Listening to God is one of the hardest tasks most of us will ever undertake. How can we hear God’s voice, which has been described as the sound of sheer silence, when we live in the midst of the furious cacophony of our frantic world? If we do take time to be still, our own thoughts jump around inside our skull as if they were so many monkeys in a tree. We also find obstacles to our being still enough to listen to this silence, for there’s people who need us, work to be done, cattle to rustle, and snakes to kill. Even in the midst of a pandemic, life goes on.
The pandemic has also added extra levels of pain to our lives, for we’ve not only lost the support of our communal practices and our social experiences, but many of us have lost a friend or loved one to the coronavirus. We grieve for the life we used to live before social distancing and we grieve for the lives we’ve lost to the disease itself. Then there’s doom scrolling, the unfortunate habit too many of us find ourselves drawn to when we can’t draw ourselves away from the latest post on social media or update on breaking news about the latest indignity or harm this virus has done to humanity. All this wearies us and as we grow more tired, we lose our sensitivity to the small and quiet things.
It’s alright to admit we’re struggling, for then we can truly live out the verse,
“But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God” (1 Corinthians 1:27-29).
As I’ve continued my painting in my own studio, I recognize I have ebbs and flows of energies. This is normal in every creative person’s life and work. We work through the rough times so if inspiration happens to fall upon us from on high, we’ll be there to receive it. If this doesn’t happen, the canvas can get painted over, cut up and rewoven, or eventually destroyed altogether. It’s a painting, an object from which to learn and to listen as we gain skill in our craft.
When I was younger, however, I treated my works as if they were precious and alive, like a child. Perhaps I hadn’t made enough of them, and I also hadn’t had my own flesh and blood child. Once I had a child, I learned I couldn’t do what I thought was best for her, but I needed to listen to her and figure out what she needed. Since babies cry and don’t talk right away, this took some doing. But there were signs, of course: if I’d just fed her, she might need burping or a diaper change. If she woke up from a nap, nursing and rocking was a good choice. Later as she got older, I had more to learn, but it was a while before she said words.
Our paintings never speak out loud, yet we need to listen to what they tell us, just as our subject matter never communicates a word to us, but we hear it calling to us, “Paint me!” In class this week, Tatiana brought flowers from her gardens for us to paint. She focused on the tiger Lilly and got a good rendering of it. She had some new paints, so she laid the color down thick. It would have to dry before she could straighten up any details.
Gail was finishing up the carrot flowers. She had roughed in the shapes with lights and darks last week. This week, getting the lacy details of the flower heads needed a plan. We looked at Seurat, the French pointillist painter, who set dots one beside another to make the shapes and to mix the colors. This was a new technique that she modified for her own.
Glen was painting a violet flower, and had a tender rendering in pink. It was quite well drawn, with good highlighting. I suggested he put a light blue wash on it. He must have enjoyed the blue, for he painted out his beautiful flower. I’ve done this myself. I keep going until lose it, and then I regret it. When an artist is learning a new technique, he or she will often over do it until the painting feels dead. This happens to me when my blood sugar dips and not enough energy gets to my brain. I can even feel it coming on and I have to stop myself before I begin to lose my fresh hand.
This is why an artist always has to be listening to the flower, if that’s the subject matter of the day, and also to the artist’s own self, as well as the painting. I think of this as a lesser trinity. Just as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit all listen and commune together, so the artist, the subject, and the art work need to listen and communicate together. If we would quiet ourselves so we could hear the voice of the flower speaking to us or our art work telling us what it needed, we might be more likely to hear the still, small voice of the God, who is Three in One.
My family has a tradition of handcrafts and needle working skills, passed down from generation to generation, as do many Southern families. I admit I didn’t care much for the sitting still part when I was young, but I really liked the bright sequins and beads of the tree skirts we embellished with the symbols of the Twelve Days of Christmas. The first six days were overloaded, while the last few had only a sprinkle of sparkle stitched to the colored felt, but then we were coming in under the wire by Christmas eve and Santa wouldn’t visit our house if we didn’t get into bed as soon as possible. We just barely made it.
Most of our projects didn’t have such a time limit, however. I remember learning to make doll clothes on a toy sewing machine before my mother trusted me on the electric machine. I made tiny tucks across the bodice of these outfits from the scraps of the materials my mother used to make my school clothes. My Nannie had an old foot powered sewing machine on her back porch. It was often hidden under piles of newspapers or canning jars resting on their journey to the garage out back. From her I learned to sew straight seams, unbeknownst to my mom. My small foot wasn’t able to power the treadle of the old machine very fast and I’d been warned within an inch of my life to keep my fingers a good distance from the needle. I was doing this sub rosa, and that added to my excitement, but my mother probably knew. I only thought I was doing something forbidden.
Soon after this, my mother decided I needed to learn to make simple clothes from a pattern. Not that I would do it unsupervised, but she did have a degree in home economics and a lifetime teaching certificate. I made one of those easy patterns with only a front, a back and a neck binding. Of course, I was too young to need to worry about darts yet, so this wasn’t the most difficult project in the sewing room. I did learn how to pin, cut, and sew with the right sides together so the seam would be on the inside.
Later I’d learn to hem my clothes. My mom always thought I sewed backwards. I suppose since she sewed in the opposite direction, I was backwards. I’ll blame this on my being a breech birth, for if I came into the world backwards, I can do things in an opposite manner if I want to. Sometimes it takes a person who sees the world from a different viewpoint than everyone else to help others make sense of the world, especially when the world isn’t in the order we’ve come to expect it to be.
July is the season of the year when active Methodist clergy move to new churches. I’d hear my friends say, “I’m going to hit the ground running and show them I’m ready!”
I’d nod my head, and reply, “I’m going to take my time, get to know folks, find out where they are, and what they need. Then we’ll figure out where we need to go together.” I was past the age of running anywhere, since ministry was my fifth career.
This pandemic has changed many of our rituals and routines. Gone are our potlucks and coffees, our get togethers and small group sessions. We now meet from afar and we’ve learned to like it, or else we live in isolation, and we’ve learned to endure it. I told a friend, “I’m blessed to be single, because if I get on my nerves, I’ve got no one to blame but me! If I get that upset with myself, I go down to the exercise room for a walk.”
As this pandemic has stretched out, I’ve come to realize treating it like a new appointment might be the best practice. Ministry is more of a marathon than a sprint, for we need to keep a steady pace for a long distance, rather than run fast for a short initial spurt. Throwing all our energies at it in the first few months, especially now when everyone is socially distanced, isn’t going to be the most effective use of our potency.
