Category Archives: brokeness

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.

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.

continuum

A personal note this time: My very closest friend took her last breath 11 days ago. The suffering for her at the end was rough and so her mortal conclusion was a relief. To paraphrase Leonard Cohen: ‘it’s a sad and it’s a lonely hallelujah’. Now she is safely home, for she knew the One who holds the keys to eternity. And now I know what it looks like to finish well here on this hard ground. For that, I am most particularly grateful.

She was my faithful friend while here, but now she’s much more than that. Looking back gives a weight of perspective once an ending has come. Kierkegaard mused that life (for those of us still here) must be lived forward but it can only be understood backward. There’s truth in that. The backward part is appreciated when we have clarity enough to measure what has significantly passed. The forward part is where there still needs be, for me, a marshaling of strength and commitment to reach what is valued. And so, I am going forward but rather slowly. Grief does that.

Another friend and I worked this week on the huge mural project we started last year. It too is a continuum. It starts at the beginning of historical time and ends where the kids in the program we are serving, can look into a mirror. All along the way are emblems of the grand story, punctuated by avatars of the very kids who walk this hallway after school. We’re hoping to lift their vision even as we are lifting our own.

 

a kindness multiplied

avery-head-printI’m not dressed for printmaking. Instead this one night, I attended an art opening of politically motivated art accompanied by an interesting lecture. The show’s juror, Eric Avery is a retired MD and an accomplished printmaker, who has been involved in humanitarian work throughout his dual career. A compassionate man, grappling with human despair, Avery is still mining an early experience he had viewing a man’s bisected skull during an autopsy.

The artist had shipped up to TN before his arrival a large carved block to be printed in our studio here at the University. My friend John Hilton, who teaches the printmaking courses this term was the printer for Avery, spooning the block print onto fragile mulberry paper. After the lecture, knowing John would be working late, I went up to say hi and got to put my hands on the emerging print.

It is only because John is such a generous friend that he let me work Eric’s piece for a few moments. It was only because Avery mentioned John with thanks that I knew this was going on. And only because Avery shared his own heart in the lecture that I understood the reasoning and the depth of pathos behind the head image. I am just a bystander to this particular story, but a graced one. Avery himself was a bystander during the autopsy that occurred early in his career. Sometimes though, grace gives you a stark and disruptive glimpse into the horror of death, the particular vacancy visible when all that’s left is gaping tissue and fluid. Where has what was precious gone then? None of us can be bystanders to this concern. We can barely handle this, indeed I think we cannot. We go numb. Avery keeps retuning directly to it in his graphic images. God says repeatedly through the prophets to “Consider” (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Hosea and Haggai). The fact that there are artisans and prophets who ponder in time and try to awaken us is just another kindness. For me it comes down to this: horror is mediated in ways that allow us to participate in a very necessary exchange.

Thank-you Eric, thank-you John, thank-you thank-you Jesus, the champion over death, the flesh reconstituter, the kindest of grace giving prophets.

 

after it

off-honeymoon-trailThis week I went out on a trail where the leaves are turning, colors singing. The soil in this part of the state has a lot of iron in it. As a result, the dirt under my boots and all ahead of me is an unremarkable dull red-brown. The perfect foil for the brilliance decking the foliage layers on the sides of the road, I made this trail the centerpiece then. It seemed good to do. On this ground is where I stand with my easel. It’s my reference point. In the painting, I started here too, mixing the dull hues as the base line. The dirty earth is the substance out of which all this other beauty gains its nourishment, and then its contrasting show. But soon the colors above will dull too and fall back on down to the mud, enriching it with deadness and only slim memory of a day like this was. I captured a bit of it. But I often think on this idea that beauty is ultimately un-capturable in any really satisfying way. This transience, or fleeting quality seems to me to be the nature of things we call beautiful. With beauty you are ushered to a lovely impression which beckons deeply and then the knowing of it disappears as quickly as Tinkerbelle. I grasp at hues out of tubes, and mix with intention. I make stabs with the brush trying to produce a likeness. But the image is never as rich as what my retina reveled in. Beauty is a whiff of something I can’t fully own, it seems. It’s a signifier, a stand in for something grander that is calling my soul. And I keep traveling after it. I think of beauty as a moment’s glimpse of forever while my feet are still gravity bound in this mud.

