“Only when he no longer knows what he is doing, does the painter do good things.”
Edgar Degas, the French artist known for his ballerina paintings, is a good teacher from whom to learn. A true artist learns something new every day and isn’t afraid of failure. Failure is just another word for discovering what won’t work. As artists and as Christian believers, we are a people of hope. In fact, one might say we’re afflicted with chronic optimism. Even when our work fails to satisfy us, we can say, “Look at what I learned on this, and what I can carry over to my next work.”
North Carolina Sunlit Path
This little landscape is the second stage of a previous painting, one which I began while I was ill with a sinus infection. If I wasn’t at my best, I also wasn’t at my worst, so I was painting at my easel. I knew I wasn’t happy with it, but I thought I’d live with the painting until I heard it tell me what was needed.
The trees of the finished work are more slender, more shaped by the wind of the Carolina coastline. The bush masses are larger and have more contrast, while the sky is more evenly colored. Even the path has more sunlight and less shade.
Artistic license is the ticket to drive we all got as children with crayons and poster paint. We could paint the sky red if we took a notion to do so, give our dogs blue tongues, or paint the grass orange. Only the grownups among us squelched our creative spirits. Sometimes we have to learn to forget ourselves on purpose to learn art, faith, love, compassion, or joy.
I’m going to teach Friday morning art classes again at Oaklawn UMC. You bring your materials, I volunteer my years of experience teaching K-12 and adults. You get to learn real art:
Shading in Value & Color
Drawing & Painting from Life
One thing you’ll never do is copy anything I’ve already done or come home with a work that looks similar to one of your classmates. Art is about expression of your inner truth. You get to do you, and have a safe place to grow and struggle.
As G. K. Chesterton said in Orthodoxy:
“Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do. Mathematicians go mad, and cashiers; but creative artists very seldom. I am not, as will be seen, in any sense attacking logic: I only say that this danger does lie in logic, not in imagination.”
We artists will not go mad, but we will stretch our minds, deepen our souls, and gain a greater appreciation for the creative struggle.
The first class will begin Friday, September 6 at 10 am, and meet on Fridays afterwards. We’ll break for thanksgiving and Christmas. I’ll get a material list to the church office soon.
My newest painting is from a photo I took of a church in downtown Hot Springs on one cloudy spring day. It wasn’t much to look at as a photo, but I was called to stop and snap its image at that moment. I learned long ago in ministry to listen to those promptings of the spirit, for a greater power was working beneath my poor powers of discernment and knowledge. If I listened, I’d show up when people needed me, even when they were unable to contact me. God has a mysterious power to do unlikely works, or things we ordinary folks would call minor miracles.
THE INSPIRED CHURCH
Most of us see our churches as ordinary places, maybe even “our places,” rather than God’s holy place. This is why we say “my church,” but if we were truthful, we’d admit, no church ever belongs to any human being, for the church is the body of Christ. We also aren’t just one congregation either, for all these buildings comprise a greater Body of the greater Church, which is the Body of Christ. Plus, we who look to our membership rolls forget about the ones who are outside our doorsteps: the hungry, lonely, poor, wandering, naked, or the prisoners and infirm who are confined. They too are part of Christ’s body, which yearns to be made whole.
In my painting, this ordinary, grounded church now rises as a golden, ethereal structure striving toward the heavens. As a Inspired Church, it’s “going on to perfection.” While it won’t get there on its on account, God’s energies are there to help it, just as the spirit will help each of our churches to grow in faith and witness to the world. As I consider the pre Easter fire at the Cathedral of Notre Dame de Paris, I think of the cycles of spiritual growth both we and the bodies of Christ undergo. We all have times of growth and lying fallow, and some even seem to have seasons of rot. Yet God’s renewing spirit can make the dead bones live again.
Notre Dame de Paris
A Christian church has been in Paris since the 3rd century of the CE. This site has a history of both blight and renewal. Two ancient churches were destroyed to build the new gothic cathedral. These were built on the site of an old Roman temple dedicated to Jupiter. The work on the cathedral began in 1163 and was completed 203 years later. In 1789, French revolutionaries caused major damage to the building, especially the statuary. Nearly a half century later, publication of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame in 1831 sparked a campaign to restore the cathedral.
Although Notre Dame de Paris is a Catholic Church, it’s also a historic building. As such, the cathedral belongs to the state, which is responsible for its maintenance. Nevertheless, the day-to-day maintenance of churches and cathedrals in France often falls to cultural and religious associations. And just because the state is responsible for funding large infrastructure projects doesn’t necessarily mean it has the money to do it.
When the world watched the spire fall and the wooden roof collapse, a great sadness fell across people’s hearts. Immediately large financial pledges poured in to rebuild this architectural treasure. One of the blowbacks in the days of grief after the fire and the generous outpouring of pledges to rebuild this cathedral of hope, which is over 850 years old, was the reality of human needs. Soon folks said, “If we can raise this much money for a building, why can’t we raise it for the homeless, the hungry, the war refugees, and all the other human causes of need?”
Yes, these are important, and we should always provide relief for human distress. Great buildings, which have seen over eight centuries upon this earth, are a special case. They carry the hopes, dreams, and memories of each person who has ever entered their doors. With the advent of television and social media, they now carry the memories and dreams of everyone around the world who watched this great sanctuary burn and all their hopes for what it will become in the future.
When we cast a vision for our own churches, most of us aren’t facing a burned down edifice. Instead, we usually find a burned out congregation or a barely burning membership. Not many of us will stay in our appointments long enough to make “cosmic changes,” so we work to improve what we can, with the hope the next pastor will build on our work. In truth, it’s easier to redesign or renovate a building than it is to restore a congregation to health.
Currently architects are designing their best proposals for this spiritual heart of Paris and France. Some will “go big or go home,” while others will bring a more simple vision. Paris firm Vincent Callebaut Architectures’ vision for the cathedral is an innovative and eco-friendly design that supports the local population and produces more energy than it uses. Its vision of the rebuilt Notre Dame features a futuristic glass design, solar power, and an urban farm to support vulnerable and homeless Parisians.
Proposal for Interior of Notre Dame de Paris
Four years ago, an art historian used lasers to digitally map Notre Dame Cathedral. His work now could help save it. The Vincent Callebaut project is titled “Palingenesis,” a Greek concept of rebirth or recreation. The firm proposes a new roof made of glass, oak and carbon fiber, which connects “in one single curved stroke of pencil” to the sloping spire. The rooster which topped the original spire and retrieved from the rubble after the fire, will resume its watch from the new glass design, while the cathedral’s choir will be bathed in natural light.
Vincent Callebaut Architectures
Beneath the spire, the roof will host a fruit and vegetable farm run by charities and volunteers, in order to produce free food for vulnerable local people. “Up to 21 tons of fruits and vegetables could be harvested and directly redistributed for free each year,” the firm said in a press release. “To that end, a farmers’ market would be held every week on the forecourt of Notre Dame.”
Notre Dame de Paris
Vincent Callebaut Architectures
The roof and spire will also produce electricity, heat and ventilation for the cathedral: an “organic active layer” within the glass will provide solar power, while the roof’s diamond-shaped “scales” will open to offer natural ventilation — a design inspired by termite mounds. The spire will act as a “thermal buffer space” in which hot air accumulates in winter.
The cathedral could host an urban farm which produces food for local people. Credit: Vincent Callebaut Architectures
“How can we write the contemporary history of our country, but also that of science, art and spirituality together?” the firm said in a press release. “We seek to present a transcendent project, a symbol of a resilient and ecological future.”
If the Vincent Callebaut design is selected, the firm said, the reborn Notre Dame will define “the new face of the Church in the 21st century,” presenting “a fairer symbiotic relationship between humans and nature.”
This is so amazing, yet I wonder if the religious community will feel elbowed out of their worship space. I know one of the difficult challenges in church leadership is adopting new ideas because “we’ve never done it that way before.” On the other hand, helping this 14th century gothic cathedral rise from the ashes to a new birth is the perfect moment to claim an extraordinary vision for a forward looking future, not only for the church, but also for Paris, the French, and even the people of the world.
When we think about a new vision for our own church, are we willing to destroy the pagan temple and the god of its age?
When we build a church for an earlier time, do we have the faith to tear it down and build it anew for the age in which we live?
Do we hold on to an old form of church until it burns down and we need to create a new one from the ashes?
Will we have the courage to reconfigure our “idea of church” so it’s not a separation from the world, but an incorporation of the world, as in the Wedding Banquet parable?
Are we ready to entertain new visions and dream new dreams for our churches and our ministries?
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.
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!
My latest icon of the face of Christ is based on the Napkin of Christ or The Image Not Made by Human Hands. The tradition tells us the Lord washed his face on a cloth and the image of his face transferred directly to it. King Abgar took the image bearing cloth to Edessa and hung it above the city’s entrance, where the people venerated it.
For many years afterwards, the inhabitants kept a pious custom to bow down before the Icon Not-Made-by-Hands, when they went forth from the gates. When one of the great-grandsons of Abgar, who later ruled Edessa, fell into idolatry, he decided to take down the icon from the city wall. In a vision the Lord ordered the Bishop of Edessa to hide His icon. The bishop, coming by night with his clergy, lit a lamp before it and walled it up with a board and with bricks.
Years later, when the city was under siege, the Virgin Mary appeared to the presiding bishop with the instruction to reveal the old icon. Not only was it found, but also the lamp, and a copy etched into the wall itself! This miracle saved the city.
We know “that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God” (Romans 8:21), for Christ came not to save only humankind, but to redeem all creation. Sometimes when hurricanes, floods, fires, and other natural disasters make the news, we might think nature is disordered, dysfunctional, and we can despair for any harmonious sensitivity to the only planet we can call our home.
For some people of faith, because their “citizenship is not of this world,” they see no reason to care for our world, yet God created this place for us and our children and their children. We don’t own it, we merely care for it, as good stewards for the generations to come and as servants of our creator. If our world is to be lush and green, as well as clean and blue, we must love it as if it were the body of Christ, even though the world isn’t divine.
God is still going to “make a new heaven and a new earth,” but we don’t have to destroy the one we already have just to get God to prove God’s powers over our stupidity. We could choose to participate in the recreation of the new earth and let God finish the task at the right time. Then we’d enjoy the fruits of this better world and share it with all our neighbors around the earth.
As Paul reminds us, “We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen?” (Romans 8:22-24)
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.
In art, beginners can get so caught up with drawing the forms and representing reality, they lose sight of the emotions and meaning of their work. Small children, on the other hand, will take an idea such as a snowman in a snowstorm, and completely obliterate their surface with white swirls until all sight of the ground, the snowman, the house and the children who built it are covered up. Their work is more about the experience of the falling, swirling snow than it is about the distinctive parts. We hang this on our refrigerators and exclaimed with amazement when they tell us the story.
In a year, they’ll be interested in the separate objects and have a well defined ground and sky, even if their objects aren’t in realistic proportions. The proportions are sized according to the child’s interest, and by age 12 most children want to create drawings with realistic perspective and images. Sometimes as they age, they begin to lose their sense of magic and mystery, and need their imagination primed more, but this isn’t impossible.
Adults often have difficulty using their imaginations, for they’ve had too many years of completing to do lists, getting things done, and unfortunately, much work is mind numbing. Some of them also are products of schools that taught to the test and to the “right answer,” rather than teaching thinking or logic skills or creativity.
The disciples asked, “Who is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” Jesus replied, “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.” (Matthew 18:3-4)
For us as artists or as people of faith, to enter into the humility of a child is a counter cultural act, both today and in ancient times. We don’t find self help gurus preaching simplicity or poverty, but we do find plenty selling the siren call of prosperity and power. Jesus always speaks of the least of all as being the most of all, which is why the smallest child has more honor and greatness in the kingdom of heaven than the most important citizens of this world.
Some of us hear this text as a call to never question the faith we learned as a child. Unfortunately when we hit the stumbling blocks of adulthood, we find our simple faith’s pillars of belief are on shaky foundations. We can either crash and burn, or we can ask the questions of trusted and learned guides who have gone on the path before. Then we can shore up our foundations with mature understandings, or remodel our understanding so we can live with joy anew.
In art, we can either repeat the same forms over and over, or we can critique our work. In the school I attended, we had a routine—the first three comments had to be positive, then the next had to be those which needed improvement. Since we never called anything “bad” or “wrong,” the person on the hot seat never felt diminished. “You could have darkened the background more, so your foreground objects would have been more prominent.” This is better than saying, “You didn’t make the objects in front stand out,” since it doesn’t offer a solution.
