Roundup: The Soil and The Seed Project, Transfiguration art, and more

For the first time, this year I plan on publishing short daily posts for the entirety of Lent and for the Octave of Easter, pairing a visual artwork with a piece of music along the seasons’ themes (for an example of this format, see here)—just an FYI of what to expect. I also have several poems lined up. And you might want to check out the Art & Theology Lent Playlist and Holy Week Playlist on Spotify (introduced here and here respectively), which I’ve expanded since last year. I’m very pleased with the Holy Week Playlist in particular.

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NEW RESOURCE FOR HOME LITURGIES: The Soil and The Seed Project: Directed by Seth Thomas Crissman of The Walking Roots Band [previously] and with the contributions of a team of artists, writers, and musicians, “The Soil and The Seed Project nurtures faith through music, art, and Little Liturgies for daily and weekly use in the home. These resources help establish new rhythms of faith as together we turn towards Jesus, believing and celebrating the Good News of God’s Love for the whole world.” The project launched in November 2021 with its Advent/Christmas/Epiphany collection. When the project is complete it will consist of four volumes of music (forty-plus songs total—all original, save for a couple of reimagined hymns) and four liturgical booklets that include responsive scripture-based readings, reflection prompts, suggested practices, and an original artwork.

The Lent/Easter/Pentecost collection releases February 25, but as a special treat, Crissman is allowing Art & Theology readers a “first listen” with this private link (it will turn public on Friday). Here’s one of the songs, “I Want to Know Christ,” a setting of Philippians 3:10–11 by Harrisonburg, Virginia–based songwriter and jail chaplain Jason Wagner, followed by a Little Liturgies sample:

Little Liturgies, Lent Week 1

Thanks to a community of generous donors, The Soil and The Seed Project gives away all its content for free, including shipping, to anyone who is interested (individuals, couples, families, churches, etc.); request a copy of the latest music collection and liturgies here. CDs and printed booklets are available only while supplies last (1500 copies have been pressed/printed for this collection), but digital copies of course remain available without limit.

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CONVERSATIONS AT CALVIN: Below are two videos (of many!) from the 2022 Calvin Symposium on Worship, which took place earlier this month.

>> “Modern-Day Prophets: How Artists and Activists Expand Public Worship” with Nikki Toyama-Szeto: A writer, speaker, and activist on issues of justice, leadership, race, and gender, Nikki Toyama-Szeto is the executive director of Christians for Social Action and a leading voice for Missio Alliance. Here she is interviewed by preacher and professor Noel Snyder. They discuss the generativity of imagination, and its invitation to displacement; the connection between corporate worship and public witness; the movement of the Holy Spirit outside church walls; “political” and “pastoral” as classifications that differ from group to group; embracing messiness; and what pastors can learn from artists and activists.

A few quotes from Toyama-Szeto that stood out to me:

  • “Part of what we’re trying to do at Christians for Social Action is stir the Christian imagination for what a fuller followership of Jesus looks like in a more just society. The word ‘imagination,’ and I would say specifically Christian imagination, I think of as the dream that God dreams for his people and his creation. What does it mean to be oriented toward the dream that God is dreaming? Another word for it is shalom—the full flourishing of all his creation and all his people. And if you look at the gap between where we are today and what that dream is, that gap is imagination. How is it that we get from here, the broken world we see . . . how do we press in and lean into the dreams that God dreams for his people and for his world?”
  • “For me, I have found artists and prophets—those who are agitating for justice—are ones who help dislodge me from everyday things I take for granted, and those assumptions, and they help me to dream new and bigger dreams.”
  • “The pursuit of justice is the declaration of God’s character in the public square.”

Here are links to a few of the names and books she references: Sadao Watanabe, A Book of Uncommon Prayer, Andre Henry [previously], The Many.

>> “Christians and Cultural Difference,” with Pennylyn Dykstra-Pruim and David I. Smith: María Cornou interviews Calvin University professors Pennylyn Dykstra-Pruim and David I. Smith, authors of Christians and Cultural Difference (2016).