This is where quilt making comes into play. Quilts can have a structured pattern or they can be various strips of cloth sewn together until they make a square or an entire top. Right now, we’re in crazy quilt land, while we wish we were in structured pattern quilt land. We have to make do with the materials we have at hand and make the most beautiful work with what we have. This is the creative work of the Holy Spirit, which binds the people together, no mater how separated and isolated the community is.
I pulled out some fabric from one of my boxes to make a patchwork pillow. I had no plan, for mostly I was distressed at the brokenness and sickness of our world. I thought if I stitched some strips of fabric together, I would find some order, and perhaps some beauty. Of course, I kept stitching and realized I had more than enough for a pillow, but not enough for another project. I looked at my plain jean jacket and thought it could be improved. I kept stitching, so soon I had enough for the jacket and yet another pillow! This is enough. I’m going to put up my machine and go back to my easel for a while.
I know I miss my friends and family, for they’re like the strips of cloth I’ve sewn together. I try to connect with them by writing my blogs and sharing my spiritual pages, so I can give a voice to the emotions others perhaps are feeling. I write because I’ve never been accused of saying too little, but more often of not knowing when to quit. That’s ok, for someone needs to put into words the feelings this pandemic is putting many of us through.
I hope you’re finding some creative project to do during this pandemic time. I suggest a journal, to write out your memories of your life before this strange time. We don’t know what our future will bring us, and the generations who follow us will wonder what an ordinary life was like back in the day. If we write about the pandemic itself, we may fail to touch the grief of what we’ve lost, and only write about our grievances of today. If we can find an opportunity to note the small blessings of each day, perhaps we can access our memories of our past lives also.
My granddaddy hung his dress jacket in the old wood chifforobe on that back porch where the antique sewing machine resided. The cabinet retained the aroma of his favorite chewing gum, even when he was gone from the house. I can still smell today the juicy fruit chewing gum my granddaddy always carried in his coat pocket.
I hope you’re finding moments of joy and peace amidst this time of pandemic and uncertainty. I’ve attached a poem at the end I think you might enjoy.
Memories are worthy treasures, as this poem reminds us. This is a true story, for the author finished the quilt in 2017. Her husband’s mother had started it and was about a third done with the quilting when she passed away in 1986.
Thirty Years By Ruth Poteet
My closet’s free of a strange parolee, coldly imprisoned for thirty long years; gone with the rest of my walk-in’s debris, I’d marked it “Goodwill” with cynical cheers.
Rescuing the box, my mind shifted gears. And ready to face fair verdict instead, a quilt, yet unquilted, moved me to tears. At seventy-three I finished this spread.
It took just three weeks, while my fingers bled, now “thirty years” rests proudly on my bed.
July celebrations kickoff with the Independence Day holiday. In this Age of Coronavirus and social distancing, we rabbits might not be at a company or church sponsored picnic, and we might not seek out a crowded beach for a vacation since Florida and Texas are currently experiencing peaks from this new disease. I’m still hanging close to home, choosing to enjoy a variety of foods, and starting some sewing projects in addition to my art and writing interests. Due to a past brush with heat exhaustion, I don’t tempt these hot temperatures with my presence. “Stay cool and stay hydrated” is my motto for the next few months. Rabbits and humans both have the same need for water, fresh fruits and veggies, plus lots of shade in this heat. An ice bottle might be a treat for them on a hot day too. I find myself craving frozen fruit for a snack.
While I staycation, which is what I actually do all year long, except for my occasional road trips to visit museums or the grandchildren, I’ve had time to reflect on my past life and the events of today. I began writing this in June, near Fathers Day and after the weeks of protests over the deaths of black men at the hands of the police. One of my family members mentioned, “Your daddy would be rolling over in his grave at all of this mess.” I answered, “If he’s with God, God has cleansed him of all his old prejudices and now he’s rejoicing people are asking for justice and equality.” We got into it after a bit, so we had to take a break for a while. Arguing might not change people’s minds, but I don’t have to affirm antebellum thinking. There’s a reason it’s called a “Lost Cause.” Denying the equality of human beings in the sight of God is to deny God’s love for all God’s people. Not being able to walk in another’s shoes is to deny injustice persists for many people.
The life in God is based in change. If we aren’t able to change our attitudes, we can’t change our behaviors. If we can’t see we were wrong, we can’t turn toward the right. If we turn from God, we also have to be able to return to God. Our love may fail, but God’s love never fails. Some folks think people never change, perhaps because they have no intention of changing. Change is difficult, but necessary. We’re changing from the moment we’re conceived to the moment we leave this world.
We call change in the spiritual life sanctification, or holiness. It’s a process, which is led by the spirit and made evident by good works. We can’t do good works to earn sanctification, but our faith is deepened both by the spirit and by our experience in doing the works. If we’re still imperfect when we pass from this world, God’s mercy completes the work of sanctification to make us fit for life in God’s presence. If God is abounding in love for all and we love because God first loved us, God will refine us into the same love for all to fit us for the eternal life with God.
In my state, some folks called the Black Lives Matter events a riot, while others called them a demonstration. I imagine the British of 1773 had an alternative view of the events of the Boston Tea Party from those who tossed the imported monopoly tea into the harbor. Two hundred and fifty years later, the Encyclopedia Britannica’s entry reads about the same as the History Channel’s entry on the internet. I call this event to mind so we Americans don’t forget our country was born in demonstrations, riots, and rebellion, not in picnics and parades.
The years of dusty history tend to cloud our memories and we weave a narrative to suit our own modern purposes. Pull up a glass of iced tea and find some shade. We have a whole pandemic ahead of us to get reacquainted with the moldering moments of our nation’s nascence.
Even before the Boston Tea Party, a violent incident escalated out of hand on March 5, 1770. Private Hugh White, a British soldier, heightened a verbal altercation to a physical one. White used his bayonet against a patriot at the Custom House on King Street. Then the angry mob countered with a volley of snowballs, rocks, oyster shells, and ice. Bells rang signaling a disturbance, and loyalists and patriots entered the street to see the commotion. As the riot ensued, the British fired their muskets, killing five colonists in what is today known as the Boston Massacre. Today we’d call this “police brutality.” The representatives of the Crown claimed a right to defend the King’s treasury.
