Consenses: An artistic game of Telephone

Consenses

Consenses is a global, multidisciplinary arts initiative developed by singer-songwriter Sally Taylor in which participants contribute to “interpretive chains,” responding to an assigned artwork in their own medium. The aim is to promote a more expansive view of the world through the engagement of all five senses and through exposure to diverse ways of seeing, as well as to foster connectedness across geographic divides. I found out about the project two years ago when proofreading herbalist Holly Bellebuono’s The Healing Kitchen: she said she was invited to interpret a photograph of a woman reclining in the sunshine as a tea blend—which was in turn brewed and enjoyed by another artist, who interpreted the blend as a short film.

Launched in 2012, the initial series of chains went like this: Taylor collected twenty-two photographs, each by a different photographer, and then commissioned twenty-two musicians to write a song based on one of those photos. Those songs were then given to dancers to interpret as movement, and then recordings of those dances were given to painters, whose painted responses were given to perfumers, who extracted the essence of the paintings and gave the resultant perfumes to poets, whose poems were given to chefs, whose culinary creations were given to sculptors. And no artist in this chain was allowed to see more than one link back. The final chains were then given to set designers, who created a physical space within which all the art could live. These twenty-two sets opened to the public in August 2014 and toured for four months, attracting more than seven thousand attendees.

Here’s a video excerpt of one of the chains:

Consenses continues, in part through a “Monthly Challenge” posted on the website—a catalytic work of art that invites creative responses. This month’s is a photograph titled Dreamhouse. The media in past months have been very diverse, including a woven basket, a graffitied wall, a comic strip, and a LEGO set.

Dream House
Dreamhouse, a photograph by Jane Rosemont, is the prompt for Consenses’s June 2018 Monthly Challenge. Rosemont writes, “I recently photographed a remote town on the Salton Sea, in California. Many homes are abandoned and trashed. Someone lovingly placed items of comfort in one of the dilapidated homes, and it almost brought me to tears.”

Over the past few years, primary and secondary schools and colleges have approached Taylor, wanting to incorporate Consenses into their curricula, so she has been hard at work designing and overseeing those efforts. The fruits of one such partnership are about to go on display at MASS MoCA’s Kidspace in North Adams, Massachusetts, where “Come to Your Senses: Art to See, Hear, Smell, Taste, and Touch” opens tomorrow (June 23) and runs through May 27, 2019. In this exhibition, paintings by fifth-grade students in North Adams and Northern Berkshire schools will be on display, which respond to the prompt of either “Joy” or “Fear.”

Taylor met with these kids last year and guided them through first steps, telling them to close their eyes with the blank piece of paper in front of them and ask themselves, “What would fear taste like if it were a flavor? What would it feel like as a texture? What would it be as a weather system? What would it look like if it were a painting?” She did the same with “joy.”

One child wrote, “Fear is sticky. It is large rocks. It is fire. It is the sound of thunder. It is the last petal falling. My pain of this is fear of darkness and large spiders. This is something trying to escape. Trying to escape from terror.” Another wrote of joy: “If joy were a flavor it would be cotton candy. It would be pink and light and smell like lemons on a sunny day. It would be confetti, balloons, night mist and starlight in the night sky. My painting is a starry night with confetti over it. It gives me joy because it reminds me of bright colors in the world.” (Read more about Taylor’s process with the kids here.)

After the kids finished their paintings, Taylor enlisted the talents of musicians, dancers, poets, photographers, painters, perfumers, a tea maker, a chef, sculptors, animators, and set designers to respond in Consenses-like fashion; among them were Taylor’s parents, James Taylor and Carly Simon, the latter of whom will be performing, along with others, at “An Evening with Sally Taylor and Friends” at MASS MoCA on opening night (Saturday, June 23).

To learn more about Taylor’s background and her vision for Consenses, listen to her TEDx talk from 2015:

Also be sure to check out https://consenses.org/, where you can browse past interpretive chains and participate in new ones.

Roundup: Joseph and Child icon; Clarence Fountain; “First Reformed”; novels for pastors; and more

I had every intention of completing an essay for publication yesterday on the fatherhood of Joseph as expressed in the visual arts, but as I got into the thick of research, the field of discovery proved much vaster than I had anticipated. So that I can do the topic justice (and so that I can continue trying to track down artist, dating, and location info for particular paintings), I will be postponing the essay until a later date. In the meantime, here’s a charming little neo-Coptic icon I found of Joseph holding the Christ child; the narrative scenes in the corners are the Nativity, the Presentation in the Temple, Joseph’s Dream, and the Flight to Egypt. For more on Coptic (Egyptian) iconography, read an interview with the artist from Orthodox Arts Journal.

Joseph of the House of David by Stephane Rene
Stéphane René, Saint Joseph of the House of David. St. Joseph’s Catholic Church, Bunhill Row, London.

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OBITUARY: RIP Clarence Fountain, founder and lead singer of the Blind Boys of Alabama: Clarence Fountain of the five-time Grammy Award–winning gospel group the Blind Boys of Alabama died June 3 at age eighty-eight. Fountain formed the group in the mid-1940s along with five friends from the Alabama School for the Negro Blind in Talladega, and the group, though it has gone through iterations in membership, has been touring continuously ever since. (Fountain retired from touring in 2007.) Ray Allen, a folklorist and music historian, said that over the years the Blind Boys’ sound evolved from the more staid style known as jubilee gospel into one that is distinguished by “a prominent lead singer shouting and preaching and backed by a rhythm-and-blues band.” Below you can hear Fountain sing “Look Where He Brought Me From” and the group’s signature song, “Amazing Grace” (to the tune of “House of the Rising Sun”):

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ART EXHIBITION: “The Morality Theatre Project: The Art of Barry Krammes,” Green Art Gallery, Biola University, La Mirada, California, April 25–June 29, 2018: Only two weeks left! For this exhibition, the culmination of seventeen years of studio work, Barry Krammes has assembled nineteen open-ended narrative scenes—reminiscent of miniature theater sets—using objects and figures gathered from flea markets and dumpsters, estate sales and antique shops. Although the exhibition title references a genre of medieval drama intended to inspire Christian virtue, the artworks do not preach or provide straightforward moral lessons; rather, they stand as little worlds of mystery that invite association and contemplation. If you’re not able to see the exhibition in person, stay tuned for the forthcoming catalog: I’ve been informed that one is in the works, to be published later this year.

Krammes, Barry_Of Mystery (alt photo)
Barry Krammes (American, 1950–), Of Mystery, 2018. Mixed media assemblage. From “The Morality Theatre Project,” Green Art Gallery, Biola University, La Mirada, California. Photo: Johnny Choura.
Of Lamentations by Barry Krammes
Barry Krammes (American, 1950–), Of Lamentations (detail), 2018. Mixed media assemblage. From “The Morality Theatre Project.” Photo courtesy of the Green Art Gallery at Biola University, La Mirada, California.

