Roundup: Conferences, recorded talks by Jyoti Sahi and Patty Wickman, and the arts in spiritual formation

UPCOMING CONFERENCES:

>> (Virtual) Christian Fellowship of Art Music Composers, October 23, 2021: The CFAMC is soliciting videos of live musical performances (or works designed with videography), original hymns, and papers. Twelve art music pieces will be chosen to be shown at the conference, followed by conversations about each, as will three hymns, to be sung during a time of worship.

>> (In Person) Transcend, CIVA Biennale, November 4–6, 2021, Austin, Texas: I’ll be attending! “Beauty is compelling. It binds itself to the Truth and the Good in such a way that, as Dante said, ‘Beauty awakens the soul to act.’ It moves us from the rooted realities of canvas, clay, notes, or language into the transcendental nature of God Himself, our Beautiful, True, and Good Creator. Join CIVA [Christians in the Visual Arts] as artists, pastors, curators, and cultural leaders explore the divine spark of the image of God in each of us that initiates and propels our journey to perceiving anew an intuitive, expressive, and fulfilling reality.” The conference will include a juried art show, plenary talks, paper presentations, times of worship, workshops, portfolio reviews and mentoring sessions, author signings, “explore groups” around the city (I signed up for the Blanton Museum of Art and Ellsworth Kelly’s “Austin”), and artists’ show and tell.

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ARTIST PRESENTATIONS:

It can be so illuminating to hear an artist discuss their work—their influences, their process, how particular artworks came about. Below are two virtual talks I attended last month and really enjoyed, both by artists who are Catholic.

>> Jyoti Sahi, June 19, 2021: In this virtual talk organized by the UK-based organization Christians Aware, my friend Jyoti Sahi [previously] shares several of the paintings he has produced during the past year in quarantine in and around his home in Silvepura Village in Karnataka, southern India, inspired by the local landscapes and vegetation. Over the years Jyoti has developed a Christian spirituality that is very earthy, one that sees the natural world as reflective of, and even participating in, the divine mysteries. His Jesus is in and of the land. Images start at 11:20.

Sahi, Jyoti_Flight of the Holy Family
Jyoti Sahi (Indian, 1944–), Flight of the Holy Family, 2021. Oil and acrylic on canvas.

Sahi, Jyoti_Jesus the Gardener

In his recent body of work, Jyoti shows, among other things:

  • Jesus being born in a makeshift encampment beside a kere (manmade lake), among the brick kilns, a child of migrant laborers.
  • Jesus giving a sermon in a sacred grove underneath a yellow bodhi tree, where herdsmen graze their flocks. The snake-stones, erected by the Adivasi (tribal peoples of India), allude to healing and to Jesus’s being lifted up on the cross like the serpent on Moses’s staff (John 3:14–15; cf. Num. 21:4–9).
  • Jesus entering Jerusalem, his face gloriously framed by palm fronds. He’s reminiscent of the leafy-headed Green Man present in the mythologies of many ancient cultures but found particularly in medieval English church carvings.
  • Christ crucified in the palash tree, the “flame of the forest.” (Jyoti notes that in the Sanskrit epic poem the Mahabharata, the hero’s wounds are compared to the flowers of the palash tree.)
  • Jesus in the garden of the resurrection, standing in front of a flowering datura tree, which is poisonous but also medicinal. (“Poison can be a way of discovering healing,” Jyoti says—a truth that has implications for a theology of the cross.)
  • The journey to Emmaus, showing two of Jesus’s disciples entering the garden, a metaphor for wholeness or home.

>> “Gift Paintings: The Invitation to See Anew” with Patty Wickman, June 24, 2021: As part of its Art & Faith series, Holy Family Church in South Pasadena, California, hosted a virtual talk by one of its members, Patty Wickman [previously], a nationally exhibited artist and longtime professor in UCLA’s art department. Her paintings are figural, and she describes several of them as “gifts,” sparked by things like the discovery one of her mother’s unusual rest rituals, encounters with unhoused persons in San Jose, a cut-paper environment inside a Disney World ride, flea market finds, a plate of dirt her young daughter served her, and a little boy’s eating apples stark naked on a hot summer day in her backyard.