The British soldiers, brought to trial and defended by Samuel Adams, had been in jail for seven months. The captain of the guard was found not guilty, six soldiers were also not guilty, and two were guilty of manslaughter. These last individuals escaped punishment by claiming “benefit of the clergy,” a holdover from early English law. This provision held secular courts had no jurisdiction over clergymen and had become a loop-hole for first-time offenders. After “praying the clergy,” the soldiers were branded on the right hand where the thumb meets the palm with the letter “M” for manslaughter. This insured they could only receive the commutation once, and the mark would be clearly visible during a handshake or while raising their palm on any future oath. This was the 18th century’s “get out of jail free card.”
Undue force is always unjust. Escalating a verbal situation into a brawl and then to a massacre is the worst sort of police brutality. Unfortunately, bringing bayonets and rifles to the location was their first mistake. But “hind sight is always 20/20,” as my daddy used to say. “I hope you learn from this experience, young lady.” I’ve always found the school of hard knocks to be an expensive degree.
When the Tea Act was passed in 1773, it required the colonists to purchase only British East India Tea Company products, whereas they preferred to buy from Holland, since it wouldn’t profit the King. When their smuggling routes shut down, the Americans produced their own herbal teas, rather than purchase the Crown Tea. By December, the colonists were fed up with paying taxes without representation in parliament. They gathered in costume, armed with hatchets, and boarded the boats loaded with British Tea. Tossing it all into the sea, with a whoop and a holler, they had to jump down into the water to hack up the bales so they would sink. Our forefathers forgot to check the tides. At low tide they could waded out to the ships.
Most likely the British of the era thought the colonists engaged in a destructive riot, whereas the patriotic participants were hailed as heroes at home. Things bubbled and simmered along for three more years until the writing of the Declaration of Independence. The top portion of the original draft document was written by Thomas Jefferson, with additions and deletions by John Adams and Benjamin Franklin. Jefferson presented the finished Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia, July 4, 1776, at which time the Declaration was signed. Then copies of the text were transported to key cities, such as New York and Boston, to be read aloud. The initial sentence speaks to the heart of every freedom loving person:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” The Declaration of Independence contains noble and aspirational thoughts. Yet these words were written by a group of men, all white, all free, and all educated as far as their privilege and status had brought them to that day. Women weren’t included in this equality and neither were the slaves the signers owned, since they were mere “property.” In this case “All” didn’t mean ALL PERSONS.
Thomas Jefferson included a passage attacking slavery in his draft of the Declaration of Independence. The delegates gathered at Philadelphia in the spring and early summer of 1776 debated its inclusion with fervor. Jefferson’s passage on slavery was the most important section removed from the final document. It was replaced with a more ambiguous passage about King George’s incitement of “domestic insurrections among us.” His original language is below:
“He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating & carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian King of Great Britain. Determined to keep open a market where Men should be bought & sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or restrain this execrable commerce.”
Not until 1870 and the passage of the 15th Amendment did African Americans get the right to vote. Women got the right to vote in 1920, Asian Americans got citizenship and voting rights in 1952, and even though Native Americans have had citizenship and voting rights since 1924, many states still disenfranchise them. Congress passed the Voting Rights Act in 1965 to remove the barriers keeping persons of color from exercising their tight to vote, yet disenfranchisement still happens in subtle and not so subtle ways.
The Voting Rights Act came 189 years after the grand words of “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” On July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin were the first two people to walk on the surface of the moon They set an American flag on the surface in recognition of our country’s achievement. While we might be amazed we as a nation could come together in this great challenge, nevertheless we might wonder why the majority population has yet to fully appreciate the minority as an equal partner in this land.
Perhaps it’s as Frederick Douglas once said, “There is no negro problem. The problem is whether the American people have loyalty enough, honor enough, patriotism enough, to live up to their own constitution.” (From the speech, “The Race Problem In America, 1890.”)
When we search for images of Patriotism or Independence Day, almost all of these are white, for America has been to date a majority white nation. After 2045, however, non-Hispanic whites will likely make up less than half of all Americans. Already whites under age 18 are in the minority. Among all the young people now in the U.S., there are more minority young people than there are white young people. This is a sea change. The attitudes of our youth are different from our older generations.
Among old people age 65 and over, whites are still in the majority. Indeed white old people, compared to minority old people, will continue to be in the majority until some years after 2060. What does this mean for our country, for our world, and for our future? How can we as a people live up to the aspirations of “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness?”
First we need to agree “Truths can be self-evident.” Not just my truth is true, and your opposite truth is also true for you, so whatever works is cool, as some would say, but certain known absolute true facts are real and sure. For the 18th century mind, truth could be known, and a new and better truth could be discovered in time to replace it through wisdom and knowledge, but “alternative facts” or “fantasy figments of our delusions” aren’t truth, but lies we tell ourselves. (As an aside, if the love of your life ever asks, “Honey, does this outfit make me look fat?” your answer should be “No.” and kiss her before she can ask anymore questions. Life will be happier for you.)
Back in the stone ages, “all men” was read as an all inclusive group, but I questioned that understanding back in the 1960’s in high school.
“Why don’t we just say ALL or EVERYONE instead?” “That’s not how people wrote back then,” my teacher would reply.
“Maybe because they thought it meant ALL MEN and not EVERYBODY?”
Then I would get the LOOK from my teacher, by which I knew I’d pushed the limit and it was time to ask no more questions, even though I had more.
After the Civil War, Northern Reconstructionists attempted to educate whites and blacks equally, but ran into resistance from the Lost Cause proponents. When school institutes were formed to continue teacher education, the summer school term was twenty days long until 1906 when one of the Baton Rouge schools started a thirty-six-day summer school program. In 1909, the length of the summer school program was lengthened to fifty-four days for white teachers and thirty-six days for Negro teachers. Someone with two years at the State Normal teacher’s school could teach in the black schools, but to teach in a white school required a four year degree. This is an example of systemic injustice in the educational community.
What does it mean to be created EQUAL, but not be given equal access to an equal education, housing, food, or medical care? Where I grew up, the white schools got new textbooks. When these were worn out, they were passed down to the black schools. It wasn’t right, but this was the way it was. My state had a practice of historic and systemic racism.
My high school was integrated in 1965 with one young black person. He ate his lunch alone the entire year. He struggled because his schools weren’t on the same level as ours, but he persisted. Equal access is all he wanted. Arthur Burton is a hero in my hometown and my high school now has a scholarship named in his honor.