It’s humbling to receive criticism, even positive feedback, because we want to be accepted just as we are, especially in faith. Yet Jesus didn’t die on the cross to leave us just as we are (justifying grace), but rose from the dead to perfect us and make us holy, just as he is (sanctifying grace). In faith, we come as humble children to grow in grace before God and to come to full perfection of love of God and neighbor that is entire sanctification. In art, we work each day to join our hand, our hearts, and our vision into one spiritually inspired whole. The more we know ourselves and can connect with the spirit of the creating God, the better we’ll make art with an inner life.
Sometimes in art, we decide to repeat a certain set of forms because we get approval from others for our work. We do this to the danger of our very lives. While we may continue to sell our work and earn the acclaim of critics, if we aren’t pushing the boundaries of artistic creativity, we are stagnating and not growing. The greatest artists–Picasso, Rembrandt, Matisse, and Michaelagelo–never quit growing. In faith, we work out our own salvation with fear and trembling, knowing “it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13).
Leonardo da Vinci said, “There are three classes of people: Those who see. Those who see when they are shown. Those who do not see.” The task of the teacher is to help the student to see more clearly, not just in art, but also in life.
When I was in seminary, I realized the search for beauty was similar to the search for truth, and each generation had its own notions of what was beautiful and true. When I made this connection, a light came on in my mind and I could see what my professors were showing me. Before this, I was stumbling about in a dark room, banging my toes against unseen couches and table legs. I had the sense of the objects, but not the full understanding of them. Once the light came on, I could see these pieces of furniture for what they were–the color, design, embellishments, and placement in the space were easy to define. They were no longer obstacles, but resting points on the way to the next room on an historic journey.
PAINTING FASTER ALL THE TIME
Some of my compatriots struggled because one philosopher would define truth a certain way and his famous student then would describe it differently. These modern day students didn’t have art backgrounds, but thought of truth as what we know only as true today. Perhaps they also didn’t have much of an historic worldview either.
When Leonardo speaks of those categories of people who see, I think first of children, who seem naturally to see. If we give a child some art tools and a jumping off idea, they’ll run with it. Children love the experience of the materials and get excited when they can use their imagination. They feel empowered when they bring an image to life with their own hands.
SUN, MOON, AND SEASHELL
Older teens and adults are more concerned about what other people think of their work, so they often won’t even begin. Other times they start and can’t deal with the disconcert between their conception and execution. Every artist who aspires to do quality work is always unsatisfied with either the concept or execution! As Leonardo once remarked, “I have offended God and mankind because my work didn’t reach the quality it should have.”
I brought seashells to class for our painting experience, but before we began our work, I had the students experience a guided meditation. The seashells were hidden underneath a cloth. This is an opportunity to know the shell personally, rather than to see it as a mere form. This “seeing” involves the inner emotions, which affect the energy and spirit with which we create our art. As the master says, “Where the spirit does not work with the hand there is no art.”
1. Study all the surfaces under the cloth before you begin to put marks on your canvas.
2. Are the edges round, rough, sharp, jagged?
3. Do you recognize this object from experience?.
4. What memories or emotions does it evoke in you?
5. What colors do these experiences bring to mind?
6. Is there a person or place connected with this object?
7. What age were you? Would you want to visit this place again at your present age?
8. Remove the cover and look at the object.
9. Does it look different now from an ordinary object?
10. Does entering into an emotional give and take open your eyes to more of the possibilities of the object?
11. Choose a “pose” for your subject and compose a portrait of its personality.
The creative life and the faith life are not just about following a set of rules, although rules exist in both worlds. These two lives are more about what is good, beautiful, and true, and how we artists as people of faith can be a blessing in the world in which we live. As in art and philosophy, the good, beautiful, and the true may be different in different times and ages, but “one can have no smaller or greater mastery than mastery of oneself.”
“I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. ‘Hear, and I will speak; I will question you, and you declare to me.’
I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye sees you; therefore I despise myself, and repent in dust and ashes.” ~~ Job 42:3-4
The life of one who pursues Art and Faith has many overlapping points. One of these is the search for perfection. The French artist Marcel Duchamp quit painting to play chess, saying he couldn’t create a greater work. However, he was still working on one last piece in secret in his studio. Artists are driven toward this ultimate prize, just as people of faith are called to grow towards perfection in faith and love.
