A Little East of Jordan (Artful Devotion)

Redon, Odilon_Jacob Wrestling with the Angel
Odilon Redon (French, 1840–1916), Jacob Wrestling with the Angel, ca. 1905–10. Oil on canvas, 56 1/2 × 24 1/2 in. (143.5 × 61.9 cm). Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York.

And he rose up that night, and took his two wives, and his two womenservants, and his eleven sons, and passed over the ford Jabbok.

And he took them, and sent them over the brook, and sent over that he had.

And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.

And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob’s thigh was out of joint, as he wrestled with him.

And he said, Let me go, for the day breaketh. And he said, I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.

And he said unto him, What is thy name? And he said, Jacob.

And he said, Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel: for as a prince hast thou power with God and with men, and hast prevailed.

And Jacob asked him, and said, Tell me, I pray thee, thy name. And he said, Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name? And he blessed him there.

And Jacob called the name of the place Peniel: for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.

And as he passed over Penuel the sun rose upon him, and he halted upon his thigh.

—Genesis 32:22–31 (KJV)

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SONG: “Whilst falling asleep, Savta told me of Jacob” | Text by Emily Dickinson, ca. 1859 | Music by Dominic de Grande, 2017 | Performed by St. Salvator’s Chapel Choir, under the direction of Tom Wilkinson, on Annunciations: Sacred Music for the 21st Century, 2018 [listen on SoundCloud]

This choral composition was commissioned in 2016 as part of the TheoArtistry project [previously] of the Institute of Theology, Imagination and the Arts (ITIA) at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, the aim of which is to reinvigorate dialogues between theologians and practicing artists. Emerging theologians from St. Andrews’ divinity school were paired with composers under the guidance of Sir James Macmillan to create six new choral settings of Hebrew Bible “annunciations,” communications of God to humankind. The collaborations are mutually beneficial: composers who may have no Christian background or no formal theological training but who want to contribute to the landscape of modern sacred music or seek out new lyrical content in the Bible are provided with textual exegesis and consultation by those who are learned in the fields of theology and biblical studies, and on the other hand theologians have Bible passages opened up to them in new ways through music, helping them to engage the texts on a more experiential level. Creative inspiration on both sides! Dr. George Corbett, director of TheoArtistry and an ITIA lecturer, says the St. Andrews divinity school wants composers and other artists to use them as a resource.

Dominic de Grande was one of six composers selected from an applicant pool of about a hundred to write a choral piece approximately three minutes in length that would be performable by a good amateur choir. He was assigned Jacob’s nocturnal wrestling match and was partnered with theologian Marian Kelsey, who oriented him to the ambiguity of the Genesis 32 narrative, the Hebrew wordplay, and the narrative’s appropriations in liturgy, literature, and visual art. De Grande chose to set Emily Dickinson’s poem on the subject, “A little East of Jordan”:

A little East of Jordan,
Evangelists record,
A Gymnast and an Angel
Did wrestle long and hard—

Till morning touching mountain—
And Jacob, waxing strong,
The Angel begged permission
To Breakfast—to return—

Not so, said cunning Jacob!
“I will not let thee go
Except thou bless me”—Stranger!
The which acceded to—

Light swung the silver fleeces
“Peniel” Hills beyond,
And the bewildered Gymnast
Found he had worsted God!

Because the tone of the poem is light and playful, de Grande scored it in the context of a grandmother telling the story to her grandchild at bedtime; he titled the composition “Whilst falling asleep, Savta told me of Jacob,” the word Savta being Hebrew for “grandmother.” It starts off gently, lilting, with a harmonic underpinning consisting of three chords. But, as Kelsey pointed out, the biblical text evokes a sense of danger and intensity, so after Dickinson’s third stanza, de Grande inserted a fragment from Genesis—“LET ME GO, FOR DAY IS BREAKING”—spoken by Jacob’s mysterious opponent. It’s sung as a burst of voices and organ, the latter six syllables introducing six new chords, evoking a sense of otherness. This demand forms a juxtaposition with the sweet, innocuous language of Dickinson’s angel, who politely asks permission to break for mealtime. After the interjection the piece returns to its gentler tone, as dawn dispels the “silver fleeces” of cloud and Jacob sits in the aftermath of the encounter. The human whistling throughout suggests something of the numinous.

Annunciations (ITIA book)

To learn more about the TheoArtistry Composers’ Scheme, check out Annunciations: Sacred Music for the Twenty-First Century (2019), an open-source book available for free download as a PDF or for purchase in other formats. The book includes reflections on the collaboration process and other aspects of the project by all twelve participating theologians and composers (plus full scores! and links to audio) as well as chapters by various contributors on sacred music in worship settings versus secular settings, the theology of music, the vocation of the composer, moments of divine encounter in the ancient Near East, Mary as a model for creative people, the Gospel canticles in church liturgies, and more.

