Advent, Day 15: Great Joy River

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God . . .

It has a great, high wall with twelve gates, and at the gates twelve angels, . . . and the twelve gates are twelve pearls. . . .

I saw no temple in the city, for its temple is the Lord God the Almighty and the Lamb. And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God is its light, and its lamp is the Lamb. The nations will walk by its light, and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it. Its gates will never be shut by day—and there will be no night there. . . .

Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb through the middle of the street of the city. On either side of the river is the tree of life with its twelve kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month, and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations. Nothing accursed will be found there any more. But the throne of God and of the Lamb will be in it, and his servants will worship him; they will see his face, and his name will be on their foreheads. And there will be no more night; they need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever.

—Revelation 21:1–2, 12, 21–25; 22:1–5

LOOK: The New Heaven by Leroy Almon

Almon, Leroy_The New Heaven
Leroy Almon (American, 1938–1997), The New Heaven, 1984. Carved wood, light bulbs, artificial pearls, glue, glitter, plastic letters, paint, 36 × 28 in. (91.4 × 71.1 cm). Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio. [object record]

This mixed-media depiction of heaven by African American folk artist Leroy Almon draws on imagery from the book of Revelation, showing centrally a crystal-bright river, the water of life, flowing forth from the mouth of God (Rev. 22:1–2). It courses through the paradisal scene, past the tree with its twelve fruits and healing leaves, and is pumped into twelve fountains, from which Black and white people drink together. Across lines of race, the new-city dwellers unite in worship, fellowship, and play. Notice the group of children with the ball in the bottom register!

For a framing device, Almon has used two wooden doors that bow out, as if the scene in all its fullness cannot be contained; as if the borders of the new city must bend to embrace the multitudes and their joy. The shape communicates an expansiveness that is the heart of God.

God is shown as majestic, mountain-like, and yet bearing a tender expression. The plastic beads on his forehead are printed with letters that read, “THE NEW HEAVEN,” and his eyes (not lit in this photo) are battery-powered light bulbs! He is, as John the Revelator tells us, the unending light dispelling all darkness. 

Almon was born in 1938, so for about the first three decades of his life, he lived in a country where racial segregation was enforced legally in many states and socially in others. By and large, Blacks and whites were made to live in separate neighborhoods, attend separate schools, swim in separate pools, eat at separate restaurants, drink from separate water fountains, pass through separate public building entrances, wait in separate waiting rooms, sit in separate sections of the bus and the theater and even (woe is us) the church, and so on. Even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, mandating desegregation, racial prejudices and hostilities continued to persist, as they do today. And because sinful human beings create and run systems (criminal legal, economic, educational, medical, etc.), it’s no surprise that the sin of racism can be found there as well.

Almon longed to see racial justice and (re)conciliation, and he knew Jesus has the power to make it happen. Almon’s preaching ministry went hand-in-hand with his art making. Through both, he shared the good news that Jesus, through his life, death, and resurrection, calls us to a new way of being in the world, which involves repentance of sin and turning to the divine light of love that knows no bounds. His New Heaven envisions a world saved and transformed by Christ’s love, where power is shared equally, forgiveness sought and granted, and friendship is the order of the day, as is a shared rejoicing in the greatness of God. In The New Heaven, Black and white praise Jesus side-by-side, eat at the tree of life together, and put their lips to the same bubbling fount of living water.

And not only are relationships healed and humanity restored to its original harmony in the new heaven, but also personal sorrows and hardships are no more. Physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, socially, we flourish in the light of God that never dims.

For more on Leroy Almon, see this Art & Theology Lenten devotional post from earlier this year.

LISTEN: “Great Rejoicing” by Thad Cockrell, on To Be Loved (2009) | Performed by Rain for Roots, feat. Sandra McCracken and Skye Peterson, on Waiting Songs (2015)

There’s gonna be a great rejoicing (2×)

The troubles of this world
Will wither up and die
That river of tears made by the lonely
Someday will be dry
There’s gonna be a great rejoicing

There’s gonna be a great joy river (2×)

Questions of this world
Someday will be known
Who’s robbing you of peace
And who’s the giver

There’s gonna be a great joy river

Someday you will find me
Guarded in His fortress
Open heart and wings
That never touch the ground
Someday we will gather
In a grand reunion
Debts of this old world
Are nowhere to be found
Nowhere to be found

There’s gonna be a great rejoicing (5×)

We are now halfway through Advent! Many of the songs featured in this Advent series, including today’s, appear on my Advent Playlist. I also have a companion Christmastide Playlist, which has been revised and expanded since last year to include some choral selections.

Advent, Day 13: Magnificat

LOOK: Behold My Miracle by Fred Carter

Carter, Fred_Behold My Miracle
Fred J. Carter (American, 1911–1992), Behold My Miracle, 1980. Walnut, 55 × 20 in. Collection of Mary Carter Owens and Vel-Holly Fleming. Photo: Dan Meyers, courtesy of the American Visionary Art Museum.

Born in 1911 in the mountains of southwestern Virginia, Fred Jerome Carter spent the first few decades of his adulthood as a hardware merchant. In 1938 he married Eloise Davis, and in 1950 they adopted their first and only son, Ross.

In his late forties, Carter began to pursue art making, taking a beginner’s painting class, his only formal artistic training. But wood sculpting is the medium for which he became best known. Writer and documentary filmmaker Jack Wright classifies Carter’s art as “Appalachian art brut,” art brut (“raw art”) being a French term coined by modern artist Jean Dubuffet to describe art made outside the academic tradition.

In 1970 Carter was devastated when his son, having returned as a Marine from Vietnam, hanged himself. He and Eloise divorced shortly after, and Carter opened the Ross Carter Gallery, named in his son’s honor, where he started showing his own work. Below the gallery he established the Cumberland Museum to exhibit a large collection of pioneer tools and artifacts (having to do, for example, with farming, mining, spinning, and moonshining) that provided a window into Appalachian culture and history. It’s there that he met Vickie Hill, whom he later married. Vickie gave birth to Carter’s first biological child, Holly, in 1983, when Carter was seventy-two. Their daughter Mary was born two years later.

Carter created Behold My Miracle two years before Vickie’s first pregnancy, but he retroactively identified the figure with her. In a 1980 interview with Wright for Headwaters Television, he describes how the sculpture came about:

I was back, at Easter [1980], in the mountains, and a fellow was sawing up firewood. Now this was part of a walnut log . . . cut down forty or fifty years ago. . . . There was a limb going up through here about ten feet long. I said, “Don’t cut that up for wood. . . . I see something in this that I want to make. . . . I see a pregnant woman.” . . . So I brought it home and began to look at it. . . . The wood began to talk to me and tell me what it is. . . .

So, I will probably call this Behold My Miracle. That’s what the mother is saying and I am trying to get her to say, in the position of her hand and the look on her face, that this is truly the great miracle. . . . As though she is saying, “Behold me, in my greatest moment of the miracle!”

LISTEN: “The Glory of Jah” by Sinead O’Connor and Ronald Tomlinson, on Theology (2007) – The acoustic version in the video below, which appears on disc 1 of the album, was recorded live at The Sugar Club in Dublin.

There is no Holy One like you
You install kings and take them down
Truly there is no one beside you
You made all of creation with wisdom

Refrain:
May the glory of Jah endure forever
The boughs of the mighty are broken
And the weak are clothed with strength

There is the sea, vast and wide
With all its creatures beyond number
There go the ships, they all look to you
You lift up the poor into a place of honor [Refrain]

Jah makes poor or he makes rich
The pillars of the earth belong to him
And he has set his world upon them
To raise us up from the dunghill [Refrain]

The eighth full-length album by Irish singer-songwriter Sinéad O’Connor, Theology is a collection of mostly original spiritual songs in the Judeo-Christian tradition. It’s saturated with scripture. It contains:

O’Connor grew up Catholic and, until converting to Islam in 2018, identified as such, though she has always been unorthodox. Frustrated by the spiritual vapidness of the pop music industry in which she had found fame, in the early 2000s she studied theology at a college in Dublin, looking to connect more deeply with her religious heritage. Her favorite instructor, the Irish Dominican priest Wilfred Harrington, taught a course on the Prophets, reviving her interest in the biblical material that had so fascinated her as a youth. During this time, she was considering leaving her music career, but Fr. Harrington suggested that she set some scripture texts to music and see what happens. She took his advice, and the result is Theology, which she dedicated to Fr. Harrington. Listen to a ten-minute interview with O’Connor about the album, from the limited-edition Theology DVD released in 2008.

