Category Archives: mystery

Selah (again)

A good portion of my work is an intuitive response, rapidly laid down. This does not mean that the result seen on paper was altogether quick, though if you had watched this piece and others being birthed you might think so. What is visible is an end product of a long term simmering from my mind, spirit and body. The thoughts that collide toward and then into a particular working session, the prayers that have been raised and linger as I craft, and the arms and legs that labor this forward are mine.

But I live influenced and challenged in time by much around me; and that can be seen here too. Of particular note is an apprehension regarding the mystery of beauty. Apprehension is a carefully selected word, I’ve found. For beauty is hard to grasp, and it is so much bigger than my very best catches. Sometimes it even involves some awe, like being at the edge of a chasm. Add to this: mourning over so much that is broken, while still aiming to step forward. And finally, every piece I make comes out from a long term feeding in the words of Scripture that continually ground, re-set and then lift me.
The word “Selah” for example is used often in the emotive expressions found in the book of the Hebrew Psalms. The word seems by its usage to be a deliberate stop for pondering. “Pause and think of that!” is how the Amplified version translates “Selah.” It is a call therefore from the penitent to other listeners. We stand together on ground that is broken, but some of us are looking up and leaning forward, yearning for His appearing.

I’ve been in Colorado this past week: looking up, peering over chasms, stepping forward and strategizing with others who care about getting most important things broadcast in most effective ways. In spare moments, I’ve also been updating some data on this site towards my book launch. In that process, I’ve seen some older posts, sort of buried here where the images need updating. Work in Progress. This post above was written in 2013, and I decided to re-post it now as the ideas are still so current.

This piece, “Selah” was made in 2008, was juried into a show for the monotype guild of New England’s 3rd National Exhibition in 2013, where it hung for a time at the Barrington Center for the Arts at Gordon College in Wenham, MA.

“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.

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.

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.

hours and hours

In early morning dark, I was driving my friend to a hospital in another city. We’d been given some pretty clear directions and told it was simple, so off we went. Toward the end of our journey, our eyes focused for the landmarks (in the disruption, neither of us had our “devices”). Ok, we passed the Walgreens where we turn. Ok, we’re supposed to go over this bridge. Ok. . . so where is the next turn, did we miss it? We both leaned forward in our seats, the car ambling forward into the dim. Another couple blocks and we saw a blue hospital sign, then down a hill, around a corner and it felt like maybe we were approaching the right vicinity. Soon: lights, cameras, action.

On the way out, hours later, we retraced our route to get back to the interstate. This part is why I am telling the story: the time to travel out was eons shorter than that long and ponderous earlier drive! How could this be? It was the same exact path of streets we took coming in. But our experience of time was completely different in the reverse direction. We both were startled by this and it got me thinking.

Time seems to be an elastic thing, even as it ticks with a measurable rhythm. Sometimes as I lie in bed at night, I can feel and hear in my ears the beat of my own heart in a predictable rhythm that is beyond my control: pump. pump. pump. I can manipulate some variance in the count of those beats: get excited and they move faster, focus on relaxing and they settle down, but I cannot stop the beats, nor do I want to. Time moves like this in a set program; I cannot ultimately change it’s progress or it’s pace. As I move through time however some things feel quick and some things feel terribly, terribly slow. Certainly the moments looking for the hospital as we examined every sign and longed for every turn were experienced by us as LONG. But on the way out, hearts lifted, day shining and mission accomplished—the entrance to the interstate was so quick it was entirely startling.

Here’s why this informs me: I am awaiting the arrival of Jesus, as He promised. I am moving along looking for His signs. He said the way was simple and just ahead. But it is dim out there where I am traveling now. I will keep going forward. His way is sure. It’s the time thing that has me at the edge of my seat.

So, is it my experience in time, awaiting His arrival that makes it seem LONG? Is it the heartstopping events that make the pace seem to stagger, and the exciting parts make it seem to speed up? This much is clear: time may be subjectively experienced, yet it remains a measured finite resource that moves in one direction only. This video I shot was on a blustery afternoon, also just recently. The movement here reminds me of a phrase in a poem by Susan Morrison, (age 11) “Hours are leaves of life, and I am their gardener, each hour falls down slow.”

at an intersection

 

Trajectories that meet at a single point are called a convergence. Lines become a single point of intersection, and these places are rare. Rare in life, and I think intriguing in art. This image is a detail of an etching I did several years ago. The piece is called “Temporal”. The idea to me was just the wonder in the slowness of time. As things look random, time is what gives us a chance to view the quiet emergence of so much that is important: the blossoming of fruit, the maturing of character, the perfect development of every longed for thing. And in this waiting there can be great mercy as a trajectory moves toward fulfillment.

Right now in the evening sky there is an unusual convergence happening. You can see it at dusk above the western horizon. The planets Venus and Jupiter have been moving in their singular orbits closer and closer toward a meeting as seen from our vantage point on earth. Tonight, June 30th they will be so near as to appear as one large star. The constellations (that is the star clusters that have been identified by several ancient cultures) are a pictorial back drop behind what happens as our solar system keeps moving like a swiss watch. This convergence of two planets in line with our own is happening in front of the constellation Leo. Maybe that means something. Maybe it doesn’t. But, thinking like an artist, I’m paying attention. Something’s happening here.

patterns below

When random sound moves to even a hint of rhythm, instinctively human ears take note to listen more carefully. Patterns alert curiosity, giving clues as to some kind of intention. Imagine being in a deep woods when a distant tapping becomes metered. Anyone might begin to wonder “what is happening here that I maybe need to catch?” Is someone trying to send a signal? Is there some kind of purposeful activity going on up ahead?
Patterns in visual work bring a similar alertness. Our eyes look for the connections, for any relationships that reveal the pattern-maker’s idea. Sometimes even just the suggestion of intention is enough to sharpen the observer’s gaze.
Pattern is inherently interesting. It is curious while also even calming, especially in the midst of much else that appears random. But it is also mysterious and that is maybe also some of the draw.

I think some of our heightened interest is because pattern indicates some kind of promise behind the hints. Pattern then is like a veil that allures, that brings close while leaving us with more that needs investigation.
To observe pattern quite simply necessitates the expectation of more. And this I think is founded (wether we admit to this or not) in some expectation that there must be a pattern maker behind that veil. Crumbs are not left on a path unless there has been bread that has already been broken.
To glimpse the pattern and run without giving time to consider the character and intentions of the pattern maker is a sort of consumerist robbery. It is a grabbing of the gift without considering where it came from or why. One needs to take time and consideration when noting the crumbs and any other signs on the ground. One takes time looking at art because it is presupposed that someone made it with purpose. When observing the veins in a leaf, when listening to a sonata, the senses focus to understand. All of these things and many more quietly inform the observer.

Rhythms indicate a plan and a process. And process takes a measure of time.
We are hardwired, I think, to hunger after a sense of intention underneath the veil. The restfulness of this little video I shot last month is a good example of what I am thinking about still today. I sat and just observed that morning. I made myself take time. Then the gentle ripples seemed to be coalescing in a very quiet, very unified dance right in front of me. It was as if I was being reminded, again, that what is underneath, and what is far above is at work. Constantly.

 

patterns above

One evening late, near Canada this month, I was walking outside and looked up.

It was startling!

Above me was a tableau sparkling with wonderment. I remember as a child pondering the patterns in the wilderness skies. I had no concrete belief in God then, at least I didn’t until I started looking up.

I remember not too long ago having a probing conversation with a young Navy man. I asked him “have you ever looked up and just wondered about all those star clusters . . ?” The young man looked at me and said, “Ma’am, we can’t see the stars in the ghetto.” I was stopped short. He returned my silence with sadness. He knew he’d stopped my wonder. Poverty is not just material.

When the vacuous haze of our own artificial light is dimmed however, when we can get away to where the simple sky is visible we have opportunity to see so much more. It hangs there for free. It has no boundaries of nation or class. In all the other centuries of history the brilliance was so much more accessible. There are star names from ancient Persian, Chinese, Greek, Coptic, Arabic, Ethiopian, Hebrew and Chaldean observers who studied and followed the patterns.

I so wanted to photograph the night sky this time. I emailed a friend to find out if there could be a way to catch a record with my simple camera. No, she said, “you will just have to burn the sight onto your retina, and then paint it for us!” So I did, I burned it into my memory and in some way, I want to translate it.

The real display is still there. Find some way to look up. Here is just a tease.

Blinded by the limits of sight

An artist, explaining her work at an opening, spoke of a biologist whose important research informs her imagery. I was moved by how she described her loss when her scientist friend died; she paused and simply said “. . . so much knowledge. . .gone”. Her sadness wafted into the room, while her work hung behind her carrying the synopsis.
For me, this was a moment of seeing.

This week we learned that another man, with a trove of skill in his head is now also gone. The loss is incalculable. Our friend had unusual gifts in ancient languages and was investing his passion training others in Asia. A motorcycle accident, seeming so random, snuffed out his life. “so much knowledge, so much to give . . .gone.” No one can repeat what this man did. His students will take up what little they caught and try. A few may carry the synopsis.
For me, this is a moment where I am blind again.

How does one measure a life, any life?
This depth of value is so much more than simple breath, or years lived. I remember when I held the lifeless body of an hours-old child. We were pierced through with grief. This little girl had no time to realize embedded skills and passion. We were robbed of her, the whole world was robbed of her, before she could even try.
Death is a cruel thief, snatching intrinsic value we hardly can speak of. This is why tears come. We cannot hold it in, something leaks out, this is too much for us. This pause at grief is where what is seen blinds us to anything beyond. We cannot settle well with what is unseen.

The Psalmist, carrying the same question, blurts several times, “What is man, that you (God) are mindful of him?” (Psalm 8) The writer is wrestling with wonder, at unseen value. “. . .that Thou dost take knowledge of him. . .that Thou dost care for him?” Important men, and unknown men have this value, tiny baby girls hold within them this inestimable value, even though each “is like a mere breath, his days like a passing shadow.” (Psalm 144).

 

image above: “Notes from the Miocene (turtle)” by Suzanne Stryk, 11″ x 8″, 2007. Used by permission of the artist. See more of her work here>http://www.suzannestryk.com

solstice

Silently. So silently the wondrous gift is given. Light came. Light took the initiative and entered in. And this embodied in what looked to be a baby born in poverty. Into darkness came light incarnate. Darkness would not grasp it. We don’t know what date on the calendar this child was born. But we do know the announcement of his birth came at night. How fitting we mark this event near the longest night, at least in the Northern hemisphere. So under the radar came the beginning of the greatest grace. This is such a humble wonder!

For those wrestling, consider that that light came quietly, and right on time,  and those who were longing for it saw it.

 

Grace Moving

Yesterday as I was driving, the BBC was on my radio with more details about the despair of nations. I have not watched the video of a man’s beheading, and I will not. But I have seen enough still shots. And I was hearing on the radio the voice of a mother pleading for another son who is being held captive. These killers have power for a time. What interests me is that they are keeping their heads covered. If they truly believe that what they are doing is right. . . then why are they hiding behind face masks? It would be good to think about that.

This is what I know. God (if He is true, by definition, to His name) is not absent. He is aware and He is moving. The same Master Creator who hovered over chaos many times before and from the beginning, is at work still. I am hearing those stories too, but they don’t make the main press outlets. They will not.

This image, which is the last in a 4 part series (still hanging at the Reece Museum on ETSU’s campus) is a visual glimpse. There are two parts to it’s form: a wispy cloud-like from in the upper horizon, and a more grounded darker mass. Both these forms show movement in one direction, and they are moving together that way. The bottom form is enclosed, and seems to be a holding place that is dynamic and not completely shut. This is a picture of fearful grace. Fear must come first for grace to even be a topic of concern. Both these ideas are glimpsed here. I could say more. I would be interested in how this image affects viewers who may well see more, or who may see what I did not intend as this gets viewed and judged and passed over as part of the public record. For me, as I made this, and as I still muse on what dried in front of me with the inks settling: this is a glimpse of hope that still hangs in time.

As the BBC carried on, I looked up and noticed the cloud forms far above the highway. Wispy and delicate they were, so beautiful, so available for any to enjoy with just a glance in their direction. The view settled my heart, and aided my prayers so that I could keep on moving.