You can also watch this twenty-minute behind-the-scenes documentary:

The other “annunciations” in the TheoArtistry Composers’ Scheme are God speaking to Adam and Eve (Genesis 3), Moses and the burning bush (Exodus 3), the threefold calling of Samuel (1 Samuel 3), Elijah and the “sound of sheer silence” (1 Kings 19), and the Song of Songs 3:6–11.

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For an Artful Devotion from last year on this same biblical text, see “Wrestling Jacob”; it features a contemporary woodcut illustration from a German Bible and one of my favorite Charles Wesley hymns, with music from the shape-note tradition.

For theologically informed commentary by Natalie Carnes [previously] on three modern artworks of Jacob wrestling the angel, see The Visual Commentary on Scripture.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 13, cycle A, click here.

“We Walk in Miracles” by Sister Maura Eichner, SSND

Saar, Betye_Flight
Betye Saar (American, 1926–), Flight, 1963. Screenprint, 14 9/16 × 18 1/8 in. (37 × 46 cm). Museum of Modern Art, New York.

We walk in miracles as children scruff
through daisy fields, their dresses appliquéd
with shifting tide of blossom, welkin-stuff,
the Father’s white creative laughter made.

Common as spring, as bread, as sleep, as salt,
the daisies grow. Our Father made them reel
against us like the morning stars that vault
the greater home His love will yet reveal.

The petals push against the ankles, knees,
the thigh, the hands; gold pollen sifts within
the pores to rivulets of veins, to seas
of subtle life behind unsubtle skin.

O deeper and deeper than daisy fields, we drown
in miracles, in God, our Seed, our Crown.

“We Walk in Miracles” appears in After Silence: Selected Poems by Sister Maura Eichner, SSND (Notre Dame of Maryland University, 2011), published posthumously and copyrighted by the Atlantic-Midwest Province of the School Sisters of Notre Dame. Used with permission.

Victory Is Ours (Artful Devotion)

Alston, Charles_Walking
Charles Alston (American, 1907–1977), Walking, 1958. Oil on canvas, 48 3/8 × 64 3/4 in. (122.9 × 164.5 cm). Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

If God is for us, who can be against us? . . . Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.

—Romans 8:31b, 35, 37

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SONG: “Victory Is Ours,” a setting of a prayer by Desmond Tutu

Goodness is stronger than evil
Love is stronger than hate
Light is stronger than darkness
Life is stronger than death
Victory is ours through Him who loves us

First published in An African Prayer Book (Doubleday, 2006), this text is by Desmond Tutu, the famous South African Anglican cleric and theologian known for his work as an anti-apartheid and human rights activist. It has been set to music by several composers, most popularly John Bell but also James Whitbourn, David Schwoebel, Thomas Keesecker, and others. My favorite setting is the one in the video above, sung by an ecumenical choir from churches in and around Ridgewood, New Jersey, at the 2012 Hymn Festival at West Side Presbyterian Church. A few weeks ago I emailed the church’s music minister asking who the composer is but haven’t heard back, and extensive online searching has yielded no results. If you know who wrote the music, please do share! I’d also love to get my hands on some sheet music.

In the epistle reading from Sunday’s lectionary, the apostle Paul is writing to the church in Rome regarding religious persecution, assuring them that in Christ they have the power to face and overcome tribulations, distresses, and attacks of the enemy. Tutu extends that idea into the context of racial persecution, state-sponsored or otherwise. We must actively resist such injustice in the name of him who is Goodness, Love, Light, and Life. When we walk together in the Spirit on the side of these virtues, we will ultimately prevail against all counterforces.

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“A pivotal figure within the Harlem Renaissance, Charles Henry Alston was passionately dedicated to empowering African Americans through cultural enrichment and artistic advancement. Throughout his distinguished career as an artist and an educator, he continually sought to reclaim and explore racial identity with its complicated implications. Inspired by the modern idiom of Modigliani and Picasso, as well as African art, Alston’s work addresses both the personal and communal aspects of the black experience.” (Read more)

Alston’s Walking was inspired by the Montgomery bus boycott of 1955–56, a massive protest campaign against racial segregation in public transit, organized by black women’s political groups and facilitated through churches. The boycott was a seminal event in the civil rights movement in the US, coming years before the Selma to Montgomery marches in Alabama in 1965. “The idea of a march was growing,” Alston recalled of the time of the painting, 1958. “It was in the air . . . and this painting just came. I called it Walking on purpose. It wasn’t the militancy that you saw later. It was a very definite walk—not going back, no hesitation.”

Walking is part of the Smithsonian’s “Oh Freedom! Teaching African American Civil Rights Through Art” curriculum.

Alston, Charles_Walking (detail)

Alston, Charles_Walking (detail)


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 12, cycle A, click here.

Roundup: Carrying a boulder, toppling statues, art and prayer retreat, and more

NEW SONG: “Trust in You” by Antoine Bradford IV: Alternative soul artist Antoine Bradford released the original song “Trust in You” on April 21, and then came this acoustic version, which simultaneously moves me and stills me! Another single, “How Many Times,” came out yesterday, and a full-length album is on its way, on the Humble Beast label.

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PODCAST EPISODES

“Andre Henry on Systemic Racism,” Conversing (Fuller Studio), May 7, 2020: Writer, musical artist, speaker, and activist Andre Henry sits down with Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary (where Henry earned a master’s in 2016), to share his personal journey of learning about systemic racism and some of the ways he’s exposing and pushing against it. He talks about growing up the son of Jamaican immigrants in Stone Mountain, Georgia, and the early influence of reggae music; his moving to New York City during the age of stop-and-frisk to take a job as a worship leader; and his time at Fuller in California, where, in the wake of Freddie Gray’s death, he shifted from the perspective of “Black people are treated differently in the US” to “The US is a fundamentally racist society.”

Along the way, he discusses “whiteness” as an invention made to subjugate other people, not letting the news cycle dictate when you talk about racism, his study of social movement theory and the post-Shoah theologians, his realization that black people are not powerless, his writing the songs “It Doesn’t Have to Be This Way” and “How Long,” the failure of many (white) church ministers to minister to black congregants, the resistance he met while interviewing for pastoral positions, the religious doubts that surfaced after repeatedly hearing from Christian friends that “Racism isn’t a priority for God” and that social activism distracts from the gospel, and more.

I particularly appreciated hearing Henry describe, starting at 28:36, an art piece he performed over the course of six months in 2016, in which he pulled around a hundred-pound boulder in a wagon everywhere he went—work, classes, dinners, church, grocery store, etc. The boulder was painted white and had words like “Mass incarceration,” “police brutality,” and “white fragility” written on it. Labberton, who was one of the many witnesses of this performance, interprets its intent as “I’m trying to externalize a burden that is the burden that I walk with every day, and I want you to see it for what it actually is, and the weightiness of it.” “Stunning,” “profound,” “a significant liturgical act,” and “a Jeremiah kind of an enactment” are some of the ways Labberton describes Henry’s boulder-carrying, the latter referring to the biblical prophet’s outrageous symbolic acts, such as the retrieval of soiled, tattered underwear, the breaking of a clay jug, and the wearing of an oxen yoke. (As a side note, one of my all-time favorite articles from the esteemed Image journal is “The Avant-Garde and Sacred Discontent: Contemporary Performance Artists Meet Ancient Jewish Prophets” by Wayne Roosa.)

Andre Henry carrying a boulder

To learn more about Andre Henry, visit his website, http://andrehenry.co/, where you can find his Hope and Hard Pills podcast, blog, and music and sign up for his newsletter. See also his self-introduction on Twitter and the short video Fuller Studio made with him in 2016, “Culture Care and Music.”

“Why Christians Have a Reputation for Smashing Statues,” Quick to Listen, interview with Matthew Milliner, July 8, 2020: Following the killing of George Floyd in May, protesters have torn down or vandalized dozens of statues connected to the Confederacy and to other controversial historical figures like Christopher Columbus. Matthew Milliner, associate professor of art history at Wheaton College, joins Christianity Today’s global media manager Morgan Lee and editorial director Ted Olsen “to discuss how much earlier Christian battles over statues echo today’s fights, what Christians have learned that might help us better understand the call to remove statues today, and whether we should even be creating memorials and monuments in the first place.”

Milliner references the Emancipation Memorial and Mary McLeod Bethune statue in DC’s Lincoln Park; the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama [previously]; Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial; the St. Augustine Foot Soldiers Monument; and UNC–Chapel Hill’s Silent Sam monument to the Confederacy and lesser-known Unsung Founders Memorial. After the interview he created a chart titled “What to Do with Monuments,” providing five options and citing historical analogues as well as contemporary examples in the US and internationally.

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OBITUARY: “Ennio Morricone, Oscar-Winning Composer of Film Scores, Dies at 91”: Regarded as one of the most influential film composers of all time, Ennio Morricone wrote over four hundred scores for cinema and television, as well as over a hundred classical works. I know him best for the soundtrack of The Mission, especially the “Gabriel’s Oboe” theme, which is played in the movie by the Spanish Jesuit priest Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) as an outreaching gesture of friendship to the Paraguayan Guarani.

