice is being silenced:
The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters. He restores my soul. He leads me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the LORD forever.
Flowers please us because of their colors and forms, but also because of their fleeting beauty. While the class was painting, I threw some colors on an old canvas. It is a sketch, since never got to the dark accents of the petals. The paint was wet, so I would have had mud, not two distinct colors!
In our weekly adult painting class at church, we talked about Van Gogh’s sunflowers, Gauguin’s friendship with him, and how other artists have approached the subject of flowers. Not painting every petal or detail, but capturing the energy and emotion of the flowers is more important.
This requires a leap of faith! Of course, if we aren’t sure of how to mix a color, or how to draw a shape or make a form, a student is loathe to move off a safe path. Van Gogh had this struggle also. His early paintings were dark and lacking the energy of his late works.
Still Life with Earthenware, Bottle, and Clogs
Van Gogh, Sunflowers
Unfortunately some of Van Gogh’s most iconic floral artworks in the Van Gogh Museum, painted in 1888 and 1889, are now facing the test of time.
Vincent Van Gogh painted his iconic Sunflowers in vibrant yellows and golds, but after 130 years, his bright lemon-yellow hues have begun to wilt into a brown muddle. A new X-ray study confirms what researchers and art lovers have long suspected: Van Gogh’s paints are fading over time. In 2011, Sarah Zielinski at Smithsonian.com reported that chemists were looking into how the old colors were holding up. They found exposure to UV light—both from sunlight and the halogen lamps used to illuminate paintings in some museum galleries—had led to oxidation of some paint pigments, causing them to change color.
A 2016 study looked deeper into the matter to find one of the bright yellow paints Van Gogh liked, a mix between yellow lead chromate and white lead sulfate, was particularly unstable. Under UV light, the unstable chromate changed states and the sulfates began to clump together, dulling the color. Unfortunately, the process is not currently preventable. Currently, the darkening of the paint and the wilting of the sunflowers is not visible to the naked eye.
As the book of James (1:11) reminds us about impermanence:
“For the sun rises with its scorching heat
and withers the field;
its flower falls, and its beauty perishes.”
In class, we talked about light permanence and pigment choice. If we want to make works of art for posterity, we should choose pigments able to stand up to the test of time. I choose lightfastness I when I work. Likewise, if we are going to be in business or relationships, we want to use the highest ethical principles so we can have long lasting interactions and high quality products. Cutting corners with people or resources will always come home to roost eventually.
The rest of the verse in James continues,
“It is the same way with the rich;
in the midst of a busy life,
they will wither away.”
Of course, if we put God first in our lives, rather than our own priorities, we will pay attention to the “first things,” and fading away like a sunflower will be the least of our worries.
Joy and Peace,
To read the whole discussion on paint discoloration and how museums are conserving art works to prevent further damage from light read: