Category Archives: meaning

to strike, then to speak

The journey of Moses leading the Hebrews out of slavery and into the land has informed some recent visual work. There’s a curious episode with water coming out of a rock that strangely happens twice: once at the beginning of their sojourn and then again right before they enter the land promised them. Both times the people are thirsty and near riotous. Both times God gives Moses instruction. Both times Moses needs to take action. But the action the first time is to strike the rock and the second time Moses is only to speak to it. It’s a fascinating repeat with an important distinction.

Patterns and parallels catch attention. When something repeats, be it sound or sight, there’s a resonance of some sort. There’s potential being built. We’re hardwired, I think, to be alerted when there’s a repeat. Curiosity gets engaged—something intentional seems to be happening. When a strange chirp repeats I know it’s more than random, so I go looking for it. When the 2nd plane hit the towers, there was universal recognition that we were no longer dealing with accident. I watched that 2nd plane hit, and was startled at how instantly that repeat was a game changer of terrifying consequence. Everyone who saw that knew instinctively.

I was in a workshop this past week with an artist who’s done a lot of reading about how our brains perceive and then recognize. He posited that we’re all visual learners; we all take in data and start making connections. But it’s in the investigating where real learning gets sealed in our memory. And that takes some time and consideration.

So back to Moses, why was he tasked to strike the first time but only speak the second? For me this parallel of two rock stories is really pregnant, there’s more here. Moses had learned about striking. And by the end of the long wilderness journey he was oh-so ready to strike again. Why twice this rock thing then at these completely different times/locations? There’s nothing particularly distinguishable about the rocks in either episode. What is God teaching here in the narrative? It’s not random. There’s much that is not explained in the text, but some particulars are very clear. Needed water came out of rock both times and the people were sated. God gave words, both times. But Moses failed miserably at the 2nd rock because he applied an old instruction to the parallel. At the repeat episode, he was only to speak to the rock. Most find this biblical episode harsh, as if we gift-receivers have any high ground for critiquing the gift-giver. But God poured out that gift of water—both times, in spite of Moses’ fail. I am wondering if the parallel isn’t more deeply meaningful than our memories can yet gather in.

Moses personally addresses God later as “The Rock!” and he does so with overflowing praise at God’s perfection in all His ways. Moses had learned these ways of God, even through severe disappointment. I am not a good listener, so this story stills me. I am an activist who gets angry easily, therefore my empathy for Moses is pretty deep. But deeper still is the provision from the water giver, unseen but present within each of these common rocks. The first time the rock was to be struck. The second time: only spoken to.

 

deception (Lord, I feel it)

It was time to paint the walls of my husband’s office. And knowing that the color I had hand-adjusted for our other rooms was a winner, and that we still had a good amount left in the 5 gal. container, we set out to use it. Whew, it did not work in there! He has one window in that small room, and the lighting is completely different. My wonderful color looked dark and morose in a different placement. So, back to Lowes we went. Color is a fickle thing. It is entirely dependent on context.

The mid 20th century Bauhaus instructor Joseph Albers was a master at helping his art students understand this. Using color chips and simple exercises, like “make five colors into six”, they learned the relativity of color. “In order to use color effectively, it is necessary to recognize that color deceives continually”, Albers said. Here is one exercise exampled. The brown squares are the same exact hue, but the reading of each is influenced by its surrounding colors. A dark context makes the center color lighter, a cool context makes the center color warmer and vice versa.

This relativity, this prone-ness to deception, is of interest in the time we’re in as a culture. Have you been in conversations with those who see things entirely differently than you do? It’s remarkable to me how a news story is interpreted so conversely by two folks with some of the same information. Context will determine whether the ‘facts’ being presented are orange or dark brown. I say, examine closely. Look at the context. Do some experimenting. Ask questions. You can stand and insist that orange is orange, but you could be easily wrong. Be sure about what is sure, and aware of what simply morphs. Be a humble sounding board, willing to test and to explore the assumptions being bantered and felt as ‘true’.

Deception is in the air. It’s good to do some work on this. Go back to the elementals. Albers’ students learned well because they were forced to wrestle with it. What is ‘color’ (changeable) and what is ‘fact’ (stable). What is surface charm and what is structure? What is emotion, and what is reliable here? What stands the tests of time, and what is a passing dew on the grass?

 

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.

 

 

 

“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?

 

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.

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.

 

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?”

 

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.

on the vacancy of meaningless-ness

“I knew nihilism, and my friend, you’re no nihilist.”
In my art History class we just finished the 20th century. My students’ lives barely skimmed the top of that century, while I lived completely immersed in half of it. I remember the horror of the photos from the Pacific war in books my father brought home. I remember the sound of the sirens in a film about the quiet hiding annex of Anne Frank’s family. True, I only experienced these from the safety of distance, but the horror entered my soul and has never left. The image linked here (at the MOMA in NYC) is typical of the art that emerged out of Europe after that time. On this side of the ocean, the work was much more confident, though the thinkers were not. I grew up on this side of the pond, pondering Abstract Expressionism, and Matisse’s effort at order with his cutouts. I looked and then lost interest in Warhol’s reproductions, his 15 minutes of fame. It’s been said that Warhol killed art, and philosophically that case can be made. If a pianist can go on stage, dressed for performance, sit down and then 4’33” later, no finger on the keys, stand and walk away, we are done. We might as well go home. But wait. . .where is home now, maybe that no longer exists as well?

That silence (the pianist would later need to explain) was the real piece. The awaited anticipation of the unsuspecting audience, filled with nervous coughs was the real work, he would tell us. The duration was the real ‘music’ and it was indeterminate. We just needed to take his word for it.
“When I hear what we call music”, John Cage (the pianist) later explained, “it seems to me that someone is talking”. . . “I don’t need sound to talk to me”. . . “it doesn’t have to mean anything”
He spent many meaningful words trying convince us of this.

But the immense problem is that we do not want to live this way, indeterminably. After the high brow concert we still want to go home. It was nice for a time, that silence; souls do love quiet. But quiet is only satisfying in a world where things will eventually make some sense. If indeterminate quiet is all we really have, we are completely un-done.
We raise our kids, and plan our days trusting that certain things will emerge, that important things do have meaning. Cage informed us otherwise, then needed to elaborate. He had to explain because we rubes need meaning. He looked down his nose at us, even as he had to add some kind of sense to his idea. Now we are all looking beyond him.

And artists are still making work after Wahol. If all is meaningless, then why make work? Marcel Duchamp admitted this, spending the rest of his life after rocking the art establishment, by just turning his back on it all and playing chess.
The nihilists are vacant, being challenged by some great work going on now with integrity and intelligence. There is also a lot of meaningless work. One of my students has decided that the work he wants to do “needs to have meaning”.