Smith shares his frustration that often the only Christians who endeavor to learn other languages and develop cultural intelligence and appreciation are those who are preparing to be missionaries in a foreign country, and they do it only for the purpose of missional effectiveness.

If you take one piece of theology [i.e., evangelism] and try and make that the bit that’s about cultural difference, that puts distortions into the conversation. . . . You might want to think about mission, but you might also want to think about what it means to be made in the image of God. Does that mean everyone’s the same, or does it mean everyone has responsibility for shaping culture and we might all do it in different ways, and you have to make space for that? We might need to think about the cross. We might need to think about God’s embrace of us and how we embrace each other. We might need to think about love of neighbor. We might need to think about the body of Christ and the makeup of the early church. . . . You might have to visit a whole bunch of different theological places to get a composite picture rather than saying this is the doctrine that somehow solves cultural difference for us.

I was also struck by Smith’s discussion of how cultural difference can help us read the scriptures in a new way (see 19:38ff.). He gives an example from In the Land of Blue Burqas, where Kate McCord, an American, describes her experience reading the Bible with Muslim women from Afghanistan, and particularly how they taught her a very different interpretation of John 4, the story of Jesus’s encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well. Wow.

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VISUAL COMMENTARY ON SCRIPTURE: The Transfiguration: In churches that follow the Revised Common Lectionary, this Sunday, the last Sunday in the Epiphany season, is Transfiguration Sunday, giving us a vision with which to enter Lent. (Other traditions celebrate Jesus’s transfiguration on August 6.) In this video from the Visual Commentary on Scripture project, art historian Jennifer Sliwka and theologian Ben Quash discuss this New Testament event through three visual artworks: a fifteenth-century icon by Theophanes the Greek, which shows the “uncreated light” revealed to Peter, James, and John on Mount Tabor; a fresco by Fra Angelico from the wall of a friar’s cell in Florence, where Jesus’s pose foreshadows his suffering on the cross; and a contemporary light installation by the seminary-educated American artist Dan Flavin, comprising fluorescent light tubes in the shape of a mandorla. Brilliant!

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CIVA TRAVELING EXHIBITION: Again + Again, curated by Ginger Henry Geyer with Asher Imtiaz: “A photography exhibition that invites recurring and fresh contemplation of the ordinary and extraordinary through the seasons of the Christian liturgical calendar,” sponsored by Christians in the Visual Arts. The show will be on view at Second Presbyterian Church in Indianapolis from February 26 to March 26 and is available for rental in North America after that. I saw it at St. David’s Episcopal Church in Austin in November at the CIVA biennial and was impressed! It is accompanied by a beautifully designed catalog that pairs each photograph with a poem, several of which were written specifically for the exhibition and which respond directly to a given photo.

Winters, Michael_Mount Tabor, June 2017
Michael Winters, Mount Tabor, June 2017, 2017. Inkjet print with holes punched out in white wood frame, 19 × 13 in.

One of my favorite art selections is Mount Tabor, June 2017 by Michael Winters, the director of arts and culture at Sojourn Church Midtown in Louisville, Kentucky. “Mount Tabor . . . is where the transfiguration of Christ is thought to have occurred,” Winters writes. “I stood viewing that scene in 2017. It looked so normal. I’m not sure why I felt compelled to punch holes in this photograph, but I think it’s because I wanted to be able to see through this ‘normal’ landscape to the glory of the transfigured Christ—which is to say, I wanted to see reality.”

Browse all the Again + Again photographs on the CIVA website. Longtime followers of the blog will recognize some of the photos from Greg Halvorsen Schreck’s Via Dolorosa series that I featured back in 2016.

Beauty and joy in the paintings of Alma Thomas

I’ve never bothered painting the ugly things in life. . . . No. I wanted something beautiful that you could sit down and look at. [1]

What is more far reaching than beauty? [2]

Alma Thomas
Alma Thomas. Photo © 1976 Michael Fischer, courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.

Last October I saw the wonderful retrospective exhibition Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful at the Phillips Collection in Washington, DC, co-organized by the Chrysler Museum of Art in Norfolk, Virginia, and the Columbus Museum in Columbus, Georgia. Taking its title from the 1970 hit song by Ray Stevens (which was on the mixtape Thomas listened to while she painted), the exhibition shows that Thomas’s creativity extended beyond the studio to encompass interior design, costume design, fashion, puppetry, teaching, service, gardening, and more.