The occasion of the exhibition is Krammes’s retirement in May after serving for thirty-five years as an art professor at Biola University (he now bears the title Professor Emeritus). He has been instrumental in making Biola’s art department one of the top ten among Christian colleges and universities, and moreover, he helped to foster art appreciation campus-wide, designing and directing “Arts in Worship” chapels and organizing a yearly Arts Emphasis Week, which developed into the Biola Arts Symposium. He has also been active beyond the walls of Biola, especially as a founding member of the national organization Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA). To learn more about his art, see “Interceding in the Theatre of Struggle: A reflection on the assemblage work of Barry Krammes” by Betty Spackman, published Sunday at ArtWay, and, from about ten years ago, the Image journal essay “Barry Krammes: Shepherd of the Wasteland” by Christina Valentine.

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VIDEO ART INSTALLATION: Three Women (2008) by Bill Viola, St. Cuthbert’s Parish Church, Edinburgh, May 1–September 20, 2018: Bill Viola, a pioneer of new media art, has said that his works “function both as aesthetic objects of contemporary art and as practical objects of traditional contemplation and devotion”—which is one reason they are so well suited to display in churches. In Three Women, a work from his Transfiguration series on temporary view at a Victorian church in Scotland, a mother and her two daughters pass from black and white through a threshold of water, entering a realm of color and light. The work speaks to me of the experience of illumination, of being drawn into a new and glorious understanding of divine truth. Watch an excerpt of the video at the New York Times.

Three Women by Bill Viola
Bill Viola (American, 1951–), Still from Three Women, 2008.

(Update: Sign up for the free HeartEdge church and culture seminar “Bill Viola and the Art of Contemplation,” September 20, 2–5:30 p.m. Various individuals will speak on Viola’s church-located installations, approaches to curating exhibitions in churches, and art as contemplative practice.)

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NEW IN THEATERS: First Reformed, written and directed by Paul Schrader: I’ve been hearing great things about this movie, which follows Ernst Toller (Ethan Hawke), the pastor of a small Dutch Reformed congregation in upstate New York, as he grapples with mounting despair. Schrader is the writer who brought us Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and the folks from Fuller Studio recently sat down with him to discuss his Christian upbringing and how the unique language of film—especially the transcendental style—helps him explore religious questions.

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FICTION RECOMMENDATIONS: “Ten Novels Every Pastor Should Read” (+ part 2): Kolby Kerr of LeaderWorks is an exceptional literary guide, whose “ten poets” list I commended in a previous roundup. Here he switches gears to novels. But first he opens by addressing the utilitarian inclination of pastors to nonfiction, which they believe will give them a bigger return on their investment. When it comes to novels, Kerr says, instead of asking What will these books do for me?, we should be asking, What will these books do to me? We should read not only to be informed but to be formed. And once again, what a great list! It’s divided into the categories “saints who sin,” “lost and found” “the dark side,” and “let’s get (meta)physical,” and it concludes with practical advice on how to form and maintain good reading habits.

Roundup: Anglo-Saxon Ascension poem; underwater dance; Andy Squyres album; contemporary icons; Catholicism meets high fashion

ANGLO-SAXON ASCENSION POEM: Excerpts from “Christ II” by Cynewulf, probably ninth century, translated from Old English by Eleanor Parker: Dr. Eleanor Parker lectures on medieval literature at Oxford University and runs the excellent blog A Clerk at Oxford, where she often shares her translations of Anglo-Saxon poetry, with commentary. The poem she shares here reflects on Christ’s ascension—the disciples’ grief, the angels’ joy. To me the most remarkable section is the one that, indirectly referencing a sermon of Gregory the Great, describes Christ “leaping” up to heaven, taking an active bound toward his homeland, a movement read in light of Song of Solomon 2:8: “Behold, he comes, leaping over the mountains, bounding over the hills.” This leap is one of six he took: from heaven (1) into Mary’s womb, (2) into a manger, (3) onto the cross, (4) into the tomb, (5) into hell, and finally, (6) back into heaven. “Prince’s play”! Parker pairs the poem with an exquisite, near-contemporary manuscript illumination, also from England; there’s also a lot of resonance between the poem and the Ascension image I published Tuesday by Bagong Kussudiardja, which shows a more balletic ascent.

Ascension (10th c)
The Ascension, from the Benedictional of St. Æthelwold (BL Additional MS. 49598), f. 64v, England, 963–984 CE. British Library, London.

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UNDERWATER DANCE: “AMA,” a short film by Julie Gautier: This wonderfully expressive silent film shows French free diver and underwater artist Julie Gautier dancing in a single breath for several minutes inside the world’s deepest swimming pool, Y-40 Deep Joy in Montegrotto Terme, Padua, Italy, to a minimalist piano piece. The final shot shows Gautier slowing rising to the water’s surface while releasing a giant air bubble, her pose evocative of the crucified Christ (and her upward movement an Ascension of sorts!). Titled “Ama” (Japanese for “sea woman,” the name given to Japan’s pearl divers), the film is “dedicated to all the women of the world,” Gautier says. The choreography is by Ophélie Longuet.

Gautier and her husband, Guillaume Néry, a free-diving champion, own the underwater filmmaking company Les Films Engloutis. Their most well-known project has been a music video featuring Beyoncé, codirected by Gautier and starring Néry.

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KICKSTARTER CAMPAIGN: Help Andy Squyres finance his next album: Andy Squyres is a super-talented singer-songwriter whose lyrics don’t stay in the shallows but, rather, dive into the depths of the faith experience. They are also supremely hope-filled. Below is a video of Squyres performing “Labor in Vain” at a house concert; the song is from his last album, Cherry Blossoms, which I reviewed here. Click on the boldface link above to hear Squyres discuss his new album project and to donate toward it.

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ICON PAINTING COMPETITION: The Interparliamentary Assembly of Orthodoxy (IAO) is hosting an international icon painting competition on the subject of Christ’s Resurrection. “Our purpose is to explore and bring to the foreground the numerous stylistic trends in existence today, enabling the visualization of a creative dialogue with tradition and, at the same time, the personal artistic expressions of artists who reframe tradition without, however, digressing from the doctrinal framework of Christian icon painting set by the 7th Ecumenical Council.” The submission window is closed—there are sixty-three great entries!—and now it’s time to cast your vote. Five winners will be selected to receive cash prizes, the topmost being €3,000, and other honors. Popular votes will be taken into account by the twelve jury members, among whom are esteemed iconographers George Kordis from Greece and Todor Mitrovic from Serbia.

Contemporary Resurrection icon

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ESSAY: “On the Border of East and West: Searching for Icons in Lviv” by John A. Kohan: The latest issue of Image journal features a wonderful essay on the Lviv school of iconography (represented in entries #4, #10, and #20 of the above contest), a movement by young Ukrainian Greek Catholic artists to contemporize the Byzantine visual tradition. Written by John A. Kohan, an avid religious art collector and former Time bureau chief in Moscow (1988–1996), it discusses the political history of the city; the role of Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky (r. 1901–1944) in preserving and supporting art for future generations; the opening of the Iconart gallery in 2010 to nurture and promote the new style; the broad training these icon makers receive at the Lviv National Academy of Arts; and the uneven reception by others in the denomination (especially official church bodies), who tend to prefer their sacred art in the Radruzh School style or as contemporary Catholic kitsch. Kohan writes from his firsthand experiences meeting the artists and visiting their studios, churches, and exhibition spaces. The essay is available to subscribers only; click here to subscribe.

