Roundup: Sacred poetry, “Shifting the Gaze,” the Birchwood Painters, new films, and more

TGC ARTICLE: “18 Paintings Christians Should See”: The Gospel Coalition Arts & Culture editor Brett McCracken has rounded up fourteen arts professionals to each choose an artistically and theologically significant painting and write about it in 200 words or less—and I’m one of them! I chose Caravaggio’s The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, which shows that famous encounter between the “doubting” disciple and the risen Christ. Here Thomas literally puts his finger on the flesh-and-blood reality of the resurrection, and you can see the marvel in his face.

Caravaggio_Incredulity of Thomas
Caravaggio (Italian, 1571–1610), The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, 1601–2. Oil on canvas, 107 × 146 cm (42 × 57 in.). Sanssouci Picture Gallery, Potsdam, Germany.

Other selections in the article range from medieval manuscript illuminations and Dutch Golden Age portraits to pop art and abstract minimalism. You might recognize the names of some of the contributors whom I’ve featured before on Art & Theology, like Jonathan A. Anderson, Matthew J. Milliner, W. David O. Taylor, and Terry Glaspey—they have all been influential to me. I’m very encouraged to see this major evangelical website engaging with visual art.

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POEMS: “Featured Poet: Laurie Klein”: In this post from Abbey of the Arts, poet Laurie Klein introduces herself, discussing the sacred themes in her work and her approach to writing poetry, as well as sharing three of her poems: “How to Live Like a Backyard Psalmist,” “I Dream You Ask, But Where Do I Start,” and “Poem for Epiphany.” All three are wonderfully evocative, and I’m definitely going to check out her collection, Where the Sky Opens. The first poem references St. Kevin of Glendalough, a sixth-century Celtic monk whose hand outstretched in prayer once became a nesting place for a blackbird. The poem is about how to live a life of joy, wonder, and praise, and it begins,

Wear shoes with soles like meringue
and pale blue stitching so that
every day you feel ten years old.
Befriend what crawls.

Drink rain, hatless, laughing.

Sit on your heels before anything plush
or vaguely kinetic:
hazel-green kneelers of moss
waving their little parcels
of spores, on hair-trigger stems.

[Read more]

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ARTISTS GROUP AT BIRCHWOOD: The Birchwood Painters, founded in 2009, is a group of painters with disabilities who live at Birchwood care home in Chesham, Buckinghamshire, in England, exhibiting locally and in an annual art show at Birchwood. One of the members is Mark Urwin, who has cerebral palsy and uses a wheelchair. Mark loves studying art history, especially the impressionists. Landscapes are his favorite genre to paint, but he also interprets religious works by the Old Masters—like Simone Martini and Lippo Memmi’s Annunciation, or Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper—in his own semiabstract style, using bright swaths of color. In 2016 Mark gave a lecture on his work at the Royal Academy of Arts in London.

Urwin, Mark_Annunciation (after Martini)
Mark Urwin (British), Annunciation (after Martini and Memmi), 2013. Painting on canvas, 30 × 25 cm.
Urwin, Mark_Last Supper (after Leonardo)
Mark Urwin (British), Last Supper (after Leonardo), 2013. Painting on canvas, 25 × 75 cm.

Mark uses an easel that was specially designed for him by DEMAND (Design and Manufacture for Disability) to enable greater freedom and control in his creations. Whereas before, an art class volunteer had to hold Mark’s canvas, making certain angles to paint more awkward, the DEMAND easel improves canvas access, as the canvas can be positioned in any orientation to Mark, with the bulk of his electric wheelchair no longer posing a problem. Furthermore, he can keep his talk board on his lap so that he doesn’t lose his voice while painting.

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EXHIBITION-IN-PROGRESS: “Exhibition to Examine Balthazar, a Black African King in Medieval and Renaissance European Art”: “Early medieval written legends report that one of the three kings who paid homage to the Christ Child in Bethlehem was from Africa. But it would take nearly 1,000 years for European artists to begin representing Balthazar, the youngest of the three kings, as a black man. Why? . . .

“Delving into the Getty’s collections, we are at work on the exhibition Balthazar: A Black African King in Medieval and Renaissance Art (November 19, 2019–February 17, 2020). We are examining how Balthazar’s depiction coincided with and was furthered by the rise of the slave trade—and we invite your input to inform the exhibition. What questions or ideas do you have about this topic? What stories or themes would you like to see explored? We are eager to incorporate your views into our process.”

