Category Archives: wonder

signs and blindness

Yesterday an artist friend and I viewed an exhibit at Penland having to do with human perception. The artist/printmaker’s aim was to “dislodge humankind’s assumption of its centrality.” Her work was inventive, but left me empty. For, if we artfully (and alertly) remove humankind from the throne of mastery, what is being offered as a guiding replacement? Is that not a concern? I see, and I sense the implications; and I need more.

Most artists would recoil at my desire for a follow up plan. They would say they want to ask the questions, not provide any next steps. I counter, such posing is soberly irresponsible in an era of increasing trauma. The signs are all around us with record breaking hurricanes, earthquakes, fires, famines, and mounting armies. Artists are pretty good at noting some signs of the times, but have a poor track record at managing the seismic shifts. We need more than what artists (or politicians, or academicians) are laying out. So much is dying.

Christian philosopher Norman Wirzba observes that in Modernity, we rendered ourselves the Masters. The resultant cultural mind-set assumes that whatever sense there is in the world needs to come from us, and us alone (for God was dethroned long ago). That explains the dogged insistence that ‘we can still figure this out’, that ‘we can fix it all’; even while post-moderns are at least admitting that we have lost control. Few are looking at much beyond the walls of their own perception.

Blindness has been a human problem since long before Modernity. And Jesus had much to say about it. He knew the people around him (with working eyes, ears and brains) had a perception problem. He loved them anyway. He artfully spoke and performed signs right in front of all in a way that revealed who was actually perceiving. In fact, He said that the signs given by Him then, and in the future that He predicted, would not be grasped by the willfully blind. And even better than a prophet with perfect accuracy, better than any artist with probing questions, Jesus offered the next steps for the only sure way through the chaos. He’s Creator after all; and chaos was, in the beginning, just a working canvas.

artwork: Susan Goethel Campbell, detail of Ground No.5, 2017, Inverted, dried earth, dead grass

Syrian Refugee

I plotted this sketch onto a full sheet of Arches oil paper, conscious that getting the value structure right was going to be pretty critical before color choices. Also, since my skills are not in the arena of literal portrayals, I needed a visual roadmap of sorts. I usually don’t do figures, but this one was persistent for attention.

I found this idea watching a video made by a humanitarian organization I trust. The story line clipped past this dark scene for just a matter of seconds. I stopped the video and went back a number of times looking at the dramatic contrast of a baby being celebrated in a dark place, even lifted up unknowingly in front of the English word “hate” scrawled against the wall. There is much here that speaks, and much that remains achingly silent.

I live removed from scenes like this. I expect my readers and viewers do too. But the crisis of peoples moving, of governments gassing, of politicians vacillating or only capitalizing, of bombs dropping, of hands wringing, of minds numbing makes me near numb. But I can’t go numb, for these are desperate, present tense realities.

My hope is that in the venues where this might be seen that people may be moved to awaken, to care just a little, to not be able to forget.

It seems to me that this lifting of a child is an act of faith. The man, though low is stepping up. The bystander notices. The glaring artificial light is not what is illuminating the heart. The folks in the back mumble and miss it. There are questions that are unanswered here too. How will they be sheltered? Where is home? Where is the Mother? What makes someone bother to care in a place like this? The brokenness is not all there is here.The brokenness is not where the real story lies. And hate is not going to win.

engagement

If someone were to ask me “what is the most fun thing you ever did?” I would easily say, taking my grandsons through the Metropolitan Museum of Art! They flew all the way out from their west coast to a family wedding. Our son flagged us to join them in NYC afterwards and we jumped in the car (retirement has it’s great rewards)! Another close to me said “mom, don’t get your hopes up, the boys won’t be interested.” Well, that only made me work harder to set up something that could keep three school age boys alert in one of my favorite buildings on earth!

Here are just a couple fun shots. We investigated the motivations of artists through history. From Greek dynamism to the Egyptian funerary rules. From Renaissance perspective to Contemporary abstraction, the boys stayed engaged sketching, and questioning for 4.5 hours! Am I excited? The images give a glimpse of a most fun day. I think what was gathered here won’t soon be forgotten. I know I won’t!