Crucifixion by Natalya Rusetska
Natalya Rusetska (Ukrainian, 1984–), Crucifixion, 2017. Egg tempera on gessoed wood, 11 3/4 × 8 1/4 in.
Pilate Condemns Jesus to Death by Ivanka Demchuk
Ivanka Demchuk (Ukrainian, 1990–), Christ before Pilate, 2017. Mixed media on gessoed wood, 19 3/4 × 15 3/4 in.

I’m enthralled by the contemporary icons being produced in Lviv—I saw a bunch from Kohan’s collection last summer, and I featured some in a Baptism of Christ roundup earlier this year. The best way to keep abreast of the output from the Lviv school is to follow Iconart on Facebook, and for an even wider breadth of innovative eastern European icons, follow Międzynarodowe Warsztaty Ikonopisów w Nowicy (International Iconography Workshop in Nowica, Poland).

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MET GALA + EXHIBITION: “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination,” May 10–October 8, 2018, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City: The largest exhibition ever mounted by the Met’s Costume Institute, “Heavenly Bodies” features both religious vestments from the Vatican and runway fashions by famous designers inspired by Catholicism. A Fashionista reviewer who attended a preview reports on the integrated displays:

A reliquary arm of Saint Valentine is displayed alongside a breastplate and crown of thorns from Alexander McQueen’s Givenchy days; sacred music serves as the auditory backdrop for a Rodarte collection that features a dress inspired by Bernini’s famous sculpture Ecstasy of Saint Teresa. Rows of mannequins wearing Dolce & Gabbana, Moschino and Raf Simons show the ways that the silhouettes of the cassock and nun’s habit have been explored on the runway time and again. There are even vestments by the likes of Yves Saint Laurent and Riccardo Tisci that were expressly designed to dress statues of the Virgin Mary in chapels in Italy and France.

Each year since 1948, the opening of the Costume Institute’s spring exhibition has been celebrated with a huge fundraising gala attended by celebrities who dress to the theme; this year’s took place May 7. There were lots of crosses and haloes, but also some more particularized outfits. Ariana Grande’s gown was inspired by Michelangelo’s Last Judgment; Gigi Hadid’s, by stained glass. Selena Gomez carried a Coach handbag embroidered with Proverbs 31:30b: “A woman who fears the Lord is a woman who shall be praised.” The most brazenly dressed was Rihanna, who wore a gem-encrusted bishop’s miter (not a papal tiara, as has been commonly reported). Another standout headpiece was Sarah Jessica Parker’s, which featured a Neapolitan Nativity scene set inside a mini baldachin. (The making of elaborate presepi, or Christmas crèches, is a longstanding tradition in Naples, reaching its height during the eighteenth century.)

Rihanna as pope
The white Margiela minidress, cape, and headpiece Rihanna wore to Monday’s Met gala were inspired by Catholic pontifical vestments. Photo: John Shearer/Getty.
Sarah Jessica Parker
Sarah Jessica Parker wore a regal gold, long-trained Dolce & Gabbana gown, but the pièce de résistance of her ensemble was the Nativity headpiece.

Lana Del Rey went as Our Lady of Sorrows, wearing an immaculate-heart chest plate pierced through with seven daggers; it was comical to hear religiously illiterate reporters trying to interpret the symbolism, saying things like the daggers are a “reminder to repent your sins or suffer damnation!” (Wrong. The swords symbolize the Virgin’s seven sorrows, beginning with Simeon’s prophecy.)

Roundup: Easter flash mob; Good Thief; Resurrection photo; Sistine Chapel frescoes in 3-D; etc.

FLASH MOB: On Easter 2011 at City Mall in Beirut, Lebanon, a flash mob broke out singing the Paschal troparion in Arabic: Christ is risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and on those in the tombs bestowing life! [HT: Global Christian Worship]

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NEW PAINTING INSTALLED: James B. Janknegt is a Christian artist from Texas who is known for transposing biblical stories into contemporary American settings. He recently completed a large triptych for the new Unity Hall at Community First! Village in Austin, a planned community, developed by Mobile Loaves & Fishes, that provides affordable, permanent housing for the chronically homeless. (See the development and learn more about it in this short video, presented by MLF founder Alan Graham.) The painting shows Jesus in conversation with the “good thief” who, as he dies, acknowledges his crime and asks Jesus to “remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Luke 23:42). Behind him paradise flowers forth, indicating not only his new home but his inward regeneration. The other thief, by contrast, turns his head away in stubbornness. This episode demonstrates that repentance is always met by Christ with love, affirmation, and seeds of new life.

Good Thief by James B. Janknegt
James B. Janknegt (American, 1953–), Good Thief, 2018. Oil on three panels, 8 × 12 ft. Unity Hall, Community First! Village, Austin, Texas.

Good Thief by James B. Janknegt

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SHORT FILM: “Dance Dance” by French film director Thomas Blanchard evokes each of the four seasons through different elements acting on flowers, captured in either time lapse or slow motion. For fall, a rose is set on fire; for winter, foliage afloat in water becomes frozen in ice; for spring, lilies bloom; and for summer, colored inks hit the flowers and billow up in dusty clouds. Stunning images!

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CHAIYA ART AWARD FINALIST: The inaugural Chaiya Art Award competition ended last month, with the winner taking home £10,000 and being exhibited, along with forty-one other juried selections, at London’s gallery@oxo March 29–April 9. The theme was “Where Is God in Our Twenty-First-Century World?”

One entry I really love is finalist Sheona Beaumont’s Natal, a photographic work that shows a nude pregnant woman standing against a dark wall in profile, her hair blown wildly by a gust of wind, opposite a corpse. These are two different spaces set in juxtaposition—two photos stitched together. The black-and-white photo of the dead body, on the left, is Fred Holland Day’s The Entombment from 1898, in which he himself posed as Christ, laid out on a bier before a doorway, his crown of thorns and titulus crucis on the ground beside him. Beaumont rotated this horizontal image 90 degrees clockwise so that the Christ figure is propped upright. She then posed her female model to form a sort of mirror image, but one full of vitality; the woman’s belly, the site of new life about to be born, is brightly lit. This combination photograph makes a powerful Holy Saturday image, one that hints toward resurrection as the stillness gives way to stirrings. The photo is also an allusion to the new life believers have in Christ, and in fact it forms the first in a new series titled Born Again. Visit Beaumont’s website to view the artwork and to read a bit about her process and the meaning the work holds for her.

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EXHIBITION: “Zurbarán’s Jacob and His Twelve Sons: Paintings from Auckland Castle”: Last fall, Spanish Golden Age artist Francisco de Zurbarán’s Jacob and His Twelve Sons made its North American debut at the Meadows Museum in Dallas, traveling for the first time in centuries, and now the exhibition is at the Frick Collection in New York City—but only through the end of this week! Twelve of the thirteen paintings in the set are from Auckland Castle in County Durham, England, the residence of the eighteenth-century Anglican bishop Richard Trevor, who acquired them in 1756 and had them displayed in his dining room, where they have remained ever since. Trevor was outbid on the painting of Benjamin, however, which is on loan from Grimsthorpe Castle in Lincolnshire, reuniting the set for the first time since the paintings’ 1756 sale.

Judah and Dan by Francisco de Zurbarán
Francisco de Zurbarán (Spanish, 1598–1664), Judah; Dan, 1640–44. Oil on canvas, 79 1/4 × 40 3/4 in. each. Photos: Robert LaPrelle.

