Author Archives: marynees

to craft

A recent article explored the question “Why does craft matter in a digital age” The insights there are worth a look. Here are some snipets from artists trying to explain: Craft is “a way of thinking”, “beyond the cerebral… and through our hands”, “it slows everything down”,  “it’s close to the body”.  Japanese glass artist, Yoshiaki Kojiro: “Craft is an event that starts with a physical sense of relationship between materials and people.”

All this and more fascinates me for the Creation account in Genesis 2 has God Himself getting his hands into the dirt, in time, on the ground to make things. Then we are tasked, after His exampling, to make things. It’s in the making that seeing is enhanced. It’s in the time taken and slowed down where relationships are better understood. It’s work, but strangely hope-filled.

Yet conversely, in what we call ‘real life’ we talk of “sound bites” and “visual grabs”, about “fake news” and “photo-shopped reality”. All the while we’re racing past what is real, missing the bigger things worth considering that will last all this.

I have been crafting. I’m working on a large oil on paper piece for a show. If I can get it where I want it, I’ll show it here first, maybe in the next post. I also have been crafting a small book. I pressed “approve” this morning, and soon this webpage will offer it for your consideration. The reason for the writing (and it’s taken 6 long years) is because the One who got His own hands into the dirt moved me to take the materials within my grasp of understanding and see if I could make something of it.

 

 

 

value

One of the best reasons for standing back from work is being able to see the whole forest for the trees, that is: the strengths of the groupings of the lights and darks in the composition as a whole. Having been bent over the details, and being the one holding the tools, it’s too easy to get compulsive about the minutia. As mini-creators, we/I think I’m in charge too easily. I need to back up, take a breath, blink several times and then look again. And time makes a difference here too, kind of like cleansing the palate, or clearing the slate from a mind-frame that just isn’t seeing it well at all.

This little sumi ink drawing was done 15 years ago. I gave it to my Mom and just got it back. It was a view out her then window. She’s gone now. This is just a material thing, but it holds memory for me from some sweet times with and for her.

I remember that when I made this, I was a little disappointed for the real view was so much better than this! I have two of these. One looked out a west window and this one looked east. This one is much stronger than the other for it’s value arrangement. But I couldn’t see that then.

I am working now on a larger drawing that will become a painting. I am mapping out the value arrangements ahead of time, aiming to keep this in mind:

  1. That my impetus is unique.
  2. That my vision however can get so easily clouded, and
  3. It’s only time that will show the real value

 

distance for the seeing

Most all of us, living housed in our bodies, have functioning eyes. I love my eyes, and thank God for them; for with them I notice expression that tells me so much more than words. With them I can work with my hands at all kinds of things. With them I can apprehend beauty. And then with them I can lower my lids and signal the whole of my body to rest.

When my eyes are open again however, I can’t see everything. It’s just a fact, obvious and potentially valuable to consider for humility’s sake. And often my line of sight is fogged by pre-conceived ideas behind these pretty brown orbs. These eyes are just doors of perception, there’s a whole lot more involved in seeing well. My mind can get in the way, blocking lots of things I could otherwise see. Jesus said “he who has eyes, let him see.” Let him get engaged. Let him focus deliberately. Let him at least admit that he could be way off too.

There seems to be need for some involvement of my will for the better seeing. It’s so interesting. And that’s why artists have come up with all kinds of tricks to aid their seeing. It seems weird, but even just taking a photo of what you’re looking at gives you a crisper understanding (the flatness? the better angle? the cropping?) than the whole of what’s in front of you. Sometimes it is looking at what you’re working on in a mirror. The reversal jogs you away from the familiar and helps you see what’s sticking out that needs to be adjusted. And then there is always getting some distance. Glass artist Dale Chihuli said “once I stepped back I liked the view”. All artists know this, and it’s good practice for everyone wanting to see. It’s a skill to be deliberately attentive.

And so I was intrigued when I noticed the reason God gives the tribes of Israel regarding the ark of the covenant. When they saw it being carried across the Jordon, they were not to come near. Joshua records the instruction from the Lord, “that you may know the way by which you shall go.”

Being close hinders the attentive and informed view. Standing back gives one alot more information. And, we have to be told this, otherwise we crowd around like myopic groupies. God gives instruction here as to how to see: stand back, watch where it’s going, take it in, think for yourself. Observe as a learner, not as a master. This is important.

“but purple is important to me!”

Her face was darkened and remained that way for the hour or so that she hovered around me. Her shoulders were hunched, her mood dour, and she was only 11. It was pitiful, and yes, I felt sad for her. But it wasn’t too long before my empathy turned to impatience and then to decisiveness.

