Category Archives: symbol

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.




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.




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?”


Handwriting on the wall

You’ve heard the phrase. Do you know the story’s source?

Long ago, during a time of national upheaval, a time of disintegration into mockery, there appeared words written ominously on the public wall. The drunken king, now alarmed, had to bring in a forgotten Hebrew prophet to decode the warning. The decoder, Daniel, spoke boldly, clearly and then was draped with a purple robe (he did not want). The frightened monarch, focus of the warning, within hours lost his kingdom and his life. Daniel’s proclamation remains, echoing through the histories of nations. “God has numbered your kingdom and put an end to it. You have been weighed on the scales and found deficient. Your kingdom has been given over.”


The only handwriting that can cut through chaos comes from the words of God.


Embossing with gold leaf, permission granted by the artist

When God’s words are highlighted, there is still opportunity to attend to them before the demise.

We have a good friend we’ve known for years. Late in his thoughtful life now, he is sensing there is handwriting on our public wall. This man has gone back to the words of God, and become an Orthodox Jew. We dialogue all the time, for we have much that matters in common. Recently I sent him this image, which in its simplicity pictorializes the difference between the words given to Moses at Sinai, and the last word given by Jesus, the Jew. One can’t fully understand the first writing without the decoding grace of the second. This collograph, replete with Hebrew markings, was crafted by another thoughtful wayfarer: Sandra Bowden. The work is titled “Law and Grace.” And as with the frightened king, there is opportunity now. We stand between the giving of the words, and their conclusion. Fear is in the air. Fear, even desperate fear is the soil in which the seeds of wisdom can take root. Grace is the produce, hard-won. Grace speaks out from that very same source.



whirlwind apprehension

This is an older image, but a concept I’ve been revisiting in my head: the coming of whirlwind.

I made this monotype (ink on paper) in 2005 and titled it “Not in the Whirlwind”.

‘Sowing to the wind, reaping in return a whirlwind’ is an ancient idea and one that I’m sensing now is immediately pertinent to our current moment nationally and even globally. Hosea, a prophet to Israel in the 8th century BC, coined this visual alarm. In his writing, he spoke a mixture of severe warnings mixed with surprising hope. His listeners barely could grasp the import, and so his life became a visual aid at several points. Still, he feared their deafness to his words, saying, “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge.” He labored to inform them. The small book we have from his pen is 14 chapters long. In the 8th chapter, he announces the coming despair, saying, “they sow the wind, and they reap the whirlwind.” He could see it in their future. His words are not angry or manipulative finger pointing but rather a lamenting plea. For what it cost Hosea to log that lament, I wonder if anyone heard? History indicates “no”, at least for the nation as a whole.

When Elijah, another even earlier prophet, retreated exhausted and discouraged, he needed God’s intervention. His story gives examples of how God moved in Elijah’s life to sustain him and then to speak to him. God was not in the whirlwind, (where I got my title for the above image). Then God was not in the earthquake, nor in the fire. But God spoke as Elijah sought Him in the coming of a gentle blowing after these events. Thus exhibited the character of God’s voice: a gentle blowing. But Elijah had to listen for it—past the din of the alarms that preceded God’s words. This is the purpose of prophecy: not to frighten but to alert any one, even just one who will listen. Prophetic words are wake-up calls.

But then as now, they are easily dismissed. When the whirlwind comes the quiet voice will be much harder heard.

darkness is a sign

Signs in daily life are indicators. I see a red stop sign; I stop within a few feet. Signs give warning as to what’s ahead, and signs give one time to think and still to choose which way to respond. There’s a little bit of time between seeing the sign and getting my foot soundly on the brake. I am glad for that. So are my riders.

Darkness is a sign; a shaded marker that is showing up everywhere now. Look around, listen, watch. I am just articulating what you already know (maybe don’t want to know, but sense just the same). Darkness is a departure from light. It surrounds, entraps and leaves one cold. You don’t want to be there. There is nothing calming in a place of unarticulated blackness.

Artists work in the arena of making some kind of signs, knowingly or not, coherent or otherwise. All artists are doing representation of some sort, making indicators of something else. For example, even in the arranging of darks and lights, an artist seeks to use these elements toward highlighting some aim. We even talk about “value structure” though we might otherwise insist there is not such a thing as real value indicated at all by our arrangements. Still, handling lights and darks well are basic coins of the realm in visual work. All light in the composition and we are overwhelmed and cannot see. All darkness and there simply is nothing to see. This is basic, and objectively understood.

Handling light and darks well in life is another matter all together. I have worked with both. I am also a current events watcher, a Bible reader, and a concerned friend. I’m noting that dark signs are stacking up faster than I have ever seen in my 4 plus decades of following the words of the prophets. There is some heaviness in all this observing, there is also some significant hope. Think about this (recorded by the first prophet Moses): the Creator came first in the Genesis account. He was primal. He was deliberative. He spoke and then light came into a place that was full of darkness. That place is further described in Genesis, 1st chapter, verse 2, as being a deep and formless void. The light entering there was a jail break, a remake. The light came into the darkness and then started staging a re-creation. And that was just in the beginning.

But there’s a problem, revealed in the story of the rest of the book. There is an imitator of light who lies, and we are all vulnerable to him. He was named by Jesus as “the father of lies”, “the serpent of old”. He entrapped the whole human race early, not long after that re-make. He masquerades as light (or as any number of fascinating imitations). He can only imitate; he cannot Create but he is crafty. Even the most earnest seekers of good get sidetracked by his clever luring. He is luring you if you are unawares. His intentions are the opposite of the Creator’s; the imitator’s intentions are not good. Like the pilgrim in Bunyan’s tale, we are too easily blinded by this one who lies.