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ONLINE RETREAT: “The Art of Prayer” with Monsignor Timothy Verdon: On August 7 Paraclete Press is hosting an online retreat with Monsignor Timothy Verdon, a Roman Catholic priest and art historian based in Florence, Italy. As in his book Art and Prayer: The Beauty of Turning to God, Msgr. Verdon will reflect on the ways in which visual art has historically supported, and can still support, prayer, guiding participants in meditating on images from the lives of Christ, Mary, and the saints. View the schedule and reserve your ticket here.

Timothy Verdon

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CHORAL ANTHEM: “Lead Me, Lord” | Text: Psalm 5:8, Psalm 4:9 | Music by Samuel Sebastian Wesley, 1905 | Performed by the Chapel Choir of Girton College, Cambridge, June 2020 [HT: Malcolm Guite]

Lead me, Lord,
Lead me in thy righteousness;
Make thy way plain before my face.
For it is thou, Lord,
Thou, Lord, only,
That makest me dwell in safety.

Truly Grateful (Artful Devotion)

McIver, Beverly_Truly Grateful
Beverly McIver (American, 1962–), Truly Grateful, 2011. Oil on canvas, 30 × 30 in. (76.2 × 76.2 cm). North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

I give thanks to you, O Lord my God, with my whole heart,
and I will glorify your name forever.
For great is your steadfast love toward me;
you have delivered my soul from the depths of Sheol.

. . . You, O Lord, are a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness . . .

—Psalm 86:12–13, 15

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SONG: “Gospel Medley” by Beyoncé Knowles, Kirk Franklin, and Richard Smallwood | Performed by Destiny’s Child, on Survivor (2001)

The liner notes of Survivor credit Beyoncé [previously], Kirk Franklin, and Richard Smallwood as the writers of this song, but from what I can tell, the credit goes mainly to Beyoncé, who has woven together different gospel fragments and, it seems, written the first two-thirds of the song, which fan web pages say is an interpolation of Franklin’s “Now Behold the Lamb” and “So Good” (I myself can’t hear much of a resemblance). This is followed by a gospel rendition of the Anna B. Warner hymn “Jesus Loves Me” that is much like the one Michele Lamar Richards and Whitney Houston sing in the 1992 movie The Bodyguard. The medley concludes with the “Amen” section of Smallwood’s “Total Praise.”

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About the above painting by Beverly McIver, the North Carolina Museum of Art writes,

McIver is renowned for her expression-filled, emotive canvases that commemorate her life and the lives of those closest to her—in particular, her mother, who passed away in 2004, and her sister, who is mentally disabled. Such works reveal as much about the artist as they do about the subjects portrayed therein. As McIver has noted about her paintings, “All of my portraits are self-portraits,” says the artist. “I use the faces of others who reflect my most inner being.”

In Truly Grateful, the artist moves her focus away from her family and back towards herself, and the resulting self-portrait is one of quiet, contemplative acceptance. The artist represents herself at bust length, draped in a bright blue scarf, with her head bowed and eyes closed, perhaps in midst of prayer. McIver’s signature brushwork, patchy and lively, adds a marked contrast to an otherwise peaceful scene. She does not highlight any other figures or objects in this canvas, allowing the viewer to focus solely on the artist herself and her emotional state. The yellow-orange background surrounds her figure with a warm glow, reminiscent of the traditional gold-leaf ground seen in traditional European icons. As a result, the painting exudes a calming, almost spiritual atmosphere.

It is possible to examine McIver’s personal biography to determine the significance of the title, Truly Grateful. Over the past five years, McIver has grappled with the ongoing repercussions of her mother’s death. Her mother’s passing left Renee, McIver’s sister, without a caretaker to provide her with the assistance, comfort and protection required due to her disabilities. McIver, bolstered by a promise made to her mother years prior, became Renee’s primary guardian, taking on all related responsibilities and allowing her sister to move into her home. After years of struggle, Renee recently moved into her own apartment complex for the handicapped and disabled, freeing McIver to pursue her artistic career at a more fervent pace while being reassured of Renee’s continued care and contentment.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 11, cycle A, click here.

“The Servant Song” by Richard Gillard

Written by British New Zealander Richard Gillard in 1977, “The Servant Song” (CCLI #72673) is such a beautiful expression of the Christian call to community and friendship, marked by selfless service, a walking alongside, and the bearing of one another’s joys, sorrows, and fears.

Here’s a 2015 performance by Father Cyprian Consiglio, prior of New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, California, and Brother James Makil:

And, from 2017, a performance by Lowana Wallace [previously], accompanied by Matt Froese on guitar. Wallace has one of the most gorgeous voices I’ve heard.

The first line was originally written as “Brother, let me be your servant” but has since been updated to be gender-inclusive, as either “Brother, sister, let me serve you” or “Will you let me be your servant.” Wallace uses “Sister” as the address in the first verse and then “Brother” in the repeat of that verse at the end.

