October 30, 2020
Halloween is near. This year it is expected to be quite different, at least as far as trick-or-treating goes, as well as with the large parties that should wisely be let go this year. Halloween is interesting to me. As a child, I of course loved it, because I got free candy. As a parent, it was an often, frantic time of finding the right costumes, because even though my wife always likes to plan ahead, the choices of costumes could change right before the big day. Now, I have divided feelings about it. I enjoy seeing the costumed children who come to the door, and handing out the candy to them, as well as giving money to those who collect for UNICEF. But I don’t enjoy the violence and destruction that sometimes accompanies this holiday. And, honestly, I am just not into gruesome things, and often costumes push that angle so far.
Nonetheless, Halloween is interesting to me, because it tells us something about ourselves, either as we dress up, or as we observe it all. For those who dress up, there is often great imagination and creativity that gets things moving, and that results in some amazing costumes. For some, I imagine it is in part a dream about something they would like to have done, just as when I was a child I liked to imagine being a cowboy or a fireman. I didn’t choose those professions later in life, but the imagining was fun. For others, the more horror-related costumes may be a way of either exploring inner thoughts, or of facing fears, although I am not a psychologist and will stop my analysis here.
The idea, though, of entering into a different role or reality through costuming has connections to experiencing art, if we choose to explore them. As we examine a painting for instance, and seek to understand what is portrayed and what the artist was seeking to convey, we can imagine ourselves to be in the setting portrayed, and explore our feelings about the events the artist has presented to us. If it is a nautical scene, we can imagine the spray of the ocean, and the smell of the fish perhaps. If it is a biblical scene of entering Jerusalem, we can imagine the sounds and scents of the scene, and envision our reactions to the events as if we were there. If it is a pastoral scene, we can imagine the feel of the grass, the beauty of the sky above us, and the gentleness of the butterflies.
My introduction to this idea came during my first year in seminary, when the preaching professor, who later focused his teaching on the role that the arts can play in churches, had us gather at the Legion of Honor Museum in San Francisco, which is a part of the Fine Arts Museums of the city. We were invited to visit the galleries of the museum, and to enjoy them for however long we wished, but our assignment was to first spend an hour with the replica of the Auguste Rodin sculpture “The Thinker,” which is in an open space outside the museum. I think all of us were a little surprised when we were told that we were to spend that much time with just one work of art. But our assignment had three parts. The first was that we were to slowly move around the statue and to view it from as many angles as we could imagine, even sitting or lying down on the ground. Then, we were to spend time imitating the pose of “The Thinker” from as many angles as we could manage, seeking to capture its essence in doing so. Finally, after the visit, we were to write a reflection paper about our experience, expressing our understanding of the sculpture, imagining the creativity of Rodin as he formed it, telling about the ways in which this process might influence our own creativity, perhaps even in sermons that we would preach at some point. It was an amazing hour, and I have never forgotten the value of paying such attention to a single work of art, of entering into the work itself through imitating the pose.
Sculpture is a medium which lends itself to such exploration, but our imagination can allow us to enter into the world of any work of art. The intrigue and joy is in discovering things about the work of art, and perhaps about ourselves, that we never would have encountered without spending such time entering what the artist has created and has placed before us.
October 23, 2020
Every time I see an auction advertised on TV or in a newspaper, I immediately know that the items will be beyond my price range. Whether it is an opportunity to bid on a dinner with Warren Buffett, or on a collection of items offered by a sports or entertainment star, I know without looking that I would never be able to compete with the folks who have money to spare for such things. And then, when auction houses present the opportunity to own amazing works of art, I know that even selling our home and cashing in my retirement savings would only provide a very small down-payment for such pieces.
When eBay first began, as I recall, it was primarily an auction site. There were times when you could just pay the full price being asked, and that is often the case today, but the early interest was in the auction format. To bid against others, to eventually win an item for less than the full price, was an exciting process. I remember people checking their bids frequently as the time for a particular auction to close drew near. I also remember either people’s joy over winning an auction, or their disappointment that someone else had offered a higher bid just an instant before the auction closed.
My lone experience with an auction came on a cruise up the California coast. Since we live in the Los Angeles area, and didn’t need to fly to a departure city, and since the cruise was relatively inexpensive, I was intrigued when friends suggested we should wander into the onboard art auction. There were many artworks that were either too expensive, or that I just wasn’t interested in having. But there was one, a lithograph of a sunset lighting up the surf of a coastal setting. I decided I wanted to bid on that one. The starting bid was within my means, although I knew that I couldn’t bid too many times above that price. So, the next day, I arrived with a sense of the adventure, and the hope that I might win the auction for that work.
