Category Archives: my own work

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

 

“but purple is important to me!”

Her face was darkened and remained that way for the hour or so that she hovered around me. Her shoulders were hunched, her mood dour, and she was only 11. It was pitiful, and yes, I felt sad for her. But it wasn’t too long before my empathy turned to impatience and then to decisiveness.

We were involving the kids, all 65 of them, at Rise Up!’s after school program. Having saved out an area where they could put their mark on the mural, we were cycling the kids through one by one. This 11 year old angrily eyed everyone else getting their hands in the paint, while she argued with her teacher and then with me. Did she want to be involved? It was hard to know. Six pans of color from the mural palette were set out, but by the time this little friend agreed to get her hand dirty the purple and the red were decommissioned (artist’s prerogative for many kids kept choosing the darker colors).

This really set her off and she was now determined to tell me and everyone else what she had to have. We worked with her, we explained the color balance, we coached her not to miss her opportunity, and finally we were done. 64 hands are on the mural now, but one is missing.

Later that evening I reviewed the afternoon’s project “did I handle that well enough?” “Could we have better helped her be involved?” “What was more important: color balance or wise coaching of an angry child, or a life lesson that may or may not have been going on there?” What struck me as I weighed this was that one resistant child took more emotional energy than all the other 64 kids combined! She was determined not to budge, and she wanted us to know it. We did.

Adamantly, she took her stand “but purple is important to me!” even though she was repeatedly coached that the purple was no longer an option. When I think of stubbornness and insistence, I will think of this little girl’s will. She just could not soften. The time was up, the plates of remaining color were scooped into the trash, and she was surprised to see that her opportunity was really over.

That’s the part that makes me most sad. Things end.

green like I mean it

So I did a little exercise to test my “strike” resolve (see last post on the burger billboard). Abstractions made concrete, thoughts made real. The green has been shouting at me for attention, so I dug in to bring it home.

Now as primarily a landscape abstracter, I’ve come to learn that it’s the long view that entrances me, not the pretty things right in my reachable surroundings. It’s the far things that send me; not nice pictures, for their own sake. What gets my brushes moving is something far more mysterious.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, while sitting in a Nazi prison, said something like this in a letter to his soulmate. Comparing the landscapes that come out of northern climes versus southern, he said “ The southerner has the beauties of nature, while we long for them wistfully, as for a rarity.” It’s the longing that produces the better work. It’s the hunger that opens the door to what is more valuable than the easily attainable.

Does it always have to be such a stretch, I wonder? I wish not as I am in my 6th decade. But for me, “it” keeps on needing the stretch because of its value, and because of my desire to get closer to it, anyway I can.

Here was all this GREEN right in front of me though. I had to do something with it. I had to mean it too. I thought of an early comment made once to me, “We all know you love the color green” Startled, I wondered what in the world this older lady was talking about when she said that! I was a young Pastor’s wife, and we were renting a house, which had a putrid green on all the walls that I could not change. Her/their “knowing” of me was incorrect. But I was learning quickly that “we all” were viewing my life. That may be when the longing started, the look to far things.

I give thanks now to the God of the horizon, the God who made and loves greens, the God who uses every dumb thing said, keeping me in spite of greenishness. And so to celebrate, I made this little close up. This was green I could change, green I could explore and modulate and play with. Isn’t “it” grand.

 

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 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.

 

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.

holding Hope

A poet started to touch on it this way, “It might be lonelier without the Loneliness—“

Emily Dickinson’s self imposed house arrest allowed her eyes to see and her words to express things that other mortals often avoid. The poet is deliberate in capitalizing “the Loneliness” for she is speaking of something that is beyond surface. Her existential concern (hinted at by the capitol letter L in this case) grasps at that which casts forward past known time and limited place. Hope is a theme in her work because of the confidence she gained in the enigmatic hope supplier.

This is not Pollyanna dreaming. This is hard won, tested and true. It is mixed with fears and challenges and suffering. It wins only because of the Winner.

“When I hoped I feared—

Since I hoped I dared

Everywhere alone

As a Church remain—

Spectre cannot harm—

Serpent cannot charm—

He deposes Doom

Who hath suffered him—“

heThe small painting inserted here got finished today. It is one from the series I mentioned last post. Looking up is not the anesthesia of escape artists. It is rather a choice, based on sure evidence made more necessary in darkening times. It looks in trust toward that (rather Him) who holds beyond our fragile spaces.

first fragment cited is from Dickinson’s poem #405, the second is the entire poem #1181 (Johnson’s Chronology)

sky studies

Have you been looking up? We’ve been marveling at some of the moody blues and grays we’ve seen these past months. Online too, people are posting some amazing shots of cloud formations: some brooding, some exhilarating and some downright scary. What’s up with all this? I googled it and see that many people are dismissing incredible images as fake/photo-shopped alarmism. Am I and a couple friends just getting older and paying attention to basics that were always around? Or are these formations in the sky increasingly getting the attention of others as well? I’d love feedback on that question. What are you seeing?

moodyskyThis image from my backyard in June, is taken from my iphone and completely unretouched.

 

Meanwhile, I’ve been taking more shots of amazing skies from a certain hilltop near our home, at all different times of day and night, in all kinds of different weather. I have set these in a file called “sky studies”. skyStudiesWhat you see here is an under painting value plotting (using simply burnt umber and ultramarine) for a series of 5. It’s about time, and wonder and expectancy. These, once finished with top layers of color, are going to go in a prayer room. I hope to get the finished series done this coming month. I worked on a couple of them yesterday and already they are looking pretty cool.

I’m working forward, even as I am looking up expectantly. And I have sound reason. Jesus made a promise of retuning. We don’t know when, time may continue for many more sky views. But my joy is increasing because Something’s coming.

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.

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 discernably “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.

 

SavoryI 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.