This lack of equal access was far reaching. Restaurants back in the day wouldn’t serve nonwhite diners, but required them to pick up food at a to go window out back. There were two water fountains, two waiting rooms, and two of everything, just so the races never mixed. I never saw the sense of it, but it was a strict rule my parents carried forth from the past generation. As they often reminded me, “As long as you live under our roof, you abide by our rules.”
This was probably why they wanted me to live at home and go to college in town, but I wanted to go up north. They weren’t having that, so we compromised on a fine girls’ school in Georgia. At least it was below the Mason-Dixon Line. There I participated in marches for peace and justice, or as my parents called it, “Mixing with a bad crowd that was up to no good, just a bunch of hippies and commies, every last one of them.”
One thing about our family, we say what’s on our mind. At least my education was doing me some good, for my friends and I chose not to be on the front lines in case the police or the marchers began to get angry. The middle of the crowd was safer, especially after the 1968 assassination of Dr. King and angry demonstrations which broke out in some cities. Curfews and the termination of liquor sales finally dampened everyone’s energy, but the same cause for equal access still remains today.
Dr. King has been dead over fifty years, but his dream hasn’t yet died. He spoke in Washington D.C. of the Declaration of Independence as the “signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the “unalienable Rights” of “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Unfortunately, as Dr. King went on to say, the founders wrote a check they couldn’t cash for all people, and certainly not for persons of color.
King then offered hope, for God is the author of hope to the hopeless, the lifeline to the drowning, food for the hungry, and the defender of the weak:
“But we refuse to believe that the bank of justice is bankrupt. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in the great vaults of opportunity of this nation. And so, we’ve come to cash this check, a check that will give us upon demand the riches of freedom and the security of justice.”
While this document is yet imperfectly fulfilled today, we are called to work toward perfecting it, so we also may truly say with Dr. King:
“And so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.
I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…(and)
With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
And this will be the day — this will be the day when all of God’s children will be able to sing with new meaning:
My country ’tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing. Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride, From every mountainside, let freedom ring!
And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.”
So with St. Francis of Assisi I offer this prayer for each of us at this half way point of 2020:
Lord, make me an instrument of your peace. Where there is hatred, let me sow love; Where there is error, truth; Where there is injury, pardon; Where there is doubt, faith; Where there is despair, hope; Where there is darkness, light; And where there is sadness, joy.
O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek To be consoled as to console; To be understood as to understand; To be loved as to love. For it is in giving that we receive; It is in pardoning that we are pardoned; It is in self-forgetting that we find; And it is in dying to ourselves that we are born to eternal life. Amen.
The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs: Picture Collection, The New York Public Library. “Boston Massacre” The New York Public Library Digital Collections. 1870. Boston Tea Party https://coffeeordie.com/boston-tea-party-history/
Charly Palmer: “Good American,” giclee print on paper, 38×28 inches, 2016. A limited edition work of art depicting a an African American solider walking with his wife as the celebrate the United States of American on July 4th. The print is meant to convey the message that African Americans have helped build this country, are a part of this country and celebrate this country like any other Good American citizen . We are America!
I’m currently reading Noah Gordon’s The Physician, the story of a Christian masquerading as a Jew so he can study in the ancient medical school in Persia during the Middle Ages. Authors have to describe their characters and the world they inhabit in order for the reader to imagine a realistic place, even if the location could only exist in the imagination. I find this book a great escape from the histrionics of the recent news cycles.
An artist who wants to render a three dimensional scene on a two dimensional surface has the extra challenge of learning a new visual language to describe the scene. Drawing in perspective is a brand new way of seeing and rendering a multidimensional world on a flat surface so the appearance of depth and solidity is realized. In some paintings, the artist’s style of painting depicts objects with photographically realistic detail. These works can “fool the eye” of the viewer.
The realism of Gerrit Dou’s “The Doctor” allows us to see the portrait of the physician through a window niche. The bas relief sculptural rendering on the wall is partly covered by a luxurious rug, on which a burnished copper dish rests. The window behind the Doctor adds a back light, but he uses the primary light from the niche opening to observe the liquid in the specimen container. His assistant is in the dimmer light of the background. We are looking through this window and watching him pursue his calling.
In other art works, the “realism” isn’t so much concerned with photographic accuracy, but with the emotional experience of the space rendered. The Scream, painted in 1893 by Edvard Munch, uses classical one point perspective to introduce the sensation of depth with the bridge. The two people walking away balance the one facing forward, who screams from the gut. The colors and shapes of the landscape are emotional reflections of the interior, psychic experiences of the screamer.
In art class last year, we had several lessons on perspective. Most students, no matter what their age, dislike these basic lessons. They want to jump right in and learn to paint a still life, figure, landscape, or a building. Unfortunately, if they jump over these basic instructions in drawing, they struggle to set a form in space or have difficulty getting the proportions of the objects correct in relation to eschew other. Art school students usually have have an entire semester class devoted to the multiple forms of perspective. I remember drawing the overhead pipes, book shelves, the corners of rooms, and anything else that had a vanishing point.
Perspective teaches us how to see by eliminating the extraneous and unnecessary information and concentrating instead on only the simplest and essential forms and lines. We can hold our paint brush handle up to the objects to measure them. This helps us know if the cone is twice the height of the cube, or 2.5 times. When we lay in our first sketch in a pale yellow wash, we don’t worry if it isn’t exact, we can adjust it with the paint. Why don’t we draw it in pencil? This tool tends to confine our creativity, since we’re used to small movements for writing and filling in correct answers from our school days. It has an eraser, so we struggle to get it “right.” Then we don’t paint with our hearts, but mechanically fill in the lines of a paint by number design.
Last week I was sick, and when I came back from the dead, others were down for the count, working the polls, or working in the salt mines. Gail and I were the only ones in attendance. She’d had the benefit of doing this lesson before, so I suggested we take the setup as a springboard for our imagination. We looked at some modern architecture, which depend on geometric forms for their design interest. One that caught our eye was a simple stacked design of rectangular blocks in a smoky atmosphere: Charles Willard Moore’s “Late Entry to the Tribune Tower Competition, Perspective,” 1980.
When we got busy painting, I put on Dvorak’s New World Symphony, since we were creating a new world for our new buildings to inhabit (the link below is to you tube, if you want to listen along). I also ate a few Girl Scout Samoas, since I bought several cookie boxes from Gail. They reside in the freezer now so I don’t eat them all before Easter. I’m sure Gail can supply you if you want cookies.