Alma Thomas (1891–1978) was an African American artist best known for her exuberant abstract paintings inspired by the hues, patterns, and movement of trees and flowers in and around her neighborhood in Northwest Washington, DC. Seeking relief from the racial violence in her native Georgia and better educational opportunities, she moved to Washington with her family at age fifteen and remained there for the rest of her life. In 1924 she became Howard University’s first fine arts graduate, and after that taught art for thirty-five years at Shaw Junior High School, leaving behind a celebrated legacy as an educator and a champion for Black youth. She was also an active member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, through which she founded the Sunday Afternoon Beauty Club, organizing field trips, lectures, and other activities to promote arts appreciation.

Though Thomas had been painting for decades, she didn’t develop her signature style—consisting of vibrant paint pats arranged in columns or concentric circles—until about 1965, after retiring from teaching; she called these irregular free blocks “Alma’s Stripes.” Her exploration of the power of simplified color and form in luminous, contemplative, nonobjective paintings means she is often classified as a Color Field painter, and she is particularly associated with the Washington Color School. At age eighty she had her first major exhibition, at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York in 1972. She was the first Black woman to receive a solo show at this prestigious museum, and the show won her instant acclaim.

Thomas, Alma_A Joyful Scene of Spring
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), A Joyful Scene of Spring, 1968. Acrylic on canvas, 36 1/4 × 36 1/4 in. Collection of the Love, Luck & Faith Foundation. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones. “Spring delivers her dynamic sermons to the world each year, drenching one’s soul with its extravaganza,” Thomas said (catalog, p. 167).

The natural world was an enduring source of inspiration for Thomas. She kept a flower garden in her backyard and frequented the green spaces of the nation’s capital. She described the holly tree visible through the bay window of her living room with great relish:

That tree, I love it. It’s the one who inspired me to do this sort of thing. The composition in the bay window reached me each morning—the colors, the wind who is their creative designer, the sunshine filtering through the leaves to add joy. The white comes through those leaves and gives me the white of the canvas. I’m fascinated by the way the white canvas dots around, and above, and through the color format. My strokes are free and irregular, some close together, others far apart, thus creating interesting patterns of canvas peeking around the strokes. [3]

Thomas saw nature as having a musicality, an idea underscored by many of the titles she gave her paintings, which pair terms from classical music especially—such as “symphony,” “sonata,” “concerto,” “rhapsody,” “étude”—with the names of trees or flowers. Nature sounds forth an array of notes, all in resplendent harmony with one another. And its compositions are new every morning!

(Related post: “Nature as extravagant gift from God”)

Thomas’s rhythmic dabs of prismatic color express joy, celebration, and wonder at God’s creation and are reminiscent of those biblical psalms in which nature is said to praise God (e.g., Psalm 19:1–3; Psalm 65:12–13; Psalm 96:11–12; Psalm 98:4–8). Not only is nature animate; it sings and dances and claps its hands.

Many of Thomas’s paintings, whether of outwardly radiating rings or parallel rows, are meant to suggest an aerial view of flower beds or nurseries. “I began to think about what I would see if I were in an air-plane,” she said. “You streak through the clouds so fast you don’t know whether the flower below is a violet or what. You see only streaks of color.” [4]

Thomas, Alma_Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Breeze Rustling Through Fall Flowers, 1968. Acrylic on canvas, 57 7/8 × 50 in. The Phillips Collection, Washington, DC. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Thomas, Alma_Wind Dancing with Spring Flowers
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Wind Dancing with Spring Flowers, 1969. Acrylic on canvas, 50 3/16 × 48 1/16 in. Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Thomas, Alma_Red Roses Sonata
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Red Roses Sonata, 1972. Acrylic on canvas, 60 × 54 in. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Thomas, Alma_Cumulus
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Cumulus, 1972. Acrylic on canvas, 71 × 53 in. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Eventually, Thomas’s vocabulary of vertically or circularly organized paint pats expanded to include “wedges, commas, and other glyphic shapes formed entirely by her brush and arranged in tessellated patterns” [5], which have the same vibratile quality. Grassy Melodic Chant visually references the path to her garden, which featured dark flagstones with off-white mortar borders.

