Category Archives: joy

journey; beginning to end

The theme keeps repeating and it’s a universal one. From mythology to classic literature this idea of trekking toward some kind of attainment is in our DNA. Moses, Odysseus, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Dante — the list is long of courageous ones who were answering the ancient quest “where have you come from, and where are you going?”* Something keeps us moving, sometimes for what we’re not even sure; and if our bodies get tired, our spirits keep longing.

There is a section of Psalms called the Psalms of Ascent which were sung by Hebrew pilgrims on their way up to Jerusalem for feasts. There’s a cadence to these, like the way marines sing out calls when they are marching, like the way slaves on the underground railroad sang low about “following the drinking gourd”. The rhythm reminds and keeps the trekkers heartened. For the journey is often long and certainly filled with treachery. These Psalms show that too.

I’ve dissected these songs, tried to simplify and sketch them out. They are amazing. And I think they tell the whole important story in an abstract and concise way. It’s long been my aim to paint the series (such a dreamer). What keeps me going is the wonder in the pattern of this set of 15. They can be grouped into 5 sets of three; and like a growing Nautilus shell, they repeat the basic triplet pattern even as the whole enlarges.

Oh to have the ability to show this better! I have some oil sketches, and some larger built panels. I have tons of notes and the recordings of others. I have desire, some skill and a goal for the year to finish all 15. I had two done before 2018 started, and one hanging pitifully unfinished. I think this week I finished that one, Psalm 122 pictured here. It is the third in the first set of the whole. There’s a lot more yet to say (and a trap where I overthink it too). But I’ll just suggest this which I’ve learned in studying these ancient songs: the beginning is always tough, the middle is always a place of trust, and the final resolve is an unbelievable glory that encapsulates the whole. What can even begin to capture such simple encouragement!

I found just this morning a wonderful word from the poet T.S. Elliot that touches on some of what I sense: “What we call the beginning is often the end and to make an end is to make a beginning. The end is where we start from.” I can see the end, feel I am glimpsing it. My task is to articulate the building cadence in paint.

  • this question was first asked of a woman heading in one direction, returning in another, see the account here.

 

still life or “reality show”

I’ve been thinking again about the tension of living between the quiet voice and the urgent alarm. If you lived in Hawaii this past weekend you’d still have alarm withdrawal going on in your psyche. Nobody would say we shouldn’t have blaring alert systems, even after one misfired and people panicked. But we cant live with the heightened noise level that seems to be so much of the modern “reality show” of life in this nation now. I don’t know how I would have handled the alarm, but I know I would have prayed.

With some friends a while back, we were looking at images at an exhibit, when each phone in each pocket started echoing an Amber Alert. Beyond the walls, someone was in real trouble. Devices were pulled out, screens looked at, a couple prayers whispered. . . and then silence. The phones were put away, some turned off. The alarm was frightening; the quiet voices in response much more sustaining.

There are two very different realities going on in our time. One is slow, steady and uncelebrated. The other is an irritating, very troubling scramble for attention. One is loud and obnoxious. We all hear it. We’re all sick of it. There’s another sounding, but you have to tune your ears to hear it

I slammed my computer closed this morning. The click-bait headlines have me so wearied, sickened. You can point fingers, but we’re all in this thing together. So, I did the next thing in my little life. I went to the grocery store. I had to do this anyway today, but I got there early and started to relish the simple tasks of handling and selecting real live things that will make a difference in our well being this week. I got to choose. I chose to enjoy the steps, the colors, the kindness of the produce man. I don’t think I have ever enjoyed a grocery trip more! I came home with several bags of supplies, and arranged some on my counter like a Dutch still life. Art is not imitating life here. Real life was already happening. You could rather say Life is imitating art of a sort. This is some of the gleanings I’ll use up this week.

I think of the Northern European “vanitas” paintings, where commodities (due to increased trading and middle class means) would be arranged in a collection, then painted in oil. The intention of vanitas, was to show symbolically that the everyday things (like an orange half peeled) were all stand-ins for moments in time. And bigger than that was the idea that the temporal things would decay but the moment would be marked as a time of reflection and joy. That’s small voice stuff. That’s the kind of thing that reality shows can’t show you.

Come tomorrow. Come what may. I’ll be listening for the quieter voice.

 

 

 

light bursting

The last image of the year is one my husband shot out our tiny cabin window. The garage light was on, and all was still on the darkest night of the year in the Northland where my grandparents settled long ago. The frigid air, the wild vunerability of this backwater place and the mystery of light penetrating, so surgically into enveloping darkness was what moved us both with this digital glimpse. This is only a token, an illustration, of a sublime reality. I’m thinking of a baby born on another dark night, in another backwater place, where light burst forth into their precarious situation. John’s gospel says at the beginning “light shines (present tense) into the darkness, and the darkness did not comprehend it.” John 1:5

How utterly strange, and beyond the ways we would stage it. God comes to rescue: through a humble couple willing to listen to Him, midst political chaos swirling beyond their control, with a baby of suspicious origin who is entirely vulnerable! And that is just the beginning of the story.

I’m reminded of the words of the 1st century thinker, Paul of Tarsus. His reflections were preached into my own ears by a master theologian in the early 1970’s. The passage being explored was the very 1st chapter of Corinthians, where Paul is contrasting what many seek vs. what God has simply given as greatest wisdom. I was deeply moved by the surprising ‘rightness’ of God’s way vs. all our own proud attempts. Paul ends his discussion with this summary: “…because the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger then men.” (1 Cor. 1:25).

I used to wonder: if God wants our attention, why does He not make it more obvious? I was new to understanding Him then, and troubled that His existence was not as clear to my friends as it was bursting into my own heart so astoundingly. Here is how another writer expresses this mystery “Everyone supposed that You were limited, You Who cannot be contained by anything, all speech is not able to tell of You, and a mind that is compelled tries to grasp with yearning…”

This last quote excerpted from an Eastern Orthodox liturgy posted on Dec. 26th, 2017

what mercy requires

A recent show opening this past week (well attended by students, artists and appreciators) was a kaleidoscope of ideas and emotion. The Fl3tch3r Exhibit’s aim is to further social and politically engaged art. The juror, Canadian Anita Kunz, is an internationally published illustrator who selected from over 350 entries coming in from around the world. Because of space restrictions, she eventually had to limit down to a 20% submission ratio. The show is strong. The ideas varied and electrically charged. And, I admit that with some tenderness, even as my own piece was among those passed over. Rejection stings. But good work, well curated, lifts even those who are observing from the reject pool.

Openings are not a good time to really let the whole sink in deeply, so I went back today to consider more. There were the usual political diatribes against prominent public personalities. There were powerful aesthetic statements against guns and drugs and racial violence. Some of that work was remarkably masterful. But then, I noticed a diminutive collage, chosen as a favorite by the museum staff, “Art to Stop Traffic: What Mercy Requires of Us”. The piece is only 5”x 3.5”. This submission is a poignant contrast, rendered from found images, paper, pen and pencil. The value and color contrast is immediately obvious, but peering closer one sees the uncomfortable juxtaposition of plastic expressions, skin color, garish lighting, things hidden and things exposed.

This very idea of things hidden and finally exposed is something I’ve been placing my heart on recently, and so I was gripped again.

Jesus is the one who called this out as a promise to His followers: “for there is nothing covered that will not be revealed”. Such a paradox this: that the ultimate mercy giver is also going to be the final adjudicator. The harshest words He had to say when walking our ground were to the religiously complacent (visualized in this collage). And the most lavish praise he gave was to a woman, not unlike the one pictured in this fragile piece, who wept at His feet. I am moved by this. And I am heartened that the museum staff would even notice a less prominent submission for this very grandest of ideas.

collage by Lucy Julia Hale, Cave Spring, GA

 

 

 

Hot. . .or cold

Maybe it’s my age. But maybe it’s the age we’re all in. For, I am sensing the rumblings of a cosmic shift. I’ll let the culture watchers detail it for you, but if your ear is to the ground, then you’ve already felt it. Here’s my summary: The real are getting real-er, and the fake are showing themselves. And here’s the best news: if you know the Creator, then you don’t need to fear (He said so). I feel like Caleb, who after 40 years of wandering finally was being allowed to see it. I listened to a young Swiss millennial at a gathering; rather than saying “amen!” shouted exuberantly “C’Mon!” Many were right there with him. This past summer in So.East Asia, we witnessed the next generation plan and lead the genesis of a movement that will influence nations. Here’s just a glimpse.

This past week, while the news was telling you of a truck bomb in Somalia and another Priest murdered in Egypt, I saw brothers arm in arm who are turning Africa inside out. You wont hear about this on the news. Politicians and religion-extremists cannot ignite something so holy, and they cannot stop it either. C’mon!