“This life’s dim windows of the soul
Distorts the heavens from pole to pole
And leads you to believe a lie
When you see with, not through, the eye.”

And here’s a watchword: it doesn’t have to end this way. Inserted here is a video that might help you see more of the grand story. If God is the originator of the story, then there is a story, and it has a valuable end. (If He is not, then ultimately there is no story.)


poem above by William Blake, 1757-1827
image “Ancient Gates/Satan’s Throne”, monotype by Mary Nees

ascent attempt

The Psalms of Ascent are a particular progression found in Psalm 120-134. Sometimes called the Psalms of Degrees, these 15 declarations were memorized and sung as pilgrims stepped their way up to Jerusalem for the festivals appointed earlier by Moses. I am not Jewish. But I have long been interested in these songs and what they reveal to any God-seeker about significant forward movement in any true spiritual journey.

There are patterns here that are fascinating. The 15 have several groupings in a sure progression. There is a rhythm that continues unabated even through the seeming randomness, and in some cases desperateness of human trial that is spoken of in the Psalmist’s language. The imagery is a rich and meaningful minefield. The collection repeatedly speaks to the past, the present and the future. It is actually a recipe for hope, and a picture of the concerns of an enlarging heart.

Ascent AttemptWhat I am posting today image-wise is a little embarrassing. I did this in 2002. It is a rather large piece: 3’x2′, laid down originally with acrylic. I was ambitiously hoping to put into imagery what I see happening in this collection of Psalms, but critiquing my own attempt, this is brash looking, really uninteresting visually, too direct.  For these reasons and others this piece sat hidden behind much else for the last 13 years.

Thinking about this progression of ascent again however, and studying the Psalms further, I decided I had to rework this attempt–to go right on top of it. Already the piece here viewed is much different (thank goodness–necessity becomes the  mother. . .).

I worked on it all day yesterday and I have much more to do before I will show the finish. It is turning into a subtle landscape. I hope to veil the progression, while also making it more vital, hoping to articulate the wonder in these steps of inner and outer ascending. I am committed to it now.

and what stays the same

My last post was about “what moves”. I am prompted today with a contrast idea that some things stay the same. Important and enduring things will remain. A French thinker captured this idea and since first hearing it as a high-schooler, I have not forgotten: “The more things change, the more they stay the same.” We think in our arrogance that we are in charge of shaping destiny, but what we send out always comes back around, like a boomerang.

So much is changing, but I am observing with open eyes and no fear, because the things that really matter are secure. And to those who think they can say or do stupid things, and no one hears, I say, wait a bit, it will come back onto your own lap. For we will all see one day that every hidden thought, and every action will be accounted for.

Are these just thoughts of naive imagining? I say not, for a life of observing people has reinforced it to me over and over. More significantly, the words spoken by God to settle our hearts in tumultuous times give great reason for hope. He is what does not change. Everything else that is stable is only a sign pointing to Him. And His promises are meant to be held onto, because He means what He has said. And He says what He did so your own heart can take courage. Psalm 50. One who trusts these words finds what comes back onto his lap has a completely different character.

Airs No Ocean Keeps

To illustrate a scrap of what I am thinking, here is a piece I made this year and just got a good image of today. This is entitled
“Airs no Ocean Keeps” Yes, that’s a phrase I found and loved from Emily Dickinson. The tumultuous, and seeming random crashing of waves, are themselves superintended. Grasping even a glimpse of this puts us into the right place if we are open to admitting that we are not the ones in charge. This very idea alone begins the soul’s rest in God.

the present moment

I just finished a small series of pieces illuminating some favorite poems I have been finding in Emily Dickinson’s chronology of work. Here is one for your pleasure too:

How much the present moment means

To those who’ve nothing more–

The Fop–the Carp–the Atheist–

Stake an entire store

Upon a Moment’s shallow Rim

While their commuted Feet

The Torrents of Eternity

Do all but inundate–


ED, 1876, #1380 according to Johnson’s Chronology

Character of Good vs. Evil

To have a sense of character, one has to spend some time observing and experiencing. We make decisions on character based on what we see, sometimes quickly, sometimes considerably. When someone then does something “out of character,” we state our surprise according to a prior set of expectations, coming out of some kind of history. Shift to the realm of ideas. When it comes to knowing or recognizing what is good and what is truly evil, it seems to me that we have lost our way. We have given up caring to know. Discernment is hard to find in a culture which denigrates any reflective judgement.

I decided to name these two pieces (last post and this image). “The Nature of Evil” and “The Nature of Good” because of their complete contrast in visual character. These two serve as a primer, using symbolic imagery to introduce the notion that there are two material poles: one is good, the other is fearfully evil. And if this reality is even remotely true, being alert to the character of these poles would be a significant pursuit.

The first image, that of evil, called Abaddon, is dominant and encroaching, seemingly boundless and fearful. The second image is much quieter, gentle but life-giving, boundaried but free. It penetrates the ground rather than taking it over. And it is rimmed by this mysteriously fragile red enclosure. When I made this second image it was after studying some illuminated manuscripts from a book a friend had given me. The first image, as I wrote earlier, took over when I made it, surprised me, troubled me. But it seemed necessary to consider. This second image was planned more carefully, but its making  also involved some serendipity. I used a brayer to lay down the veils of blue watercolor, loving the delicate surprise in the markings that resulted, and that were still “in character” with the quiet beauty of good.

This from Art & Fear, p.103 “What Science bears witness to experimentally, art has always known intuitively–that there is an innate rightness to the recurring forms of nature.” If you are able, please come see these pieces along with work from several other fine artisans at the Reece Museum on campus of East TN State, until September 12th, 2014.