While painting, I often lose track of time, perhaps because I enter into this “other world” of my creation. I focus on the image I see and the image I paint on the canvas. My problems fade away, for all I can think about are how to bring the form closer to the foreground: do I need a lighter, brighter color or do I need to change the direction of my brush stroke too? I may need to darken the shape behind or the shadow below it to best evoke the depth of space. Sometimes just a line across the back is enough to set the objects in space, but if we’re trying to build a new world, we might have to indicate some form of landscape.
We talked about the science fiction movies which invent an entire language complete with syntax and vocabulary for the various peoples and architecture suitable for their worlds. If we lived on a planet of crystalline structures, we’d always see the individual parts of white light. Then we’d be people who analyzed the world about us and looked for multiple meanings in the simplest of sayings. If we lived on a hot desert world, we might yearn for cool, dark places, so caves would be our preferred dwelling places. There’s a home for each person, for as Jesus reminded his disciples in John 14:2—
“In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you?”
What is real, you ask, and what is true? What comes from the heart and mind of the artist is real and true. It may not be of high quality, but proficiency comes from putting your true self into your work, without holding back. As the hand gains competence, the heart and mind have to struggle to remain true to the unique person who creates the work. The great danger is we become proficient at pleasing others for the sake of fame or fortune. Then we make pretty pictures, which will decorate walls and match furniture, but we may not reach the depths of the human heart and emotion required to produce lasting works of art.
None of us in our art class are here for fame and glory, yet we are progressing as the weeks go by. I like the rich texture of Gail’s Martian landscape and the red dust filled atmosphere of her painting. The odd geometric shapes look right at home on the extra planetary body. My landscape has a spring fondant look of a non-Lenten pilgrimage hostel or BNB. If anyone wants to journey elsewhere, the road is open before us, and is limited only by our imagination. Art class is where we let our minds stretch to consider the impossible and then create a structure to take us there. This is why VISION, HOPE, and OPTIMISM are also part of the artist’s toolbox.
Change is the theme of March. We can count on the weather to vary, for old proverbs tell us, “In like a lion, out like a lamb.” The reverse holds true too. March is the boundary line between winter and spring, with the Vernal Equinox occurring March 19, 2020, at 10:50 pm Central Time.
Folklore tell us that you can balance a raw egg on its end on the equinox, something attributed to the Earth’s “balance” on that day. While this sounds like a fun activity, there’s no basis in fact that egg balancing is any easier on the equinox, according to NASA. The U.S. space agency conducted an unscientific experiment and found it was no easier to balance an egg on the equinox than on any other day. What did make it easier was finding an egg with small bumps on its shell, something that NASA said made the “seemingly impossible task achievable.”
Super Tuesday on March 3rd is the first coast to coast opportunity to select a presidential candidate to oppose the one currently in office. As I write this, every single TV commercial is a political one. We should be glad for this, for some countries don’t have this luxury. I hear a big rain event is forecast for Arkansas, so I recommend early voting, but not often voting. Remember we practice “one rabbit, one vote.” If you want to stuff a box, don’t let it be the ballot box, but fill a food drive box. While some rabbits do prosper in our economy, other rabbits still struggle due to health problems, job losses, or other difficulties in life.
Purim, beginning at sunset on March 10, marks the leadership of Queen Esther, who advocated to the king for her Jewish people, to protect them from a royal death decree back in the fourth century BCE, as told in the Book of Esther. The mark of a leader is to risk their own position to benefit those who are subject to injustice.
“For if you keep quiet at such a time as this, help and protection will come to the Jews from another quarter, but you and your father’s family will perish. Yet, who knows whether it was not for such a time as this that you were made queen?” (Additions to Esther 4:14)
On March 15th we celebrate the Ides of March. The Ides are nothing more than the name the Romans gave to the middle of the month, just as we get excited about Hump Day or the Weekend. Life moved slower back in BCE, but they didn’t have the internet and were still using ink and parchment. We first find the expression ‘Beware the Ides of March’ in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in 1601, when the soothsayer whispers to Julius Caesar a warning of his impending death. Shakespeare also added the famous retort to Caesar’s assassins, ‘Et tu, Brute?’ History records no words from Caesar when the dictator, who was launching a series of political and social reforms, was assassinated by a group of nobles in the Senate House on the Ides of March.
Free Agency is another way to change leaders, and it’s far better plan than assassination, a practice only used in pirate and authoritarian organizations. March 18, at 4 pm ET begins the fruit basket turnover we know as Free Agency. Drew Brees and Tom Brady, quarterbacks who rank first and second on the all-time NFL passing touchdowns list, will both have the last two years of their current deals void on the eve of the new league year. While they’re the two oldest position players in pro football, new contracts in New Orleans and New England are likely. Even if those deals don’t come together, it’s possible either (or both) could retire.
In the United Methodist Church, springtime is appointment season. Clergy who’ve grown long in the tooth decide to retire, others change relationships to the annual conference due to health or geography, and then there’s the pulpits that need a pastor. While our church tends to move on a regular calendar nationwide, those denominations and congregations who call their own pastor need to seek one whenever they have a need and take the best of what’s available.
Having been born a cradle Methodist, I prefer our way of sending new leadership. As my mother used to say, in one of her many unfiltered moments, “If you don’t like the preachers in the Methodist Church, think of them like the weather. They’ll change pretty soon, but don’t get your heart attached, for they’ll have to move on elsewhere. It’s their nature.” Of course, I’m not sure my mother ever had any filtered moments, but the rabbits always knew where they stood with her.
The Ides of March may be the sifting or winnowing date for the Democrats in their presidential primaries. The magic number to win the Democratic Party’s nomination for president is 1,991 delegates. It could take months to officially get there, but a total of 1,344 delegates will be allotted on Super Tuesday alone — about 33 percent of the total. Then 11 more state contests are up for grabs on March 10 and 17. By the time March 17 rolls around, 61 percent of the pledged delegates will be allotted.
We could either have a pretty good sense of who the Democratic nominee will be by the Ides of March, or the primary could still be contested, as it was in 2016. If the latter, the contests to decide the winner will happen from March 18 to June 6. Those three months will be when the remaining 39 percent of delegates will be allotted; the most important day in this stretch is April 28, when New York and Pennsylvania vote, among others.