Balthazar detail
Detail of The Adoration of the Magi from a French Book of Hours (Ms. 48, fol. 59) showing the magus Balthazar (right), ca. 1480–90, by Georges Trubert. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles.

In this post from the Getty’s blog, The Iris, in addition to finding out how to relay feedback, learn about who the Magi were, what tradition says about them, and the development of Balthazar’s image over time.

(Further reading: “Carol of the Brown King” by Langston Hughes)

I appreciate the Getty’s efforts to be more inclusive in the visual histories they highlight and to solicit input from the general public to assist them in this task. They did the same for their 2018 exhibition Outcasts: Prejudice and Persecution in the Medieval World.

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TED TALK / LIVE PAINTING: “Can Art Amend History?” by Titus Kaphar: American artist Titus Kaphar reconfigures historical artworks—through cutting, bending, overpainting, stitching, tarring, and tearing—to include African American subjects. In this thirteen-minute presentation before a live audience, Kaphar opens by sharing the words his young son spoke upon seeing the famous equestrian statue outside the Natural History Museum in Manhattan, which has Teddy Roosevelt up high on a horse, flanked by a Native American and an African lower down, on foot—which can easily be read as establishing a racial hierarchy.

Kaphar goes on to discuss some of his own encounters with Western art history and his mission to bring black figures out of the shadows of that tradition. He demonstrates this with a reproduction of Family Group in a Landscape by the Dutch master Frans Hals, which shows a wealthy white family of four with their young black servant.* More has been written, Kaphar laments, about the lace the wife is wearing and the dog at the right of the picture than about the black youth who stares straight out at us. This claim did surprise me somewhat—and then I visited the museum website, only to find that their six-paragraph description of the painting doesn’t mention the boy at all! By strategically applying white paint across this canvas, Kaphar forces us to “shift our gaze” and to notice the one who has typically gone unnoticed.

* “Were Those Black ‘Servants’ in Dutch Old Master Paintings Actually Slaves?”

Teddy Roosevelt equestrian statue
James Earle Fraser (American, 1876–1953), Equestrian Statue of Theodore Roosevelt, 1939. Bronze, 300 × 218 × 450 cm (10 × 7 1/6 × 14 3/4 ft.). Museum of Natural History, New York.
Kaphar, Titus_Shifting the Gaze
Titus Kaphar (American, 1976–), Shifting the Gaze, 2017. Oil on canvas, 210.8 × 262.3 cm (83 × 103 1/4 in.). Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York.

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IN THEATERS: Currently showing in theaters are two historical drama films featuring main characters whose work (in art and in activism) was famously inspired by their Christian faith: Tolkien, about the author of Lord of the Rings, and The Best of Enemies, about civil rights leader Ann Atwater from Durham, North Carolina. Both movies have received lukewarm to not-so-great critical reviews but fairly high audience ratings, and I intend to see them. I found out about the latter one through Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, one of the mentees of “Grandma Ann,” who prepared a group study guide to accompany the film.

Also in theaters, with rave reviews all around, is Amazing Grace, a documentary about the creation of Aretha Franklin’s best-selling gospel album of the same title, recorded over two nights in 1972 at New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles. The footage was recently unearthed and reassembled after almost fifty years. The resultant film has been called “wonderfully intimate,” “a raw, sensory, reverent experience,” “a transcendent joy,” “the new gold standard of filmed music concerts,” and “one of the finest music documentaries ever.”

It’s been interesting to hear secular reviewers expressing how moved they were by the film, a film that is prayer (e.g., “Precious Lord, Take My Hand”), proclamation and praise (“God Will Take Care of You”), testimony (“Amazing Grace,” “How I Got Over”), and invitation (“Give Yourself to Jesus”).

Roundup: Aretha Franklin, Berenice Rarig, and more

Last week I returned from a two-week trip to western Europe, where my husband and I spent time in Spain (Madrid, Barcelona, and Porto Cristo), southern France (Aix-en-Provence and Marseilles), and Italy (Florence, Rome, Pompeii, and Amalfi). We had only a little time in each city, but wow, what beauty! I’ll be going through our photos soon and sharing some on the blog. In the meantime, here’s one Eric took outside Notre-Dame de la Garde in Marseilles, a basilica built atop a 489-foot-high limestone outcropping that overlooks the Old Port.

