Wade in the Water (Artful Devotion)

Hambling, Maggi_Wall of Water II
Maggi Hambling (British, 1945–), Wall of Water II, 2011. Oil on canvas, 78 × 89 in. (198.1 × 226.1 cm). Photo: Douglas Atfield.

Then the angel of God who was going before the host of Israel moved and went behind them, and the pillar of cloud moved from before them and stood behind them, coming between the host of Egypt and the host of Israel. And there was the cloud and the darkness. And it lit up the night without one coming near the other all night.

Then Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the LORD drove the sea back by a strong east wind all night and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided. And the people of Israel went into the midst of the sea on dry ground, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left. The Egyptians pursued and went in after them into the midst of the sea, all Pharaoh’s horses, his chariots, and his horsemen. And in the morning watch the LORD in the pillar of fire and of cloud looked down on the Egyptian forces and threw the Egyptian forces into a panic, clogging their chariot wheels so that they drove heavily. And the Egyptians said, “Let us flee from before Israel, for the LORD fights for them against the Egyptians.”

Then the LORD said to Moses, “Stretch out your hand over the sea, that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots, and upon their horsemen.” So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and the sea returned to its normal course when the morning appeared. And as the Egyptians fled into it, the LORD threw the Egyptians into the midst of the sea. The waters returned and covered the chariots and the horsemen; of all the host of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea, not one of them remained. But the people of Israel walked on dry ground through the sea, the waters being a wall to them on their right hand and on their left.

Thus the LORD saved Israel that day from the hand of the Egyptians, and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore. Israel saw the great power that the LORD used against the Egyptians, so the people feared the LORD, and they believed in the LORD and in his servant Moses.

—Exodus 14:19–31

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SONG: “Wade in the Water,” African American spiritual

There have been many, many performances of this song over the years. For a nice, concise history of recordings, from gospel and doowop and choral to modern jazz, R&B, heavy rock, and northern soul, see this article by Mike Hobart. Below is a handful I’ve found and enjoy.

A gospel version by Brother John Sellers from 1959, driven by piano:

A choral arrangement by Paul T. Kwami, performed by the Fisk Jubilee Singers in 2019 (the soloist isn’t credited, but she’s amazing!):

Pegasis is a vocal trio of sisters from the Dominican Republic, formerly performing under the name The Peguero Sisters. Here they’re accompanied by guitar and shaker (this is the YouTube version, but the harmonies are cleaner on their 2016 album recording):

The Petersens apply their signature bluegrass stylings in their rendition, performed a few weeks ago in this video but also on their 2019 album Homesick for a Country:

According to oral lore, Harriet Tubman used the song “Wade in the Water” to communicate strategy to slaves traveling the Underground Railroad: its coded language alerted freedom seekers that bounty hunters were on their trail with bloodhounds and that they should jump into the river so that the dogs couldn’t track their scent. This popular myth about the song has not been confirmed, and the National Park Service, which preserves historical sites associated with the Underground Railroad and promotes research on the topic, suggests that it’s probably not true.

It is known, however, that it was sung at river baptisms, and still is, as the Exodus is seen as an archetype of baptism, of redemption through water. Not only that, but the song also draws on the pool of Bethesda passage in John 5, where people gathered to be healed: “For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool, and troubled the water: whosoever then first after the troubling of the water stepped in was made whole of whatsoever disease he had” (v. 4). (This verse is found in some early New Testament manuscripts but not the earliest and is therefore omitted from several modern translations.)

In the documentary God’s Greatest Hits, pastor and gospel recording artist Wintley Phipps says, “‘Wade in the Water,’ to me, . . . means people who are afraid of moving forward, progressing, taking a step, and facing uncertainty—go ahead, wade in the water. Take that step. As terrifying as it may seem at that very moment, it’s gonna be alright, and the miracle we seek is gonna happen.”

There’s the famous song “Bridge Over Troubled Water.” Well, in Exodus, God carves out a bridge through troubled water! Imagine walls of water standing multiple stories high on either side of you, filled with tiger sharks and other marine life. And you have to cross the sandy bottom in faith that those walls will hold up until you reach the other side.