When I first heard “The Glory of Jah,” I thought it was a condensation of Mary’s Magnificat, which she voiced upon visiting her cousin Elizabeth following their mutual unexpected pregnancies—Elizabeth with John the Baptist, and Mary with the Christ:

My soul magnifies the Lord,
    and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowly state of his servant.
    Surely from now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
    and holy is his name;
indeed, his mercy is for those who fear him
    from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
    he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones
    and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things
    and sent the rich away empty.
He has come to the aid of his child Israel,
    in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
    to Abraham and to his descendants forever. (Luke 1:46–55)

But as I listened more closely and flipped through my Bible to match phrases, I realized that O’Connor’s song is actually a pastiche of Old Testament verses from 1 Samuel, Daniel, and the Psalms, the primary source text being Hannah’s song of thanksgiving:

My heart exults in the LORD;
    my strength is exalted in my God.
My mouth derides my enemies
    because I rejoice in your victory.

There is no Holy One like the Lord,
    no one besides you;
    there is no Rock like our God.
Talk no more so very proudly;
    let not arrogance come from your mouth,
for the LORD is a God of knowledge,
    and by him actions are weighed.
The bows of the mighty are broken,
    but the feeble gird on strength.
Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread,
    but those who were hungry are fat with spoil.
The barren has borne seven,
    but she who has many children is forlorn.
The LORD kills and brings to life;
    he brings down to Sheol and raises up.
The LORD makes poor and makes rich;
    he brings low; he also exalts.
He raises up the poor from the dust;
    he lifts the needy from the ash heap
to make them sit with princes
    and inherit a seat of honor.
For the pillars of the earth are the LORD’s,
    and on them he has set the world.

He will guard the feet of his faithful ones,
    but the wicked will perish in darkness,
    for not by might does one prevail.
The LORD! His adversaries will be shattered;
    the Most High will thunder in heaven.
The LORD will judge the ends of the earth;
    he will give strength to his king
    and exalt the power of his anointed. (1 Sam. 2:1–10)

Hannah, an ancient Jew, prayed these words at the tabernacle at Shiloh upon dedicating her firstborn son, Samuel, to God’s service, as he was conceived after many hard years of infertility and anguished prayer. Mary’s song, which came some ten centuries later, picks up themes from Hannah’s, so it’s no wonder I originally misidentified O’Connor’s source. Mary would have known Hannah’s song from having heard it read in synagogue, and, as Mary’s son would also be set apart for divine service, perhaps she found a special kinship with this ancestral sister. Mary was also spiritually formed by the Psalms, another influence on her Magnificat composition; their words were deep in her bones, naturally coming out in effusions of praise.

Both Hannah and Mary praise God’s kindness, authority, and eternal plan, emphasizing his mercy toward the poor and the humble. Both songs are thematically linked to Psalm 113:5–8:

Who is like the LORD our God,
    who is seated on high,
who looks far down
    on the heavens and the earth?
He raises the poor from the dust
    and lifts the needy from the ash heap,
to make them sit with princes,
    with the princes of his people.

Now returning to O’Connor’s song: Line 2 has a corollary in Daniel 2:21, “he . . . deposes kings and sets up kings.” And the second verse seems inspired by Psalm 104:24–26, 31:

O LORD, how manifold are your works!
    In wisdom you have made them all;
    the earth is full of your creatures.
There is the sea, great and wide;
    creeping things innumerable are there,
    living things both small and great.
There go the ships
    and Leviathan that you formed to sport in it.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

May the glory of the LORD endure forever;
    may the LORD rejoice in his works . . .

When referring to God, O’Connor uses the Rastafari name for him, “Jah,” a shortened form of “Jehovah.” She had recorded her previous album, Throw Down Your Arms, in Jamaica, a collection of roots reggae song covers, and her spirituality was impacted by her encounters with the Rastafari there. “They use music to reassure people that God is actually with them and watches them, can be called upon,” she said.

So “The Glory of Jah” is a highly intertextual song, rooted in Hannah’s song but weaving in strands from other biblical books—and the result sounds an awful lot like something Mother Mary would sing!

The biblical imagination of folk sculptor Annie Hooper

Earlier this month I visited the American Folk Art Museum in New York City and was struck by a large ensemble of painted driftwood sculptures by “outsider” artist Annie Hooper (1897–1986). Arranged on a broad platform in the main gallery, the figures are a mixture of apostles, prophets, patriarchs and matriarchs, pilgrims, pray-ers, angels, dancers, and mourners. They are but a small fraction of the thousands such figures that filled Annie’s remote coastal North Carolina home, where they beckoned friends and strangers alike to come in, take a look around, and hear God’s good word. Annie loved to tell stories through these her “symbols,” as she called them, interweaving her own life experiences with the narrative of scripture to communicate the hope of the gospel.

Annie Hooper installation (AFAM)
Annie Hooper (American, 1897–1986), Art environment (works from the northwest bedroom and dining room), Buxton, North Carolina, 1950s–1986. Driftwood, cement, paint, and shells, dimensions variable (average figure height 17 in.). American Folk Art Museum, New York, 2018.6.1–170. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Annie (Miller) Hooper was born in 1897 in Buxton, North Carolina, on Hatteras Island in the Outer Banks. She was raised in a devout Methodist household that included her twelve siblings—one of them her twin sister, Mamie—and fourteen foster children.

After taking a few courses at Blackstone College for Girls in Virginia, she married John Hooper and moved across Pamlico Sound to Stumpy Point, North Carolina, where John was a commercial fisherman. Their son, Edgar, was born a year later, when Annie was nineteen.[1]

Annie was very involved in her church community—playing the organ for services, preaching sermons when called upon, teaching Sunday school for children and adults, writing poems for the church newsletter, composing songs.

During World War II, when Edgar was deployed to the South Pacific and John left to work in the naval shipyards in Norfolk, Annie experienced her first bout of depression, which was accompanied by blackouts. Her second bout came when Edgar, after returning safely home from overseas, developed lung problems that required him to convalesce for a year in the mountains. Overcome with the fear of losing him, she suffered a nervous breakdown that led her to seek treatment in Raleigh (likely electroconvulsive therapy).

Shortly before her four months of psychiatric care, Annie and John had moved back to her hometown of Buxton and opened a motel. She returned to Buxton in need of recuperation, and she turned often to a large illustrated Bible for diversion and comfort, filling her mind with images of the Divine at work.

Annie Hooper
Annie Hooper with her Sermon on the Mount, Buxton, NC, ca. 1983. Photo: Roger Manley.

Then one day in her fifties, Annie “heard voices and angels guiding her to create figures” that “were to reveal the more pleasant, life-affirming aspects of Christian storytelling,” as she later reported to folklorist Roger Manley.[2] She went out to the beach, picked up a suggestive piece of driftwood, fashioned a face on it with English putty, and colored it with leftover house paint. It was Moses on Mount Nebo, at the end of his life, looking over the river Jordan into the promised land (Deut. 32:48–52; 34:1–5).

Hooper, Annie_Moses
Moses on Mount Nebo

Hooper, Annie_Moses (detail)

Pleased with the result, she crafted more biblical figures using those same simple materials. She would often add seashells for eyes and cement limbs.

This art practice seemed to have a healing effect on her.

As her number of sculptures grew, Annie arranged them into tableaux around her house, starting in the dining room and a bedroom and expanding over a thirty-five-year period into every square inch of empty space—hallways, stairs, closets, tables, piano tops, stove burners, etc. “She had a kind of Cecil B. DeMille vision of the sweep of multitudes with casts of thousands,” Manley told me, “while her house was all but uninhabitable from the sheer volume of work packed into it. She used yardsticks to reach the light switches, and could barely get to the kitchen sink. The overall effect was dazzling, if a bit claustrophobically breathtaking.”[3]

Annie Hooper installation (AFAM) (detail)

Annie made use of preexisting furniture to raise elements of certain scenes, creating a spatial dynamic. “In Annie’s house,” Manley said, “angels gazed down on the shepherds with their flocks from atop dressers and chairs, the golden calf was elevated on a stool, the ‘mount’ in the Sermon on the Mount was the dining room table, and so on.” She separated the scenes with garlands of tinsel and bouquets of plastic flowers and strung Christmas lights through them. “Changing colored light played over the groupings to impart movement and dazzle.”[4]

View photos of the original art environment here.