The iconography of the paintings is derived from the prophecies Jacob utters over each of his sons on his deathbed, as described in Genesis 49. For example, Judah, from whom “the scepter shall not depart,” holds said scepter and is regally draped in a gold brocade robe and fur that hint at his descendants kings David and Solomon (Zurbarán was the son of a haberdasher, and gave great care to the depiction of textiles); Dan, on the other hand, holds up a serpent on a stick, alluding to his craftiness. To view all the paintings, click here.

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3-D SHOW: As of last month and through the end of July, Artainment Worldwide Shows, in cooperation with the Vatican Museums, presents “Giudizio universale: Michelangelo and the Secrets of the Sistine Chapel” by Marco Balich, an immersive 3-D show that brings to life Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes inside the Rome Conciliation Auditorium. Half the room is covered, from the walls to the ceiling, with a 270-degree screen that projects extremely high-res photos of the paintings, dramatized through movement, music, lighting, sound effects, narration, live actors, and dance. Lasting sixty minutes, the show concludes with the thirteenth-century Latin hymn Dies irae (“Day of Wrath”), set to new music by Sting and arranged for chamber orchestra and choir by Rob Mathieson. Watch the trailer below, or click here to see some of the 3-D animation of the Last Judgment.

 

Roundup: Merton on art; psalms of ascent; Oscar-nominated “Loving Vincent”; and more

BOOK EXCERPT: “Reality, Art, and Prayer” by Thomas Merton: In this excerpt from No Man Is an Island (1955), Merton talks about “aesthetic formation,” about how “music and art and poetry attune the soul to God”—art that doesn’t perform that function, he says, isn’t worthy of the name! Some might think that the spiritual solution to overstimulated senses (so many images, so much noise) is to close our eyes and ears. But that’s not necessarily so, as Merton explains: “The first step in the interior life, nowadays, is not, as some might imagine, learning not to see and taste and hear and feel things. On the contrary, what we must do is begin by unlearning our wrong ways of seeing, tasting, feeling, and so forth, and acquire a few of the right ones.” Yes! This is what I was trying to get at in my essay “Disciplining our eyes with holy images.”

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KICKSTARTER CAMPAIGN: Songs for the Sojourn by Bellwether Arts: The same liturgical arts initiative that brought you this Advent/Christmas package is now poised to release  a set of songs, visual art, and prose devotions inspired by the Bible’s “psalms of ascent,” which were likely sung by Jewish pilgrims as they ascended the road to Jerusalem for their three major annual festivals. At the head of the project is Bruce Benedict, founder of Cardiphonia, who in 2010 received a grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship to commission songwriters and visual artists to help his congregation explore, through their respective disciplines, these fifteen psalms (read his application here). The project was so enriching to those involved that he recently decided to expand it to include even more songwriters, painters, and writers—the fruits of which are being made available to the public as a double-disc album, songbook, and art-filled devotional book.

While the songs have been recorded, Bellwether needs your help to finance the mixing, mastering, and disc pressing and the printing of the other two products, as well as to pay the new artists involved. Pledging money in exchange for a reward (essentially, placing a preorder) is a tangible way to support the project. Visit their Kickstarter page for more information or to make a pledge. Campaign ends March 23.

Help Higher Than the Hills by Aaron Collier
Help Higher Than the Hills (Psalm 123) by Aaron Collier. Photo courtesy Bellwether Arts/Cardiphonia.
Psalm 133 by Kyle Ragsdale
Psalm 133 by Kyle Ragsdale. Photo courtesy Bellwether Arts/Cardiphonia.

(For other artistic responses to Psalm 133, see this artful devotion featuring the Psalter Project and a William Walker mural, and the poem “Aaron’s Beard” by Eugene Peterson.)

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SONG: “Refuse the Bait” by Liturgical Folk: Fr. Nelson Koscheski, Ryan Flanigan, and David Moffitt wrote this song last year about Christ overcoming Satan’s temptations in the wilderness. I’m always blessed by these men’s collaborations. To stay apprised of their latest, follow Liturgical Folk on Facebook, and see also https://liturgicalfolk.bandcamp.com/.

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POEM CYCLE: “A Small Psalter” by Pádraig J. Daly: I really love this contribution in the current issue of Image journal—twenty-two modern-day psalms by Irish poet-priest Pádraig J. Daly. Like the biblical psalms, these poems express a range of emotions and postures before God, from sorrow and frustration to joy and awe. Here’s #12:

We are numbed, Lord, by number;
But you, being Other, know
Each single form that kneels at night,
Each heart enchanted by a meadow;
And hear our joys and heed our sighs.
And all we have and are, as we come naked here—
The very self of us!—
Comes from no thing in us
But from you, who make in us an emptiness
That you alone suffice.

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FILM: Loving Vincent, dir. Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman: The Oscars are the only occasion of the year that I watch live TV, and I’m really looking forward to the show this Sunday. One of the nominations for Best Animated Feature is the world’s first fully oil-painted feature film, Loving Vincent, a biographical drama about the mysterious Vincent van Gogh. While most reviewers say the narrative content is forgettable, they hail the film’s innovative production methods and visual achievement as nothing short of amazing. Funded by Kickstarter, a team of 125 classically trained artists from various countries painted 65,000 frames in the style of the Dutch master (many of the final canvas paintings were exhibited at the Noordbrabants Museum last year), and actors were cast who had a physical resemblance to van Gogh’s portrait subjects (e.g., Chris O’Dowd as Postman Roulin!). To view the paintings and learn more about the filmmaking process, visit LovingVincent.com, and see the trailer below.

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VISUAL MEDITATION: “Behold the Broken, the Bruised” by Victoria Emily Jones: Speaking of van Gogh . . . Last week I wrote a reflection for ArtWay on the mixed-media sculpture After Van Gogh by Mad River Wiyot artist Rick Bartow (1946–2016). The primal wail of the figure expresses the artist’s psychological wounds, as a person with PTSD, and the communal wounds of his people, as well as invokes the famously troubled postimpressionist of its title. To me it also evokes Jesus’s cry of dereliction on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”

After Van Gogh by Rick Bartow
Rick Bartow (Wiyot, 1946–2016), After Van Gogh, 1992. Lead, wood, nails, crab claw, copper, and acrylic, 23 × 12 × 7 in. Private collection. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Also, I’ve been writing Lenten art reflections for GiftofLent.org, one for each Monday of the season (through March 25). This week’s is on Kris Martin’s Altar, a steel replica of the Ghent Altarpiece framework, installed on a Belgian beach. Click on the link to read more.

Altar by Kris Martin
Kris Martin (Dutch, 1972–), Altar, 2014. Steel, 17′4″ × 17′3″ × 6′7″. Temporary installation in Ostend, Belgium.

Three Advent video series

“Art for Advent 2017” (Dr. James Romaine): For the third year in a row, my friend James Romaine, an art historian, is releasing four videos in which he discusses historically significant artworks keyed to the season of Advent. Last year he looked at works from the Met Cloisters; this year he’s focusing on paintings by the African American artist Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937). If you want to learn more about Tanner, see Romaine’s essay on him in the recently published book Beholding Christ and Christianity in African American Art, which Romaine coedited; I own a copy and look forward to reviewing it on the blog in the new year!