Presidential candidates are all competing for a majority of 3,979 pledged delegates. Separately, there are also 771 automatic delegates, otherwise known as “superdelegates.” Again, it’s worth noting the biggest DNC rules changes were around superdelegates. The change stems from the tumultuous 2016 primary campaign, in which Sanders’ supporters accused the superdelegates of having too much influence over the outcome, since the overwhelming majority of them supported Clinton. That means these 771 superdelegates will not vote on the first ballot, unless there’s already a candidate with a supermajority of pledged delegates. While some hope for a contested convention, this rabbit thinks the end of the race will find fewer taking the checkered flag than after the Big One at Daytona International Speedway.
Rabbits can help us find a better leadership style. The typical Rabbit Leader has the following characteristics:
Overwhelmed and running around
Trying to do to many things at once, micromanaging
Neglecting to delegate
Always “busy” when people asked how it’s going.
Definitely “late, for a very important date.”
Work expands to fill the time available, but working harder doesn’t always mean greater rewards. Working smarter, not harder, is the better choice. If we don’t take time to reflect, plan, dream, and vision for the future, we won’t give our best efforts to endeavors. I used to tell my team I didn’t need to have all the decisions run past me, such as flowers for Sunday, the acolytes, or the ushers’ names. They had responsibilities for these and didn’t need my second guessing their choices. I have only one brain, and it’s a very small funnel. It has a tendency to get clogged if too many details get crammed into it. I kept my eye on the big picture and the team helped me keep the day to day details filled in.
The Velveteen Rabbit reminds us to be the most effective leader, we need to be our real self and allow others to love us until we’re worn from use. It isn’t easy to be vulnerable, but this is the mark of a leader.
‘Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’ ‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit. ‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’ ‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’ ‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That is why it doesn’t often happen to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.’
We rabbits shouldn’t fear change, and certainly not in the month of March. We have the Romans to thank for the months of January and February. The God Janus was two faced, looking both forward and backward. February was a month of purification. March was the original first month of the Roman year. If the spring flowers and new leaves bursting forth from the frozen earth cause you to revision your goals for turning over a new leaf, now is the time for a change!
Plutarch wrote in the 1st CE, “It was also natural that Martius, dedicated to Mars, should be Romulus’s first (month) and Aprilis, named from Venus, or Aphrodite, his second month; in it they sacrifice to Venus, and the women bathe on the calends, or first day of it, with myrtle garlands on their heads. But others, because of its being p and not ph, will not allow of the derivation of this word from Aphrodite, but say it is called Aprilis from aperio, Latin for to open, because that this month is high spring, and opens and discloses the buds and flowers.”
Perhaps the greatest change in March all the rabbit denizens undergo in the neighborhood is on Saint Patrick’s Day. Suddenly everyone has kissed the Blarney Stone, or perhaps that’s the Guinness speaking. All wear a touch of green to avoid the pinch that turns them red. Every bunny is Irish for one day.
If you visit Hot Springs, Arkansas, you can attend The First Ever 17th Annual World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade, all 98 feet of Bridge Street! Foghat, the legendary rock band that created “Slow Ride” and other hits, will play a free public concert on Tuesday, March 17, 2020, immediately following the First Ever 17th Annual World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade in downtown Hot Springs.
The day prior, Blues Traveler, the legendary rock band with 13 hit albums to its credit, will play a free concert on Monday, March 16, 2020, on the eve of the First Ever 17th Annual World’s Shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade in downtown Hot Springs. And…the Dallas Cowboy Cheerleaders, plus local floats and marching groups. The Ides of March should beware the St. Patty Party at Hot Springs National Park, which was once known as Hot Springs Reservation. It was set aside in 1832 to protect the Park’s primary resource, the hot springs. This type of Reservation was an early version of the National Park idea. Hot Springs was actually the first area in the United States to be set aside for its natural features.
Until next time, every bunny stay well, get plenty of sleep, keep washing your hands, and remember March 8th begins DAYLIGHT SAVING TIME: Spring Forward and enjoy the extra hour of daylight in the late afternoon.
I’m one of the world’s worst worriers. I can make a mountain out of a molehill. This doesn’t bode well for living life to the fullest, for none of us know for certain what’s coming up around the corner, much less further down the road. This knowledge paralyses some of us, so that some of us cannot make choices until we have more information.
The fear of making a poor choice keeps some of us confined to our beds, for what happens if we get out on the wrong side of the bed? Our whole day might be ruined. We’ll choose to stay in bed, rather than risk making this first bad choice of many. After all, there’s no sense of starting a day that will only go downhill from the gitgo.
In times of stress, I have repeated this sentence as if it were a mantra: “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love.” ~~ 1 John 4:18
When faced with a blank canvas, we all have choices. If we use a pencil to draw the shapes, then we try to fill in the exact lines, even though we may not have yet found the perfection of form of the object we are representing. I always recommend drawing the general shape of the subject matter with a brush dipped in a wash of yellow paint. This helps the artist do two things: set the general composition and forms on the canvas, and provide an opportunity to correct any first misperceptions, since the pale yellow is easily over painted.
Of course, most of us have not lived in a world of unconditional love, even in the church. We Methodists are traditionally called to go “onto perfection in love of God and neighbor until our hearts are so full of love, nothing else exists.” Judgement causes fear, so people are afraid to give what they have or to serve with their gifts, if others tell them how poorly they are doing.
In art class, we have a rule of positive critiques. First we find three constructive statements to make about a student’s work. Then we talk about what can be improved. It takes time to move people’s minds from thinking negatively about their own work, to believing positively in their capabilities to learn. In this aspect, I confess to a belief in “works righteousness,” for persistence will pay off. While we may not become Matisse or Michelangelo, we can enjoy the pleasures of color and the creative act of making art in our own way.
We had a full class last Friday when I brought a small still life. The objects were a small clay lamp from the Holy Land, a white stone scraper I found on an arrowhead hunt with my family, my grandmother’s darning egg, a stone fossil from my San Antonio neighborhood, and a leaf I picked up in the parking lot. Artists can make anything interesting, for we don’t need to have luxurious items for our subjects. Each person brought elements of their own personality to the subject at hand.
Mike is one of my repeat students, who loves texture and mixing colors. You can see he favored the lamp, the scraper, and the fossil, for these have these best rendering. The rest are suggested just enough to balance the others.
Erma is new to the class and comes from a mosaic background. Her shapes are true and carefully drawn. Working to get the dimensional qualities is a challenge for everyone. This comes from learning to see the light and darks. Last year the class had traditional perspective drawing classes. I may have to do this again for this group, now that I see where they are.
Tatiana has a fine drawing of the leaf and the fossil. Her colors are natural. Getting shapes down is the first goal. Later we’ll work on highlights and shadows.
I was glad to see Glenn back after his health issue. Can’t keep a good man down. He was in good humor the whole class and was a blessing to all of us. He got the basic shapes of the still life on the canvas. Next time, we’ll work on filling more of the canvas, so it won’t feel so lonely.
Gail is on her second year of art classes. She’s either a glutton for punishment or she’s getting some pleasure from them. She is an example of persistence leading to improvement. Her objects are to scale, relative to each other. We see highlights from the light source, as well as the cast shadows, both of which emphasize the sense of solidity of the objects represented. She has marked off a front plane from the blue background.
Some say artists never use logic, or the left side of their brains, but I’d disagree with this. Back in the 1970’s, the commonly held theory was creativity’s location was in the right side of the brain, but today neuroscientists believe both logic and creativity use both sides of the brain at once. While speech and sight are located in certain areas, which if damaged, can affect these abilities, logic and creativity are spread out across many areas of the brain, says Dr. Kara D. Federmeier, who is a professor of psychology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where she’s also affiliated with the Neurosciences Program and The Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology.
As we age, older adults tend to learn better how to be both logical AND creative. This may occur because this kind of a shift is helpful to bring extra processing resources to bear on a task to compensate for age-related declines in function. Or it might be a sign that the brain is simply less good at maintaining its youthful division of labor. Understanding hemispheric specialization is thus also important for discovering ways to help us all maintain better cognitive functioning with age.
Those folks who say “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” haven’t been to an art class. We don’t teach, we give opportunities to learn. Every day in my own studio, I learn something new about myself, the paint, my world, my calling, and my vision for the future. I never reach perfection, but at least I’m going on to perfection. My little still life has a mosaic quality, because I took an old canvas, which didn’t meet my expectations, and I sliced it up into evenly spaced vertical cuts. I took another poorly done old work, cut it up into horizontal strips and wove it into the first canvas. Then I painted over what was underneath. Yes, I had to pile the paint on thickly, but that gives it a rich effect, as opposed to a thinned out, watercolor feeling. While I made no clear line of demarcation, the color change denotes the difference between the table and the background.
I do not know what tomorrow will will bring, or what will come to life on the blank canvas before me. If we will trust the one who lived, died, and rose for us, we can live and work in perfect love every moment of our whole lives. I know I trust the word of our Lord who always will be there for us in our futures to make our mountains into molehills.
“But after I am raised up, I will go before you to Galilee.” ~~ Mark 14:28
Happy New Year to everyone! I like nothing better than putting an old year down for the count, cleaning off my desk, and starting fresh. While I may be the same old gal, at least I have good intentions of improving myself over the next year. Since we have an extra day in 2020, I might meet my goal! My first act in the studio was to clean my palette, since it had an accumulation of color layers. I find the old colors distracting when I want to paint a new color scheme.
I was glad to meet some new students at Oaklawn UMC, where I volunteer to teach an art class for adults on Fridays. In addition to Gail and Mike, who’ve learned my own language and now need minimal guidance, I’m blessed with some new folks who’ll get an opportunity to get out of their houses and into the creative spirit.
Exploring the creative process is a wonderful way to come close to the God who created us in God’s own image. Since God is always creating, we who’re made in this image are also creating. Sometimes we make art, design homes, style our clothing choices, or plant gardens. Also we’re making families, cooking meals, or building birdhouses. Even in our sleep, we create a dreamworld unlike anything anyone else can imagine. We’re all artists, but most people quit thinking they can “do art” about the age of eight. This Is a sad commentary on peer pressure, but it also reflects our society’s preference for professional specialists. We tend to identify talent early and track students accordingly.
The practice of making art is beneficial at any age. Our goal doesn’t have to become the next Picasso or Michelangelo. In art class we learn new skills and put them to use in our own unique solution. This bolsters problem-solving skills and satisfaction that we can take into everyday life. I always tell my classes, “I expect everyone to find a different solution, since you’re all different personalities.” They never disappoint me!
Art class gets us out of the house, so we’re not looking at our own four walls. It can help alleviate boredom and keep our minds busy, and may even help prevent feelings of depression. It also helps with hand-eye coordination, cognitive abilities, and concentration.
I’ve always subscribed to the “works righteousness” school of teaching art: those who work will improve more than those don’t. If we keep on working, over time, we’ll show improvements. This will foster self-esteem and self-awareness and cultivate emotional resilience. We have to trust the process.
When we critique a work, it’s not to criticize or only to give negative feedback. A work always has positive aspects, those parts which meet the goals of the day, and negative aspects, or room for improvement. Approached in this manner, students can grow in their skills because the critique reduces and resolves conflicts and distress, which comes from being judged, and it helps to promote insight into their work for the future. As an aside, it might even enhance social skills, if they begin to speak this way in their own conversations outside of class.
Art class isn’t about being the best artist in the room. It’s about the connections between creative choices we make and our inner life. Too many of us are so busy taking care of others, we haven’t time to listen to God or to ourselves. If we take two hours on a Friday to do this, we can touch the part of us that yearns to speak within the silence, and give voice to the creative spirit within our lives.
I hope I assigned the correct name to each person’s art. I may be old and could claim “sometimer’s disease,” but I have the school teacher’s DNA which causes me to mangle my students’ names for the first month. I’ve done this since I was in my 20’s, so I might be incurable. I can edit this, however, if I’ve accused folks wrongly. Doing Art is wonderful, for we learn from our mistakes, so they bring us closer to perfection, rather than diminishing our goodness.
What is the most important image of the birthplace of Christ? For some of us, it’s a stable filled with hay and animals, in which the Holy Family fill with divine light. For others, the essence is the Holy Family alone. For others, those who brought various gifts take prominence. The early icons describe a dark cave, similar to the tomb in which Christ was laid after his crucifixion. This shouldn’t surprise us, for his birth made him at-one-with-us, just as his death and resurrection made at-one-ment for us. If a picture is worth a thousand words, the icons are worth a million words, or a whole theological thesis.
The cave, manger, and swaddling clothes are indications of the kenosis (emptying) of the Godhead, His abasement, and the utter humility of Him who, invisible in His nature, became visible in the flesh for humanity’s sake, was born in a cave, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and thus foreshadowed His death and burial, in the sepulcher and the burial clothes.
The icons are a window into the holy spaces, into the heavenly realm, or the spiritual world, whereas western paintings from the renaissance onward are representations of our three dimensional world on a flat surface. Icons have their own vocabulary and forms, so a wonder working icon from the 4th century would be copied over and over again into the present age. Modern icon painters would reinterpret the themes of the ancient icons, but until these images prove themselves to be “spiritual windows,” they’ll be mere paintings, but they won’t be true icons.
In the western world, we’re more likely to consider the narrative in traditional art, so the story details are as important as the design and color elements. Over the centuries the style changes with the artists,, but the main elements tend to stay the same.
With the Renaissance, artists and their patrons were more interested in the humanity of Christ, as well as the human figure itself. The landscape gets rendered in all its glory, and the architecture of the towns calls us to take a walking tour through it. By the baroque period, artists create a full scale Broadway production scene on their canvases. A “cast of thousands” seem to heighten the importance of the event portrayed.
Our class worked these past two weeks on The Nativity. Gail’s memory of her family incubating a premature baby in a dresser drawer became her Jesus in the Manger. While this may sound strange to some folks, my great grandparents also nursed a premie in this same manner in rural Louisiana. Adding layers of color to her ground, as Rothko did in his color field paintings, was her goal. I failed to get another photo. She’s still working on it.
Mike was working on a shed and the sky. This was more exciting to him than anything else. The figures came later. I also failed to photo them.
He had a coworker pass away during this time. If his mind wasn’t in this work completely, I could understand. His vacation painting of the beach chair at sunset was more of what he can do when his mind is free and his heart is at peace.
When I’m sick, I have limited artistic ability. By this, I mean I have no spiritual sensitivity to the world. I can’t feel connected to the shapes, colors, or forms. I’m “dead to this world” as well to the world beyond this one. My hand feels like lead, and my one brain cell which hasn’t gone to Pluto is only working at 20% power. I don’t do sick well, for I take it as a great inconvenience, if not an insult to my nature. I have people to see and paintings to make. I may destroy this little work, but it does have the traditional icon themes of the cave and the swaddling clothes of the birth and death of Christ.
When we go back and sit before an icon, we’re struck by the silent voice of the image. We have a choice: we can dismiss this still, small voice, or we can pause and listen to the voice of God speaking to our heart. I hope we don’t race off to do yet one more of the many “got to do lists” of the Christmas season, but sit for a moment, with a hot cup of our favorite beverage and a little cookie, and mingle with the mystical voices from heaven. We will be choosing the better part, just as Jesus said to Martha, “You are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)
Best source for Icons: Ouspensky & Lossky, The Meaning of Icons
Rogier van der Weyden, Nativity with the Donor Pieter Bladelin, center panel of the Middleburg (Bladelin) Altarpiece, ca. 1445, oil on panel, 91 x 89 cm. Gemäldegalerie, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Berlin, inv. no. Nr. 535 (artwork in the public domain)
I awoke Sunday morning to a fog enveloped world. My brain was much the same until I made my morning cup of coffee. Unfortunately, this took longer than I expected, for I had only one tablespoon of grounds and a full bag of beans. I’m glad the electric coffee grinder was standing silent beside the coffee pot, waiting only for its moment to be of service. On any ordinary day, I ignore it completely, just as many of us fail to observe the subtle changing of colors from day to day or how the sunlight of the seasons has a different temperature and feel.
Seeing is a learned skill, but like the ancient, secret, gnostic wisdom known only to a few and passed by word of mouth, seeing is best learned in an art class with one who is an eye already. Cézanne characterized Monet as “only an eye—yet what an eye.” Monet taught students not to think of the tree, the building, or the flowers they painted, but of the colors and shapes they were putting on their canvases. This is a conceptual leap, as if we were translating English into Spanish or Martian (we may need this when we go to Mars).
faced with all the many impressions daily flooding into our consciousness, most
of us have learned to block all these distractions out. We do this to “get our
chores done in record time” and “come home to escape from this rat race.” “Out
of sight and out of mind” is a phrase I often heard growing up. We are often
“unconscious people,” walking about in a fog. My dad grew a mustache and my mother
kissed him every night before bed without realizing he’d changed his facial
appearance. I came home for a visit and said, “When did you grow the Col.
Saunders’s look?” My mother was shocked she hadn’t noticed it.
Our first lessons in art class are drawing the geometric figures, since we can simplify or translate most things in nature to these forms. Bushes are balls, houses are cubes, trees are cones, and so on. Some are multiplications of the forms, such as some tree’s foliage is made up of several ball shapes. You get the idea. This way of looking helps to simplify the details so people don’t get stuck on every single leaf.
Another way to simplify is to leave out some of what you see and focus only on what you think is important. If you were a camera in front of a landscape, your eye would take in everything in front of it. We aren’t cameras, however. We can paint as much or as little of what we see before us as we want. I remember in seminary study groups, we prepared for final exams together. The exam would be 3 hours long and cover a semester’s work, which included all the class notes and 15,000 pages of reading. Some of my pals would write a book length answer to one study question. “Fine, but there’s going to be a dozen other questions, so can you hone this down to an essay?” Keeping it simple is a good motto in art class.
Friday in art class I brought in angel hair spaghetti. If the kids eat it, I’m not worried. Fortunately, my “kids” are grownups, but we like to get our inner child out to play every once in a while. We put paint on the sticks and tossed them down on our canvases wherever luck would have them land. In biblical terms, this is “casting lots.” I had given them some ideas for landscape images or they could do some squares in the style of Paul Klee. They went with trees. Mr. Energy and Exuberance, aka Mike, finished his up with jewel tones. Gail, Thoughtful and Precise, did a hard edge tree with a lightning bolt in the background. I worked on a Klee square piece, but I only got the first layer down. It needs more subtle overpainting.
Learning how to see is a lifetime process. The aim of art is to represent not the outward appearance of things, but their inward significance, and this, and not the external manner and detail, is true reality, said Aristotle. Art opens us up not only to the outer world, but also to our inner world. As we see more in the world about us, we find more compassion for its brokenness as well as more love for its beauty. Likewise, we realize we too are both broken and beautiful, so we find we can be more compassionate and loving towards our own selves. As forgiven and reconciled people, we can pour God’s love out into the world and into our art as well.
We discover art isn’t just about decorating a surface with pretty colors and shapes, but art is more about the spiritual process of growing in grace, accepting our lack of strength, and learning to depend on the power of the Spirit moving our hands and hearts. The more we try to impose our power upon the work, the less life it has, but the more we “get out of ourselves,” and let our inner witness work, the more life our creation embodies.
the artist within each of us is always creating a new thing, just as God is
For I am about to create new heavens and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind.
“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.