Will you let me be your servant
Let me be as Christ to you
Pray that I may have the grace
To let you be my servant too

We are pilgrims on a journey
Fellow travelers on the road
We are here to help each other
Walk the mile and bear the load

I will hold the Christ-light for you
In the nighttime of your fear
I will hold my hand out to you
Speak the peace you long to hear

I will weep when you are weeping
When you laugh, I’ll laugh with you
I will share your joy and sorrow
Till we’ve seen this journey through

When we sing to God in heaven
We will find such harmony
Born of all we’ve known together
Of Christ’s love and agony

Will you let me be your servant
Let me be as Christ to you
Pray that I may have the grace
To let you be my servant too

Jesus’s words to his disciples in Matthew 20:26–28 inspired the song’s main theme: “But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” Other scriptural allusions include “And if anyone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles” (Matt. 5:41), “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom. 12:15), and “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal. 6:2).

Girded with Joy (Artful Devotion)

Klee, Paul_Joyful Mountain Landscape
Paul Klee (Swiss, 1879–1940), Heitere Gebirgslandschaft (Joyful Mountain Landscape), 1929. Oil on board, 17 5/16 × 24 13/16 in. (43.9 × 63.1 cm). Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven, Connecticut.

By awesome deeds you answer us with righteousness,
O God of our salvation,
the hope of all the ends of the earth
and of the farthest seas;
the one who by his strength established the mountains,
being girded with might;
who stills the roaring of the seas,
the roaring of their waves,
the tumult of the peoples,
so that those who dwell at the ends of the earth are in awe at your signs.
You make the going out of the morning and the evening to shout for joy.

You visit the earth and water it;
you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water;
you provide their grain,
for so you have prepared it.
You water its furrows abundantly,
settling its ridges,
softening it with showers,
and blessing its growth.
You crown the year with your bounty;
your wagon tracks overflow with abundance.
The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy.

—Psalm 65:5–13

Psalm 65 is a such a magnificent praise song, and I especially love the expression in verse 12: “the hills gird themselves with joy” (ESV). Other translations have “the little hills rejoice on every side” (KJV), “the hillsides blossom with joy” (NLT), and “the hills [are set] to dancing” (MSG). The picture extends into the final verse, where, along with pastures, meadows, and valleys, the mountains “shout and sing” to their Creator. Last year when I saw Paul Klee’s Joyful Mountain Landscape at the Yale University Art Gallery, I instantly thought of this psalm—of how nature sings praises to God simply by being itself.

Human beings are called to join in creation’s joyful song.

[Related post: “Creation’s Praise” (Artful Devotion)]

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SONG: “I Sing the Mighty Power of God” | Words by Isaac Watts, 1715 | Music (tune: ELLACOMBE) from Gesangbuch der Herzogl, Württemberg, 1784

I sing the mighty power of God
that made the mountains rise,
that spread the flowing seas abroad
and built the lofty skies.
I sing the wisdom that ordained
the sun to rule the day;
the moon shines full at his command,
and all the stars obey.

I sing the goodness of the Lord
that filled the earth with food;
he formed the creatures with his word
and then pronounced them good.
Lord, how thy wonders are displayed,
where’er I turn my eye,
if I survey the ground I tread
or gaze upon the sky.

There’s not a plant or flower below
but makes thy glories known,
and clouds arise and tempests blow
by order from thy throne;
while all that borrows life from thee
is ever in thy care,
and everywhere that man can be,
thou, God, art present there.

For a fairly traditional rendition of this classic hymn, here’s a three-part a cappella arrangement performed by the Ball Brothers in 2012:

If you prefer a more modern sound, check out the version by Ben Thomas on the 2015 album Bring Forth. Thomas wrote a new melody for the song and recorded it under the title “I Sing the Goodness” (using the language of verse 2 instead of 1).

The whole Bring Forth album is great, which takes as its basis thirteen hymn lyrics dating from the fourth through twentieth centuries—“all seeking to find the Divine in the everyday elements of our existence,” Thomas says. Thomas adapted and retuned the hymns and released them in three movements that echo the cycle of time: Dawn, Day, and Dusk. To guide you through your listening, there is a meditation and prayer for each movement published on his website.

Other favorites of mine from the album are “Creator God, Creating Still,” “Tell Me the Old, Old Story,” “Lord of All Being,” “Peace, Troubled Soul,” and “Bring Forth.”


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 10, cycle A, click here.

Contemporary black artists at the Baltimore Museum of Art

This week I’ve been editing and captioning a backlog of photos from my camera, and I’ve come to a batch I took last August from Every Day: Selections from the Collection at the Baltimore Museum of Art, a reinstallation of the museum’s contemporary collection centered on black artistic imagination. I thought I’d share some of these photos here as a way to introduce you to some of today’s leading black American artists.