Romaine’s first “Art for Advent 2017” video covers Tanner’s Annunciation, which has been the header image of this website for the last two months. I saw the painting in person for the first time this summer at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, and it transfixed me. (Along with Rogier van der Weyden’s Crucifixion, it was my favorite piece on display.) It was the first major painting of a biblical subject that Tanner completed following his six-week trip to the Holy Land, undertaken as part of his search for historically authentic imagery.

First Sunday of Advent: The Annunciation:

Second Sunday of Advent: The Holy Family:

Third Sunday of Advent: Flight into Egypt:

Fourth Sunday of Advent: (forthcoming)

Annunciation (detail) by Henry Ossawa Tanner
Henry Ossawa Tanner (American, 1859–1937), The Annunciation (detail), 1898. Oil on canvas, 57 × 71 1/4 in. (144.8 × 181 cm). Philadelphia Museum of Art. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

To view “Art for Advent” videos from previous years, visit Romaine’s Seeing Art History YouTube channel.

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“The Joyous Mysteries” (The Liturgists): Meditating on the five “Joyous Mysteries” of Christ’s childhood—the Annunciation, the Visitation, the Nativity, the Presentation in the Temple, and the Finding of Christ in the Temple—is a Catholic devotional practice, part of “praying the rosary,” that some Protestants have found spiritually helpful and have adapted to their own quiet times with God.

To draw us into the movements of the Christmas story, The Liturgists invited four visual artists to create a work based on one of the first four Joyous Mysteries. They then shot two videos for each artwork—one an “Artist Narrative,” where the artist talks about his or her work and process, and the other an “imago divina” meditation led by Mike McHargue (“Science Mike”), which guides us through looking at and responding to the artwork. The videos are backed by original instrumental compositions by Tim Coons of Giants & Pilgrims and one by Jon Leverkuhn, which you can download for free on Bandcamp. You can also purchase signed, limited edition art prints for $35 each, or $95 for a full set.

Here is the list of videos; I’ve embedded my two favorites (I’m partial to figurative art):

1. The Annunciation, with art by Betony Coons: Meditation | Artist Narrative

2. The Visitation, with art by Wes Sam-Bruce: Meditation | Artist Narrative

3. The Nativity, with art by Katie Mai-Fusco: Meditation | Artist Narrative

4. The Presentation, with art by Tony Garza: Meditation | Artist Narrative

Thank you, Liturgists and friends, for this impressive Advent offering!   Continue reading “Three Advent video series”

Roundup: Memento mori; works of mercy; ring shout; The Seventh Seal

Affiliate links: Art & Theology is now a participant in the Amazon Associates program, an affiliate marketing tool that enables me to potentially collect a little change by hosting Amazon links on my website. I already do that anyway—link to Amazon product pages when I mention books, movies, or less often, music (I try to drive sales directly to the artist’s website, if one exists)—so you will not notice any change in blog post appearance or the frequency of links. But now that I’m registered, if you were to click through one of those Amazon links (for example, Shout Because You’re Free or The Seventh Seal below) and make a purchase, any purchase, I would earn a referral fee of 2.5% to 5% of the purchase price. I have to generate at least three purchases every 180 days to stay in the program. As of now, this is the website’s sole income stream.

EXHIBITION: “The Ivory Mirror: The Art of Mortality in Renaissance Europe,” June 24–November 26, 2016, Bowdoin College Museum of Art, Brunswick, Maine: Skeletons, skulls, and other dark images of death from the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were meant to remind their owners of life’s brevity and thereby prompt repentance. Some target specific sins, like clinging too tightly to one’s wealth or good looks. “This exhibition represents a significant contribution to our understanding of the rich visual culture of mortality in Renaissance Europe. The appeal of the memento mori, featuring macabre imagery urging us to ‘remember death,’ reached the apex of its popularity around 1500, when artists treated the theme in innovative and compelling ways. Exquisite artworks—from ivory prayer beads to gem-encrusted jewelry—evoke life’s preciousness and the tension between pleasure and responsibility, then and now.” A symposium, “Last Things: Luxury Goods and Memento Mori Culture in Europe, ca. 1400-1550,” will be held November 3–4. You can read a review of the exhibition at Hyperallergic.

Memento mori (prayer bead)
Ivory prayer bead, France or southern Netherlands, 1530. Victoria and Albert Museum, London. On one side of the carving is a man, on another a woman, and grinning sardonically between them is a skull, worms crawling through its bared teeth.
Vanitas (16th century)
Vanitas, Germany, ca. 1525. Boxwood. Harvard Art Museums/Busch-Reisinger Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

ART COMMENTARY: The Seven Works of Mercy (+ Part 2) by the Master of Alkmaar: The corporal works of mercy, seven in number, are a traditional Catholic practice of serving the physical needs of others. Derived from Matthew 25:31–46 (cf. Isaiah 58:6–10) and Tobit 1:16–22, they are to: (1) feed the hungry, (2) give water to the thirsty, (3) clothe the naked, (4) shelter the homeless, (5) care for the sick, (6) visit the imprisoned, and (7) bury the dead. Earlier this month Marleen Hengelaar-Rookmaaker wrote a two-part visual meditation on a Netherlandish polyptych (altarpiece with four or more panels) from the sixteenth century that treats this topic. In the background of each contemporary enactment of mercy stands a silently affirming Jesus. To view the panels in high resolution, visit the Rijksmuseum website.

Seven Works of Mercy
The Master of Alkmaar, The Seven Works of Mercy, 1504. Oil on seven panels, 120 × 472 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

ALBUM: Spirituals and Shout Songs from the Georgia Coast by the McIntosh County Shouters: The McIntosh County Shouters from coastal Georgia are the last community in America to perform the traditional ring shout, a shuffle-step devotional movement, accompanied by singing, that is rooted in the ritual dances of West Africa and was forged by the Atlantic slave trade. Shouting differs from traditional black religious music in repertory, style, and execution, Art Rosenbaum writes in Shout Because You’re Free: The African American Ring Shout Tradition in Coastal Georgia. In 1980 two folklorists, astonished to find the form still in use, encouraged practitioners to take it public. The community thus assembled a small touring group, and in 1984, under the Smithsonian Folkways label, they released their first album. This year they released their second, with a mostly new selection of songs (all but three) and all-new performances. You can watch “Jubilee” below. (Thanks, Global Christian Worship, for the tip!)

FILM: The Seventh Seal (1958): After receiving several recommendations, I finally watched this classic of world cinema, directed by Ingmar Bergman, and actually enjoyed it more than I expected. It follows the medieval knight Antonius Block as he returns, disillusioned and exhausted, from a decade-long Crusade, only to encounter Death, whom he challenges to a fateful game of chess. (This central image, Bergman said, was inspired by a church fresco, reproduced below.)

Death Playing Chess by Albertus Pictor
Albertus Pictor (Swedish, ca. 1440–ca. 1507), Death Playing Chess, 1480s. Fresco, Täby Church, Uppland, Sweden.

The movie’s title is taken from Revelation 8:1—“And when the Lamb opened the seventh seal, there was silence in heaven for about half an hour”—establishing the silence of God as a major theme. Antonius’s monologue in the chapel confessional evinces his struggle between doubt and belief:

I want to confess as best I can, but my heart is void. The void is a mirror. I see my face and feel loathing and horror. My indifference to men has shut me out. I live now in a world of ghosts, a prisoner in my dreams. . . .

Is it so hard to conceive God with one’s senses? Why must He hide in a mist of vague promises and invisible miracles? How are we to believe the believers when we don’t believe ourselves? What will become of us who want to believe but cannot? And what of those who neither will nor can believe? Why can I not kill God within me? Why does He go on living in a painful, humiliating way? I want to tear Him out of my heart, but He remains a mocking reality which I cannot get rid of. . . .

I want knowledge. Not belief. Not surmise. But knowledge. I want God to put out His hand, show His face, speak to me. . . . I cry to Him in the dark, but there seems to be no one there.

But along his way he ends up meeting a “holy family”—simple and with pure faith and hope—whose names, Mia and Jof, are diminutives of Mary and Joseph. Bergman presents their worldview as a contrast to the bitter skepticism of Antonius.

For reviews that trace themes of faith and doubt in The Seventh Seal, see David Nilsen and Steven D. Greydanus.

Roundup: Ecclesia, black gospel cover, Nat Turner, and more

VISUAL MEDITATION: “The Birth of Ecclesia”: On Sunday I wrote a piece for ArtWay on a thirteenth-century Bible moralisée illumination that pairs the creation of Eve out of the side of sleeping Adam with the birth of the church out of the side wound of the New Adam, Christ, our spouse, who “fell asleep” on the cross. The painting offers a great example of how art can do theology.

Birth of Ecclesia
Bible moralisèe: “The Creation of Eve” and “The Birth of Ecclesia,” fol. 2v (detail), ONB Han. Cod. 2554, Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Vienna. Made in Paris, 1225–49.

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POETRY LECTURE: “Believing in Poetry for a Secular Age: Michael Symmons Roberts and Mark Oakley,” October 5, 2017, 6:30 p.m., 77 Great Peter Street, London SW1P 2EZ: “If we live in a secular age, you wouldn’t know it from our poetry. Not only are some of the greatest poets of recent years overtly Christian, such as Geoffrey Hill and Les Murray, but many who are not remain drawn to and fascinated by ‘the soul in paraphrase, heart in pilgrimage.’” To facilitate discussion on poetry’s spiritual power, the religion and society think tank Theos has organized an evening with the award-winning poet Michael Symmons Roberts and arts writer and advocate Mark Oakley, who will draw on their most recent publications. General admission is £7.

Inspired by his hometown of Manchester, Roberts’s seventh poetry collection, Mancunia, released last month, has received critical acclaim. “Mancunian Miserere” is reprinted in full in the Guardian’s review, but here’s a taste: “As I walk west on Cross Street have mercy on me, O God, / . . . / for the wide berth I gave that man-cocoon asleep on the steps / of a new-closed bank where once I queued to find my balance.”

As canon chancellor of St. Paul’s Cathedral, one of Mark Oakley’s responsibilities is to advance the church’s engagement with the arts. Last year he wrote The Splash of Words: Believing in Poetry, a series of reflections on twenty-nine poems that speak into the life of faith. Earlier books of his include The Collage of God, A Good Year, and compilations of readings for weddings and funerals.

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ALBUM: Grace by Lizz Wright: Lizz Wright’s sixth album, Grace, dropped on September 15 to rave reviews. “A sophisticated straddler of down-home blues, jazz, gospel, folk, southern pop and confessional singer-songwriter traditions,” Wright, with the help of album producer Joe Henry, chose nine covers from an array of sources and eras and cowrote the tenth track with Maia Sharp. My favorite is “Singing in My Soul,” written by Thomas Dorsey and popularized by Sister Rosetta Tharpe—about the steadfast joy that is ours in Christ.

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FILM: The Birth of a Nation (2016): My husband never learned about Nat Turner in school, he recently told me when the name came up at an exhibition opening. So when we got home we decided to watch Nate Parker’s biopic of Turner, an enslaved black preacher who in 1831 led a revolt against the slaveholding families of Southampton County, Virginia, killing about sixty white men, women, and children. It was a watershed moment in American history that spread fear throughout the South and resulted in the execution of fifty-six slaves and the lynching of over a hundred nonparticipants.

As do most cinematic retellings of history, The Birth of a Nation contains inaccuracies, and in its attempts to be a hero’s story, it lacks nuance. But it effectively shows how entrenched Turner was in scripture—he was literate—and how his growing understanding of God’s will for his people, combined with supernatural visions and other pressings of the Spirit, impelled him to act decisively on the side of justice. Because of my pacifist convictions, I cannot commend Turner’s violent methods . . . but I say this as a free white woman in the twenty-first century, whose privilege has protected me from the kind of desperation that was present on the antebellum plantations of the American South; were I in a state of constant oppression with no other way out, and forced to witness daily the abuse of my spouse, my children, my mother, and others I love, maybe my feelings would be different. I can still appreciate Turner’s ministry to his fellow slaves and his hunger and thirst for righteousness, as well as his internal wrestling with what was an extremely difficult situation.

On a related note, Nat Turner’s Bible is one of the collection highlights at the new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, DC. Worth a visit!

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FROM THE ARCHIVES: “This is what hope usually feels like”: In October 2015 I wrote an essay on George Frederic Watts’s allegorical painting Hope and how it pictures the posture that my family and I assumed after my Aunt Marjie’s cancer diagnosis. I am sad to report that Aunt Marjie passed away in July. We spent so many fun times together, traveling, eating, singing and dancing, our weeklong excursion through Italy, along with my mom, being a main highlight. Aunt Marjie’s boundless enthusiasm, positivity, selflessness, and sense of adventure will continue to inspire me. Tomorrow I’ll be flying out to Montana for a party in her honor, where I’ll be telling 150-plus friends and family members what she meant to me—and then dancing it up, just like she wanted! Here are a few favorite photos from my albums.

Making cookies with Aunt Marjie
Me and Aunt Marjie making cookies at Grandmom and Poppies’ house in Pleasantville, New York, in March 1991. When I was older Aunt Marjie told me that she had actually been in mourning that month over the loss of a child through miscarriage, and that this was the first time she had smiled in weeks. “It was a healing moment I have never forgotten,” she said.
Marjie, Vic, and Orion
Aunt Marjie was endearingly goofy, and completely unselfconscious about it. She livened up every outing and taught me not to care what other people think. Here we are with her son Orion, singing “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” on a boardwalk in 2002—deserted because it’s December!
Trevi Fountain
Mom, me, and Aunt Marjie throwing coins into the Trevi Fountain in Rome. This photo has been framed on my bedroom dresser since I got back to the States from that semester abroad in 2009.
Aunt Marjie at Villa Jovis
This is a genuine reaction to I-don’t-remember-what inside Villa Jovis on Capri. Aunt Marjie’s ultra-expressiveness was one of her much-beloved traits, and archaeological sites always brought it out. (She had a PhD in the field . . . in addition to master’s degrees in geology and geophysics, anthropology, and social science!)
Aunt Marjie dancing
Aunt Marjie was always the first one out on the dance floor at weddings. Here she is at my wedding in 2010 with my cousins Alex and Danny. To this day, whenever I reference her to friends, they say, “I remember her! The dancing lady in the red dress!”