By the time Annie died in 1986 she had made about 2,500 figurative sculptures[5] inspired by the Old and New Testaments, on subjects like Jacob’s Ladder, the Exodus, Daniel in the Lions’ Den, Belshazzar’s Feast, the Visitation, the Flight to Egypt, the Sermon on the Mount, the Holy Women at the Tomb, Paul and Silas in Jail, and many more. Notably, there’s no Crucifixion scene; Annie said she couldn’t bear to put nails in the hands and feet of Christ.[6] And so we get empty crosses instead.

The final group she worked on, left unfinished when she died, was forty-seven grieving Hebrew mothers who had lost their sons to Pharaoh’s death edict (Exod. 1:22). This story of infant male genocide, along with its correlative in Matthew 2:16–18, is one she returned to frequently throughout her four decades of art making, as it held strong resonances for her. She likened her son’s being sent away to war to his being thrown to crocodiles.

Hooper, Annie_Mourning woman
Mourning women

Mournful moms are everywhere in Annie’s work, Manley said—“surrounding Lazarus, overlooking scores of dead babies, at the foot of the cross(es). She identified with all women experiencing loss. In WWII dead sailors (mostly American and British) occasionally washed up on the beaches near her house after their ships had been sunk by U-boats, and she pitied their mothers as well. It was a major thread running through the whole display.”[7]

Not all the figures correspond to characters in the Bible. Some are simply “bringing the message,” Annie said.[8] They may illustrate a hymn, such as “Will There Be Any Stars in My Crown?,” “It Is Well with My Soul,” “All Hail the Power of Jesus’ Name,” or “The Old Rugged Cross.”

Hooper, Annie_Cross

Wanting to share these visual stories, Annie frequently welcomed visitors into her home, giving performative tours that involved narration and interactivity. For example, she would lean the Jesus figure over the prone Lazarus figure and bid him rise, or she would roll the stone away from Christ’s tomb while saying, “This is what God wants each of us to do—to roll away the stone of unbelief from our hearts.”[9]

Lazarus

Hooper, Annie_Lazarus (detail)

In 1978 Annie’s husband became paralyzed from a stroke, and she stopped creating until John’s death in 1982 so that she could take care of him. She was devastated by the gradual loss of her best friend to whom she had been married for sixty-plus years and who had always supported her (some would say eccentric) calling. But even as John lay ill and as she grieved, she still welcomed people in to experience the mixed-media spectacle she had built in their living quarters, as she wanted it to continue fulfilling its main purpose of edification.

She set up hundreds of signs with messages—handwritten in marker on pieces of paper and foam meat trays—to accompany the figures so that people could take their own self-guided tours. Some of these consist of Bible quotations or hymn lyrics, but most are distillations of her own spiritual wisdom, in her own words, or else personal prayers. Examples include:

  • “God’s intent is that man should come to Him and enjoy Him forever.”
  • “Through the ages, heaven will never cease to resound with the glad hallelujahs from the grateful hearts of the redeemed.”
  • “The cry of the heart for God is the cry that brings down blessings from that high source.”
  • “There is a place where the tears of the forgiver and the forgiven mingle together (at the foot of the cross).”
  • “God’s work on the cross brought a world estranged by sin back to its Creator.”
  • “Whatever honors God, help me to take delight in.”
  • “Lord, bring me to the place where mine eye seeth Thee.”
  • (And the occasionally humorous) “Keep out of the manger, Santa Clause [sic]. That belongs to the Baby Jesus.”
Hooper, Annie_Jesus
Jesus (with donkey in foreground, from another scene)

Reflecting back on her life’s work, Annie said,

I feel like I’ve been dedicated and set apart for God’s work. I believe that, but I haven’t gotten to the point that I’m perfect. I’m not an angel, I’m an aged imp. I can only live in hope, fully believing that God will bless me by making me a blessing to others, and I think I have been. When people come, they come seeking something of the supernatural, and they get it when they get God’s word. Here they get not only God’s word but they get a symbol resembling the thought that they have.

My work is all the work of love, working out the biblical scenes that will last through the ages long after I’m gone. That is my motive, that is my purpose, making figures with some spiritual thought to go along. When I look back over the work I’ve done it amazes me—but still it is not something to be worshipped. It is something that will tell a story.[10]

In a different interview, at age eighty-seven, Annie described how she works in collaboration with God, in a sense, who has uniquely equipped her for the work:

I feel like I’ve had help. I feel like the Lord’s given me the desire to do, and the talent to do, and the material to work with, and the time to do. So I really feel like I’ve been a coworker, not only in making the material that I have, but also explaining it to those who come.[11]

Hooper, Annie_Angels
Annie Hooper installation (AFAM) (detail)

Brimming with faith and battling emotional and mental distress, Annie created a world, channeling her pain and anxieties as well as her hopes and joys into the making of hundreds upon hundreds of sculptures inspired by sacred scripture. Some of the figures look lost or forlorn, whereas others look peaceful, even beatific; still others appear playful. She felt she could identify with many of the people represented—e.g., Job in his affliction, the Virgin Mary in her surrender.

Annie saw in these biblical stories a reflection of the human experience and assurances of how God meets us in our brokenness (in our doubts, fears, failures, sickness, grief, or what have you), bringing salvation. Lament and praise are joined together in her oeuvre.

Unfortunately, the AFAM exhibition does not preserve the narrative groupings of the figures, instead arranging them roughly by size and placing them all on the same level facing forward, rather than having them interact with one another. There are no visual dividers or spotlights to help viewers navigate the bunches. As such, and lacking much of Annie’s interpretive signage, it’s nearly impossible to precisely identify any of the characters or to discern a plot—though Manley was able to confirm a few of my hunches (labeled in my captions) and to guide me in identifying a few other figures.

I was puzzled by the presence of what I thought might be a bear.

Hooper, Annie_Animal

Manley suggested that it is probably a Gadarene swine from the story of Jesus healing a demoniac (Mark 5:1–20) but that it could also be from Annie’s “Valley of the Shadow of Death” scene, which featured a large human figure lying down on a piece of green shag carpet (a green pasture) surrounded by scary black and purple creatures.

Even in her lifetime, Manley informed me, Annie’s scenes were unfixed, constantly shifting and evolving. “Many of Annie’s figures played multiple roles,” he said. “If she had to move a scene to a different part of the house to make way for more, and the new location was too small to accommodate the entire scene, she would repurpose the ‘extras’ and make them part of some other scene. Her environment was not static—every time I went (perhaps 20 times?) a majority of the scenes would have been relocated and rearranged. Only a few ‘stayed put.’”[12]

Roger Manley, whose friendship with and research on Annie I’ve relied on extensively for this article, became the caretaker of Annie’s work after her death. He first encountered it in 1970 when, on Christmas break after his first semester at Davidson College, he was hitchhiking and happened to be picked up by one of Annie’s grandsons. Thinking Manley would be amused by his grandma’s sculptures, he brought him to the house. Manley was enthralled by what he saw. He took photos and returned many times since, each time developing a keener sense of responsibility to preserve the work for posterity.

At Manley’s behest, Catherine Peck, a graduate student in the folklore program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, spent August 1984 at Annie’s house in Buxton, labeling and photographing her work and interviewing her. When Annie died in 1986, she bequeathed all her sculptures to the Jargon Society in Highlands, North Carolina, which Manley helped arrange.

