Of pain and praise: Cherry Blossoms by Andy Squyres (album review)

andy-squyres

In a recent interview, Bono issued a call to Christians for more authentic songwriting, for the “brutal honesty” before God that characterizes the book of Psalms. We need more realism in art and in life, he said; we need to be “porous.”

Andy Squyres delivers all this in his 2015 album Cherry Blossoms, which chronicles his journey through pain and loss after his friend was murdered by a home intruder. Tragedy destabilizes; it prompts questions regarding the nature of God and the viability of faith in the face of reality. But it also throws into high relief God’s promises—to love, to strengthen, to walk with, to bring through. Not immediately, but with time.

A necessary step to regaining stability after receiving a blow like the death of a loved one is to spend time sitting in the darkness of the why, and that’s exactly what many of the tracks on Cherry Blossoms allow us to do: grieve, question, wrestle hard for a blessing until daybreak.

My favorite song is “What Nobody Should Know”:

While all the others focus on personal pain, this one shows what it looks like to suffer in community. (The murder victim was a fellow church member.) Here’s an excerpt:

We were in a church but we were shouting
Mourning our loss but not our doubting
Wondering why love is allowing
All of us to hit the floor
Down here is one of the strangest places
Nothing but hearts and dirty faces
Maybe this is where amazing grace is
God knows we need some more

Squyres’s lyrics are very evocative, sensory.

In “The Pestle and the Mortar,” he writes that his sweet illusions were crushed like spice pods—turned to dust—by the pestle of affliction. The implication is that suffering, by virtue of its pounding, releases in us an aroma and preps us to be used in delicious ways.

In “Labor in Vain,” he references John Henry, the steel driver of African American folklore, and considers the field as a metaphor for life, in that we often have to cut through hard ground. It’s laborious work, and it requires perseverance. But the yield is grain and grapes—that is, fuller communion with the body and blood of Christ (his people, his suffering).

Cherry Blossoms gives voice to other frustrations as well, like economic injustice. In “The Hawk and the Crow,” Squyres grapples with feelings of hatred toward the inconsiderate wealthy whose lack of care oppresses. I’m really intrigued by the line “mercy is the burden of the poor.” When I asked Squyres if he could unpack it a little for me, this is what he said:

It is the idea that those who are marginalized (the poor, the rejected, the outcast, etc.) are the most likely to be recipients of injustice and therefore have the most opportunity to forgive the oppressor, to heap mercy upon the one who has probably done great harm. Jesus doesn’t let the poor off the hook just because they’re poor. We have to show mercy too.

“Only love can give what vengeance cannot cure.”

There’s only one song on the album that’s not autobiographical, and that’s “Don’t Forget About Me When I’m Gone.” Squyres said he approached it as an exercise in songwriting and empathy: he wanted to tap into that feeling of separation we sometimes feel from our loved ones.

The album concludes with the titular “Cherry Blossoms,” a redemption song full of springtime imagery. Previously “bur[ied] . . . in a blanket of evening snow,” Squyres is now thawed out, warmed by a reassurance of God’s love. Here he is singing the song with his daughter Savannah McAffrey:

Stating his resolve to not give in to the forces of frustration and death, Squyres clings to hope and issues forth praise that is anything but cheap—it cost him blood and bone. It’s not that he’s arrived spiritually; rather, he has cycled through a season of life with God and has landed at a gracious new beginning. “Orientation-disorientation-reorientation” is how Walter Brueggemann schematizes this constant flow along which God’s children are always in transit.

Both bitter and sweet, Cherry Blossoms is for those whose equilibrium has ever been disrupted by a life event—and more than that, it’s for the church at large, because we are in desperate need of a language of suffering. Such a language is part of our heritage—i.e., the Psalms—and Squyres helps us reclaim it, letting us walk, and sing, with him through his own valley. Squyres shows that pain and praise are companions in the life of faith (the one need not be suppressed), and that Love is always there to be our breakthrough.

cherry-blossoms-album-cover

I really admire Squyres’s artistic sensibility, not only in regard to lyrics and composition but also extending to things like disc packaging. The album cover photo is striking. I asked him about its origin, and he had this to say about it:

I had seen a photo at an art exhibit at the Mint Museum in Charlotte of some kids in the 1930s standing on a street corner in Harlem. They were smoking cigarettes and looked like they had already seen their fair share of life and most of them were probably only young teenagers. When I saw that photo I just knew I wanted it for my album cover. We couldn’t get permission to use that one but we found the shoeshine boy. I love him because he looks world-weary yet determined. He’s probably got dreams, but he’s probably just gonna have to figure out a way to survive. That is the story of most of us.