Roundup: Ukrainian sacred art, seven deadly sins, Yoko, Rectify, and more

Whenever I gather with friends, I like to ask them what they’ve been reading, watching, and/or listening to lately (a lot of the media I consume comes from word-of-mouth recommendations), and if they’ve visited any interesting new places. In the spirit of sharing, here are some things on my list this month.

WHERE I’M GOING

“East Meets West: Women Icon Makers of Western Ukraine,” St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church, Chatham, Massachusetts: This week I’m road-tripping up to Cape Cod with my husband and two friends to see an art exhibition organized by John A. Kohan. On display through the end of the month are twenty-three Ukrainian Greek Catholic icons by four female artists from Lviv who are representative of the eastern European sacred art renaissance sparked by the dissolution of the Soviet Union: Ivanka Demchuk, Natalya Rusetska, Ulyana Tomkevych, and Lyuba Yatskiv. This Thursday, August 17, at 4:30 p.m., Kohan will be giving a gallery talk discussing the artists and their context. I’ve been following these women online for the past few years through Iconart and am thrilled to be able to see their work in person. I’m not sure which specific works will be there, but here are examples of two of the artists’ work:

Adam Gives Names to the Animals by Lyuba Yatskiv
Lyuba Yatskiv (Ukrainian, 1977–), Adam Gives Names to the Animals, 2015. Acrylic and gold leaf on gessoed board, 80 × 50 cm.
The Baptism of Christ by Ivanka Demchuk
Ivanka Demchuk (Ukrainian, 1990–), The Baptism of Christ, 2015. Mixed media on board on canvas, 30 × 40 cm.

Two-day arts lecture and performance series, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina: Thanks, Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts! Celebrating the opening of a new art exhibition at the Nasher Museum of Art, “The Patience to See: The Sights & Sounds of Carlo Dolci” on Thursday, August 31, will feature talks by Dr. Ben Quash and Dr. Chloe Reddaway, live period music by top-tier orchestral musicians, and the premiere of Blue Madonna, an original composition by Dr. Jeremy Begbie, inspired by a painting after Dolci. The other program events, taking place on Friday, September 1, are “Secretaries of Praise: Poetry, Song, and Theology” and “Home, Away, and Home Again: The Rhythm of the Gospel in Music.” My family lives in the Raleigh-Durham area, so it will be fun to spend time with them while also taking in some world-class art, music, and scholarship!

The Blue Madonna by Carlo Dolci
 Onorio Marinari (Italian, 1627–1715), The Blue Madonna (after Carlo Dolci), 17th century. Oil on canvas. John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art, Sarasota, Florida.

WHAT I’M READING

Seven Deadly Sins box set

The Seven Deadly Sins: These seven small books (each about 128 pages) grew out of a 2002–2003 lecture series cosponsored by the New York Public Library and Oxford University Press. Each is authored by a different prominent writer and approaches the assigned sin through the lenses of history, theology, philosophy, psychology, ethics, social criticism, popular culture, art, and/or literature. (Several include a full-color image insert.) My favorite is Gluttony by Francine Prose, in part because it contained the most surprises. Prose points out that one can make the belly a god not only by habitually overeating but by being obsessive about nutrition, calories, body fat, and pants size—being a slave to the scale or to a point system. That’s not to say that dieting and exercise can’t be done without idolatry, but . . . you have to read the book. It diagnoses our culture’s “schizophrenic attitude toward gluttony”—inundate us with snack ads, restaurants, and recipes and encourage us to take pleasure in eating, then tell us we’re eating too much and brand us with a scarlet O for Obese, promising that a gym membership and such-and-such health-food regimen will remove that shame. On both sides of our ambivalence, someone is making money.

I also really enjoyed Greed by Phyllis Tickle (she takes a similar approach as Prose, majoring on Christian theology, literature, and art, and is a brilliant writer) and Pride by Michael Eric Dyson, a sociology professor and ordained Baptist minister who focuses on racial pride (addresses why white pride is a vice but black pride is a virtue) and national pride (addresses the difference between patriotism, a virtue, and nationalism, a vice), describing very chillingly what it’s like to be black in America. Sloth is styled as a parody of the self-help genre and contains crude language, and I wasn’t too keen on it. I also wasn’t drawn in by Anger, which is written from a Buddhist perspective.

Acorn by Yoko Ono

Acorn by Yoko Ono: Before her marriage to John Lennon, Yoko was a major figure in the underground art scene in New York City, and she continues to create today, mainly conceptual and performance art. On a whim, I bought her 2013 book Acorn on sale at the Hirshhorn—a sequel, of sorts, to her more famous Grapefruit—and have been enjoying reading and “performing” the “instructional poems,” or what I would call mindfulness exercises. Promoting better ways of relating to ourselves, each other, and the planet, these exercises are given names like “Sky Piece” and “Sound Piece,” and each is accompanied by an amoeba-like dot drawing that gives readers “further brainwork,” Yoko says. (Click here to view sample page spreads, which include images.) My husband, Eric, thinks all the pieces are woo-woo—and some of them are. But others have deepened my wonder and praise, given my imagination some much-needed exercise, or convicted me of being a poor friend. Here are two:

“Earth Piece V”

Watch the sunset.
Feel the Earth moving.

“Connection Piece V”

How do you connect with people the most?

With the feeling of:
Curiosity
Interest
Forgiveness
Adoration
Competition
Envy
Fear
Control
Detachment
Rejection

Make a list of people around you and see how it comes out.
Ask yourself if you are comfortable with the way you connect.
Don’t simplify the situation by just saying “I love/hate them all.”

WHAT I’M WATCHING

I just finished the first season of Rectify on Netflix, a drama about a man, Daniel Holden, who’s released from prison after spending nineteen years on Georgia’s death row for the rape and murder of his girlfriend. I’m hooked. A lot of it so far is Daniel learning how to use his freedom, especially how to give and receive human touch, and rediscovering the world—the weightlessness of goose down, for example, or the feeling of bare feet on carpet. I first heard about the show from the Televisionaries podcast, where Kutter Callaway, author of Watching TV Religiously: Television and Theology in Dialogue, praised it for, among other things, giving high visibility to a Christian character who’s portrayed in a nuanced and noncondescending manner. We see evangelism, baptisms, people praying together, people owning their faith and struggling through it, asking hard questions. A second recommendation from film critic Nick Olson via Good Letters last month cinched my resolve to jump in. (Note to prospective viewers: The show is rated TV-14 for intense thematic elements, sexuality, and violence.)

WHAT I’M LISTENING TO

I’ve found that any album on the Deeper Well label is fantastic. Lately I’ve been listening to Wounded Healer (2012) by the Followers, who is Josh White, Eric Earley, and friends. The style is a mixture of soul, gospel, and vintage folk rock—what the group calls “neo-gospel.” The track below, “Enfold Me,” features the vocals of Liz Vice.