Veronica and Christ (Marseilles)
Veronica and Christ, Notre-Dame de la Garde, Marseilles, France. Photo: Eric James Jones.

The stone sculpture, from the twentieth century, shows Veronica (an apocryphal saint) wiping Christ’s brow on his way to Calvary. Her gesture of compassion is meant to symbolize the action of missionaries, to whom the sculpture is dedicated.

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While I was gone, Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul, passed away. Like many soul singers, she got her start singing gospel, and her 1972 album Amazing Grace, recorded live from New Temple Missionary Baptist Church in Los Angeles, is the highest-selling live gospel music album of all time. Below you can watch her perform the title track, a hymn classic, in 2014.

Many famous singers and musicians paid tribute to Franklin at her eight-hour-long funeral on August 31. One of my favorite performances was Stevie Wonder’s rendition of “The Lord’s Prayer” on harmonica.

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NEW ON ARTWAY: ArtWay is a web publication I contribute to that seeks to connect Christians to the rich history and contemporary practice of visual art. Last Sunday I wrote a visual meditation for the site on Bill Viola’s video piece Emergence, which references a Man of Sorrows painting by Masolino.

Emergence by Bill Viola
Bill Viola (American, 1951–), Emergence (still frame), 2002, from The Passions series. High-definition video master tape. J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles, California.

Along with the other editors, I also curate items for ArtWay’s Poetry section. Most recently I selected a poem by Abigail Carroll titled “Dear Wounded Saint,” based on a Caravaggio painting of St. Francis of Assisi. Carroll is a brilliant poet, and I heartily recommend her two collections, Habitation of Wonder (2018) and A Gathering of Larks (2017).

Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy by Caravaggio
Caravaggio (Italian, 1571–1610), Saint Francis of Assisi in Ecstasy, ca. 1595. Oil on canvas, 92.5 × 127.8 cm (36.4 × 50.3 in.). Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut.

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ARTIST INTRO: A chain of connections brought me into contact with Berenice Rarig, an Australian artist whose work comprises installation, performance, sculpture, and photography. In addition, she is the founder of MAKE Collective, an initiative of the Presbyterian Church in America’s missionary arm that helps creatives become part of international church-planting movements through cultural engagement, creative thinking, and artistic excellence. As she was visiting the Baltimore area last week, we got lunch together and shared our visions for our respective ministries.

I loved learning about Berenice’s unique approach to art as mission. “My role as an artist is to point to what’s already pointing,” she says. “I join St. Augustine who said, ‘Everything in creation points to the Creator.’”

> Read an interview with Berenice Rarig from 2006, published in The Creative Spirit: A Journal of Faith and the Arts.

Here is a video-recorded lecture she gave at the Mumbai Arts Conference in 2015; it’s titled “Imaging Grace.” In it she explains the three works of hers pictured below, and others. Wishbones, quail eggs, and coffee filters—that gives you a sense of the kinds of materials she likes to work with. She had a load of donated clock parts in her trunk when I was riding with her, which she is excited to tinker with for her next art project.

Cathedral de St. Icarus the Wishful by Berenice Rarig
Berenice Rarig (Australian, 1959–), Cathedral de St. Icarus the Wishful, 2012. 50,000+ wishbones, wire frame, and lights, 9 ft. high.
A Tiny Hum by Berenice Rarig
Berenice Rarig (Australian, 1959–), A Tiny Hum (Humanity) 3, 2012. Quail eggs and wire.
Whispered Prayers by Berenice Rarig
Berenice Rarig (Australian, 1959–), Whispered Prayers, 2001. Folded coffee filters.

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PATRONAGE OPP: Monthly worship services by Liturgy Fellowship: I just became a patron of Liturgy Fellowship and am excited to see what they turn out! “We are starting a new project. Every month we are going to invite a guest liturgical artist to write a worship service for us. The themes will vary from biblical themes, to the church calendar, to under-served topics. If things go well we will also try to invite others to write original songs and create art to go along with the service theme. This will (hopefully) grow into a fantastic resource for the church!”