I was going to write about beauty this week, for it often captivates me, illustrating, hinting how more is coming. These bits are better. Eugene Peterson said it this way: “Wonder can’t be packaged, and it can’t be worked up. It requires some sense of being there and some sense of engagement.” You wont want to be sitting on the fence any longer. You’re either all in, or. . .

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”

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.

why do you work?

Artists examine things. Looking under rocks for clues is maybe another way to say this. And for many of us, digging at our own personal reasons for creating is a necessary hazard in that examining process. The inner motivation behind the working has to be understood and it has to be bigger than our ability or why bother? It’s intimidating to stay at it. There’s got to be a compelling drive that keeps one at it. Sometimes this is intuitively exciting, other times it is a slog that ends up surprisingly fruitful, or sadly not.

Until the next day’s try.

There’s a long road of other artists who have gone before to learn from. There are many right now who are making tracks. But what moves me the most is inspiration that takes off from some well-chosen and very fertile words.

I taught a small workshop this month with a couple eager beavers who were willing to try their hand at abstracting using some new materials. It’s true for me and I hoped would be for them that the cutting edge of “not knowing really how” would produce some exciting personal discovery. They came with only some favorite words to work off of.

Voila, or “There it is!” was the result after a couple hours of experimentation. We really are creative whether we understand how we’re made or not. The excitement in getting a glimpse of that is contagious. This finished result was just one of several little gems made that night. Liz illuminated a favorite quote from Brenda Ueland’s “If You Want to Write”: “Since you are like no other being ever created since the beginning of time, you are incomparable.”

“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.

 

reflection

I’m getting some expert help on the mural project we are spearheading for a local non-profit. But this face I reserved to do myself. This little girl is precious, with big ideas, so she is being placed on one of the most important parts of the wall. I love her funky glasses. I love most the reflection out from her eyes and even off the plastic lenses. That was really, really fun to paint!

Recently I heard a guy in a sermon bring this application: “Ask 3 people you trust to tell you “what’s it like to be on the other side of me?” I asked two brave souls and got some interesting, necessary stuff. Whew. I’ve got some things to work on. I don’t really know, and neither do you, how the reflection off your face really translates into another’s life. I just know what I want it to be out of my own eyes. This little girl led the way for me. She’s got light in her soul. She loves Jesus. She responds to Him like a child in simple trust. She is going somewhere.

seeing for meaning

Before an exhibition, a young family member asked me, “could you give me some help as to how I ought to understand what I will be seeing?” The humility of his question endeared me to him–that he even cared to know beyond just fulfilling a social obligation. But I wondered whether art, any art, has lost its potential to communicate if folks in front of it remain only bewildered.

The Art Historian H.R. Rookmaaker gave thoughtful overview in his writings as to how Art, as we practice and observe it in the modern and post-modern eras has lost its voice. In the very centuries where artmaking became high Art, celebrated by elites (who alone could interpret it) and enshrined in museums, these artifacts no longer held much common value. Artists were billed from the Renaissance on as geniuses, and high priests of culture. But culture has turned away, and pop-art or entertainment art has taken up the void. Now it is not just the artists who are starving.

Artifact or artificial, is this the only choice? No wonder young viewers feel duped before any display of work.

I think of the beauty of certain sunsets (and some are discernibly “better” than others). These are available to anyone, no museum ticket required, no proper lighting necessary, no label or title needed, no “jurying in”. Does an explanation as to purpose need to follow such fleetingly beautiful expression? The patterns of waves on sand, or birds who fly in some mysterious formation only require some attention. This is popular art that is free, potentially meaningful, hardly artificial, with no hint of cynicism.

I struggle with my own voice in my work, living as I do in such a time of disintegration. I cannot make the work of my hands “say” what I hold in my heart so often. It is not my goal to be literal, but it is a desire to lift the viewer’s eyes. A friend of mine who is a photographer, grieving deeply over the death of her husband is now doing the best work of her career. We talked of this: why are we doing this work, this searching with images? Is it meaningful, is it what we “should be doing”? We got this far in our discussion: this work is an exploration into JOY. This expression is as fleeting as a sunset and as mysterious as a bird’s flight, but it is necessary, if even just for us. I have some ability to look, and to craft. Maybe through the work of my own hands others will see meaningfully also. For this, I keep on.