Annie Hooper installation (detail)

Ownership was transferred to North Carolina State University around 1988, when Manley curated the first solo exhibition of Annie’s work, A Blessing from the Source, at the university’s Visual Arts Center (now the Gregg Museum of Art & Design), showcasing six of her scenes and twenty-five photographs. The exhibition opened with an international symposium, the United States’ very first on visionary/self-taught/outsider art, which included participants from the Collection de l’Art Brut in Lausanne (Geneviéve Roulin), the Musgrave Kinley Outsider Art Collection (Monika Kinley), the Adolf Wölfli Foundation (Elka Spoerri), the Prinzhorn Collection (Inge Jádi), Rebecca Puharich (later to become Rebecca Hoffberger, founder of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore), Roger Cardinal (author of Outsider Art, which named the “field”), John MacGregor (author of The Discovery of the Art of the Insane), Sam Farber (one of AFAM’s great champions, who largely funded their previous building next to MoMA), and others.

In 1995 Manley organized a much larger exhibition at NC State, A Multitude of Memory: The Life Work of Annie Hooper, that displayed the whole lot they had inherited.

In 2017 the Gregg Museum (of which Manley is the director) transferred the Annie Hooper Bequest to the Kohler Foundation for conservation treatment and stewardship. While many of the sculptures remain in the permanent collection of the Gregg and the John Michael Kohler Arts Center kept 233, the rest have been donated to nine other museums across the country—including the American Folk Art Museum, where I had the pleasure of being introduced to Annie’s work!

If you’d like to find out more about Annie Hooper, check out the freely accessible Digital Southern Folklife Collection at UNC, which houses four audio interviews and three on-site video tours with Annie, and the nineteen-page exhibition catalog from 1988, A Blessing from the Source.

All photos in this article, except the one of Annie Hooper, were taken by me (Victoria Emily Jones) at the multi-artist Multitudes exhibition at the American Folk Art Museum in Manhattan in August 2022. The exhibition runs through September 5.

NOTES:

1. ^ “The Life Summary of Edgar Ormond,” FamilySearch. Cf. Annie Hooper, interview by Catherine Peck, 1984, tape 1: Side 1, Catherine Peck Collection, 1981–1988, in the Southern Folklife Collection, Louis Round Wilson Special Collections Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, NC.

2. ^ “Timeline of Annie Hooper’s Life,” compiled by Cynthia Pansing, researcher for SPACES (Saving and Preserving Arts and Cultural Environments), May 6, 1988. Quoted on the wall text for the Multitudes exhibition, January 21–September 5, 2022, American Folk Art Museum, New York.

3. ^ Roger Manley, email to the author, August 23, 2022.

4. ^ Roger Manley, email to the author, August 21, 2022.

5. ^ “As for numbers of objects, there are about 2500 human and angel figures, dead babies, birds, crocodiles, sheep, lions, etc., and some 500 more ‘accessories’: bases for inserting artificial flowers, driftwood stumps that provided landscaping, gold-painted miniature furniture (all crudely made by Annie), textiles (shrouds, swaddling cloths, etc.), concrete food items (for various suppers and feasts, loaves and fishes). The original inventory included everything—bunches of plastic flowers, rotating color-wheel lights, garlands of tinsel—hence the 5000 number. The materials these were made of did not survive long-term storage, however; over time, low-grade plastics begin to turn gooey or brittle, tinsel sheds, etc., so the object count shrank.” Roger Manley, email to the author, August 21, 2022.

6. ^ Annie Hooper, interview by Catherine Peck, 1984, tape 6: Side 1.

7. ^ Roger Manley, email to the author, August 23, 2022. For more on military warfare waged off the east coast of the US during World War II, see Kevin P. Duffus, “U-Boats Off the Outer Banks: When World War II Was Fought Off North Carolina’s Beaches,” Tar Heel Junior Historian, Spring 2008.

8. ^ Annie Hooper, interview by Catherine Peck, 1984, tape 5: Side 1.

9. ^ A Blessing from the Source: The Annie Hooper Bequest (exhibition catalog) (Raleigh: North Carolina State University, 1988), 13.

10. ^ Qtd. A Blessing from the Source, 19.

11. ^ Annie Hooper, interview by Catherine Peck, 1984, tape 1: Side 1.

12. ^ Roger Manley, email to the author, August 23, 2022.

Lent, Day 12

LOOK: Mr. & Mrs. Satan Fishing by Leroy Almon

Almon, Leroy_Mr. and Mrs. Satan Fishing
Leroy Almon (American, 1938–1997), Mr. & Mrs. Satan Fishing, 1991. Polychrome bas-relief wood carving, 22 1/2 × 24 in. Gordon Gallery, Nashville.

Leroy Almon (1938–1997) was born in Tallapoosa, Georgia, but grew up in Ohio. While working for Coca-Cola in Columbus, he met the self-taught woodcarver Elijah Pierce [previously] at Gay Tabernacle Baptist Church, where Pierce served as lay preacher, and in 1979 became apprenticed to him. Pierce taught Almon how to make low-relief carvings in wood using pocketknives and hand chisels, and then to paint them. Initially the two collaborated on pieces, until 1982, when Almon returned to Tallapoosa. There he restored his childhood home, converting the basement into an art studio. Like his mentor, he too combined the vocations of art making and evangelical preaching.

Almon is well known for his didactic carvings on the subjects of religion, politics, and African American history. The battle between good and evil is at the forefront of his art. Satan fishing for souls is a theme he developed and returned to many times in variation; see, for example, here, here, here, and here. Such carvings show a caricatured Satan (red, horned, spiky-tailed, and goateed) dangling various vices—gambling, promiscuity, sex, drugs, greed, hypocrisy, etc.—as bait before humans who appear ready to bite. Sometimes he’s joined by his wife, Mrs. Satan!

In the version at the Gordon Gallery in Nashville, cards, cash, a romantic couple (presumably unwed), alcohol, cigarettes, a bomb, hard drugs, and a church building are on the line. The latter symbolizes the false piety of many churchgoers and the corruption inside institutionalized Christianity.

In The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture, Vol. 23: Folk Art, Jenifer P. Borum praises Almon’s ability to “mix fire-and-brimstone warnings about the world’s evils with a playful sense of humor”; she refers to the “comic moralism” of his work. My first reaction upon seeing Mr. & Mrs. Satan Fishing was to laugh out loud. But then I wondered whether the humor was intentional. Does the artist want us to chuckle? I haven’t been able to find any statements from Almon. The image likely represents very real temptations that afflicted his community and maybe, some of them, him personally. I suppose the humor could be self-conscious, but if so, it’s a dark humor—gravitas masked in levity. Almon knew that “like a roaring lion [our] adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8).

Leroy Almon
Leroy Almon on his front stoop in Tallapoosa, Georgia, 1987. Photo: Roger Manley.

LISTEN: “The Devil Ain’t Lazy” by Fred Rose; originally recorded by Bob Wills & His Texas Playboys, 1947 | Performed by Pokey LaFarge on Pokey LaFarge, 2013

The devil ain’t lazy (No siree)
The devil ain’t lazy (No siree)

He roams around with sticks and stones
Passing out his moans and groans
The devil ain’t no lazy bones
He works 24 hours a day

The devil ain’t lazy (No siree)
The devil ain’t lazy (No siree)

He likes to see us fight and fuss
Makes us mean enough to cuss
Then he blames it all on us
He works 24 hours a day

He travels like a lightning streak
And he strikes from town to town
Then he gets you when you’re weak
He’ll tear your playhouse down

The devil ain’t lazy (No siree)
The devil ain’t lazy (No siree)

He tells us he won’t hurt a fly
Then he makes us steal and lie
Keeps us sinning until we die
He works 24 hours a day

The devil ain’t lazy (No siree)
The devil ain’t lazy (No siree)

Gets his pitchfork out each night
Gives the folks an awful fright
I know he does it just for spite
He works 24 hours a day

The devil ain’t lazy (No siree)
The devil ain’t lazy (No siree)

Tells us how to find success
I know he’ll wind up in distress
I’ll tell ya why: the devil is an awful mess
He works 24 hours a day

He likes to see things scorch and burn
He don’t make no excuse
If he catches you, he’ll turn you
Every way but loose

The devil ain’t lazy (No siree)
The devil ain’t lazy (No siree)

So if you think you’re strong and brave
Smart enough to not behave
You got one foot in the grave
He works 24 hours a day
24 hours a day (Yes, he does!)
He works 24 hours a day
He works 24 hours a day

Advent, Day 15

Jesus began his public teaching ministry by reading the following passage from an Isaiah scroll at his local synagogue:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,
    because he has anointed me
        to bring good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives
    and recovery of sight to the blind,
        to let the oppressed go free,
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. (Luke 4:18–19)

Some theologians call this the Nazareth Manifesto. It’s Jesus’s inauguration speech, if you will, where he lays out his platform, his values, his mission.