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.”

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.

 

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.

writing into the dirt

The idea (last post) of God writing has had me musing. For text marked into pieces of ground is kind of a current thing. Detailed is just a fragment of a painting I saw last week in a gallery in Asheville, NC. The hand is artist Carol Bomer’s. The marking of words gives direction not only visually but conceptually. One takes in the whole of this dark piece as it envelopes your eye-space, but then the writing captures your focus.

We think this marking into media is avant-garde. Search and you’ll find lots of new and inventive uses of text. But the idea is as old, really, as the hills. At the Mountain called Sinai, the finger of God etched his law into two pieces of rock. This inscribing of text was not Moses’ idea. The finished tablets were not Moses’ handiwork. The entire initiative was God’s. Moses was only the invited mediator. (There are many questions here: If God is God, why did he even need to use a finger? Why two tablets, why not 10, why not one? Why was any mediator needed? Why were words needed? Were the Hebrews, recently slaves, literate? Was the marking that God used common Egyptian?) Back to what’s clear in the story: Moses responded as he was asked. He picked up the rock slabs and brought them down from Sinai to the awaiting tribes.

Think about this even if you don’t know much more. The Hebrew text makes it plain that God’s own finger made visible markings on 2 pieces of mountain rock. He communicated, from His otherness into man’s space. This was one directional. He selected a means that was legible, tangible and understandable. Then came the history of man’s response to that specific communication.

Besides the later episode in Babylon with the mysterious hand (previous post), there is no other hint of God Himself writing in the whole of the Hebrew Bible.

Fast forward to what is called the New Testament or that part of Scripture that tells of Jesus’ arrival and the revolution he brought. There is only one recorded episode of Jesus writing. The story is found only in John’s telling of events. The context is a test. Religious lawyers drag a woman before Jesus. Having just been caught breaking one of the laws on Moses’ tablets, she stands vulnerable and shamed. These prosecutors figured shrewdly. With the evidence before them all, Jesus would be trapped. If gentle Jesus dismissed the woman, he would be sanctioning the breaking of God’s law, and therefore could be correctly branded as a false prophet. If Jesus, a righteous Jew, followed the law and condemned the woman to be stoned, the religious testers would be vindicated, their power enhanced with Jesus as their pawn. Jesus turned the tables, and this is how he did it.

He stooped down and used his finger to write something into the dirt.

“Doesn’t this man have eyes and ears?” “Doesn’t he understand the violation?” The accusers mocked and persisted, pointing their own fingers wildly. The noise around this huddle grew louder. Only one finger was writing. Then, remaining silent, Jesus stooped down a second time into the dust beneath them and wrote again. (What did he write? Could they all see it? Why a second time? In the angry heat, how could dusty marks be any tactic?) Whatever he wrote there is not explained, but what is clear remains. What he did in the dirt was enough to silence them all. One by one, the angry men put down their stones and walked away.

What strikes me is the symmetry in both these singular stories. When Jesus writes he is likely referencing the writing of God. The fact that he does it twice, and quietly is poignant. The law God wrote was left intact that day. But now one, with her feet still there in the dust, saw the final mediator. Failure had constrained them all to face Him who alone had authority to bridge the gap between a history of shattered lawbreakers, and the Law giver Himself. He could only do that if He had fingers, eyes, ears, a knowledge of his people’s mandate intersected with a heart of compassion.

 

good things in the dark

Last evening we stayed too late: a Barcelona soccer game, a walk in the woods, finished with sautéed lobster tail, a watercress salad, and Chambord! I said out loud to our hosts “how come we’re so lucky?” None of us have any valid answer to that question, for the good things we enjoy are never because we deserve them, somehow earned them. My husband made a toast, remembering the words of the wise man of Ecclesiastes. And then, knowing snow was accumulating we headed home. Within a few minutes we knew we were in trouble, our light truck without chains was sliding on the unplowed roads.