Thomas, Alma_Grassy Melodic Chant
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Grassy Melodic Chant, 1976. Acrylic on canvas, 46 × 36 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Thomas, Alma_Babbling Brook and Whistling Poplar Trees Symphony
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Babbling Brook and Whistling Poplar Trees Symphony, 1976. Acrylic on canvas, 72 × 52 in. Michael Rosenfeld Gallery LLC, New York. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones. Thomas recalled in reference to this painting, “I would wade in the brook [near my childhood home] and when it rained you could hear music. I would fall on the grass and look at the poplar trees and the lovely yellow leaves would whistle” (catalog, p. 33).

Thomas, Alma_Fiery Sunset
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Fiery Sunset, 1973. Acrylic on canvas, 41 1/4 × 41 1/4 in. Museum of Modern Art, New York. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Thomas, Alma_Falling Leaves, Love Wind Orchestra
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Falling Leaves, Love Wind Orchestra, 1977. Acrylic on canvas, 21 1/2 × 27 1/2 in. Private collection. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

At over thirteen feet long, the monumental three-paneled Red Azaleas Singing and Dancing Rock and Roll Music (1976) is Thomas’s most ambitious painting and the touchstone of the exhibition. She painted it two years before her death, when she was suffering from painful arthritis, deteriorating vision, and the lasting repercussions of a broken hip. Though she had to adapt her technique to accommodate these ailments, her aesthetic vision is masterfully executed, and most people regard this as her magnum opus.

Thomas, Alma_Red Azaleas Singing and Dancing Rock and Roll Music
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Red Azaleas Singing and Dancing Rock and Roll Music, 1976. Acrylic on three canvases, 73 3/4 × 158 1/2 in. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

In addition to her enthusiasm for local, seasonal flora, Thomas was also really interested in space exploration. Like many Americans, she followed NASA’s lunar and Mars missions on the radio and television. She painted Mars Dust in 1971 as Mariner 9 circled the Red Planet, attempting to map its surface but being held up by a massive dust storm.

Thomas, Alma_Mars Dust
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Mars Dust, 1972. Acrylic on canvas, 69 1/4 × 57 1/8 in. Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Thomas, Alma_Mars Dust (detail)
Mars Dust, detail

She also painted several works inspired by images taken of Earth during the Apollo 10 and 11 spaceflights, such as Snoopy Sees Earth Wrapped in Sunset (not pictured)—Snoopy being the name of the lunar module. Starry Night with Astronauts is the final work in her Space series.

Thomas, Alma_Starry Night and the Astronauts
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Starry Night and the Astronauts, 1972. Acrylic on canvas, 60 × 53 in. Art Institute of Chicago. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Thomas’s choice to paint apolitical abstractions rather than taking the Black human figure as her subject was somewhat controversial. Members of the Black Arts Movement rigidly insisted that “Black artists should be making work that furthered the goals of Black liberation by speaking directly to their own communities rather than trying to fit into white aesthetic frameworks or addressing non-Black audiences. . . . In the process, they largely rejected visual abstraction because it was rooted in a European modernist tradition, one that had very little to do, they believed, with the lives and urgencies of Black folks.” [6]

Thomas disliked being pigeonholed as a “Black artist” and resisted the idea that responsible art must be oriented toward social activism. “We artists are put on God’s good earth to create,” she said. “Some of us may be black, but that’s not the important thing. The important thing is for us to create, to give form to what we have inside us. We can’t accept any barriers, any limitations of any kind, on what we create or how we do it.” [7] And elsewhere: “Through color, I have sought to concentrate on beauty and happiness, rather than on man’s inhumanity to man.” [8] In finding success as an abstractionist focused on beauty in nature and in technological innovation, she broke down barriers of what were considered (by both whites and Blacks) acceptable styles and subject matter for African American art.