The freedom that Jesus came to bring is not just spiritual, although it is at least that. It is also physical. He came to liberate us body and soul—from sin and its many ugly manifestations, both personal and systemic, that prevent us and others from thriving. 

As we await Christ’s second advent, we can look forward to this promise: freedom is coming.

[Related post: “Jubilee (Artful Devotion)”]

LOOK: Freedom Quilt by Jessie B. Telfair

Telfair, Jessie B._Freedom Quilt
Jessie B. Telfair (American, 1913–1986), Freedom Quilt, Parrott, Georgia, United States, 1983. Cotton, with pencil, 74 × 68 in. American Folk Art Museum, New York.

Curator Stacy C. Hollander writes,

When Jessie Telfair invoked the power of a single word repeated over and over in this quilt, she knew the word would reverberate through the history of the United States, back to the “peculiar institution” of slavery and the freedom that she was still struggling to attain in the 1960s at the beginning of the Civil Rights movement. The making of the quilt was incited by an incident she suffered in those years, when registering to vote was enough to cost this African American woman her job in a school kitchen. The bitterness of that experience still burned years later, and fellow quiltmakers urged her to express the pain through her art. Worked in the colors of the American flag, the quilt cries freedom. In a subtle metaphor, Telfair has set each repeated letter in its own block; all are visually related, but no two are alike.

LISTEN: “Freedom Is Coming” from South Africa, third quarter of 20th century | Performed by Kate Marks and friends on Circle of Song: Chants and Songs for Ritual and Celebration, 1999

Freedom is coming
Freedom is coming
Freedom is coming
Oh yes, I know!

Jesus is coming
Jesus is coming
Jesus is coming
Oh yes, I know!

This South African freedom song originated during the apartheid era (1948–1994). It’s one of the many songs collected by Swedish musician Anders Nyberg when he traveled with his choir Fjedur to South Africa in 1978 at the invitation of the South African Lutheran Church. Upon his return, “Freedom Is Coming” and other South African freedom songs and hymns were published in Sweden and soon after in the United States in the collection Freedom Is Coming: Songs of Protest and Praise from South Africa (Utryck, 1984), which is still in print. Fjedur’s performance of “Freedom Is Coming” at the Budapest Assembly of the Lutheran World Federation in 1984 was instrumental in disseminating the song around the world, and afterward it started appearing in more hymnals.

Alfred Conteh’s “Float” and other recent CAUAM acquisitions

In September 2019 I visited Atlanta, Georgia, and one of the two art stops I made was the Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, whose purpose is “to collect, preserve, research, and exhibit fine art works that document the role of African Americans in American history and culture.” When I got there I was bummed to see that the museum was closed in preparation for three exhibitions that were to open that Sunday. But graciously, even though the signage and lighting hadn’t been installed and some of the objects were still being moved around, the curator allowed me in for a little glimpse.

I was stopped in my tracks by a mixed media sculpture in the gallery of recent acquisitions: Float by Alfred Conteh.  

Conteh, Alfred_Float
Alfred Conteh (American, 1975–), Float, 2014. Steel, epoxy dough, thermoadhesive plastic, atomized steel dust, atomized bronze dust, urethane plastic, steel chain, 93 × 46 × 35 in. Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, Atlanta, Georgia. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Conteh, Alfred_Float (detail)

It shows a Black female Christ figure rising up in a whirl of energy, her hat blown aloft. Wounds are visible on her hands and feet, but these are taken up into new, greening life. At the bottom is a broken chain, indicating that she has been set free. The piece expresses the exhilaration of emancipation, of being shackled no more.

(Related posts: “Contemporary Black artists at the Baltimore Museum of Art”; “Christ figure in Justin Dingwall’s Albus series”)

I would classify Float as a resurrection image, which its staging reinforces. To its far left is a wooden crucifix by Dilmus Hall, followed by The Mourners by Frederick C. Flemister, from 1942. (Note that the two crucifix photos in this post are courtesy of the Souls Grown Deep Foundation, who donated the pieces to the museum.)

Clark Atlanta U aquisitions
Hall, Dilmus_Untitled (Crucifixion)
Dilmus Hall (American, 1896–1987), Untitled, n.d. Wood, wood putty, plastic beads, and paint, 12 × 9 in. Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, Atlanta, Georgia. Photo: Stephen Pitkin / Pitkin Studio.

Flemister, Frederick C._The Mourners
Frederick C. Flemister (American, 1916–1976), The Mourners, 1942. Oil on canvas, 39 3/4 × 31 1/4 in. Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, Atlanta, Georgia. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

Drawing on iconography of the Lamentation over the Dead Christ, Flemister’s The Mourners shows a mother holding the corpse of her grown son, who has just been deposed from a lynching tree. Behind her a woman in a pink dress throws up her arms in grief, and a preteen boy runs into his own mother’s arms for comfort. Like many artists before and after him, Flemister connects the killings of innocent Black men to the killing of Jesus—not because their deaths are salvific but because both they and Jesus were unjustly “crucified,” and because Black men bear God’s image, which the visual conflation reminds us of. As Jesus told his disciples, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:40).

Death and resurrection, suffering and hope, are the theme of this temporary exhibition. A second wooden crucifix, by Thornton Dial Jr., adorns the opposite wall. It’s titled I’ll Be Back, which, as the sculpture was made a few years after The Terminator came out, may be a playful reference to Arnold Schwarzenegger’s famous line, but it is first and foremost an affirmation that Jesus will return to earth, as promised, to fully set things right. (By the way, I wonder if Conteh, in making Float, was inspired by the hubcap component of another of Dial’s crucifixes . . .)

Dial Jr., Thornton_I'll Be Back
Thornton Dial Jr. (American, 1953–), I’ll Be Back, 1988. Wood, metal, barbed wire, string, fabric, industrial sealing compound, enamel, nails, 35 × 32 × 6 3/4 in. Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, Atlanta, Georgia. Photo: Stephen Pitkin / Pitkin Studio.

The last piece in the room is Ceres by John W. Arterbery. Ceres was the Roman goddess of agriculture, grain crops, and fertility, the equivalent of the Greek mother-goddess Demeter. In Arterbery’s painting she wears a crown of sprouting wheat stalks and holds a pitchfork in one hand and a leafless plant with buds and berries in the other. I think the flowers may be poppies, as Ceres is associated with those.

Arterbery, John W._Ceres
John W. Arterbery (American, 1928–1977), Ceres, 1963. Oil on Masonite, 60 × 47 1/2 in. Clark Atlanta University Art Museum, Atlanta, Georgia. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones.

It appears as though Arterbery is depicting the imminence of spring, when Ceres will be reunited with her daughter Proserpine (Persephone) and life will grow and flourish. It shows Ceres looking toward the sun in anticipation of such a time. Read in conjunction with the other pieces in the room, Ceres could be interpreted as an Advent image—a waiting for the final fulfillment of God’s good purposes for his creation, which includes a definitive end to suffering and oppression and a universal thriving.

The Clark Atlanta University Art Museum is typically open Tuesday through Friday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., as well as by appointment, but you may want to email ahead of time (cauArtMuseum@gmail.com) to confirm. It’s definitely worth a visit, though I can’t guarantee that the works featured here will be on display. If you wish to browse photos of pieces from the museum’s collection, see In the Eye of the Muses: Selections from the Clark Atlanta University Art Collection (2012).

Hidden in the Cleft (Artful Devotion)

Living in the side-hole
Moravian devotional image by Marianne von Watteville, 18th century. Embroidery and watercolor on cardstock, 11 × 16 cm. Unity Archives, Herrnhut, Germany.