“Wade in the Water” affirms that God is going to stir things up; he’s going to do something big. Just like he did when he brought Israel up out of Egypt.

For other songs based on the this week’s lectionary reading from Exodus, see my coverage of “Carol of the Exodus” and “Oh Mary, Don’t You Weep.”

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Maggi Hambling is one of Britain’s most significant painters and sculptors. Her nine “Walls of Water” paintings were made in 2010–11 and were first exhibited in 2014 at the National Gallery in London. Vast, intense, and energetic, they were inspired by her experience of giant waves crashing onto the seawall at Southwold, Suffolk, where she lives. “Through turbulence and exuberant colour, Hambling continues to affirm painting’s immediacy, saying, ‘The crucial thing that only painting can do is to make you feel as if you’re there while it’s being created – as if it’s happening in front of you’” (source).

Maggi Hambling (British, 1945–), Wall of Water V, 2011. Oil on canvas, 78 × 89 in. (198.1 × 226.1 cm). Photo: Douglas Atfield.

View other paintings from the series at Artsy.net.


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 19, cycle A, click here.

Art highlights from CIVA conference, part 3

This is the final installment of a series on the Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA) conference held June 13–16, 2019, at Bethel University. Photos are my own. [Read part 1 and part 2.]

Here I’d like to share some of the art that was created at and/or on display at the conference. This is just a small snippet.

When I first crossed his path Thursday evening, printmaker and draftsman Steve Prince had unfurled a large sheet of paper across the wall of the George K. Brushaber Commons and was drawing in charcoal and graphite. A label taped up beside it gave the title: Prayer Works.

After Prince established the framework of three women quilting, he invited passersby to choose a quilt patch and fill it in with a pastel design of their own. (Though it was very much a low-pressure, “come one, come all” atmosphere, my self-consciousness, and my not being an artist, prevented me from making my mark. Something I need to get over . . .) It was fun to watch the work evolve over the weekend.

When I left on Sunday, this is what it looked like:

Prince, Steve_Prayer Works
Steve A. Prince and friends, Prayer Works, 2019. A collaborative drawing completed at the 2019 CIVA conference at Bethel University, St. Paul, Minnesota.

Prince, Steve_Prayer Works (left detail)

Prince, Steve_Prayer Works (center detail)

Prince, Steve_Prayer Works (right detail)

Prince, Steve_Prayer Works (detail)

Prince, Steve_Prayer Works (detail)

Prince, Steve_Prayer Works (detail)

Prince, Steve_Prayer Works (detail)

Prince, Steve_Prayer Works (detail)

Prince, Steve_Prayer Works

Though he has an independent studio practice, Prince is especially passionate about facilitating community art projects—for example, Urban Stations of the Cross (2016), a collaboration between himself and participating members of Sojourn Community Church in Louisville, Kentucky, resulting in fourteen linocuts installed along the walls of the sanctuary. Or the Urban Garden project that capped off Prince’s residency at SUNY Geneseo this January and February. He’s also done a lot of work with grade schools and is great with working with people of all ages.

Prince had a work up for auction at the CIVA conference: a 2017 lithograph titled Salt of the Earth, based on a seminal moment in US civil rights history. On February 1, 1960, four African American college students sat down at a lunch counter at F. W. Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina. When they were refused service and asked to leave, they remained in their seats—an act of nonviolent resistance that ignited a youth-led movement of sit-ins all across the South, challenging racial inequality.

Prince, Steve_Salt of the Earth
Steve A. Prince (American, 1968–), Salt of the Earth, 2017. Lithograph, edition of 40, 27 × 37 in.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.

You are the salt of the earth, but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored? It is no longer good for anything except to be thrown out and trampled under people’s feet.