This doesn’t mean Thomas was indifferent to Black progress. On the contrary, she was deeply involved in advancing racial uplift in her own community.

Thomas, far from retreating from the world, had always flung herself headlong into it. She devoted her life to advancing the lives of her Black students, peers, and neighbors—from her commitment to education (“Education is the strongest weapon we [African Americans] have,” she insisted); to her work to establish an art gallery that would collect the creations of Black people so as to begin to build an art historical archive; to her collaborations with civil rights organizations and publications; to her backyard garden, which she treated as a small offering of beauty in the midst of her gritty surroundings. [9]

Her one political painting, for which she painted two preparatory sketches, is on the August 28, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, which she participated in.

Thomas, Alma_March on Washington (sketch)
Alma Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Sketch for March on Washington, ca. 1963. Acrylic on canvasboard, 20 × 24 in. The Columbus Museum, Columbus, Georgia. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

She also painted a few explicitly religious subjects, among them the Journey of the Magi and the Entombment of Christ.

Thomas, Alma_Three Wise Men
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), Three Wise Men, 1966. Acrylic on canvas, 36 1/2 × 23 1/2 in. Collection of the Harmon and Harriet Kelley Foundation for the Arts. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Thomas, Alma_They Laid Him in the Tomb
Alma W. Thomas (American, 1891–1978), They Laid Him in the Tomb, ca. 1958. Oil on canvas, 32 1/4 × 40 1/4 in. Collection of Paola Luptak. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful has left the Phillips but will be at the Frist Art Museum in Nashville from February 25 to June 5, 2022. From there it will visit the Columbus Museum in Columbus, Georgia (Thomas’s birthplace), from July 1 to September 25, 2022.

At the archived Phillips exhibition page, you can find video lectures and conversations and audio commentaries, plus you can take a 360-degree virtual tour of the exhibition. Washington-area readers: if you missed Everything Is Beautiful and want the chance to see Thomas’s work in person, mark your calendars for October 2023, when the Smithsonian American Art Museum will be exhibiting the more than two dozen Thomas paintings in its collection; the show is called Composing Color: Paintings by Alma Thomas.

There is plenty of material out there about Alma Thomas. A few other resources I’ll point you to are the Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful catalog, of which the following video gives you a look inside:

The National Women’s History Museum also curated an interactive online exhibition about Thomas through Google Arts & Culture.

NOTES

1. Alma Thomas, quoted in Eleanor Munro, Originals: American Women Artists (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979), 194.

2. This rhetorical question of Thomas’s is printed beneath her 1924 senior class photograph in The Bison, Howard University’s annual. Seth Feman and Jonathan Frederick Walz, eds., Alma W. Thomas: Everything Is Beautiful (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2021), 78 (fig. 3).

3. Quoted in Andrea O. Cohen, “Alma Thomas,” DC Gazette, October 26–November 8, 1970.

4. Alma Thomas Papers, untitled statement, Biographical Accounts and Notes, c. 1950s–c . 1970s, box 1, folder 2, page 10.

5. Sydney Nikolaus, et al., “Composing Color: The Materials and Techniques of Alma Woodsey Thomas,” in Feman and Walz, 105.

6. Aruna D’Souza, “What Filters Through the Spaces Between,” in Feman and Walz, 61.

7. Quoted in Adolphus Ealey, “Remembering Alma,” in Merry A. Foresta, A Life in Art: Alma Thomas, 1891–1978 (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press for the National Museum of American Art, 1981), 12.

8. Quoted in David L. Shirey, “At 77, She’s Made It to the Whitney,” New York Times, May 4, 1972, 52.

9. Aruna D’Souza, “What Filters Through,” 69.

Roundup: Steve Prince, Harriet Powers, and more

LECTURE: “PRESENCE: Illuminating Black History, Faith, and Culture” by Steve A. Prince: Printmaker, sculptor, draftsman, and “art evangelist” Steve Prince is the director of engagement and distinguished artist in residence at the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia—and a personal friend of mine! In this lunchtime presentation organized last fall by Upper House, a center for Christian gathering and learning in Madison, Wisconsin, he discusses his body of work, which is influenced by his New Orleans background and is full of symbols and of figures from African American history. Bessie Mitchell and the Trenton Six, Mamie Till, the Little Rock Nine, Henrietta Lacks, the Greensboro Four, Amadou Diallo, John Coltrane, Harriet Jacobs, and Sarah Collins Rudolph are just a few of the people he references. He discusses the role of the arts in lament, healing, renewal, and celebration, framing the whole talk in terms of the first and second lines of the New Orleans jazz funeral—metaphors, he says, of life on earth (“the dirge”) and life in the hereafter.