semblance

This blog is a stream of thoughts on current evidences. Each gives hint toward what I think is much bigger reality. My tag line above says I am “illustrating”, which may be strange because as an artist, I am not a skilled illustrator. I know at this late age what I can and what I cannot do. My own artwork is usually abstract, and certainly much less focused on human form. All this is intro. to some pondering today.

 

MoniqueSketchI am working on a mural for a non-profit in my community. I got to design the entire project and knew that the best idea for this refuge place for kids would be to highlight the very ones the organization serves. We took photos of 10 selected kids, then posterized them, and sketched the value divisions from each face onto the wall. Painting will start this coming week. What I hope to express here is how poignant it was to just draw their young faces, the unique smile curves, the spark in some eyes, the little crooked tooth, the sweetness on each entirely different form. These are just semblaces on a wall. But I know the real kids a little bit. I interviewed each to gain some buy-in for the ideas behind this whole project.

 

Each child represents one key value that guides this organization. To hear from the children was entirely motivating. So unique is each little person, with a complex mix of bents and desires and issues. So now, when I semblance their lines with pencil on the wall, I am thinking of each child with a love that I sense originates from their Maker. No wonder Jesus rebuked the disciples for attempting to dismiss the children. Little wonder had those guys! Like all of us, they had their own working agendas in front of their own faces and could not see what He was looking into. I am getting a glimpse.

 

OrlandoFacesWhile sketching onto this wall, I was living through the news reports; faces all lined up (each completely unique) who were mowed down by a murderer’s gun in Orlando. You probably saw those images too. I did not know those folks, and so I cannot share the same sense of relationship. But the loss is incalculable for those who loved them. Such searing pain is grief! We are all robbed when even one precious soul is ripped away. Robbed and ripped and many, many left sorrowing.

 

In a time when human life is so diminished, as anger and division takes center stage, as political agendas get staged while the blood is still warm on the floor, is anyone listening for how Jesus feels? Sketching faces of kids who hold dreams in their hearts, I was being pierced through. Anger, sadness, sighs and reverence are all mingled through these pencil lines.

I can hardly illustrate. I am tracing after a projection, my pencil follows the light. In the same way, I can hardly be coherent about what I sense are the working unseen values. But I feel Jesus’ heart, as if tracing after Him. And what I am talking about is both an engaging and a fearful thing. As an artist I am weighted with this significance.

And then I remember: this is what all art is, whether realistic illustration or abstraction, no matter the form. Whether seen and understood or not. It is all just a catch, a representation of something else. It is at best a quick and searing glimpse, a sign-post, a semblance of much truer things. What we do see right in front of us can point toward what we desperately need to see.

slice

When it is time for pie, what do you ask for? A slice is all you can manage, really. We instinctively get this. Being engorged on the whole of what is a really good thing–is not a good thing. Small doses are better handled. Our limits require bits, not wholes. The whole can overwhelm.

It is the same with the biggest ideas, the most important things. We need time with them, and time is a distinct mercy because of our very dastardly limits. Time gives us the opportunity to take it in.

Maybe this alone explains why I keep making art. It is a big thing that is too big for me. I am manipulating paint and wax, working brush and color, moving seriously through my own inner angst. I am looking for a way to feed, even as I am hungry.

And trouble is: every day there seems to be more and more to be upset about. A man I am close to, and respect a lot said to me in distress “I am angry all the time!” We both know we have to be constantly on the lookout for better slices.

As for that inner angst, I have recently been working on a long study of the Old Testament prophets, specifically gathering clues as to how they managed their emotions as things were going down. We are in that time. My anger is not a holy thing, even justified anger. I want to slice and dice the rapist. I want to slice and dice the smug and comfortable liar. I want to slice and dice those who pervert justice in their blindness to suffering. But I am not God (aren’t you glad). I sense indigestion deep in my core when I attempt His prerogative. Instead I am talking to Him, distilling with Him–and that work is a really good thing, something I want more slices of.

 

So, instead of slicing and dicing people (you, or me or the rapist) I will leave that to God who promises to do a good job of it. I will pass on His job.

croppedGingerFarmAnd I will use my energy instead to slice a section of a piece I painted Monday. I was at a beautiful farm owned by a woman named Ginger in a place called Goshen Valley. I was standing painting quietly next to a friend who also is suffering on the inside and doing it bravely. We took courage together and both managed to look out and to gather in some of the beauty and the glory with our brushes. That was a good day. The whole is good. But for now: just a slice, thank-you. I can be sustained with a good slice. For here’s a simple truth, easy to absorb: that which is good comes from Him (every last bit of it) and that which is not good does not.

writing into the dirt

BomerWritecropThe idea (last post) of God writing has had me musing. For text marked into pieces of ground is kind of a current thing. Detailed is just a fragment of a painting I saw last week in a gallery in Asheville, NC. The hand is artist Carol Bomer’s. The marking of words gives direction not only visually but conceptually. One takes in the whole of this dark piece as it envelopes your eye-space, but then the writing captures your focus.

We think this marking into media is avant-garde. Search and you’ll find lots of new and inventive uses of text. But the idea is as old, really, as the hills. At the Mountain called Sinai, the finger of God etched his law into two pieces of rock. This inscribing of text was not Moses’ idea. The finished tablets were not Moses’ handiwork. The entire initiative was God’s. Moses was only the invited mediator. (There are many questions here: If God is God, why did he even need to use a finger? Why two tablets, why not 10, why not one? Why was any mediator needed? Why were words needed? Were the Hebrews, recently slaves, literate? Was the marking that God used common Egyptian?) Back to what’s clear in the story: Moses responded as he was asked. He picked up the rock slabs and brought them down from Sinai to the awaiting tribes.

Think about this even if you don’t know much more. The Hebrew text makes it plain that God’s own finger made visible markings on 2 pieces of mountain rock. He communicated, from His otherness into man’s space. This was one directional. He selected a means that was legible, tangible and understandable. Then came the history of man’s response to that specific communication.

Besides the later episode in Babylon with the mysterious hand (previous post), there is no other hint of God Himself writing in the whole of the Hebrew Bible.

Fast forward to what is called the New Testament or that part of Scripture that tells of Jesus’ arrival and the revolution he brought. There is only one recorded episode of Jesus writing. The story is found only in John’s telling of events. The context is a test. Religious lawyers drag a woman before Jesus. Having just been caught breaking one of the laws on Moses’ tablets, she stands vulnerable and shamed. These prosecutors figured shrewdly. With the evidence before them all, Jesus would be trapped. If gentle Jesus dismissed the woman, he would be sanctioning the breaking of God’s law, and therefore could be correctly branded as a false prophet. If Jesus, a righteous Jew, followed the law and condemned the woman to be stoned, the religious testers would be vindicated, their power enhanced with Jesus as their pawn. Jesus turned the tables, and this is how he did it.

Hand in dustHe stooped down and used his finger to write something into the dirt.

 

“Doesn’t this man have eyes and ears?” “Doesn’t he understand the violation?” The accusers mocked and persisted, pointing their own fingers wildly. The noise around this huddle grew louder. Only one finger was writing. Then, remaining silent, Jesus stooped down a second time into the dust beneath them and wrote again. (What did he write? Could they all see it? Why a second time? In the angry heat, how could dusty marks be any tactic?) Whatever he wrote there is not explained, but what is clear remains. What he did in the dirt was enough to silence them all. One by one, the angry men put down their stones and walked away.

What strikes me is the symmetry in both these singular stories. When Jesus writes he is likely referencing the writing of God. The fact that he does it twice, and quietly is poignant. The law God wrote was left intact that day. But now one, with her feet still there in the dust, saw the final mediator. Failure had constrained them all to face Him who alone had authority to bridge the gap between a history of shattered lawbreakers, and the Law giver Himself. He could only do that if He had fingers, eyes, ears, a knowledge of his people’s mandate intersected with a heart of compassion.

 

what in the world is sure

There is a growing disconnect between what’s on the news (alarming, irritating and mind-numbing) and what is on my heart. Like a miracle tonic is the soul-rest I take in from little sure things now: like sunlight, and birdsong, like seeds sprouting and yeast working. And sure things are not all sweet. The words of the prophets give me warning and set me straight when all else is failing. There is, I am experiencing, a better place of peace than the typical two options we are seeing displayed otherwise, and everywhere. You see either:

  1. Angry-at-this-world revolution, whether left or right, there’s a lot of this.
  2. Removal in self-placating denial, or just plain helplessness.

I am observing it all, pondering. My anger has gotten me nowhere (the advantage of years can teach) and helplessness is just a black hole of another name. Denial is a drug that doesn’t work. I am having to look in earnest at a different option. You can too.

Start here: Psalm 19.

The Psalms are each an emotional journaling of a God-seeker. They are honest, some are angry, none are the words of pretenders. In this one, the writer is himself looking out at what is sure. He has to look beyond himself to do that. Like a standing rider in a fast moving train, he has to grab the hand pull.

The writer speaks of the outpouring that is continually available, day and night, there for the reaching.

Then in the second section of this poetic expression, he elaborates on the source of this outpouring and what God’s provision can do in the soul. This is sure for any who will take it in. This is available now. This is pouring into our world at the same time that the other junk we have to deal with is all around us. You still have a choice.

Their Line Goes Out, 06, 30x22I illustrate this today with a piece I made some years ago. If you wanted to own this you would have to pay me a lot of money, and the work would need to be hand delivered for it is encaustic wax. But you can see and ponder it here for free. It is a response to Psalm 19’s declaration of the outpouring into our ground. I think it is a masterpiece, “after the Master” who said he was doing this communication into our broken places freely “day to day” and “night to night” Such an idea calms my anger, and awakens my dulled spirit. That’s what the truth does, it breaks in. George Orwell observed in another difficult time that “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.” And so it is.

 

whirlwind apprehension

Not_in_WhirlwindSMALLThis is an older image, but a concept I’ve been revisiting in my head: the coming of whirlwind.

I made this monotype (ink on paper) in 2005 and titled it “Not in the Whirlwind”.

‘Sowing to the wind, reaping in return a whirlwind’ is an ancient idea and one that I’m sensing now is immediately pertinent to our current moment nationally and even globally. Hosea, a prophet to Israel in the 8th century BC, coined this visual alarm. In his writing, he spoke a mixture of severe warnings mixed with surprising hope. His listeners barely could grasp the import, and so his life became a visual aid at several points. Still, he feared their deafness to his words, saying, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” He labored to inform them. The small book we have from his pen is 14 chapters long. In the 8th chapter, he announces the coming despair, saying, “they sow the wind, and they reap the whirlwind.” He could see it in their future. His words are not angry or manipulative finger pointing but rather a lamenting plea. For what it cost Hosea to log that lament, I wonder if anyone heard? History indicates “no”, at least for the nation as a whole.

When Elijah, another even earlier prophet, retreated exhausted and discouraged, he needed God’s intervention. His story gives examples of how God moved in Elijah’s life to sustain him and then to speak to him. God was not in the whirlwind, (where I got my title for the above image). Then God was not in the earthquake, nor in the fire. But God spoke as Elijah sought Him in the coming of a gentle blowing after these events. Thus exhibited the character of God’s voice: a gentle blowing. But Elijah had to listen for it—past the din of the alarms that preceded God’s words. This is the purpose of prophecy: not to frighten but to alert any one, even just one who will listen. Prophetic words are wake-up calls.

But then as now, they are easily dismissed. When the whirlwind comes the quiet voice will be much harder heard.