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In the first gallery, an untitled neon sculpture by Glenn Ligon confronts the viewer, consisting of two black lightbox letter signs lying face-down on the floor, which each read, with some difficulty, “America.” They emit a flickering white light that pulsates at random. The piece is part of a series of variations on that word—a word, Ligon says, that means different things to different people.

Ligon, Glenn_America America
Foreground: Glenn Ligon (American, 1960–), Untitled (America America), 2015. Neon and blackened steel, 22 × 125 × 10 in. each. Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland, USA. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

He said his “double America” motif was inspired by the opening lines of Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness . . . it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair . . .” The wall text continues: “Dickens used a series of opposing statements to capture a moment in European history [1775–92] in which wealth coexisted with poverty, war with leisure and comfort, and aspirational ideals with harsh realities. Ligon sees similar extremes at work in the twenty-first century: ‘There is this sense that America, for all its dark deeds, is still this shining light.’”

In the age of MAGA I’m reminded of a poem by Langston Hughes published in July 1936, “Let America Be America Again,” in which he laments that as a country, we’ve never been what we’ve aspired to be: a place of liberty and justice for all. He loves America and the ideals on which it was founded but is forced to reckon with its failures, pointing out the hypocrisy of a nation that proclaims in its founding document that “all men are created equal” while segregating, disenfranchising, and brutalizing African Americans. (And the poem goes on to cite inequalities experienced by other groups too.) It’s very much in the spirit of Frederick Douglass’s speech less than a century earlier, “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”

Ligon, Glenn_America America

You can read Hughes’s full poem at Poets.org, but here are the first six stanzas and then one:

Let America be America again.
Let it be the dream it used to be.
Let it be the pioneer on the plain
Seeking a home where he himself is free.

(America never was America to me.)

Let America be the dream the dreamers dreamed—
Let it be that great strong land of love
Where never kings connive nor tyrants scheme
That any man be crushed by one above.

(It never was America to me.)

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe.

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)

. . .

O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.

. . .

Hear Ligon discuss his art practice in the “A Closer Look” interview from the BMA, below, and zoom in on some of his artworks at Google Arts & Culture.

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Behind Ligon’s neon sculpture was a large gouache by Kara Walker titled Terrible Vacation. It was impossible to get a decent photo with the glare on the glass, so here is a professional photo of the painting, unframed, from Sikkema Jenkins & Co.

Walker, Kara_Terrible Vacation
Kara Walker (American, 1969–), Terrible Vacation, 2014. Gouache on paper, 72 1/2 × 159 1/2 in. Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland, USA.

Best known for her room-size tableaux of cut-paper silhouettes addressing the history of race in America, here she pays homage to J. M. W. Turner’s 1840 Slave Ship, the Romantic painter’s abolitionist response to the Zong massacre of 1781, in which the captain of a British slave ship en route to Jamaica threw 133 sick enslaved people overboard to collect insurance on them as property “lost at sea.” Human and elemental violence converge in Turner’s painting, as a ship sails through a stormy ocean filled with flailing human limbs in chains.

Walker’s painting after Turner brings this mass murder to the attention of a new public, and though it references the past of England in particular, America, as a fellow player in the transatlantic slave trade, is implicated too.

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On the left wall was a story quilt by Baltimore artist Stephen Towns [previously], one is a series paying tribute to Harriet Tubman.

Towns, Stephen_We Shall Pass through the Combahee.JPG
Stephen Towns (American, 1980–), We Shall Pass through the Combahee, 2019. Natural and synthetic fabric, nylon tulle, polyester and cotton thread, metallic thread, crystal glass beads, and resin and metal buttons. Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland, USA. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Titled We Shall Pass through the Combahee, it records the historic military operation, led by Harriet Tubman, known as the Raid on Combahee Ferry, which succeeded in freeing seven hundred-plus slaves. During the Civil War, on June 1–2, 1863, Tubman guided two of Lincoln’s gunboats, peopled with Union Army soldiers, along the Combahee in South Carolina to strategic points near the shore where slaves awaited rescue, avoiding rebel torpedoes along the way.

Towns modeled the scene after Emanuel Leutze’s famous 1851 painting Washington Crossing the Delaware, set during the Revolutionary War, but he recasts Tubman as the American hero, bravely leading her people and her nation to victory. The church in the background likely represents the historic Tabernacle Baptist Church in Beaufort, where the escapees gathered after the raid, further up the river, before being relocated to St. Helena Island. It is illuminated as if by divine light because Tubman always said it was God who gave her direction in making certain critical moves during her many rescue operations—as Underground Railroad conductor and as military leader.