Bird in Hand: Second Line for Michigan
Steve Prince (American, 1968–), Bird in Hand: Second Line for Michigan, 2012. Graphite drawing, 9 × 20 ft.

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ABOUT HARRIET POWERS:

Harriet Powers (1837–1910) was an African American quilter from Georgia who used traditional appliqué techniques to record Bible stories, local legends, and astronomical events. Her two extant quilts, referred to as the Bible Quilt and the Pictorial Quilt, are considered among the finest examples of nineteenth-century Southern quilting. They really are extraordinary.

Powers, Harriet_Bible Quilt
Harriet Powers (American, 1837–1910), Bible Quilt, ca. 1886. Cotton plain weave, pieced, appliqued, embroidered, and quilted, 75 × 89 in. (191 × 227 cm). National Museum of American History, Washington, DC.

Powers, Harriet_Pictorial Quilt
Harriet Powers (American, 1837–1910), Pictorial Quilt, 1895–98. Cotton plain weave, pieced, appliqued, embroidered, and quilted, 68 7/8 × 105 in. (175 × 266.7 cm). Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

>> Sewing Stories: Harriet Powers’ Journey from Slave to Artist, written by Barbara Herkert and illustrated by Vanessa Brantley-Newton: I received this children’s picture-book biography about Powers as a Christmas gift last year, and I love it so much. I recommend it for people of all ages! For easy reference, a photo of each of Powers’s quilts is reproduced on the front and back endpapers. Listen to a complete reading by Alicia McDaniel of Art for the Creative Soul in the video below.

>> “Celebrating Harriet Powers and Quilt Stories,” a conversation at the MFA: Powers’s two quilts were brought together for the first time ever in Fabric of a Nation: American Quilt Stories, an exhibition at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts that ran from October 10, 2021, to January 17, 2022. Curator Jennifer Swope moderated a virtual discussion about Harriet Powers and her legacy with artist Bisa Butler; quilt historian, artist, and author Kyra E. Hicks; Dr. Carolyn L. Mazloomi, artist, educator, and founder of the Women of Color Quilters Network; and Dr. Tiya Miles, a public and academic historian.

A breakdown of the individual squares on Powers’s quilts happens at 14:44–22:16, and conversation continues about Powers specifically until about the one-hour mark. Notably, when asked about the importance of the quilts, Hicks says, “They’re important because you have a woman who is testifying of her love for God 135 years after those quilts left her home. She continues to testify. When you think about all the people . . . I just think she’s a storyteller, but she’s a storyteller with a purpose, and I admire her for that.” The second hour is about story-quilting today—where a new generation of quilt-makers is taking the art form in the twenty-first century—and touches on functional use of quilts versus display.

For more on Harriet Powers, see this five-minute video produced by the MFA, narrated by Dr. Miles.

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SONGS:

>> “Blessed Assurance”: A Black gospel arrangement of a classic Fanny Crosby hymn, performed by the Portsmouth Gospel Choir from the University of Portsmouth in the UK.

>> “Parachute” by Arielle Howell and Moses Hooper: A song of surrender. Filmed in 2016, this was the first music video made under the aegis of Under the Belltower, a Biola University initiative (no longer active) that brought together student musicians, composers, and filmmakers to make art in community and showcase that work with an end product.

“Those Who Carry” by Anna Kamieńska

van Gogh, Vincent_Women Carrying Sacks of Coal in the Snow
Vincent van Gogh (Dutch, 1853–1890), Women Carrying Sacks of Coal in the Snow, 1882. Chalk, brush in ink, and opaque and transparent watercolor on wove paper, 32.1 × 50.1 cm. Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, Netherlands.