Roundup: Contemporary santos; singing grace with knives; Auden interprets Bruegel; “The Old Churchyard”; pyrotechnic ladder

“The Cosmopolitan and the Campesino: The Sacred Art of Luis Tapia” by Dana Gioia: I first learned about the pioneering Chicano artist Luis Tapia from the book Crafting Devotions: Tradition in Contemporary New Mexico Santos. His work was memorable, so when I saw it on the cover of the latest Dappled Things issue, I was eager to read inside. Dana Gioia’s essay introduces us to work that is “both strikingly original and deeply respectful of its origins” in the Hispano religious folk art tradition established in New Mexico in the seventeenth century. Pushing the art of polychrome wood sculpture to new levels of craftsmanship and social and political commentary, Tapia “has enlarged his tradition to make it capacious enough to contain his imagination and the complexities of contemporary Latino experience.”

The art world is more accustomed to disruption and transgression than to transformative renewal. (What is more normative in art nowadays than transgression?) It is easier to renounce or mock the past than to master and reshape it to new ends. Assimilating the past, however, allows new work to carry powerful formal and cultural resonance, such as Tapia’s adaptations of New Mexican Catholic folk subjects and symbolism into new secular and social contexts. Tapia does not approach the past with the distanced irony and intellectual condescension of artists such as John Currin or Jeff Koons. Tapia remains invested in the forms, themes, and techniques of the New Mexican Latino Catholic tradition.

(Related post: “Religious art highlights from New Mexico”)

Pieta by Luis Tapia
Luis Tapia (American, 1950–), Pietà, 1999. Carved and painted wood, 20¼ × 14½ × 9½ in. Collection of John Robertshaw. Photo: Dan Morse, courtesy The Owings Gallery, Santa Fe.

Renaissance-era cutlery engraved with musical notations: The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has in its collection a rare “notation knife” from sixteenth-century Italy, whose blade contains on each side a line of music expressing gratitude for a meal. The inscription on one side reads, “The blessing of the table. May the three-in-one bless that which we are about to eat,” while the other reads, “The saying of grace. We give thanks to you God for your generosity.” The knife, which contains only a tenor voice part, belongs to a set. Art historian Flora Dennis, whose background is in musicology, tracked down the other three in the set and, with the help of the Royal College of Music, transcribed the voice parts into modern notation, then had the benediction and grace from the knives sung and recorded (listen below). Click on the link to hear curator Kirstin Kennedy discuss the knife’s possible uses, to view footage from the recording session, and to listen to two alternate recordings.

Notation Knife
Left and right views of an etched, engraved, and gilded steel knife with ivory, brass, and silver handle, by an unknown maker, Italy, 1500–50. Victoria & Albert Museum, London.

Benediction, Version 1

Grace, Version 1

“‘About Suffering They Were Never Wrong’” by Kevin Antlitz: This essay about human indifference to others’ suffering centers on W. H. Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts,” which is itself a response to two paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder: The Census at Bethlehem and The Fall of Icarus. Insights from Mark Twain, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, Elie Wiesel, Nuremberg prosecutor Benjamin Ferencz, novelist Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, and St. Theophan the Recluse add to the commentary, which is personalized by the author’s reflections on his visit to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem. The indictment is sobering: we are all of us guilty of evil—the enabler just as much as the perpetrator.

The Census at Bethlehem by Pieter Bruegel
Nobody notices the need of the pregnant couple—the Holy Family—making their way into town. Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Dutch, 1525/30–1569), The Census at Bethlehem, 1566. Oil on panel, 116 × 164.5 cm (46 × 64.8 in.). Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels.
Landscape with the Fall of Icarus by Pieter Bruegel
The plowman, shepherd, and angler continue with their work, indifferent to the upside-down, flailing legs in the sea beside them, and “the expensive delicate ship” at the crash site “had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.” 1560s copy of Pieter Bruegel the Elder (Dutch, 1525/30–1569), Landscape with the Fall of Icarus, ca. 1558. Oil on canvas, 73.5 × 112 cm (28.9 × 44.1 in.). Royal Museums of Fine Arts of Belgium, Brussels.

Offa Rex records spiritual folk standard “The Old Churchyard”: Olivia Chaney has teamed up with the Decemberists under the name Offa Rex to record an album that pays homage to British folk music. Released this month, The Queen of Hearts features a beautiful rendition of “The Old Churchyard,” a song about the pain of death and the hope of resurrection. It invites you, first, to come pay respect to loved ones who have passed out of this world over the years, then entreats you not to feel sorrow for them, “for sweet is their sleep, though cold and hard their pillows may be.” The song acknowledges that words are insufficient to comfort those left behind but nonetheless offers the reassurance of peace and rest for the deceased, and a glorious rising on the last day. (Thanks to Paul Neeley for this find!)

Come, come with me out to the old churchyard,
I so well know those paths ’neath the soft green sward.
Friends slumber in there that we want to regard;
We will trace out their names in the old churchyard.

Mourn not for them, their trials are o’er,
And why weep for those who will weep no more?
For sweet is their sleep, though cold and hard
Their pillows may be in the old churchyard.

I know that it’s vain when our friends depart
To breathe kind words to a broken heart;
And I know that the joy of life is marred
When we follow lost friends to the old churchyard.

But were I at rest ’neath yonder tree,
Oh, why would you weep, my friends, for me?
I’m so weary, so wayworn, why would you retard
The peace I seek in the old churchyard?

Why weep for me, for I’m anxious to go
To that haven of rest where no tears ever flow;
And I fear not to enter that dark lonely tomb
Where our saviour has lain and conquered the gloom.

I rest in the hope that one bright day
Sunshine will burst to these prisons of clay,
And old Gabriel’s trumpet and voice of the Lord
Will wake up the dead in the old churchyard.

Sky Ladder documentary (2016): This Netflix original directed by Kevin Macdonald (The Last King of Scotland) profiles the world-renowned contemporary artist Cai Guo-Qiang (pronounced Tsai gwo chi-ONG), who is best known for reinventing the possibilities of the firework, opening its purpose up beyond mere entertainment. Through interviews with the artist and his family, friends, and critics, the film tracks Cai’s rise from childhood in Mao’s China to global fame, addressing the cultural influences on his work, his desire to effect social change, and his struggles to maintain integrity and artistic freedom (his acceptance to design the fireworks display for the opening ceremony of the 2008 Beijing Olympics was controversial).

The documentary shares its title with Cai’s decades-long obsession and most ambitious work to date: a pyrotechnic ladder that rises up over a quarter mile into the sky, as successive explosions etch each new rung and rail segment into place. “I want to connect the earth to the universe,” Cai said. It was fascinating to be let in on his process for this, his working through all the technical details and other hurdles. Three previous attempts to realize Sky Ladder were canceled—in 1994, due to bad weather; in 2001, due to the 9/11 attacks; and in 2012, due to a revoked permit. It wasn’t until 2015 that the project finally succeeded, in a small Chinese fishing village before an audience of a few hundred. It lasted approximately two and a half minutes. Cai’s Sky Ladder reminds me of “Jacob’s ladder” from Genesis 28:10–19, burning bright, connecting two worlds.

Sky Ladder by Cai Guo-Qiang
Sky Ladder rising. Photo: Lin Yi & Wen-You Cai, courtesy Cai Studio.
Sky Ladder by Cai Guo-Qiang
Cai Guo-Qiang (Chinese, 1957–), Sky Ladder. Realized at Huiyu Island Harbour, Quanzhou, Fujian, June 15, 2015, at 4:49 a.m., approximately 2 minutes and 30 seconds. Photo: Lin Yi & Wen-You Cai, courtesy Cai Studio.