Towns describes the piece, and his complicated relationship to history and patriotism:

To learn about another body of Towns’s work, A Path Between Two Continents, see this video by York College Galleries:

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New York–based Afro-Dominican artist Firelei Báez examines through her art the historical narratives of the Afro-Caribbean diaspora, focusing on the politics and cultural ambiguities of place, writes ArtDaily. May 19, 2017, 6:05 p.m. (an idiom playing out its history) at the Baltimore Museum of Art commemorates New Orleans’s removal of the monument to Confederate general Robert E. Lee, erected in 1884, from “Lee Circle.” “It’s a gesture that reacts in time both forward and backwards, almost like a prayer, in solidarity with the people who had to suffer through that space and the resistance moving forward,” Báez said.

Baez, Firelei_May 19, 2017
Firelei Báez (Dominican American, 1981–), May 19, 2017, 6:05 p.m. (an idiom playing out its history), 2018. Oil, oil stick, and graphite on canvas, 92 × 120 in. Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland, USA. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Katie A. Pfohl, a curator at the New Orleans Museum of Art, writes about the series to which this piece belongs, which focuses on key chapters from New Orleans’s past:

In these new paintings, Báez overlays figures, symbolic imagery, and calligraphic gestures onto architectural surveys from the 1930s-era Historic American Buildings Survey, a project of the Works Progress Administration, of significant sites across New Orleans. Blurring the lines between past, present, and future, Báez paints new imagery upon these archival drawings, and in the process overwrites the often divisive history these older documents represent. Báez carries portraiture into a space where identity is rooted in history, but can likewise become untethered—and liberated—from it.

Another Báez piece in the BMA’s collection is Convex (recalibrating a blind spot), which consists of a diagram of the American Sugar Refinery in New Orleans overpainted with vibrant colors.

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Bey, Dawoud_Mathes Manafee and Cassandra Griffen
Dawoud Bey (American, 1953–), The Birmingham Project: Mathes Manafee and Cassandra Griffen, 2012. Inkjet prints, pigment-based, 40 × 32 in. each. Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland, USA. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

In the same gallery as the previous four pieces was a photograph diptych by Dawoud Bey, from his Birmingham Project series.

On September 15, 1963, four young black girls—Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson, and Cynthia Wesley—were killed when white supremacists bombed the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Fifty years later, Dawoud Bey worked with Birmingham residents to memorialize them, to pay “tribute to those who were in Birmingham at that difficult moment and those who have been born since.” He photographed adolescents the same ages as those who had died, and men and women in the fifties and sixties, the ages those young people would be had they lived.

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Simmons, Gary_Triple Burn
Gary Simmons (American, 1964–), Triple Burn, 2003. Charcoal with smudging on paper, 66 3/4 × 110 1/4 in. Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland, USA. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Over and over again, white supremacists have sought to terrorize black communities by setting fire to black churches. The 1990s saw an increase in such terrorist acts and images circulated widely of burning churches, past and present. In this drawing, Gary Simmons blended his recollections of these images into a composite picture of a single church, repeated three times. He used his fingers to smudge trails of charcoal dust across the paper, creating ghostly impressions of flames of smoke. “I do this as a way of creating a feeling of something familiar but displaced,” the artist explains. “The image is intended to hang in one’s memory . . . the further one gets from an experience, the more it becomes abstracted.”

Ernest Shaw, a local artist and art educator, points out how the white frames around the paper create crosses, representing crossroads as well as black spirituality:

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How long is a chain?
How long is a change?
How heavy is a chain?
How heavy is a change?

—Melvin Edwards, 1970

Edwards, Melvin_Scales of Injustice
Melvin Edwards (American, 1937–), Scales of Injustice, 2017/2019. Barbed wire, chain, and steel. Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland, USA. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

In Scales of Injustice, a steel platform resembling one half of a weighted scale holds a tangle of barbed wire. It is suspended over a length of chain sprawled out on the floor, and the whole scene, sited in a corner, is separated from the viewer by a barbed-wire barrier. This conceptual sculpture by Melvin Edwards is an adaptation of a site-responsive work he exhibited at the Whitney Museum in 1970, Corner for Ana, the title a reference to his young daughter and to the notion of “timeout.”

The materials—steel chain, barbed wire—evoke brutality and oppression. Perhaps it’s change, in a larger sense, that hangs in the balance, precarious and unsure.

Edwards, Melvin_Scales of Injustice (detail)

Edwards, Melvin_Scales of Injustice (detail)

Edwards said this re-creation was in response to the death of Pateh Sabally, a twenty-two-year-old Gambian refugee who drowned in the Grand Canal of Venice on January 21, 2017, as onlookers taunted and filmed his struggles and offered no help.