It was only a quick couple inches of snow, but cars were already ditched all along our way. The interstate, a safer way to travel, was still unplowed, 25 mph at best. Stopping would mean stuck so we inched and slid along, figuring that at some point we were going to have to use our phones for help. How quickly ease of enjoyment turns to edge of our seats apprehension. And the interesting thing is that we are surprised at both: unexpected grace and also unexpected trouble. Don’t we live on ground that is constantly changing?

But we had to think forward now. We knew that if we made it to our own street we would never make it up the hill. I coached the man behind the wheel that we best park on the flat spot and walk that last way home. He is a determined man. I have been by his side over 4 decades. So we kept on going and incredibly swerved up the hill getting ready to negotiate the last turn. And there it was ahead, as if she was expecting us. Our neighbor, with the much flatter driveway had her garage door open, space made available for our truck. Her big light was on and she was beckoning us forward. We laughed again, “how come we’re so lucky?” “how come we’re not in a ditch also?” There is no good answer. And so my non-religious neighbor got out an antique hymnbook and the three of us sat at her table and sang. This is unexpected joy.

when the dust gets focused

I noticed something interesting this week when I was in Barnes and Noble. I asked the sales guy and he confirmed that they have recently changed their section heading from “Self Improvement” to “Living Your Best Life”. It seems the dust is getting more focused! This store’s general section title, to me sounds a little more humble, and a lot more realistic about what is even possible to promise now.

I see the same in a small ancient tale called “Jonah”. In this short story, the religious guy, the one who actually “fears God” is the biggest louse. The guys in the troubled ship, flailing around with their self made gods are the ones who actually pray and find their rescue first. And it’s in all the tumbling around, at the strategic initiative of a compassionate Creator, that each one in the story learns the true God’s character. He is the point; the swirling dust just fleshes out this deeper mystery.

I’ve stopped wringing my hands. I am no longer going to get exercised about what’s going down. I want to be like those guys in the boat who were the first to get focused and pray (to a God they hardly yet knew!) This is a huge excitement, because, my friends, He really hears even our feeblest cries to Him.

early impression

An early memory still informs me. I’m told that these early impressions shape us in profound ways, and it may be true. In fact this could be my very earliest memory, for I distinctly remember standing in my crib. I was nimble enough to stand, and tall enough to be able to feel the screen top preventing me from being able to climb out. The latch on that 50’s model contraption had me trapped. I was therefore looking out the window which was open and just beyond me to the right. It was a partly cloudy day, the curtains gently swaying. Can a toddler marvel at the sun? If so, I was doing precisely that, watching the brightness emerge, then remove as the clouds shifted. That memory sticks sure for some interesting reason; time was involved, and wonder. I could have had no understanding about orbs and atmosphere. I just remember being so very happy every time the sun was visible again. I could feel it, I could see it, and then it would hide again. This whole scenario was beyond my control, and as a young one so much else was too. I was an observer. But the pleasure of this revealing warmth was as personal as such things can be, grasped by a little girl who was alone in her wonderings. If my Mother had come in and found the right questions to ask, if I had even had the language to express, I am not sure I would have been able then or even later to explain how this moved me so deeply.

I could try to understand this partly now. For one thing, whenever I am in a new space, the most important impressions for me are out the window, not interiors. This has simply always been true. What is “out there” is far more significant for me than what is trapped or caught here. I just have known this for a very long time. It has to do with place and position and outlook I think, and maybe even destination.
When I got older and found my interest in landscape, I first thought my own attempts were only “hobby art” until I studied the thinking behind Song Dynasty landscapes. The Chinese, long before the Europeans, understood the mystic depth of “the beyond” vs. the small observer. This makes total sense to me, likely because of my own impression in that crib. The Hebrew poet expressed this, way earlier, in Psalm 19.

And the personal experience of warmth, the assurance of it’s presence even behind the darkening cloud was the beginning of hope for me, I feel. I have a melancholic temperament with depressive tendencies, but I have never been locked in a deep depression. I really thank God for that, for I know my tendencies and I have dear friends who suffer terribly. I wonder if this is why: I knew early on that the bright warming happiness was there, really there; and that it would soon reveal again. You cannot convince me otherwise.

Long before I knew the Creator’s name, or came to understand His character, I was experiencing Him.