—Matthew 5:9–13

In Prince’s lithograph, protesters Ezell Blair Jr., David Richmond, Franklin McCain, and Joseph McNeil are portrayed as peaceful warriors, wearing badges that read “AOG”—Agent of God, as I once heard Prince explain. (This acronym is found in several of his works.) As they are reviled and persecuted, they remain steadfast and do not retaliate, representing the Christ who likewise was persecuted for righteousness’ sake.

Christ’s Spirit, symbolized by a dove, is resting on the counter. Around him are what look to be mini-tombstones, bearing inscriptions like “Love,” “Free,” “Truth.” These are all values associated with the Spirit (Rom 5:5 and 2 Tim 1:7; 2 Cor 3:17; Jn 15: 26) and also ones for which African Americans activist fought and died. You’ll notice that the cross-topped “tombstone” bears a chi (X) for Christ.

Social justice is a key theme in Prince’s oeuvre, including the large linocut of his that I bought at a CIVA auction several years ago.

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Another artwork at the CIVA conference that invited participation was Tim Lowly’s Without Moving (after Guy Chase). A multiyear project begun in 2009, it’s a portrait of the artist’s daughter Temma, who was born with severe disabilities, surrounded by a field of hundreds of thousands of tiny black dots. These dots, applied meticulously with a paintbrush by Lowly and other participants over the years, signify the contemplative presence of others surrounding Temma, enfolding her. One woman I talked to said her favorite part of the conference was having the honor to participate in this important work; she said it felt very intimate and connective, and like a form of prayer. Learn more and see more photos at the CIVA blog and the artist’s website. After the conference, Lowly declared the painting complete.

Lowly, Tim_Without Moving (after Guy Chase)
Tim Lowly (American, 1958–), Without Moving (after Guy Chase), 2009–19. Acrylic on panel, 75 × 120 in. [click here for a stunning detail shot!]
Because I had a few hours to kill before my Sunday evening flight, I spent the afternoon at the Minneapolis Institute of Art—and discovered that the museum has a Lowly painting in its collection! Titled At 25, it, too, was collaborative. The gallery label reads, “At 25 is a collaborative work commemorating Tim Lowly’s daughter Temma’s 25th birthday. She has been the subject of his work since birth, and he has explored his relationship to her as father and caregiver as Temma was born with severe physical disabilities. Lowly considers Temma a creative collaborator in his work and invited friends to contribute to this icon to her life.” (Those friends include Makoto Fujimura, Tim Hawkinson, Bruce Herman, Catherine Prescott, and others.)

Lowly, Tim_At 25
Tim Lowly (American, 1958–), At 25 (front), 2010. Acrylic, gold leaf, foil, gold pigment and glitter on wood, 29 1/2 × 23 1/2 × 2 1/4 in. (74.93 × 59.69 × 5.72 cm) (without base). Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Lowly writes, “The piece is composed of 25 sections, each of which is painted by one or two artists from around the world. For the ‘portrait’ side of the image I provided the participants with a section of a photograph corresponding to the piece they were given. I also gave them black-and-white matte acrylic (the paint I usually use) and asked them to render the photograph as stylistically neutrally as possible. For an artist to set aside their ‘style’ is a significant gesture, and as such I am very grateful for how willingly and sincerely the participants took on this part of the project. For the back side of the work the directive was much more open: ‘make it gold.’ As anticipated, the result of the back was very eclectic and (friendship) quilt-like.”

I didn’t get a photo of the reverse side, but you can view it here.

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Above I mentioned an auction. There were many fine lots. I bid on Sandra Bowden’s Law and Gospel collograph but didn’t win.

Bowden, Sandra_Law and Gospel
Sandra Bowden (American, 1943–), Law and Gospel. Collograph mixed media, 18 × 27 in.

The artist’s description reads, “With one additional horizontal cut, the tablets of the Law become four quadrants, suggesting a cross. Jesus said he came to fulfill the Law. When we have finished an item on our list of things to be done, we put a line through it, marking it done. This is what I was thinking as I took the Law, marked it done, with a horizontal line, only to see a cross appear.” Bowden created the textured surfaces by layering gold leafing on the Hebrew text collagraph print, then adding colored iridescent Cray-Pas to the raised areas.