He brings this sensibility to his job as worship pastor at Queen City Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, along with his life experience and heart of faith.

In a blog post dated October 15, 2012, Squyres wrote,

The season of your existence between the day you are born and the day you die is the only moment in the entire span of eternity from which you can love God in the midst of trouble, from the altar of pain. When you are finally out of the realm of time, loving God will be altogether glorious but equally obvious. You won’t be asking “why” this trouble. You won’t be reaching with hands of faith anymore. Faith will pass and you will be in the ecstasy of His presence. That’s why you must see this life, any affliction, any sorrow, any struggle as the most incredible gift that it is; this is your chance to love God from this place and in this moment. It will never again be. Every tear will be wiped away. So if now, you have a tear, then give it to God with all the imperfect love in your heart.

Cherry Blossoms is Squyres’s tear-offering—to God and to the church.


Cherry Blossoms is available for free download from NoiseTrade (in exchange for your e-mail address). You can purchase the physical disc here.

Here’s a bonus song, not part of the album but of the same spirit: “Why, Oh Why”:

Roundup of religious art exhibitions

Religion is heavily present in every medieval and Renaissance art museum collection, and curators are constantly organizing exhibitions that highlight this fact. To a smaller extent, religion is also present in contemporary art, and my appreciation goes out to those institutions that have picked up on this and have chosen to mount shows with religion up front and center. Here’s a list of just some such exhibitions currently running that have crossed my radar. (Follow the links to view more images.)

“Opus Anglicanum: Masterpieces of English Embroidery,” Victoria and Albert Museum, London, October 1, 2016–February 5, 2017: In medieval Europe, embroidered textiles were indispensable symbols of wealth and power. Owing to their quality, complexity, and magnificence, English embroideries (referred to as opus Anglicanum, “English work”) enjoyed international demand among kings, queens, popes, and cardinals, and here one hundred of them are brought together. Treasures include the Butler-Bowdon Cope, the Syon Cope, and the Tree of Jesse Cope—ceremonial cloaks made for use in church services and processions, featuring images from the lives of Christ, the Virgin, and the saints. (I love the interactive zoom function on these! To help you navigate the densely packed imagery, details of interest are tagged and can be clicked on to magnify and to reveal a textbox of information.) Hear contemporary embroiderer James Merry discuss some of the aspects of their technique and design that blow him away:

Syon Cope
The Syon Cope, 1310–20, England. Collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

“Jerusalem 1000–1400: Every People Under Heaven,” Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, September 26, 2016–January 8, 2017: “This landmark exhibition demonstrates the key role that the Holy City played in shaping the art of the period from 1000 to 1400. In these centuries, Jerusalem was home to more cultures, religions, and languages than ever before. Through times of peace as well as war, Jerusalem remained a constant source of inspiration that resulted in art of great beauty and fascinating complexity. This exhibition is the first to unravel the various cultural traditions and aesthetic strands that enriched and enlivened the medieval city. It features some 200 works of art from 60 lenders worldwide.” I especially love the four Gospels in Arabic borrowed from the British Library, whose geometric illuminations bear an obvious Islamic influence.

Arabic Gospels
Folio from an Arabic Gospel-book, 1335, Jerusalem. Opaque watercolor, gold, and ink on paper, 10 5/8 × 7 7/8 in. (27 × 20 cm). Collection of the British Library (Add. MS 11856).

“The Shimmer of Gold: Giovanni di Paolo in Renaissance Siena,” Getty Center, Los Angeles, October 11, 2016–January 8, 2017: “Manuscript illuminator and panel painter Giovanni di Paolo was one of the most distinctive and imaginative artists working in Siena, Italy, during the Renaissance. This exhibition reunites several panels from one of his most important commissions—an altarpiece for the Branchini family chapel in the church of San Domenico in Siena—for the first time since its dispersal, and presents illuminated manuscripts and paintings by Giovanni and his close collaborators and contemporaries. Through recent technical findings, the exhibition reveals his creative use of gold and paint to achieve remarkable luminous effects in both media.”

Adoration of the Magi by Giovanni di Paolo
Giovanni di Paolo (Italian, ca. 1403–1482), The Adoration of the Magi, 1427. Tempera and gold leaf on panel. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, the Netherlands.

“The Key” (organized by Caravan), Riverside Church, New York City, September 21–November 6, 2016: Founded by US Episcopal priest Paul-Gordon Chandler, Caravan develops initiatives that use art as a bridge for intercultural and interreligious dialogue. The organization’s 2016 exhibition is in the last leg of its Cairo-London-New York journey. It showcases the work of forty Middle Eastern and Western artists from different monotheistic faith backgrounds, each of whom was given a four-foot-tall fiberglass ankh to develop into a work of art. Known as the “Key of Life,” the ankh is an ancient hieroglyph originating in Egypt but spreading throughout Asia Minor; today it is used as a symbol of pluralism, tolerance, and harmony. I especially like the ones by Sergio Gomez, Arabella Dorman, Fatma Abdel Rahman, and Isaac Daniel.

The Key exhibition (Caravan)

“Incarnation, Mary & Women from the Bible,” Romsey Abbey, Hampshire, England, October 12–November 6, 2016: Having already stopped at Guildford, Norwich, Chichester, Durham, and Hereford Cathedrals, Chris Gollon’s latest series of paintings on women of the Bible is now at Romsey Abbey. It includes the standards, like Eve, Rachel, Hannah, Delilah, Bathsheba, the two Marys (the Virgin, and Magdalene), and Salome, as well as some unnamed and even implied women, like Judas’s wife. It also includes some extrabiblical female saints, like Lucy, Cecilia, Julian of Norwich, and Ethelflaeda. I’m really attracted to the sad quality of many of Gollon’s women, and to the emphasis on hands (much like Eduardo Kingman!).

Contemplation of Eve by Chris Gollon
Chris Gollon (British, 1953–), The Contemplation of Eve, 2011. Acrylic on canvas, 24 × 18 in. (61 × 46 cm).

“Medium: Religion,” Gallery of Art and Design, University of Central Missouri, Warrensburg, Missouri, September 22–October 28, 2016: This exhibition—“meant to inspire, contemplate, and strengthen faith”—features seven contemporary artists whose work engages religion: Tobi Kahn, who creates Jewish ceremonial art like etrog containers, shalom bat chairs, and omer counters; Chris Clack, whose work explores the relationship between Christianity and science; Kysa Johnson, whose Immaculate Conception series links images of the Virgin with asexually reproducing yeast and bacteria; Justine Kuran, known for her quilled hamsas (palm-shaped amulets); Scott Freeman, whose The Wall Remaining laments the long-suffered disunity between Jews and Christians; Tashi Norbu, trained in the art of traditional Tibetan Buddhist thangka painting; and Raudel Arteaga, who deconstructs famous religious paintings into their geometric basics.

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“Illuminations: Works by Vanessa German, Peter Oresick, and Christopher Ruane,” Carlow University Art Gallery, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, September 8–December 9, 2016: “‘Illuminations’ features the work of three local artists who evoke the traditions of icon painting or biblical parables to bring out focus on the overlooked and to cast light into the shadows of our present day,” says gallery director Sylvia Rhor. Works include responses to last year’s Charleston church shootings, literary figures painted in the style of Russian icons, and sacred stories updated through the use of photography and digital technology.

illuminations-exhibition-poster

Religious art highlights from New Mexico

I spent last week in New Mexico with my husband, Eric, and my in-laws, visiting relatives in the south, then driving up north to spend some time in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. It was my first time to the Southwest, to the state where Eric was born; his grandparents came over from Mexico as teenagers and settled in Hobbs, a small oil town, and his mom grew up there, learning English in school. I enjoyed all the tastes: spicy green chiles in or on just about everything (eggs, tacos, burgers, soup, corn, French fries); piñons (pine nuts) galore sprinkled alongside dusty footpaths, ready to crack open and eat; and sopapillas (pillow-shaped fried dough drizzled with honey) after every meal.

On the five-hour upstate drive, the blue sky spread wide open across the desert and clouds hung low, casting shadows that, from the car, looked like bodies of water. The way was flat, flat, flat—until we reached Santa Fe, where mountains rose up and aspens flickered their glorious gold.

In Albuquerque we went to the International Balloon Fiesta, where hundreds of hot-air balloonists come out once a year to fly. Unfortunately, high winds prevented the “mass ascension” from happening the day we were there, but we saw static displays—inflated balloons in all shapes and colors. (My father-in-law was partial to the Darth Vader balloon; I liked the lovebirds.) And I got to visit to the artisan tent, where I bought my first nativity set! It’s seven pieces in clay by New Mexico native Barbara Boyd. I set it up in our living room when I got home, but Eric says I need to put it away until Advent . . .

Nativity by Barbara Boyd

We spent an afternoon in Old Town Albuquerque, strolling past historic adobe buildings and into galleries, while street musicians—Native American flautists and mariachi bands, mostly—provided a culturally immersive soundtrack. Our first stop happened to be one of my favorites: John Isaac Antiques and Folk Art. Isaac has a beautiful collection of santos (Hispano Catholic religious images)—a whole roomful—both contemporary and from the last few centuries. I was close to buying a Saint Francis bulto by Ben Ortega (Francis was his hallmark) but decided against it, and now I wish I hadn’t. Nonbuyer’s remorse—ugh.

Just before we left Old Town, my mother-in-law suggested one last gallery: Santisima, owned by Johnny Salas. I immediately recognized the work of Albuquerque native Brandon Maldonado, which is heavily influenced by the tradition of Día de los Muertos. I’m really attracted to Day of the Dead imagery, with all its macabre whimsy—the kind that makes most Protestants feel uncomfortable. I think the draw, for me, is that it embraces death instead of shrinking away from it; it says, “Death, we do not fear you.” As Maldonado says, Day of the Dead is not meant to be frightful but rather mocking, in a way:

The masses may prefer to think of the deceased as haloed angels floating on fluffy white clouds, but I like the idea of dancing skeletons in hats!

At Santisima I was introduced to the work of the young santero Vicente Telles, also a native of Albuquerque. I really liked his Adam and Eve and Saint Pelagia retablos but most especially his Crucifixion one, which I ended up buying.

Crucifixion by Vicente Telles
Vicente Telles (American, 1983–), Cristo crucificado (Christ Crucified), 2015. Natural and watercolor pigments on pinewood, 7.5 × 6.5 in. (framed).

It shows a curtain opening up, and two chandeliers dangling, to present Christ on the cross, given for us. As is traditional in New Mexican art, his shoulders and knees are bloodied; in Telles’s interpretation, the blood marks Christ in patterns, almost like tattoos. The animas solas (lonely souls) in the flames of purgatory is also a common motif in New Mexican art. I do not personally subscribe to the doctrine of purgatory, so I read the souls, rather, as Adam and Eve awaiting redemption. According to church tradition, Golgotha was the site not only of Christ’s execution but also of Adam’s burial, which is why, since the Middle Ages, a skull is often painted at the cross’s base, emphasizing Christ’s role as the Second Adam. Telles shows Eve reaching out to touch this death-symbol, lamenting her and Adam’s primordial rebellion and pleading in faith, with her eyes, for deliverance from its consequences. This is the precursor to the Anastasis (Resurrection) icon of Eastern Orthodoxy, which shows Jesus breaking down the doors of Sheol and pulling Adam and Eve up out of their graves to be with him in heaven. We are dead in our sins until Christ raises us. His spilled blood has “loosed the pains of death” once and for all.

To give the retablo a glistening appearance, Telles applied a micaceous clay slip to the pinewood before applying the paint.

If you’re not able to see Telles’s art in person at Santisima (he’s sold exclusively there), visit his Facebook page.   Continue reading “Religious art highlights from New Mexico”