Moses said, “Please show me your glory.” And [the LORD] said, “I will make all my goodness pass before you and will proclaim before you my name ‘The LORD.’ And I will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will show mercy on whom I will show mercy. But,” he said, “you cannot see my face, for man shall not see me and live.” And the LORD said, “Behold, there is a place by me where you shall stand on the rock, and while my glory passes by I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by. Then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen.”

—Exodus 33:18–23 (emphasis added)

Then Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly together before the rock, and he said to them, “Hear now, you rebels: shall we bring water for you out of this rock?” And Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock with his staff twice, and water came out abundantly, and the congregation drank, and their livestock.

—Numbers 20:10–11

Our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink. For they drank from the spiritual Rock that followed them, and the Rock was Christ.

—1 Corinthians 10:1b–4

O my dove, in the clefts of the rock, in the crannies of the cliff, let me see your face, let me hear your voice, for your voice is sweet, and your face is lovely.

—Song of Solomon 2:14

But one of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.

—John 19:34

Exodus 33:12–23 is assigned in Sunday’s lectionary; the other Bible passages I’ve added because I want to show how an intertextual reading yielded our song of the week.

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HYMN: “I Thirst, Thou Wounded Lamb of God” (Ach! mein verwundter Fürste!) | Words by Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, Anna Nitschmann, and Johann Nitschmann, 1735; English translation by John Wesley, 1740 | Music by Bethany Brooks, 1997 | Performed by Bethany Brooks on the Cardiphonia compilation album Songs for the Lord’s Supper, 2011 (also on Quarry Street Hymnal, vol. 1, 2012)

I thirst, thou wounded Lamb of God,
to wash me in thy cleansing blood,
to dwell within thy wounds; then pain is
sweet, and life or death is gain.

Take my poor heart and let it be
forever closed to all but thee!
Seal thou my breast and let me wear
that pledge of love forever there.

How blest are they who still abide
close sheltered in thy bleeding side,
who life and strength from thence derive,
and by thee move, and in thee live.

What are our works but sin and death
’til thou thy quick’ning Spirit breathe?
Thou giv’st the power thy grace to move;
O wondrous grace! O boundless love!

Hence our hearts melt, our eyes o’erflow,
our words are lost; nor will we know,
nor will we think of ought beside
my Lord, my Love, is crucified.

Nikolaus von Zinzendorf, one of the authors of this German hymn, was the leader, patron, and protector of the Moravian Church from 1727 to 1760 and its major theologian and liturgist. Anna Nitschmann was chief eldress in the church since age fourteen, serving as spiritual mentor to female congregants, and a missionary for a time to the Native Americans of Pennsylvania and New York; she married Zinzendorf in 1757, but both of them died within a couple of years. Johann Nitschmann was Anna’s brother.

John Wesley, who translated “I Thirst” into English just a few years after it was written, was well acquainted with the Moravians. His journal, covering the years 1736–38, is full of comments and observations about them, starting with a transatlantic sea voyage he was on, during which a storm arose, and everyone panicked, except the Moravians, who sang hymns of praise and prayed with great calm. When he returned to London he attended a Moravian meeting in Aldersgate Street, where he experienced an evangelical conversion. After that he joined the Moravian society in Fetter Lane and in August 1738 traveled to the denomination’s headquarters in Herrnhut, Germany, to study. He corresponded with Zinzendorf, and the two met face to face on more than one occasion. In late 1779 he broke with the Moravians and soon after founded Methodism, greatly influenced by Moravian pietism.

Eighteenth-century Moravians were fascinated with Jesus’s wounds, especially his “little side hole” (where a Roman soldier pierced him on the cross to confirm he was dead), which they described as “warm,” “hot,” “beautiful,” “sweet,” and “today still open.” They wrote hymns about the side wound and created side-wound art—indeed, centered much of their devotional practice on it. As one hymn goes, “Dearest Side-hole! I do covet thy warm Blood above all Things. O thou art the most beloved of all other Wound-hole-Springs. Side-hole’s Blood, bedew me! Cover and go thro’ me! Take thy Course thro’ all my Veins, Heart and Reins, so that nought unbath’d remains.” “I Thirst” is comparatively mild (though granted, I couldn’t find the German original).

Historically, much Christian hymnody and art have fixated on the blood and woundedness of Jesus, but Zinzendorf and his followers took it to another level. To them such graphic imagery was not morbid but comforting and affective. Even I, who have a low tolerance for blood and gore, find myself strangely compelled by this devotional language and visuality of the womblike side wound.

“I Thirst, Thou Wounded Lamb of God” is one of many Moravian hymns that picture Jesus’s side wound as a shelter, a place of refuge where the blessed enter into and reside. “Rock of Ages, Cleft for Me,” written some forty years later by the Anglican cleric Augustus Toplady, is a more widely sung hymn that employs similar imagery—so, too, the less explicit and far less poetic “He Hideth My Soul” by Fanny Crosby.

Moses’s being hidden away in the cleft of a rock so that he can glimpse a glimmer of God’s glory is partly in view, in an implied way, in “I Thirst.” The Song of Songs also refers to “the cleft of a rock”—to a dove, a beloved, nesting there; a lot of Christian commentators read the rock as Christ and the dove as his church, sheltered in his torn flesh (his body was cleft by the spear). Added to the hermeneutical mix is the Numbers passage of water from the rock: during Israel’s desert wanderings, Moses strikes a rock and water streams forth to quench the people’s thirst. (Like Jesus, the rock was beaten, giving issue to a river of life.)

All these biblical stories and images come together to create a constellation of meaning.

(Related post: “Our Sweet, Travailing Mother Christ,” on a Bible moralisée illumination of the birth of Ecclesia)

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Living in the side-hole

The mixed-media needlework reproduced here, from the Unitätsarchiv in Herrnhut, is by an eighteenth-century Swiss German woman named Marianne von Watteville. In embroidery and watercolor, she shows a rocky hillock topped with grass and flowers, into which a little cave is carved, which is Christ’s side wound. She kneels inside the wound in prayer and is showered by the blood of Christ. The inscription on the lip of the wound reads, “O, I rejoice, I rejoice so much that I have found the sea from the wound, where I am a blessed little sinner. I have everything.”

For further reading:


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 24, cycle A, click here.

Give Good Gifts (Artful Devotion)

Mary Antoinette Lorania Pike and Sarah Adeline Pike
Joseph H. Davis (American, 1811–1865), Mary Antoinette Lorania Pike and Sarah Adeline Pike, 1835. Watercolor, pencil, and ink on paper, 8 1/2 × 11 in. American Folk Art Museum, New York. Photo: John Bigelow Taylor.

Let love be without hypocrisy. Detest evil; cling to what is good. Love one another deeply as brothers and sisters. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lack diligence in zeal; be fervent in the Spirit; serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope; be patient in affliction; be persistent in prayer. Share with the saints in their needs; pursue hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud; instead, associate with the humble. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Do not repay anyone evil for evil. Give careful thought to do what is honorable in everyone’s eyes. If possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.

—Romans 12:9–18 CEB

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SONG: “Give Good Gifts One to Another” by Sister Martha Jane Anderson, 1893 | Performed by The Rose Ensemble, on And Glory Shone Around: Early American Carols, Country Dances, Southern Harmony Hymns, and Shaker Spiritual Songs (2014)

Give good gifts one to another,
Peace, joy, and comfort gladly bestow;
Harbor no ill ’gainst sister or brother,
Smooth life’s journey as you onward go.

Broad as the sunshine, free as the showers,
So shed an influence, blessing to prove;
Give for the noblest of efforts your pow’rs;
Blest and be blest, is the law of love.

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Born in Limington, Maine, to a farming family, Joseph H. Davis was an itinerant artist who created small, inexpensive portraits of New England citizens from 1832 to 1837. He wandered from town to town through the border region between Maine and New Hampshire with his watercolors, paper, pencils, and brushes, initially seeking clients among his church connections. (He was a member of the Freewill Baptist Church.) His reputation spread by word of mouth, and over a five-year period he executed at least 150 watercolor portraits, most often posing together in profile a husband and wife or, as in the above painting, siblings, either in parlor settings or outdoors. The family pets are sometimes included too. Along the bottom borders he recorded the sitters’ names and ages.