I was somewhat surprised, and confused, when there were only a handful of people present as the auction began. But, we were underway. Several paintings were auctioned, and in each case there was a single bidder. When the auctioneer saw that we were there, he asked which pieces we were interested in, and I pointed out the one for which I wanted to bid. Soon enough he brought that piece out and began the auction for it. I bid the opening price. I looked around. No one else bid. I won the auction for a piece on which I was the lone bidder. It was a little strange, and there was none of the excitement of the auction process, but I still have that lithograph hanging in my office and I enjoy it immensely.
I started thinking about auctions this week because CIVA (Christian in the Visual Arts) is going to have an online auction to raise money for their organization. Member artists have placed works in the auction, and although this is another auction that is likely beyond my means, I will enjoy looking through the catalogue.
At my church, however, we have held a number of auctions through the years that have been much more accessible for everyone. We actually do a holiday auction every year, and the bidding for a bag of cookies or a pie is something that fills the entire gathering hall with the sounds of fun. People love the auction, and look forward to it.
So, we have taken that sense of fun and brought it into silent auctions for works of art and craft items. These works of art have ranged from photographs and collages, to paintings and photographs donated by young artists in the church, to craft items that people have created for the auctions.
There have been several benefits from these auctions, in addition to raising money for the church. By having the auctions often extended over three weeks, it has allowed people to see the items time and again, so that their appreciation of the works and the auction could grow. With the auctions being silent, with bidding sheets by each work, it has fostered that sense of fun and friendly competition, while also allowing people to see which of their friends are interested in which pieces of art and which craft creations. Finally, it has been a great encouragement to our young artists to see their works displayed, and to feel the joy of having people bidding to buy their work.
In this time, of course, such physical auctions aren’t really possible, but virtual auctions such as CIVA is doing could provide a fascinating experience for people, while also raising funds in this challenging time. And, auctions truly are a fun experience.
October 16, 2020
Theatre Presented on Zoom
Our Scripture as Theatre workshop presented a production on Zoom this last Saturday. Entitled simply, "Jeremiah," it was an exploration of the prophet’s life, of events surrounding the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BCE, and a sense of the new covenant that God places within the people’s hearts as life is reestablished.
This was a larger undertaking than our previous productions, brought about in part because of the pandemic. We have usually worked on a script for a couple of months, rehearsed for two or three weeks, and then presented a ten to fourteen-minute reading within a worship experience. But when the Stay-at-Home orders changed the scheduled date, we initially moved it back a couple of times, then realized that the in-person option of presentation was not going to be available for quite some time.
As we waited through these delays, we continued to edit and refine the script. As we went through rehearsals, we learned better what worked, and what either needed to be improved or deleted. We began to explore costuming and settings, and the entire experience was richer for having been forced into the delay in presentation.
When the restrictions on gathering were first presented, some of the group continued to meet in person, honoring the limit on numbers and maintaining distance, while others of us joined the person who had already been meeting with us via Zoom and participated in the meetings that way.
Eventually, as restrictions increased, we helped all of the participants to gather through Zoom. That then had the side consequence of opening the workshop to others who have had a connection with the church but who live at a distance and didn’t see an option to participate previously.
As everyone became more familiar with Zoom, the ability to present a fairly polished performance became possible. Some of us were able to use virtual backgrounds for our various scenes, and those who couldn’t get the virtual background to function on their computer were quite creative in setting up physical screens of some kind so that everyone’s background was appropriate for the production.
The logistics of inviting an audience, and asking them to stay muted and with their cameras off so that they wouldn’t suddenly appear in the production, were worked out, and the invitations were sent out. And so, last Saturday evening, our twelve workshop participants presented a successful thirty-minute production, with about forty-five people in the audience.
The success of this event not only encourages future presentations by the workshop group, but also opens the door for people to envision brief, drama inclusions of other kinds within worship. The time we are in requires a little extra creativity, and it is received with gratitude.
October 9, 2020
Culture and Art Interwoven
As my congregation celebrated World Communion Sunday last weekend, one of the things we did was to showcase photographs which depicted parts of the art and cultures that are important to folks in our church family. It was a reminder of how art and culture intersect, and indeed are often interwoven, and how wonderful that is.
When I was working on my doctorate in Washington, D.C., I happened to be in town when the National Museum of the American Indian opened. I was so moved by the architecture, the displays, the thought that went into everything about the museum, that I became a Charter Member. I recently renewed my membership, and was reminded in an email from the Museum Director, Kevin Gover, about this same intersection of art and culture. In brief, he said,
“Art can help us uncover the past, understand the present, and anticipate the future…this is true of all the items in the National Museum of the American Indian’s
collection. They help us better understand our world through the eyes of the artists who create them, just like our…set of Wounaan and Emberá baskets from a collection donated to the museum in
2019. These baskets exemplify Indigenous developments of innovative art forms as adaptations to today’s world.
“The Wounaan and Emberá, whose traditional homelands lie in Panama and Colombia, began supplementing their income through craft sales in the 1970s and 1980s when many families moved from rural farmlands to larger villages and cities, mostly to access schools and medical services. Reduced reliance on subsistence agriculture and the increased need for cash forced many to create new opportunities, such as selling handmade crafts. Basket makers, responding to feedback from local gallery owners, concentrated on striking designs and meticulous weaving to attract more attention from collectors.