We were involving the kids, all 65 of them, at Rise Up!’s after school program. Having saved out an area where they could put their mark on the mural, we were cycling the kids through one by one. This 11 year old angrily eyed everyone else getting their hands in the paint, while she argued with her teacher and then with me. Did she want to be involved? It was hard to know. Six pans of color from the mural palette were set out, but by the time this little friend agreed to get her hand dirty the purple and the red were decommissioned (artist’s prerogative for many kids kept choosing the darker colors).

This really set her off and she was now determined to tell me and everyone else what she had to have. We worked with her, we explained the color balance, we coached her not to miss her opportunity, and finally we were done. 64 hands are on the mural now, but one is missing.

Later that evening I reviewed the afternoon’s project “did I handle that well enough?” “Could we have better helped her be involved?” “What was more important: color balance or wise coaching of an angry child, or a life lesson that may or may not have been going on there?” What struck me as I weighed this was that one resistant child took more emotional energy than all the other 64 kids combined! She was determined not to budge, and she wanted us to know it. We did.

Adamantly, she took her stand “but purple is important to me!” even though she was repeatedly coached that the purple was no longer an option. When I think of stubbornness and insistence, I will think of this little girl’s will. She just could not soften. The time was up, the plates of remaining color were scooped into the trash, and she was surprised to see that her opportunity was really over.

That’s the part that makes me most sad. Things end.

green like I mean it

So I did a little exercise to test my “strike” resolve (see last post on the burger billboard). Abstractions made concrete, thoughts made real. The green has been shouting at me for attention, so I dug in to bring it home.

Now as primarily a landscape abstracter, I’ve come to learn that it’s the long view that entrances me, not the pretty things right in my reachable surroundings. It’s the far things that send me; not nice pictures, for their own sake. What gets my brushes moving is something far more mysterious.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while sitting in a Nazi prison, said something like this in a letter to his soulmate. Comparing the landscapes that come out of northern climes versus southern, he said “ The southerner has the beauties of nature, while we long for them wistfully, as for a rarity.” It’s the longing that produces the better work. It’s the hunger that opens the door to what is more valuable than the easily attainable.

Does it always have to be such a stretch, I wonder? I wish not as I am in my 6th decade. But for me, “it” keeps on needing the stretch because of its value, and because of my desire to get closer to it, anyway I can.

Here was all this GREEN right in front of me though. I had to do something with it. I had to mean it too. I thought of an early comment made once to me, “We all know you love the color green” Startled, I wondered what in the world this older lady was talking about when she said that! I was a young Pastor’s wife, and we were renting a house, which had a putrid green on all the walls that I could not change. Her/their “knowing” of me was incorrect. But I was learning quickly that “we all” were viewing my life. That may be when the longing started, the look to far things.

I give thanks now to the God of the horizon, the God who made and loves greens, the God who uses every dumb thing said, keeping me in spite of greenishness. And so to celebrate, I made this little close up. This was green I could change, green I could explore and modulate and play with. Isn’t “it” grand.

 

“eat like you mean it”

I didn’t stop on the highway to photograph the strange burger-joint billboard, just thought about it for the next, oh- maybe, 30 miles. There was the standard burger, and then the exhortation to “eat like you mean it.”

“What does it mean to eat like I don’t mean it?”

I rolled this around in my head at 65 mph. Can someone actually sit before a meal and not “mean it”? Maybe that’s true. Maybe you can just absently take something into your body and not be attentive or even care. That’s called “going through the motions” and yes, I’ve probably done that tons of times.

We had miles to go, the tank was pretty full, and my trusty co-pilot was asleep. But I was hungry. Then, all the more so as the miles moved on and I kept thinking about burgers. I guess that’s the point of ad campaigns. Or maybe it says something about the importance of hunger itself. Hunger motivates for “meaning it”. At that point, remembering the image, and feeling hungrier, I think I would have meant it if I bit into a real burger with melting cheese and crisp lettuce.

How about painting like I mean it? I think there’s a hunger that motivates doing that, otherwise I am just covering up something with a brush.

Or driving like I mean it? I need to be attentive, and aware at least. . .

How about living like I mean it? I learned this night of a man my son’s age who wasted his life and now is gone. His chances to be aware and alert  are over, done, finis.

“Two things are infinite” Einstein reportedly said, “the universe and human stupidity. And I’m not sure about the universe.” And what a dulled state of affairs we’re in when money is spent on an ad campaign because people live a “don’t mean it” kind of way. It seems to be in the air in this Laodicean age. It seems people have lost hunger to “mean it” , “just sayin”. I’m breathing in that same air some days.

And so I am calling a strike. I’m calling a strike on mindless eating, and careless laughing and loving, and pointless life. There’s too much at stake to miss the preciousness of oxygen in the lungs and birdsong in the ears.

Ghandi said: “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.” That’s aspirational. But “as if” is not good enough for me. The burger on the billboard was an “as if”.