After Davis’s daughter was born, he gave up painting and became involved in land speculation, manufacturing, and inventing.

Mary Antoinette Lorania Pike and Sarah Adeline Pike was part of the exhibition A Piece of Yourself: Gift Giving in Self-Taught Art, which ran from July 22, 2019, to January 10, 2020, at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City. Other pieces included quilts, handmade valentines and toys, Shaker gift drawings, a tin top hat (a tenth anniversary present), and a delicate, lacelike papercut made in 1830 by an inmate at Walnut Street Prison in Pennsylvania for a prison guard’s daughter.


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 17, cycle A, click here.

Roundup: Pool of Bethesda, Argentine tango hymn, Ernesto Cardenal, beauty and suffering, “Spiritual Cosmonaut” playlist, and “The Two Popes”

VISUAL COMMENTARIES: “The Pool of Bethesda” by Naomi Billingsley: In a recent contribution to the online Visual Commentary on Scripture [previously], Naomi Billingsley has compiled and written about three artworks based on John 5:1–18, a story in which Jesus heals a paralyzed man at a reservoir in Jerusalem. A source of hydration, cleansing, and tranquility, the pool of Bethesda, Billingsley says, is a symbol that transcends individual religious traditions.

Pool of Bethesda

She discusses William Hogarth’s painting of the subject for a hospital, showing sick patients receiving care; a “Dreamtime” drawing from Aboriginal Australian artist Trevor Nickolls’s Bethesda series, created during his recovery from a major car accident; and The Angel of the Waters fountain in Bethesda Terrace in Manhattan’s Central Park, designed by Emma Stebbins in 1842 to celebrate an aqueduct that brought clean water to New York City and improved public health (and which you may recognize as the site where John the Baptist baptizes disciples in the opening sequence of the movie Godspell).

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ARGENTINE TANGO HYMN: “Tenemos Esperanza” (We Have Hope): This hymn text was written in 1979 by Federico Pagura (1923–2016), a Methodist bishop and human rights champion from Argentina, and set to tango music by Homero Perera (1939–2019) of Uruguay. Argentinian pastor Federico “Fede” Apecena, who lives in Georgia in the US, recently introduced the song to his friend Josh Davis, who heads the multicultural worship ministry Proskuneo, and the two banged out this awesome video performance. “The song is a record of all that Jesus came to do and to be,” Apecena explains at the end of the video. [HT: Global Christian Worship]

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OBITUARY: Ernesto Cardenal (1925–2020), poet and priest who mixed religion and politics in his commitment to social justice in Nicaragua, dies at 95: A Catholic priest, poet, and political revolutionary from Nicaragua, Ernesto Cardenal was a controversial figure. He supported the Sandinista insurrection against the dictatorial Somoza regime in the seventies and, when the Sandinista government (which claimed to integrate Marxist and Christian ideals) came to power, served as its minister of culture from 1979 to 1987. He viewed this post as an extension of his priestly office and, refusing to quit it at Pope John Paul II’s behest, was forthwith suspended from the priesthood in 1984. (Pope Francis absolved him of canonical censure in February 2019, permitting him to administer the sacraments once again.)

Cardenal’s most enduring achievement was his 1966 founding of a religious community among the peasant farmers and fishermen of the Solentiname archipelago in Lake Nicaragua. He saw to the construction of a small wooden church, where he led collaborative Masses: instead of giving a homily on the week’s assigned Gospel reading, he opened up dialogues about it with his parishioners, relishing their insights. Transcripts of these conversations were published in four volumes as El Evangelio en Solentiname (The Gospel in Solentiname) between 1975 and 1977, with English translations appearing in 1976–82—a classic work of liberation theology.

Besides cultivating the islanders’ interest in the Bible, Cardenal also took notice of their creative talents. He brought in artists to lead workshops, which led to the development of a primitivist art school that achieved international recognition for its paintings, many of them depicting Jesus’s birth, ministry, and passion taking place in Solentiname, in and around the familiar thatched-roof buildings, blue waters, and lush vegetation. In 1984 Orbis Books editors Philip and Sally Scharper combined several such images with a heavily abridged version of The Gospel in Solentiname and published it as The Gospel in Art by the Peasants of Solentiname, a slim, full-color hardcover that I highly recommend.

Guevara, Gloria_Visitation
Gloria Guevara (Nicaraguan), The Visitation, 1981 [source: The Gospel in Art by the Peasants of Solentiname]
“It was the Gospel which radicalized us politically,” Cardenal said. “The peasants began to understand the core of the Gospel message: the announcement of the kingdom of God, that is, the establishment on this earth of a just society, without exploiters or exploited.” Afraid of the dangerous ideas taking root in Solentiname, Somoza’s National Guard razed the settlement to the ground in 1977, and Cardenal was forced to flee to Costa Rica. He gave his blessing to his community’s decision to join the Sandinistas, the people’s army, to attempt an overthrow of Somoza, a victory they achieved in 1979. The surviving peasants returned to Solentiname to rebuild, and their practice of art and faith continues to thrive to the present day.

Cardenal is also known as a poet. I’ve read only one volume of his poetry, in English translation: Apocalypse: And Other Poems (New Directions, 1977). I didn’t connect well with a lot of it, but it does have a few gems, like “Prayer for Marilyn Monroe,” “The Cosmos Is His Sanctuary (Psalm 150),” and “Behind the Monastery,” reprinted here in full:

Behind the monastery, down the road,
there is a cemetery of worn-out things
where lie smashed china, rusty metal,
cracked pipes and twisted bits of wire,
empty cigarette packs, sawdust,
corrugated iron, old plastic, tires beyond repair:
all waiting for the Resurrection, like ourselves.

(translated from the Spanish by Robert Pring-Mill)

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LECTURE: “On Beauty” by Natalie Carnes: “Beauty has been leveraged in ways that wound us, with legacies of misogyny, class hatred, and racial injustice,” says Dr. Natalie Carnes, associate professor of theology at Baylor University. “And yet I want to suggest that beauty tends those same wounds, and can be found in those same wounds, for beauty is a name for God.”

In this half-hour talk given November 1, 2017, at Dallas Theological Seminary as part of school’s Arts Week, Carnes examines the paradox, expressed in the church’s art and theology across history, that God is both beautiful and not beautiful. In his suffering, Carnes says—his entering the ravaged and scarred places of our humanity—God does not renounce his beauty but reveals it.

The divine presence in grotesque suffering is not a departure from the divine life but characteristic of it. And that movement into the grotesque is not antagonistic to beauty but the revelation of it. God’s faithfulness goes by way of intimacy with not-God, and beauty by way of the grotesque. The beauty that rejects suffering is false, and the one who follows the call of beauty faithfully will find herself in the scarred places of the world. Beauty, after all, is a name for God, and God does not abandon divinity in identifying with the suffering and afflicted but expresses through such identification the very marker of divine life.

This is not to say that suffering, affliction, or poverty is beautiful. Beauty is distinct from the mode of its arriving. Poverty and suffering can be important sites of beauty, even as they are not themselves beautiful, because they mediate the beauty of the God who is charity. . . .

Beauty and Suffering
Left: Michelangelo, Last Judgment (detail), 1536–41 | Right: Matthais Grünewald, Isenheim Altarpiece (detail), 1515

Natalie Carnes is the author of Beauty: A Theological Engagement with Gregory of Nyssa, Image and Presence: A Christological Reflection on Iconoclasm and Iconophilia, and (forthcoming) Motherhood: A Confession.

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PLAYLIST: “Spiritual Cosmonaut,” compiled by Latifah Alattas: Last month singer-songwriter and music producer Latifah Alattas [previously] curated a short Spotify playlist of “Spiritual songs that stir my soul. Melodies that tap into mystery. Sounds that open me up to the wonder and peace of God.” It’s great!

Alattas is the frontwoman of the band Page CXVI [previously], which has just returned from a six-year hiatus. I’m so moved by their recently released rendition of “Great Is Thy Faithfulness,” with piano, synthesizer, and pedal steel guitar. Alattas has made the song more communal, subbing out all first-person singular pronouns for first-person plural, even rewording whole lines, like the last two of the chorus, which become “Amidst the pain of this world you grieve with us—unfailing faithfulness, dwelling so near.” Or the final line of the final verse, which she changed from “Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside!” to “Blessings for all, Christ within us resides.”

People who are attached to singing the song a certain way might object to such lyrical revisions, but I see them, along with the creative musical liberties she takes, as helping to bring out the themes that are already there. Alattas helped me to hear this classic hymn with new ears.

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FILM: The Two Popes (2019), dir. Fernando Meirelles: I recently watched this Oscar-nominated biographical drama and enjoyed it more than I thought I would! I wasn’t expecting the respect it gives to its subjects and to Christianity. Its title refers to the fact that, for the first time in six hundred years, the Roman Catholic Church has one reigning pope and one retired pope, the “pope emeritus.” (When Benedict announced his resignation in 2013, it shocked the world, as it’s expected that, if chosen, you serve in that role until death.)

The movie is primarily about the relationship between the traditionalist Pope Benedict XVI (born Joseph Ratzinger) and the progressive Pope Francis (born Jorge Bergoglio), which starts out antagonistically but buds into a friendship of sorts. It’s dialogue-heavy (it was adapted from a stage play), but in the most interesting way, as the two engage in “a series of philosophical and dogmatic discussions and disagreements about the nature of faith and forgiveness, and the direction of a church struggling to maintain relevance in the modern world” [source].

But it’s not just about the church’s struggle or the burdens of high office; it’s also about personal faith as a struggle—how to discern one’s calling in life, how to hear God’s voice and deal with his silence, and how to forgive oneself for one’s own tragic silences (in Benedict’s case, regarding the sex abuse perpetrated by clergy; in Francis’s, regarding the Dirty War in his home country of Argentina in the late seventies and early eighties, while he was serving as priest).

Francis’s backstory, of which I knew nothing beforehand, is told in flashbacks. (The fiancée is fictional, though the real Francis has admitted to having romantic crushes as a teenager and even as a seminarian.) The portrayal of both men, by Anthony Hopkins as Benedict and Jonathan Pryce as Francis, is very humanizing (not initially for Benedict, but his character gets there)—and not just because of the glimpse it provides into Francis’s life prior to the cloth, but also, in part, because of little nods it gives to their interests beyond the church, like Francis’s love of soccer and tango dancing, and Benedict’s piano playing and Fanta drinking. And because it shows their personal fallibility, their regret over past misdeeds.

It should be noted that the meeting of the two men at the papal summer residence of Castel Gandolfo prior to Benedict’s resignation is invented, as are many of their lengthy dialogues, which are nonetheless inspired by speeches, letters, and other writings of theirs, brought into conversation with one another by playwright and screenwriter Anthony McCarten.

Behold That Star (Artful Devotion)

Hunter, Clementine_The Annunciation and the Adoration of the Wise Men
Clementine Hunter (American, 1886/87–1988), The Annunciation and the Adoration of the Wise Men, 1957. Oil on board, 48 × 78 in. Photo courtesy of Neal Auction Company.

Arise, shine, for your light has come,
and the glory of the LORD has risen upon you.

—Isaiah 60:1

May the kings of Tarshish and of the coastlands
render him tribute;
may the kings of Sheba and Seba
bring gifts!
May all kings fall down before him,
all nations serve him!

—Psalm 72:10–11

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it is written by the prophet:

‘And you, O Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod summoned the wise men secretly and ascertained from them what time the star had appeared. And he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him.” After listening to the king, they went on their way. And behold, the star that they had seen when it rose went before them until it came to rest over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy. And going into the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then, opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they departed to their own country by another way.

—Matthew 2:1–12

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SONG: “Behold That Star” or “Behold the Star” | Negro spiritual | Performed by various artists (see below)

I first heard this song years ago on Pete Seeger’s Traditional Christmas Carols (1967; reissued 1989), one of my favorite Christmas albums.

William L. Dawson’s choral arrangement, recorded by the St. Olaf Choir in 1997, has become the standard for choirs all over the country. The recording features, as soloist, African American operatic soprano Marvis Martin:

For a gospel version, check out Fred Waring and the Pennsylvanians’ album Christmas Time (1955, reissued 2015), which combines the song with “Carol of the Bells”:

Or the version by James Cleveland with the Angelic Choir and the Cleveland Singers on Merry Christmas (1969, reissued 1987):

One of the most upbeat gospel renditions is by the Patterson Singers from 1963:

There’s also a much slower R&B rendition from Black Nativity: A Gospel Christmas Musical Experience, a musical produced by Dominion Entertainment Group in Atlanta and adapted from the 1961 song play by Langston Hughes. (“Behold That Star” is not in the Hughes original.) I couldn’t find who arranged this version, but the performers are Lawrence Flowers, Benjamin Moore, and Brandin Jay. Oddly (and perhaps under the influence of the song “Rise Up, Shepherd, and Follow”), this production has the song being sung by shepherds rather than wise men:

You can also find numerous recordings of “Behold That Star” being performed by children’s choirs, its simplicity making it accessible to young ages. It was one of several spirituals and other classics the kiddos at my church sang in our 2018 Christmas play (see video below). I’m at the piano playing from the African American Heritage Hymnal, no. 216, transposed down three half-steps to D; the arrangement is by Nolan Williams Jr. (I’m still woefully lacking in the ability to embellish in a gospel style, I’m afraid!)

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Clementine (pronounced KLEH-mehn-teen) Hunter was a self-taught Afro-Creole artist known for depicting life in the Cane River region of central Louisiana, especially in and around Melrose Plantation, where she worked as a farm laborer for most of her life, even into old age. She didn’t begin painting until she was in her fifties, and she would do it at night on whatever surfaces she could find—window shades, jugs, bottles, gourds, snuff boxes, iron pots.

During her early art career she would sell her paintings at the local drugstore for a dollar or less, but by the time of her death, her paintings were selling to dealers for thousands. She received significant recognition during her lifetime, including from US presidents. Today her work can be found in the collections of the Smithsonian, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and other prestigious institutions.

In the Christmas-/Epiphanytide painting reproduced above, Christ is born on Melrose Plantation in the southern US, surrounded by sheep and chickens and horses and palm trees. On the left a black angel leads a pregnant black Mary down a footpath to a farmhouse, while on the other side Mary sits on a stool with the newborn Jesus in her lap and Joseph behind her, as three men in wide-brimmed hats come bearing gourds as gifts. Above the scene is the giant yellow star that led these men to the spot, and two white-clad angels (with a scattered choir of others) trumpeting the good news of the Savior’s birth.

The magi were a subject Hunter turned to in many of her paintings. Here’s another fine example:

Hunter, Clementine_Magi Bearing Gifts
Clementine Hunter (American, 1886/87–1988), Untitled (Magi Bearing Gifts), ca. 1970–80. Paint on an albany slip whiskey jug, approx. 10 in. (25.4 cm) high. Smithsonian American Art Museum, Washington, DC.

Hunter, Clementine_Magi Bearing Gifts

I love how Hunter was able to see the sacred in the everyday—God’s grand story unfolding in her immediate environs. It reminds me of a poem by Wendell Berry from A Timbered Choir that begins,

Remembering that it happened once,
We cannot turn away the thought,
As we go out, cold, to our barns
Toward the long night’s end, that we
Ourselves are living in the world
It happened in when it first happened,
That we ourselves, opening a stall
(A latch thrown open countless times
Before), might find them breathing there,
Foreknown: the Child bedded in straw,
The mother kneeling over Him,
The husband standing in belief
He scarcely can believe . . .

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For Artful Devotions from previous years’ feast of the Epiphany, see “‘And nations shall come to your light . . .’” (featuring a Mughal miniature and an Arabic hymn) and “Three Kings Day” (featuring a Puerto Rican bulto and aguinaldo).

Also, see Christine Valters Paintner’s spiritual reflections on the story of Epiphany as an archetypal journey we are all invited to make. Her advice?

  1. Follow the star to where it leads.
  2. Embark on the journey, however long or difficult.
  3. Open yourself to wonder along the way.
  4. Bow down at the holy encounters in messy places.
  5. Carry your treasures and give them away freely.
  6. Listen to the wisdom of dreams.
  7. Go home by another way.

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

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