“Today, Wounaan and Emberá baskets are often referred to as the “best baskets in the world” and they are commonly featured in Indigenous art galleries across the U.S. and the globe. Some collectors also work with Wounaan and Emberá communities, supporting local economies and sponsoring local improvement projects, including efforts focused on the reforestation of the chunga palm used to make the baskets.
“These baskets, with
their craftmanship and beauty, help tell a story that spans more than 13,000 years of history and more than 1,500 Indigenous cultures across America. That story is still evolving and one of
the museum’s priorities is acquiring modern art from contemporary Native artists to reflect stories of the present-day…
“Today, these collections help us better understand cultures and illuminate truths that shatter myths and misconceptions about Native peoples. The Wounaan and Emberá baskets are a reminder that the stories and cultures of Native peoples are alive, growing, and evolving.
“Our collections and groundbreaking exhibitions continue to illuminate our ever-changing world. That’s what great art does…it frames stories that help us understand the present and face the future.”
That last line – “That’s what great art does…it frames stories that help us understand the present and face the future” – is wonderful. As we create art within our church communities, as we explore art in various settings, as we include art from cultures around the world in our worship and educational activities, we too look to understand the present and envision the future.
October 2, 2020
The Value of Openness
I was recently re-reading a CIVA (Christians in the Visual Arts) SEEN Journal (XII:2, 2012), with a focus entitled, “Like a Child.” The guest editor introduced the edition by talking about three themes that characterize the issue and reflect important qualities that children possess. Those three themes are, Openness and Seeing, Trust and Creativity, and Humility and Success.
I want to reflect here about the Openness and Seeing theme. The edition editor, Bobby Gross, wrote, “children exhibit openness. They are wide open to the world, impressionable, full of curiosity, ready to be ‘wowed.’” That idea of openness is something that I see as being central to our relationship with God, with others, with worship and with art.
Art indeed asks for openness. Now, it is true that in most any museum, there are more than enough galleries filled with art, such that one can hurry past the works that one is not interested in, and then slow down and take more time in the galleries filled with works by artists that one likes or enjoys. And yet, what do we miss with such an approach? For any work of art can open a door for us, any work of art can speak to us in some way if we give it a chance.
For many years, Claude Monet was my favorite artist. There was, as there is for many people, a certain quality in his works that speaks to me. I still love his works, and every time I visit the Getty Center museum, I spend time just gazing at what he painted so many years ago.
But then, during the years of my doctoral program, I encountered Wassily Kandinsky. I first read his small treatise, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, because it was required reading. But I found it to be interesting, and it led me first to the library, and then to the bookstore where I purchased a small volume of his works. And while Monet may still be my favorite, I love to ponder the works of Kandinsky.
If you know these two artists, you are aware of their two very distinct styles. Monet is a master of Impressionism, seeking to create experiences, to evoke emotions, through his paintings. Kandinsky (and here this is my own reaction to his work and not an art historian’s analysis) goes well beyond Realism or Impressionism, and is not really presenting symbolism either, and yet his combination of colors, angles, shapes and more provides for me the feel of the moving, flowing spirit of God. I see and feel the wind that blows where it will, and carries us where it will, through Kandinsky’s creations. If I had not been open to the gifts of Kandinsky’s art, and had read just the required book and left it at that, I would have missed so much.
Openness to art can provide any one of us with gifts. Openness to art can also lead to openness in worship, and even more importantly, to openness to one another. Yes, we look different, act different, worship differently, are different, yet, there is wonder and beauty and sadness and joy in all of us. We have to slow down, stop long enough to see the uniqueness in each, learn to appreciate the depths of one another.
At the risk of writing too much, allow me to share just one more impression. Picasso is generally, universally, acknowledged as a great artist. For many of us though, his later works, which are so dramatically different from his early ones, appear to be just a jumble of figures, objects, angles and so forth. But when I stopped long enough to read about Picasso, about Cubism in particular, I came to understand his art in much more interesting and profound ways, to understand that Cubism (and this is again a non-art historian generalization) is a way of seeing multiple angles, multiple sides of people and objects, depicted on a flat canvas. That viewpoint made me stop to gaze at Picasso’s works for longer periods of time, trying to see what he saw, what he was trying to depict in his works. I would not say that, like Kandinsky, Picasso has become one of my favorite artists, but I value the understanding that I now have of his work, and will always pause to look more carefully than I used to.
There is great value in openness, in every aspect of life. Being open doesn’t mean that we have to then accept everything about an artwork, or a person, but it gives us the opportunity to see things that we would otherwise miss, things that help us to grow, individually, and in relationship with others.
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