Those who carry grand pianos
to the tenth floor   wardrobes and coffins
the old man with a bundle of wood hobbling toward the horizon
the lady with a hump of nettles
the madwoman pushing her baby carriage
full of empty vodka bottles
they all will be raised up
like a seagull’s feather   like a dry leaf
like an eggshell   a scrap of newspaper on the street

Blessed are those who carry
for they will be raised

This poem was originally published in Polish in Anna Kamieńska’s 1984 collection Dwie ciemności (Two Darknesses), © Paweł Śpiewak. It is translated into English by Grażyna Drabik and David Curzon in Astonishments: Selected Poems of Anna Kamieńska (Paraclete Press, 2007). Used by permission of the publisher.

Roundup: Global Christian music; Christologies from the margins; race, gender, and photography

Today’s roundup brings together a theologian (Anderson Jeremiah), an art historian (Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt), and a musician (Eric Lige and friends) who I think complement one another really well!

SONGS:

Eric Lige [previously] is “a music-maker who promotes Jesus, Justice, Faith, and Community.” He is the worship director at Ethnos Community Church in San Diego and the co-executive producer of The Ethnos Project, which creates a platform for new and emerging global voices in musical worship to be heard worldwide. Especially since COVID hit in 2019, he has been assembling multinational teams of musicians to produce YouTube videos, many of which are livestreamed as part of Ethnos worship services. Here are three examples (view more on Lige’s YouTube channel):

>> “Ξεδιψασμένος (No Longer Thirsty)” by Kostas Nikolaou: A contemporary Christian worship song in Greek, about how Christ, the living water, quenches our thirst for love and purpose. The lead vocalist is Nefeli Papanagi—and wow, do I love her voice!

>> “Ua Mau (Hosanna)” by Moses W. Kaaneikawahaale Keale (aka Keale Ta Kaula): Reyn and Joy Nishii perform this nineteenth-century Hawaiian hymn by Keale “the Prophet,” who converted to Christianity after calling on God during a hunting accident and finding rescue. The first verse translates to “Perpetual is the righteousness / That comes from the Father above / Let us gather together / In his goodness and grace.”

>> “Love’s in Need of Love Today” by Stevie Wonder: Edward Chen and friends—from Canada, the United States, Armenia, Venezuela, and Mexico—perform the opening track from Stevie Wonder’s Grammy-winning album Songs in the Key of Life. “God gave me this gift, and this particular song was a message I was supposed to deliver,” Wonder has said. “The concept I had in mind was that for love to be effective, it has to be fed.” See the full list of credits in the description on the video page. Eric Lige is the one in the maroon shirt.

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LECTURES:

>> “Many Faces of Jesus: Christologies from the Margins” by the Revd. Canon Dr. Anderson H. M. Jeremiah, October 12, 2021: Anderson Jeremiah is a senior lecturer in the politics, philosophy, and religion department at Lancaster University in the UK, whose areas of expertise include Christian theology in Asia, postcolonial approaches to theology, Dalit studies, liberation theology, modern missionary movements, and inculturation and faith. Ordained in the Church of South India (part of the Anglican Communion), he was installed as Canon Theologian of Blackburn Cathedral in September 2021, making him the first Dalit to be appointed to that role in any English cathedral.

In this half-hour online talk given last fall for the Diocese of Manchester, Jeremiah discusses the Incarnation as a continuous event—Christ being born into human cultures—as expressed through a selection of visual artworks from Ghana, Bolivia, China, Japan, and India. These images subvert the predominant Western image of Christ and sometimes provide critique. New to me was the black marble crucifix from the Anglican chapel inside Cape Coast Castle, a former trading post (now a museum) where enslaved Africans were held before being loaded onto ships and sold in the Americas. I’m not sure who commissioned the sculpture or when it was placed at this site, but it definitely looks modern.

The Q&A that followed on the original Zoom event is not included in the video, but here’s one of Jeremiah’s comments from it that I transcribed: “Jesus is not foreign to my own experience; this Jesus is part and parcel of my own existential reality. It [the image] enables people who are seeking peace and emancipation; [they are] emboldened in that process of seeing themselves reflected in the image of Jesus. The normative image the church has been holding on to has not created that space.” When one attendee asked if images of white Jesus are always “wrong” or to be discouraged, Jeremiah replied that there’s nothing wrong with such an image in itself, but the problem is when it is imposed on the entire world as the only way of looking at Jesus. “When we hold up one image as normative, we lose the diverse ways God intends to manifest himself in diverse contexts,” he said. (I couldn’t agree more!)

Bolivian crucifix
In July 2015 Bolivian president Evo Morales (who is Aymara) presented to Pope Francis a crucifix sculpted in the shape of a hammer and sickle. The crucifix is based on a design by Luís Espinal (1932–1980), a Jesuit priest assassinated in 1980 by right-wing militia. Bolivia’s communications minister, Marianela Paco, told Bolivian radio that “the sickle evokes the peasant, the hammer the carpenter, representing humble workers, God’s people.” Photo: AP.

Raj, Solomon_The Lord Remembers the Hungry
Solomon Raj (Indian, 1921–2019), The Lord Remembers the Hungry: Liberation from Hunger, 2006 (based on the 1988 original). Woodcut, from the series “Liberation in Luke’s Gospel.”

To hear more from the Rev. Dr. Anderson Jeremiah, see “Dalit Theology in the Context of World Christianity: Subversion and Transgression,” another excellent online talk that he gave in June 2021 at the invitation of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Culture. And this Grace Podcast episode from October, where he briefly discusses the From Lament to Action report of the Church of England’s Archbishops’ Anti-Racism Taskforce (published April 22, 2021), the contextual nature of all theology (contra the view that white Euro-American theology is somehow universal, whereas theologies that come from Africa, for example, need to be qualified), and cultural appreciation versus appropriation. “I’m trying to capture the experiences of communities through the stories they tell about Jesus,” Jeremiah says. Follow him on Twitter @TheOutsider40.

>> “The Loving Look: Or, How Art History Taught Me About the Difference Between Structure and Direction When Looking at Images of Race and Gender” by Dr. Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt, October 12, 2017: Art historian Elissa Yukiko Weichbrodt, a professor at Covenant College who researches representations of race and gender in art and visual culture from the nineteenth century to the present, is one of my favorite people to follow on Instagram (@elissabrodt). I love how she helps people understand and use the tools of the discipline of art history. She teaches us how images work and how to interrogate them.

In this undergraduate lecture (starts at 4:06), Weichbrodt discusses how photography has been used to shape racial bias and even construct race, as well as gender, focusing on a famous 1957 photograph of school desegregation in Little Rock, Arkansas. She shows how this single photo is part of a larger web of meaning that contemporary news photos also play into. We’re always interpreting and categorizing images in relationship to things we’ve already seen, Weichbrodt says, creating a mental archive—for example, a file for “blackness,” a file for “womanhood.” And “as Christians called to recognize the dignity of God’s image in all people, we have to do actual work to acknowledge how our own archives may have hampered or distorted our love for our neighbors.” To look more faithfully, we need to look more; we need to build a broader archive.

For related content from Weichbrodt, see her 2018 series of articles for The Witness BCC: “Representing Race: Why Do Images Matter?,” “Representing Race: Lenses for Interpretation,” and “Restorative Looking.” You can also view a longer and more recent version of this lecture, “Looking Justly,” given October 30, 2019, at Christ Community Church in Franklin, Tennessee, which includes a Q&A.

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NEW PLAYLIST: February 2021 (Art & Theology): Continuing my initiative to share good music from the Judeo-Christian tradition . . . here’s a new (nonthematic) playlist I put together, which includes a fifteenth-century Jewish hymn (with a contemporary melody by Ugandan rabbi Gershom Sizomu), a country one-hit wonder from the sixties (thanks to my dad, a regular ’60s Gold listener, for introducing me to this one!), a virtuoso guitar composition by Bruce Cockburn inspired by Jesus’s first miracle, an original gospel song by Freedom Singer Bernice Johnson Reagon, the opening theme song of an antebellum television drama, and more.