February 26, 2021
Relative Tastes in Art
When I studied art briefly in school, the instructor introduced us to some of the acknowledged masters of the past. I was fascinated to learn about them, to appreciate their stories, to understand their work. I studied three in greater depth (that was the assignment, and the three I believe were chosen for us by the instructor). These three were diverse in style and subject matter, and it was that diversity I think that encouraged them to remain with me in some ways even today.
I remember then, a number of years later, visiting the Los Angeles County Art Museum, and entering a gallery with “modern art.” What was ‘modern” then is probably considered classical mid-twentieth century art now. In any case, I remember one piece, a large canvas mounted on a wall by itself, and the entire canvas was painted orange. I looked closely, but couldn’t decipher any varieties in texture, or any differences in shades of orange across the breadth of the canvas. And I remember remarking that I could have done that. Now, I imagine there was something more to it, and that if the artist had been there to share his or her vision in creating the work, then I might have gotten more out of it. But, it’s impact on me was lasting, as you can tell.
However, my impression of that one piece didn’t cause me to leave that gallery and to never return to “modern art.” In fact, I remember enjoying many of the other pieces in the gallery, and actually comparing my responses to them with the feeling I got from the large orange canvas. And, as time has gone on, and I have experienced “modern art” in much more recent years, I have kept an open eye and open mind to the creations I have viewed. Some I have liked, some I have enjoyed, and some I have found to not speak to me at all. And that is the blessing of the variety of artists and artistic creations in our world. There is truly something for everyone if we are open to discovering that.
I started thinking about such things because our church book club is reading a work by C.S. Lewis entitled, Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life. Although it is a memoir of sorts, and not really focused on art per se, he makes an interesting comment at one juncture. As he is discussing his responses to two quite different natural settings, he writes, “Perhaps, since their beauties were such that even a fool could not force them into competition, this cured me once and for all of the pernicious tendency to compare and to prefer – an operation that does little good even when we are dealing with works of art and endless harm when we are dealing with nature. Total surrender is the first step towards the fruition of either.” (Harper One publication, pp. 177-178)
I thought about my own comparisons of the works in that gallery years ago. It is natural to compare, to have a preference for one work or style over another. But his comment, that such comparison does us little good “when we are dealing with works of art,” made me think. Do we, when we compare one work to another, miss something that artists are offering to us? What individual message, what unique gift, can we gather from a work, without placing a judgment on it in comparison to other works?
Seldom are we fortunate enough to have conversations with artists, to hear them speak about their vision so that we might understand and appreciate their works in greater ways. Of course, whenever we view a work, we are always bringing together the vision of the artist and our own life story. The responses to a piece are the combination of those two stories. And yet, if we mainly view a work through the lens of our own story, what are we perhaps missing?
Although I have not found the book by Lewis to be particularly significant for me so far, I do take away that one reflection, and it will affect how I view art in the future.
February 19, 2021
The Beginnings of the Journey
As I prepare for the first Sunday of the Lenten season, I am using a combination of the possible pilgrimage ideas that I suggested here in recent weeks. In our Sunday worship experiences, I am starting with scripture, specifically the Gospel of Mark, exploring the stories about Jesus, and enhancing the encounters through sharing a variety of images. For example, as we this week meet both John the Baptist and Jesus, I will show some images of the Jordan River, and supplement those with photos of various baptismal fonts, including our own.
Then, as we gather for a weekly Tuesday evening discussion group, I will introduce images of diverse pathways, opening up conversations about the pathways that we walk, exploring the specific photos that I share, and helping people to consider who we are and who we hope to become as we walk this Lenten pathway with God. While I don’t want to duplicate material, I do hope that our Sunday experiences and our Tuesday discussions will come together in interesting ways.
I am also sending out daily emails specific to this season, offering suggestions and reflections for each day. As we move a little way into the season, I plan to weave into those reflections an introduction to the spiritual practice of walking a labyrinth. While we cannot physically do that at this time, unless someone lives near a church or retreat center that has a labyrinth and is allowing limited numbers of people to access it, we can still use our imagination and walk the labyrinth with the use of a combination of images and suggestions of possibilities to explore along the way.
Labyrinths, as you likely know, are an ancient form that has been used in many cultures and religious traditions. One of the oldest examples of a labyrinth in the Christian tradition was constructed using stone and placed into the floor of the Cathedral at Chartres around the year 1200 C.E. While labyrinths look like mazes, they are different and serve a quite different purpose. Whereas mazes are meant to challenge one, and even confuse one with dead ends or other obstacles, a labyrinth has a clear-cut path to its center, although the twists and turns along the way make it appear to be far less simple than that. Labyrinths may have a single pathway to the center, which one then walks in reverse to emerge from it, but I have also walked labyrinths that have one long pathway, the first part leading to the center and the second part leading to the exit. The advantage of that second form is that multiple people can walk the labyrinth at the same time without running into one another.
The idea underlying the walking of a labyrinth is that it provides a place and time for slow, deliberate progress, accompanied by prayer and reflection. This is not something to hurry through, so as to get to the end of it. This is a spiritual practice that is meant to be as prayerful and unhurried as silent prayer or reflective reading of the Bible and other works.
My thought is that by providing people with an image of a labyrinth, and suggesting daily reflection on some theme related to Lent, they can engage in silent prayer and reflection, while also being minimally active in tracking their steps. One could even color in the image of the labyrinth as one goes, using a different color for subsequent days, so as to have a sense of the progress of the journey.
People can choose whether to have their walk of the labyrinth end in the center on Easter, or to make the center the halfway point and to then reemerge from the labyrinth on Easter. In some sense, of course, it is the spiritual practice that really matters, not trying to time it to end on Easter or at any other time marker.