But living forever? I happen to be convinced I will, based on Jesus’ words, backed by his impeccable resurrected life. My confidence is not in how much I mean it, but rather how much He meant it. He lived mindfully; even when he was mad, even when he was excruciatingly disappointed, even when he was dying. How can I then just “go through motions”. I aim to not be doing that. How about you . . . hungry yet?

 

clarifying the door

This piece startled me. Unmistakably Chagall, unmistakably modern, while being uncharacteristically direct as a narrative. I was already thinking about targets, about careful communication with the viewer (see last post). And then this. Chagall nails it. And he wants to make sure you can see it too.

Normally Chagall’s work is typified by dream like, color-filled reflections from his charmed Lithuanian childhood. The artist grew up in a happy Hasidic community, which shaped his worldview. “Ever since early childhood, I have been captivated by the Bible. It has always seemed to me and still seems today the greatest source of poetry of all time.”

But by the end of the Second World War, his hometown, of 240,000, Vitebsk, had been decimated with only 118 survivors. The year for this crucifixion piece was 1938 just after the Nazi’s raided synagogues in Kristallnacht, “Night of the Broken Glass.” And so the artist has placed Jesus right in the middle between advancing Communists on the left, and German destruction on the right. Above the cross are lamenting Jews, including one of Chagall’s characteristic prophet figures. The mourners are reacting to events even as they are clustered before the speaking prophet. This is in contrast to the Jews on the ground, below the cross who are fleeing every which way. One wears a sign “Ich bin Jude”. The dying man on the cross is obviously also a Jew, wearing only a Tallit or prayer shawl.

Too easily is Jesus dismissed in any age. Chagall in his age makes a distinct effort to point him out. The dying Messiah is the focal point compositionally midst everything that distracts. The light from the candelabra is missing one lit branch, while light from way above the prophet illuminates the prophet’s call to listen. And so no one can miss it, Chagall letters it out in Hebrew: “Jesus Christ is King of the Jews”.

This is not Chagall’s first attempt at a crucifixion. Such a sign is difficult for any Jew. But the events in Chagall’s history, both personal and global, demanded an ultimate statement of conviction. There is no question but that this is deeply felt, and as is so often the case with Chagall: picturing hope. In case that is too abstract an assumption, let the artist speak for himself: “For about two thousand years a reserve of energy has fed and supported us, and filled our lives, but during the last century a split has opened in this reserve, and its components have begun to disintegrate: God, perspective, colour, the Bible, shape, line, traditions, the so-called humanities, love, devotion, family, school, education, the prophets and Christ himself.”

‘My painting represents not the dream of one people but of all humanity’.

Listen to how a contemporary singer-songwriter has tried to illuminate this.

I recently came across another clarified statement from the writer John Updike, reflecting on the resurrection which followed this death of the Jew Jesus:

Let us not mock God with metaphor,

analogy, sidestepping transcendence;

making of the event a parable,

a sign painted in the faded credulity of earlier ages:

let us walk through the door.

target

Jasper Johns’ 66 inch square piece is showcased at the Art Institute of Chicago and it jogged some thought. Johns’ intention when he made this and several other target images in the 60’s, was that viewers would see something familiar, “something the mind already knows” as a bridge or a catalyst toward further meaning. He was using the known to pry loose more that is not yet grasped.  

Jasper’s approach here was a significant departure from the way celebrated American artists were working at the time.

Johns was seeking to communicate. The Abstract Expressionists before him insisted primarily that there was nothing to communicate, only to express (hence Jackson Pollock would usually only number and not title his work). Johns instead was involving the viewer in an investigation. His own expression was not the end point but rather he made things with a certain interest in the receiver of His work. He also was demonstrating an expectation that there were things still discoverable that were valuable. The Abstract Expressionists, on the other hand, were a product of post-war deflation of ideas and of hope (even as some of their work is filled with exquisite gestures of communicative interest in spite of their claims otherwise).

 Johns turns a corner on their insistent meaninglessness. He and his friend Robert Rauschenberg used popular signals to prompt the viewer. In fact in the detail here you can see how his medium is part of the messaging. He has embedded newspaper bits into encaustic wax, which hints at much more than just target practice, more than just a simple billboard with primary colors.

I am interested in how Johns seized his moment in history, reflecting on what was immediately vogue yet inadequate, and came up with a way forward. His way is not condescending to his audience, he is inviting them further along with him. That motivation is why this piece is so instructive.

The Abstracters left some damage in the wake of their insular assumptions. Many art newbies resist looking at non-objective work because they think they’re being played by an artist who cares little for their understanding, or who is in some stratosphere above their grasp. They shrink away, feeling belittled.

But Johns and Rauschenberg used common things to speak artfully. Their work was not simple even considering the commonness of items they used. Those common things were stepping stones, an invitation to dialogue with the eyes and with the mind.  

To have regard for the viewer or the patron is sometimes mocked as pandering by artists who remain independent characters in any age. But to disdain anyone who stands before your work and not encourage their opportunity to critique and to explore is in my view elitist: a dead end rather than an offered target. The writer Brenda Ueland spoke of a certain necessary generosity with the craft. Her thoughts were a whole new way of encouraging the “why” of doing art for me. And Johns exhibits it.

 

images are appetizer

You’ve been to the events—hungry and wondering how long until the meal would be served. Then someone shows up with a tray of small things, artfully arranged, inviting you to take. It’s a welcome thing. It leads you in and tides you over. Small tastes, like tapas, awaken the buds. A meal of this would not be enough, but the little bit is like a promise: that more is coming and that it is going to be good.

Images are like this. They awaken, and they prompt forward. They are unobtrusive, quick, and just enough to get one’s hunger pangs a little more hopeful.

Yesterday I had a team helping me flesh out some of the images sketched on some mural walls. The kids who use this space after school each day are watching the progress magically appear. Even the littlest ones have opinions about which figure is the prettiest princess, about where the path is going to go, about whether their own face gets to be included in the final result.

The artists meanwhile worked intently to get the strokes and the colors just right, while I was slapping the landscape connectors in like a banshee. I am the one who knows how much more needs to be done. There is metaphor in all this for me. I’m affected to tears even as I type just thinking about the “meaning connectors” and how this all speaks to my life.

There are little ones who want their faces included. There are bigger ones who want their work to shine, and there is one (in charge) and in a hurry who is somehow going to get it all done in time. I identify with every one of these motivations. Seems to me it’s all part of a much bigger picture. I’m the little kid, I’m one of the struggling artists, and I am working with the One who is moving toward a much more important and satisfying finish. All this is just appetizer.

engagement

If someone were to ask me “what is the most fun thing you ever did?” I would easily say, taking my grandsons through the Metropolitan Museum of Art! They flew all the way out from their west coast to a family wedding. Our son flagged us to join them in NYC afterwards and we jumped in the car (retirement has it’s great rewards)! Another close to me said “mom, don’t get your hopes up, the boys won’t be interested.” Well, that only made me work harder to set up something that could keep three school age boys alert in one of my favorite buildings on earth!

Here are just a couple fun shots. We investigated the motivations of artists through history. From Greek dynamism to the Egyptian funerary rules. From Renaissance perspective to Contemporary abstraction, the boys stayed engaged sketching, and questioning for 4.5 hours! Am I excited? The images give a glimpse of a most fun day. I think what was gathered here won’t soon be forgotten. I know I won’t!

breakthrough

Long story, but I was given an open door to audit an advanced painting course, at just the perfect time: another gift. The instructor is quick and good. I figured the opportunity would help me get my brushes moving toward a series I aim to finish but have been stalled out on.

Before I could get to that work though, the prof. gave an assignment: stretch a huge canvas, gesture in the model for 3 sessions, and then complete a piece that shows figures in motion. Having just studied through Ezekiel, I knew easily what I wanted to do with figures in motion. I had a concept. However, figure painting has never been a strength nor a motivation. Still, I moved into this one with some expectancy.

Toward the end, the instructor commented on a certain central vertical thrust in the sky that didn’t sit right. I pushed back “but I have learned that this downward stroke is part of my angst, it’s part of my own voice. I know it’s probably psychological but it’s real”. I did some adjusting (not yet seen in this photo) and then went home and thought about this push that comes out of my spirit. It’s as if I have long said ‘God, I believe in you but I’ve about had it with you! You take so long. There are so many things wrong, other things unformed why don’t you act? Things you say you care about are left hanging! I want you to come down.” Slash. Thrust. Slash goes my brush from top to bottom.

But the story in Ezekiel 37, is all about what God is doing, from the ground up. The bones in the valley are brittle and long dry. The prophet cannot make things happen. God asks him “can these bones live?” Ezekiel’s response is not a thrust of determinate action but a quiet wonder. And then the forming begins. The bones become united structure for flesh, and then are given breath: it’s a process of transformation metered out in time.

I am suggesting some of that here in this chaotic piece. And as I mix, stroke, evaluate and question there’s transformation happening in my flesh and my spirit too. It is happening.

The prophet had a certain role, this was a tandem work for sure, but God was the initiator and fulfiller of the entire story. The prophet’s broken voice was needed, indeed prompted by God. And then as he watched fearsome changes blooming before him, Ezekiel too was transformed. We know this because he recorded it. Breakthrough is when, with feet still tied to gravity and voice still tainted with angst that something bigger happens on the ground. I learned a lot with this giant piece. But what comes after it, I am trusting will be even better. Here’s final: