Author Archives: marynees

signs and blindness

Yesterday an artist friend and I viewed an exhibit at Penland having to do with human perception. The artist/printmaker’s aim was to “dislodge humankind’s assumption of its centrality.” Her work was inventive, but left me empty. For, if we artfully (and alertly) remove humankind from the throne of mastery, what is being offered as a guiding replacement? Is that not a concern? I see, and I sense the implications; and I need more.

Most artists would recoil at my desire for a follow up plan. They would say they want to ask the questions, not provide any next steps. I counter, such posing is soberly irresponsible in an era of increasing trauma. The signs are all around us with record breaking hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, famines, and mounting armies. Artists are pretty good at noting some signs of the times, but have a poor track record at managing the seismic shifts. We need more than what artists (or politicians, or academicians) are laying out. So much is dying.

Christian philosopher Norman Wirzba observes that in Modernity, we rendered ourselves the Masters. The resultant cultural mind-set assumes that whatever sense there is in the world needs to come from us, and us alone (for God was dethroned long ago). That explains the dogged insistence that ‘we can still figure this out’, that ‘we can fix it all’; even while post-moderns are at least admitting that we have lost control. Few are looking at much beyond the walls of their own perception.

Blindness has been a human problem since long before Modernity. And Jesus had much to say about it. He knew the people around him (with working eyes, ears and brains) had a perception problem. He loved them anyway. He artfully spoke and performed signs right in front of all in a way that revealed who was actually perceiving. In fact, He said that the signs given by Him then, and in the future that He predicted, would not be grasped by the willfully blind. And even better than a prophet with perfect accuracy, better than any artist with probing questions, Jesus offered the next steps for the only sure way through the chaos. He’s Creator after all; and chaos was, in the beginning, just a working canvas.

artwork: Susan Goethel Campbell, detail of Ground No.5, 2017, Inverted, dried earth, dead grass

Go Forth (again)

I was awakened one evening long ago. My young friend wanted to talk about Abraham, her Patriarch. I listened out of respect, surprised by her wonder, startled actually by her belief. This was a fairy tale to me. But she held onto it as if it were true. We took many simple steps that night, one foot in front of another, hiking around a lake, high in the Colorado mountains. I was quiet mostly while she spoke. But that night, something ignited in me because of the words she exclaimed about one man, long ago, who simply decided to trust what God had told him. “How could that be?!” I wondered.

“Go forth, Abraham” is a piece I finished in 2012. It is an emotive response from 40 plus years of steps since that conversation, in which I have been reminded so very often of Abraham’s complex example.

I don’t think it is a very pretty piece, and therefore, to me, all the more true.

Abram, (renamed Abraham by God), was a real man, a very unique man. He listened. His radar was tuned for wherever there was God-frequency. And when he heard what God said, Abraham took it seriously and he stepped it out. If you read of his life in Genesis chapters 12-25 you can actually follow the learning curve of this man’s developing confidence in the God he was aiming to follow and learning to love. Though a Mesopotamian ancient, culturally distant from us, the human-ness of Abraham’s growing trust comes through. It was a real-time process that took decades. And God did real time revealings and interventions into Abraham’s process. The key throughout is this commendation in the narrative: “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him therefore as righteousness.” Abraham himself was not righteous, as his history only displays. But God made a call, based on Abraham’s distinguishing characteristic: Abraham simply believed what God said. This is big. It was Abraham’s believing that accomplished an imputation of righteousness. This believing Him is a big deal with God; it can be defining for us.

Abraham lived according to the promises given him. These promises came in clear when they came, but they did not come often. And so there had to have been so many steps where Abraham was just putting one foot in front of the other, trusting, trying to remember what he had heard, relying on the character of the promise giver. That is what I was thinking about when I made this piece. This is a linear picture of all the heavy steps being made in desert sand, as Abraham moved out trusting. This piece looks at his whole journey. High in the stratosphere are markings: recordings of the words that rumble in his memory and bring light to his heavy soul. There are shining bits that come on the ground: the epiphanies he would tell us of if we could hear his whole story at the end. But a lot of the steps for Abraham as he lived them out, I expect felt dry and hard and shifting under his feet. Each step was consequential though. And there is this dark hovering cloud overhead. It is not one that brings rain, but one that brings only darkness and static. Discouragement is hovering not far away.

You will be hard pressed to find a better example of a mortal who risked it all to believe the One he heard speaking. It was not a pretty thing, but it was true. And it ended up being amazing.

I am highlighting this piece again for it was selected to be part of a traveling show called “Scribes of Hope II” which has made the rounds in the past several years. An artist whose work I have admired, Timothy Botts, was the juror for this collection, which can be viewed this Fall at Prince of Peace Lutheran in Portage, MI. My piece is cold wax with metal filings embedded, using also sumi ink and gold leaf; it is on a panel 19×15”

Syrian Refugee

I plotted this sketch onto a full sheet of Arches oil paper, conscious that getting the value structure right was going to be pretty critical before color choices. Also, since my skills are not in the arena of literal portrayals, I needed a visual roadmap of sorts. I usually don’t do figures, but this one was persistent for attention.

I found this idea watching a video made by a humanitarian organization I trust. The story line clipped past this dark scene for just a matter of seconds. I stopped the video and went back a number of times looking at the dramatic contrast of a baby being celebrated in a dark place, even lifted up unknowingly in front of the English word “hate” scrawled against the wall. There is much here that speaks, and much that remains achingly silent.

I live removed from scenes like this. I expect my readers and viewers do too. But the crisis of peoples moving, of governments gassing, of politicians vacillating or only capitalizing, of bombs dropping, of hands wringing, of minds numbing makes me near numb. But I can’t go numb, for these are desperate, present tense realities.

My hope is that in the venues where this might be seen that people may be moved to awaken, to care just a little, to not be able to forget.

It seems to me that this lifting of a child is an act of faith. The man, though low is stepping up. The bystander notices. The glaring artificial light is not what is illuminating the heart. The folks in the back mumble and miss it. There are questions that are unanswered here too. How will they be sheltered? Where is home? Where is the Mother? What makes someone bother to care in a place like this? The brokenness is not all there is here.The brokenness is not where the real story lies. And hate is not going to win.

Selah (again)

A good portion of my work is an intuitive response, rapidly laid down. This does not mean that the result seen on paper was altogether quick, though if you had watched this piece and others being birthed you might think so. What is visible is an end product of a long term simmering from my mind, spirit and body. The thoughts that collide toward and then into a particular working session, the prayers that have been raised and linger as I craft, and the arms and legs that labor this forward are mine.

But I live influenced and challenged in time by much around me; and that can be seen here too. Of particular note is an apprehension regarding the mystery of beauty. Apprehension is a carefully selected word, I’ve found. For beauty is hard to grasp, and it is so much bigger than my very best catches. Sometimes it even involves some awe, like being at the edge of a chasm. Add to this: mourning over so much that is broken, while still aiming to step forward. And finally, every piece I make comes out from a long term feeding in the words of Scripture that continually ground, re-set and then lift me.
The word “Selah” for example is used often in the emotive expressions found in the book of the Hebrew Psalms. The word seems by its usage to be a deliberate stop for pondering. “Pause and think of that!” is how the Amplified version translates “Selah.” It is a call therefore from the penitent to other listeners. We stand together on ground that is broken, but some of us are looking up and leaning forward, yearning for His appearing.

I’ve been in Colorado this past week: looking up, peering over chasms, stepping forward and strategizing with others who care about getting most important things broadcast in most effective ways. In spare moments, I’ve also been updating some data on this site towards my book launch. In that process, I’ve seen some older posts, sort of buried here where the images need updating. Work in Progress. This post above was written in 2013, and I decided to re-post it now as the ideas are still so current.

This piece, “Selah” was made in 2008, was juried into a show for the monotype guild of New England’s 3rd National Exhibition in 2013, where it hung for a time at the Barrington Center for the Arts at Gordon College in Wenham, MA.

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.