There are many and diverse labyrinths to be found, and images on the Internet are ample. Some are very simple ones, while others are quite artistic in their presentation. It may be helpful to provide a simple drawing for people to use in imagining their walk, while occasionally offering photos of labyrinths from around the world as a way of prompting people’s imagination.
I am hopeful that this variety of experiences throughout the week will provide people with opportunities for inspiration and growth as they encounter God and the stories of Jesus, as well as personally engaging in their journey.
February 12, 2021
The Permanence and Impermanence of Art
During a recent night when I was having trouble sleeping, I turned on a drama on television, in which that episode had to do with an art auction. People were invited to attend the auction, and those with special connections were then invited into a hidden room where the “real treasures” were for sale. In the midst of the viewing, however, a brazen robbery took place, and all of those pieces were stolen. After the apprehension of the robbers, and the recovery of the art, it turns out that the “real treasures” weren’t actually authentic. They were copies, and the authentic works were in yet another hidden vault.
It was a convoluted plot, and the details are not as important here as is a consideration of the variety of ways in which the art was regarded. There were those people who came to the auction in the first place, hoping to win a bid for a piece that they could display in their home or office. There were those, of course, who came to steal the pieces, who only regarded them as currency, as objects that could bring them wealth. And, there were the organizers who saw the art as an opportunity to fleece people by auctioning copies, while yet maintaining their hold on the authentic pieces.
This is something far removed from actually supporting artists by purchasing their works. I have fond memories of going to galleries, viewing the works on display, conversing with the artists, and searching to find one or two works that spoke to me. These were not just financial transactions, but they were encounters with the artists and with their creativity. This involved buying art that I could not only enjoy but could share a story around as I welcomed people into my home.
In both cases though, with the art purchased through auctions, and those works that we come to enjoy through direct purchases from artists, there is a sense of value that is attached to the permanence of the art. We want to purchase something that will last, that perhaps will increase in value, that we might pass on to others in due time. And, as we learn from museums, there are steps that we can take in how we prepare and display works that will help to ensure their long-term permanence.
But what about art that isn’t permanent, that is meant to be temporary, that isn’t intended to last for years and years? I have, sometime in past blogs, made reference to a book by Nancy Chinn, Spaces for Spirit: Adorning the Church. Her thoughts about art and the church, and her wonderful photographs of art installations in a variety of settings, always inspire me. Her art though, while beautiful, and most often quite intricate, is meant for temporary installations. The beauty is preserved in the photographs, but the installations eventually come down. Such art speaks though to the value of impermanence, the value in the experience of it.
I know from having worked with folks to create less-ambitious temporary installations, that there is a lot of energy and creativity that gets invested in such impermanent works. It is always a temptation to want to keep them around, to try to store them for the future. But what we discover, if we can get beyond the lure of permanence, is that the true value of such impermanent art is in the shared creativity, in the experience of shaping something for the worship or education life of the church. And, the extended benefit is in the experience of the people for whom the installation is created.
There is a definite sense in which very little in life is permanent. Change is constantly occurring. Impermanent art helps us to recognize and celebrate that. I do believe that the one constant is that God always accompanies us. With that, the beauty of impermanence, including impermanent art, is that it opens the window for newness to come in.
February 5, 2021
Drama, Faith and Church
In the same issue of The Christian Century (January 27, 2021) that I referenced last week in discussing the pilgrimage app, there is an article entitled, “Faith Meets Art in the Theater.” It is an interview with Shaunda Miles McDill, who in 2005 founded the Demaskus Theater Collective in Pittsburgh. I found it to be an engaging interview, in which she talks about her history, the founding of the collective, and the intersection of art and faith.
In response to the question, “How has your Christianity informed your theater work?” she had this to say: “My Christianity – my walk with God and my growth in my knowledge and relationship – is the center of who I am. When I am in good relationship, I am my most creative. I think I recently came to the realization that the first Creator is with me as I create, and in that act of creating, I am worshiping. For actors and artists depending on others for their content, this can be difficult to live with. But as I select what to work on and what I will not work on, I believe it is all deeply rooted in God – and that means it must be rooted in love.”
She later notes: “God is not opposed to our creativity. God is the author of both your faith and your innovation. Everything we need to overcome our writer’s block, our burnout, our unanswered questions about our character’s arc can be found in our relationship with the Divine.”
As I read her very thought-filled comments, I reflected upon the Scripture as Theatre workshop that our Artist-in-Residence leads. It too is about the act of creating, and of connecting with both the scripture texts and with God. In a recent gathering, one of the newer members of the group asked if it wasn’t already set that the message of our current project would be the salvation we experience through Jesus. Our Artist responded that, “No, the project unfolds as we write it; we only discover what it will be as we create it, and then edit it into its final shape.” Now, our current project is based on the stories of Moses and the people as found in the Book of Exodus, so we do somewhat know the trajectory of the story, and yet, until we get there, we are still discovering how that story will be told.
I personally like that unknown quality, the process of discovery along the way. Even when I prepare sermons, I seldom pre-determine where that encounter will take me, and eventually invite the congregation to go. I depend upon God to help infuse the creation of the message with inspiration and insight as I move through the writing process. That unfolding creativity is what makes it a fun process.
In the same way, the writing, editing and performance of the pieces that we do is a fun process because we both engage in it and also watch it unfold. And, as Shaunda Miles McDill said, “it must be rooted in love.” When it is, the creativity will then impact people, with God leading the way.
Welcome to my website. I hope you will discover a connection to the life of small churches, and the richness that the arts can bring to these churches.