The difference between perfectionism and Christian perfection is huge! The first seeks flawlessness in self, others, and in all things. I know people who get up in the middle of the night to rearrange the shoes in their closets. Shoes must not dance! While I do alphabetize my spice rack, I can leave my closet’s contents to party at will while I sleep all night. I learned from experience early on not to concentrate in any one area of my artwork, since all my many teachers drilled this lesson into my head. Overworked areas of wet paint also get muddy, for the colors blend together into a sad grey. Experience is a good teacher.
Christian perfection is a heart so full of love of God and neighbor nothing else exists. By definition, our hearts would be also full of love for our own selves, since we are made in God’s image. This is why in art class we use ABC: attitude, behavior, and consequences. Positive ABC gets praise, and negative ABC gets redirected to a better place. If we can reframe our attitudes, we can change our behaviors, and then we’ll have different consequences. Sometimes we need an attitude adjustment.
Art classes aren’t easy, but neither is the Christian life. We need to face our limitations, and this is humbling. We aren’t strong or powerful, nor have we achieved anything close to perfection in any part of our own life. This doesn’t make us bad people, but it does make us drop the false mask we’ve been wearing in the world. The best art will come from an open heart, or from transparency to God and others. We’re so used to hiding our true self from others, we think we can hide it from God also. Art will reveal our true self, however.
In Philippians 3:12-16, Paul talks about Christian perfection, so I’ll add some notes about the search for artistic perfection. In class we drew the negative or empty spaces of a wooden dowel construction I rigged up for the center of the table. I tossed in an extension cord for good measure.
Drawing the negative space is a new concept. Most of the time we’re outlining the object itself, but not focusing on the empty space. Then we wonder why our object looks cattywumpus. By drawing the emptiness, we end up with the positive figure. This is a backwards thought process. We’re so trained to look at the object, we forget the empty spaces are a design element also. Drawing the negative space helps us to find the true object in its actual location in three dimensions and translate this into a two dimensional space. This is a complex form of thinking, which is why age 9 or the ability to write in cursive has been the usual cutoff age for formal art training.
MIKE, negative image & DUFY, GATE
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal—by this Paul means Christian perfection, or having the full love of God and neighbor within our hearts. We artists will work all our lifetimes to achieve perfection. If we’re truly growing as artists, rather than just repeating variations on a theme, our style will change. Monet once destroyed multiple Waterlily canvases right before an exhibition, having deemed them inadequate for the show. We artists are our greatest critic. The day we’re satisfied is the day we begin to repeat ourselves.
GAIL, negative image & DUFY, Room with Window
but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own—of course, the Holy Spirit empowers this spiritual quest for complete love, or we’d never achieve this goal alone. I believe all persons have a creative spirit within them. If we’re made in the image of God, who is the creator and is creating all things new again, we must share this attribute in part. Moreover, I think of it as a spiritual gift, for we enter into the mystery of God when we let go of our ego’s organizational skills and allow a greater hand to move our own as we create.
Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own—the mark of a spiritually mature person is recognizing how far from the perfection of God all of creation will always be. Yet God can refine and renew any imperfection in our spiritual and physical lives. The consequences of our acts will stay with us, however.
At the end of a studio session, I sometimes tell myself, “I’ve learned all I can from this one. It’s time to go onto the next piece and do better.” I don’t expect a masterpiece every time. I do expect to learn from my mistakes. I own my mistakes! I’ll keep the work around for several months. If it doesn’t fall apart, I let it out to show. If it doesn’t sell in three years, I destroy it and move on. I can’t stay attached to it, although I once did. Now I see my work as an opportunity to share the beauty and joy of God’s inspiration with others. I’d be selfish to hoard it all to myself.
but this one thing I do—Paul stays focused on the ultimate prize, not just on the easy gains. “We have stress enough in our daily world, so why can’t we just come and be comfortable in our sanctuary or in our art class?”
If we were hot house tomatoes being prepared for the salsa factory, this might be an acceptable choice, but we’re human beings who’ll be tested and tried in the world beyond the security of our sacred spaces and quiet studios. We need controlled challenges, just beyond our reach, to strengthen us for the days ahead. Even the most famous artists will struggle with success, so having a goal beyond this world is important. The rest of us will struggle with failure and rejection, so we need to learn resilience and fortitude, and the strength of power available to us from on high.
forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead—most of us carry baggage from our earlier days when we made poor choices and did dumb stuff. If we don’t have several suitcases, we at least have a closet full of T-shirts from Been There Done That Land. In art, we eventually will make enough work to break out of our old patterns, or we can enter into a studio teaching environment and accelerate the process. The trained teacher gives positive criticism and guidance, just as we can give the keys to a novice driver with a licensed driver in the car. We could let the novice driver out on their own, but a cow pasture would be a safer choice for this unsupervised driving experience than a city street.
I press on toward the goal for the prize of the “heavenly” call of God in Christ Jesus.—the Greek word is “upward” call, or “higher” call. This call is more important than any other in our lives. If our only goal is to be a good person, but not loving person, we need a higher goal! Why are we satisfied with less when God is so much more of everything?
Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind;—just as our challenge in faith is to always grow in grace and love, so our goal in life is to always grow and learn. What we fail to use will atrophy and die. If we don’t love from the depths of God’s inpouring and abundant love, our own ability to love will wither and die. Burnout is a spiritual condition first, then it becomes a physical problem. The ancient icon painters prayed as they “wrote” the images of Christ. If we offer up our time in the studio as a prayer to God, we will better connect to God’s deep well of hope and compassion, which can recreate our lives and the world.
and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you.—I happen to be a slow learner, but better a slow learner than one who never learns at all. Some of us need repeated lessons before the scales drop from our eyes, but once we see clearly, we’re zealous to convert the rest of the world. Once the flame of love burns brightly, it wants to spread and replicate itself. One light wants to set the other coals aflame. Still not everyone wants to set themselves on fire! They’re perfectly willing to watch someone else burn brightly and bask in their glow.
Price’s Law is a good example in real life. Price’s law describes unequal distribution of productivity in most domains of creativity. The square root of the number of people in a domain do 50% of the work. In a group of 100, 10 do 50% of the work and 90 do the other 50%. This seems to hold true in business and in volunteer groups. Some Elijahs love to work, but don’t know how to replicate their Elishas. They rob the future Elishas of the blessings of service.
In art everyone has to do their own work, and some have difficulty if the work doesn’t look as good as their neighbor’s efforts. Since everyone begins at a different point, each person improves from that beginning. Each has to be considered as an individual. No one is compared to anyone else, even in a graded system. Art is the best class of all, for if you work the whole class, turn in all your work on time, and meet the criteria of the project, you get an A. There is a “works righteousness” in the studio, even if we’re saved by grace in faith.
Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.—I find many folks want to quote this verse only, but not the whole of the Philippians text. They use it as an excuse to stand still without reflecting on their faith, which they inherited from their ancestors. Worse, they don’t read the Bible with a heart or mind open to the fresh winds of the Holy Spirit. Then they wonder why joy and peace are merely limited gifts in their lives. We prosper, not by material wealth, but in our relationships with one another and with God.
In art, we’d rather copy our teacher’s example and match it to the best of our ability, instead of coming up with solutions unique and personal to our own spirit. Thinking uses energy, but it also builds resourcefulness and new cognitive pathways, as well as increasing confidence.
The former is the standard teaching technique in most departments of education, but it has nothing to do with engaging creativity. Instead it assumes a single right answer, but the history of art is replete with multitudes of many answers and solutions to the questions of the moment. When we ask, “What is beauty, truth, and good in art,” we answer, “Across the years and with different artists in different cultures, it varies.”
With this in mind, as artists and people of faith, we can hold certain truths across all the years, artists, and cultures, but other truths may be variable. Certainly overworking the person and the painting hold true everywhere. Many of us hunger for approval from human sources, and work ourselves sick trying to please too many masters.
In art school I had several master teachers. One day I was drawing in an empty classroom. The department head came by and asked, “Who are you working for, me or Mr. Sitton?”
“I’m drawing,” was my noncommittal answer.
He returned a short while later to ask the same question and I gave the same answer. Not long after that, he popped his head into the door, pointed his pipe at me, and asked again, “Who are you working for, me or Mr. Sitton?”
By this time I was irritated to no end. I’d been polite twice, but this third time was too much! I snapped around on the stool and snarled, “ I’m working for myself, thank you! Now quit bothering me so I can draw in peace!”
He laughed as if I’d finally passed some rite of passage. “That’s what I wanted to hear you say the first time!” Some art lessons aren’t given in a class, and they aren’t about design and color, but about your calling and your purpose.
Who are you working for in this world: the praises of ordinary people, or the eternal voice of the master, who paints the dawn and sunset from a palette of glorious colors?