Wayne Roosa’s Tract also caught my eye—an eraser print that quotes Giotto’s Lamentation over the Dead Christ. It belongs to his “Ideas of Order” series of rubber stamp images, which, as he says, “use iconic elements from newspapers and art history, combined and recombined, to suggest symbolic/narrative meaning for our culture’s various structures of order. Here, the microphone, surrogate for figures in power, privilege, or influence, rises out of a trap door abyss, while three angels (from Giotto’s Arena Chapel) grieve over the state of ‘truth’ and discourse.”

Roosa, Wayne_Tract
Wayne Roosa, Tract, 2009. Eraser print, 11 × 8 1/2 in.

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While I was at Bethel, there was a CIVA-sponsored exhibition in the Olson Gallery, The Beautiful, which ran from April 23 to June 16. (This was in addition to a juried show and a walk-in show put together specially for the conference.)

Here are a few notable artworks from The Beautiful:

Tilden, Lauren_Wind on Her Face
Lauren Tilden (American, 1981–), Wind on Her Face, 2017. Oil on panel, 18 × 24 in.

Bomer, Grace Carol_Red Sea Crossing
Grace Carol Bomer (American, 1948–), Red Sea Crossing, 2018. Oil, wax, and gold leaf on canvas, 30 × 30 in.

Kimbrough, Jennie_Untitled (Dan 3.7-30)
Jennie Kimbrough, Untitled 14 (Daniel 3:7–30), 2016. Acrylic and thread on paper, 8 × 5 in.

I learned about Jennie Kimbrough’s “And the Word Was God” series, in which she uses pages from a 1920s German Bible, purchased at a flea market, not only as inspiration but also as her substrate, painting and stitching atop them as a devotional response to the text. Untitled 14 (Daniel 3:7–30) shows the three youths in the fiery furnace, with a fourth figure mysteriously present among them.

Kimbrough, Jennie_And the Word Was God
Screen cap from artist Jennie Kimbrough’s website, showing a sampling of works from her “And the Word Was God” series

I also spent time at the video installation Belgium / Minnesota (for Henry) by Michelle Westmark Wingard. Shot over a four-hour period and then time-lapsed, it shows the movement of sunlight through a window and across the wall as the day progresses. The decal on the window is the horizon line she extracted from a photograph of a Belgian field, where her grandfather’s plane crashed during World War II; placed over the existing horizon line, it creates an interesting interplay. The artist said she intends the video as “a study of contrasts: light/dark, real/imagined, manicured landscape/wild natural landscape, static/ever-changing” and “a visual dialog about landscape, longing, and the passing of time.”

I love how this piece takes something as ordinary as sunlight and invites us to really notice it, to receive it as something more than a mere commonplace—as a wonder, or even a grace.

Artists are great at noticing beauty that others of us would simply pass by. The day I arrived at the conference, I was walking with my roommate to the dorms when suddenly she stopped in the road with wide eyes and open mouth. I assumed she was reacting to the herd of goats in the near distance, fenced off behind a small chapel—an unexpected and amusing feature of a college campus. (They were brought in last year, I later learned, to help manage an invasive plant species, buckthorn.) But it turns out she was responding to the way the sun’s rays were falling through a tree. “Isn’t this beautiful?” she kept saying, approaching for a closer look and pausing to take it in. She snapped multiple pictures from different angles so that she could paint it later. And here I was, only noticing the goats! Until this new artist friend of mine redirected my attention to something more subtle but equally as delightful.

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The Are We There Yet CIVA conference this summer was so rewarding, and these three blog posts, built as they are around works of art, don’t encapsulate the full experience. But they provide a taste of what you might expect to encounter were you to attend a biennial conference in the future.

If you’re interested in joining the CIVA community, check out their membership page. You can also follow them on Facebook, Twitter, and/or Instagram.

I’d encourage you to listen to the fifteen-minute interviews conducted at the conference by Libby John of the podcast Art & Faith Conversations. She talks not only to artists but to an arts administrator and an art book publisher, all CIVA members: