Category Archives: hope

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.

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

 

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.

 

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.

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 near final:

 

departing light

I will end the year with a simple post and a simple piece. After the workshop I taught, putting materials away, I decided to play on my own just a bit more. This one is a success and I matted it with an Emily Dickinson poem I have loved:

 

 

“By a departing light

We see acuter quite,

Than by a wick that stays.

There is something in the flight

That clarifies the sight

And decks the rays.”

#1714 in Johnson’s Dickinson Chronology, posted on the winter’s solstice, mourning a close friend’s departing, even as we light candles to remember the son of all light who came into our darkness to save us, and surely He did.

 

“What do you see?”

Zechariah’s prophetic work is a set of visual appetizers, given by God that the writer (and then the reader) is to examine and to absorb, bite by bite. Spiritual Tapas? I’ve taken to drawing out the little visions recounted in the margins of my text. For those who like square meals and tight ships, this is not a simple, nor a satisfying book. You’ll be left hanging. It’s only part of a whole. But as with poetry, or with a gestural stroke, his visions leave you with an eager sense: that there’s more, there is really more.

God through this prophet gives a whole lot of hints, with flying scrolls and lidded baskets, through scattering horns and sprouting lamps that there are “craftsmen” who are presently at work. To me, this idea is pregnant with hope. Especially at this season of advent. Especially after such a contentious national election. “Then, they will look on Me” God says, and what is described there in the 12th chapter has not yet happened in history. It is yet to happen, though spoken out some 2500 years ago. And the mourning that follows will be a cleansing, and a fountain will be opened.

So God says “what do you see?” as He schools the prophet with these visions. I love that invitation to engage. It is no lecture from a high and holy stage. It is no thundering judgment. It is an opportunity to look and to consider, now in time. The news cycles flash past so fast these days. We travel to and fro, trying somehow to maintain equilibrium while on an accelerating treadmill. God says it quietly, and again, “what do you see?”

test-2fixedtest-1fixedI am inserting here two little experiments with some inks for a workshop I’ll be conducting next week. Beginners will be introduced to some of the rationale behind abstraction’s promise. If some good work shows up from some of these craftsmen, I’ll be sure to post.

 

considering shadows

abbysshadow_smallMy granddaughter asked “what’s that?” as I was wiping up pumpkin mess. I looked up and saw her pointing to the wall and the round gray mimic cast by our big orange beauty. “That’s a shadow! Do you see how it moves as I slide this over? And if I turn the light off. . . it goes away! Isn’t that amazing? The light is what causes that shadow and the pumpkin is just blocking light on the wall. See, you can do the same thing with your hand: move your fingers and see how you can block the shine and change the shadow’s shape.” So, she got totally engaged with that exercise, and kept twinkling her fingers while I twinkled with thoughts.

Shadows are signs, you see. They are faint things that point to something else more real. The Shadow doesn’t exist unless there is a real thing. It’s a signifier, then, that something else is near. Shadows are ephemeral markers that something substantive exists. A mystic I am reading said “all things are shadows, but Thou art substance. All things are quicksands but Thou art mountain.” Shadows point to something way more consequential, if we attend to them and investigate further.

But we don’t typically like facing any idea of this “Thou” character, the light caster, the shadow maker. We would rather stay hidden in our caves of shadows, borrowing from Plato’s parable. We may see the shadows on our walls but will firmly dismiss hints of more in a realm beyond our darkening walls. “The world bathed in the sunshine outside is off-limits and strictly dismissed as fiction.” Writes the Christian philosopher Os Guiness. We are moderns and post-moderns you see. We “know” better, no longer indulging fantasies that involve a God or any possibility of signs. We rather blindly dull-ly remain in cave-bound captivity.

A little girl noticed something interesting and asked “what is that?”