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Simpson, Lorna_Easy to Remember
Lorna Simpson (American, 1960–), Easy to Remember (still), 2001. 16 mm film transfered to DVD (black and white, sound); 2:35 min. Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland, USA.

For this video, Lorna Simpson recorded fifteen professional singers separately humming along to jazz saxophonist John Coltrane’s haunting interpretation of Rogers and Hart’s “It’s Easy to Remember.” Simpson then combined the recordings to create a choir of voices. This layered tune becomes the soundtrack for a grid of moving images, each focused tightly on one singer’s lips. The individuality of each participant emerges in variations among the mouths, a part of the body integrally linked to expression and physicality. The video demonstrates that even within a collective experience, including one of songs and the emotions they conjure, independent voices persist and disrupt.

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David Hammons grew up in Springfield (Illinois), studied art in Los Angeles, and then settled in New York City in 1974, where he still lives. Traveling is one of his many “basketball drawings,” which he made by bouncing a Spalding around the streets of Harlem and onto a nine-foot-tall sheet of paper, creating atmospheric gray pebbling that resembles clouds in the sky or light and shadow on the ground.

Hammons, David_Traveling
David Hammons (American, 1943–), Traveling, 2001–2. Harlem dirt on paper and suitcase, 109 5/16 × 41 3/4 × 9 1/2 in. Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland, USA. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

I love the love of place this piece promotes. “Harlem dirt” is listed as the primary material! Hammons is sanctifying the dust of his neighborhood (“the ephemeral stuff of black urban experience”) by bringing it into a high-art context, essentially saying, “My background, my experiences, are worthy.” Martin Herbert, writing for Frieze, discusses the multivalence of the title:

The title of this work, Traveling, evokes many things: the eponymous rule of basketball that says you can’t take the ball and run with it; Hammons’ own movement across the Atlantic and that of the grimy orange sphere across the room; the upward mobility of dirt-into-art, and its direct social analogue—the ‘coming up from the streets’ dream/boast of a million aspiring rappers and pro-court players in environments where, as hip-hopper Mos Def put it, ‘you can either get paid or get shot’.

The artwork juts out from the wall at a slight angle, and one discovers propped behind it a thin brown suitcase.

Hammons, David_Traveling (detail)

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Like Stephen Towns, Amy Sherald lives in Baltimore. She is known for her large-scale portrait paintings that use grisaille to portray skin tones as a way of “challenging the concept of color-as-race,” and was chosen to paint the official portrait of First Lady Michelle Obama.

Sherald, Amy_Planes, rockets, and the spaces in between
Amy Sherald (American, 1973–), Planes, rockets, and the spaces in between, 2018. Oil on canvas, 100 × 67 in. Baltimore Museum of Art, Maryland, USA. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

About Planes, rockets, and the spaces in between, Sherald writes,

I wanted the environment to be in what would be perceived as an American landscape. These two figures are witnesses of a very American moment in history. . . . One key thing to note in all of my paintings is that the figures in the work will never be passive participants. Eye contact plays an extraordinary and crucial role in human connection. The figure gazing off at the rocket as she holds her friend’s hand solidifies the moment, as the second figure looks back to meet the gaze of the viewer.

Read more of Sherald’s commentary on this painting in Ursula magazine.

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I’ve appreciated how conscientious the Baltimore Museum of Art has been, in the past two years especially, in expanding its collection to better reflect the city it’s in. In 2018 it deaccessioned redundancies in its contemporary holdings to enable the purchase of new works by female artists and artists of color. Such acquisitions “enhance our ability to tell the uniquely varied and layered narratives that exist across the history of art and into the present,” said BMA director Christopher Bedford in a press release.

I also appreciate the video interviews with artists that the museum has been producing, which I hope to see more of.

https://artbma.org/
https://www.facebook.com/artbma
https://twitter.com/artbma
https://www.instagram.com/baltimoremuseumofart/

Rest (Artful Devotion)

Lenbach, Franz von_The Red Umbrella
Franz von Lenbach (German, 1836–1904), The Red Umbrella, ca. 1860. Oil on paper mounted on cardboard, 10 1/2 × 13 3/5 in. (26.9 × 34.6 cm). Hamburger Kunsthalle, Hamburg.

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.

—Matthew 11:28

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SONG: “Rest” by Ken Burton, 2009 | Performed by the Aeolians of Oakwood University, on Aeolianology A Cappella, vol. 1, 2015

Sheet music is available for purchase at https://www.alfred.com/rest/p/12-0571519865/.


This post belongs to the weekly series Artful Devotion. If you can’t view the music player in your email or RSS reader, try opening the post in your browser.

To view all the Revised Common Lectionary scripture readings for Proper 9, cycle A, click here.