Among her influences are Shaker gift drawings and worship spaces; Victorian hair wreaths; the illuminations of Hildegard of Bingen; performance art pieces by Joseph Beuys, Chris Burden, and Ana Mendieta; Cindy Sherman’s photographic self-portraits; and historical religious paintings by Fra Angelico, Piero della Francesca, Georges de La Tour, Geertgen tot Sint Jans, Caravaggio, and others.

At twenty-four minutes in she starts discussing her own work, with reference to specific artworks that informed her. Compare her Entheos, for example, to Caravaggio’s Crucifixion of Saint Peter; her Struggle Garden to frescoes by Giotto of Anne and Joachim at the golden gate, and Judas betraying Jesus in Gethsemane; and her A Thief in the Night to Peter Menzel’s Material World project. When her early days of motherhood prevented her from having the time to plan and execute large-scale paintings like these, she painted smaller, quicker works—daily during Lent—with subjects including dust bunnies, daddy longlegs, a stick of incense, and a birdbath with the first blooms from her camellia tree having fallen inside. Her work has a sacramental quality to it that’s really compelling.

Wickman, Patty_Passion Painting
Patty Wickman (American, 1959–), Passion Painting, 1997. Oil on canvas, 60 × 90 in.

Wickman, Patty_Circumscribe
Patty Wickman (American, 1959–), Circumscribe, 2017–19. Oil on linen, 84 × 104 in.

The last half-hour of the video is Q&A.

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ARTICLE: “Artful Discipleship: The Role of the Arts in Spiritual Formation” by Carolyn Arends: Singer-songwriter Carolyn Arends discusses four ways the arts are important in our training to follow Jesus: (1) the arts help us train to pay attention; (2) the arts help us train in longing; (3) the arts help us train for the renewing of our minds; and (4) the arts help us train to appreciate things (and especially people) for more than their ​“usefulness.” She closes with a list of suggestions for practicing intentional engagement with the arts.

(See also a recent interview with Arends, “Art and Spiritual Formation,” on the Art & Faith Conversations podcast.)

Roundup: Advent art, songs, poems

So much to share today! Be sure not to miss “Psalm 126” by Drew Miller (a new favorite Advent song) and Matthew Milliner’s excellent presentation on the Virgin Mary in art, which opened an exhibition that’s running in Southern California—both below. (If you only have time to take in a few items from this post, those are the ones I’d recommend.)

PODCAST EPISODE: “A Time for Wanting and Waiting: An Advent Conversation with W. David O. Taylor”: In this recent episode of The Road to Now, hosts Bob Crawford and Chris Breslin interview liturgical theologian David Taylor [previously] about the season of Advent: what it is, its history and how it fits into the wider church year (see especially 43:29ff.), the canon of Advent and Christmas songs, and the gift the Psalms offers us during this season. Referencing his 2015 Washington Post article, Taylor says our picture of Christ’s coming, especially as expressed through our hymnody, tends to be unidimensional and far too sanitized:

We should permit the Nativity stories to remain as strange and bizarre and fantastical and difficult as they in fact are, rather than taming and distilling them down to this one nugget or theme of effusive joy. There is effusive joy in that—it’s simply that that’s not the only thing that characterizes these stories. Unfortunately, most of our canon of Christmas carols or hymns tends to focus on what I would argue is only 50 percent of the Nativity stories. Everything that begins with Elizabeth and Zechariah and goes all the way to, say, Anna and Simeon and the visit of the Magi and the flight to Egypt . . . it really is one whole story that is being told with these subplots.

I would love to see us create . . . new music that either retells portions that we are already telling but not the whole of it, or we need to tell parts that have not yet been told. . . . Let’s ask ourselves how God is at work in all the minor-key or difficult or dissonant parts of the Nativity stories, not absent from—those are not extraneous to God incarnating himself in Jesus Christ. Those are essential parts of it. And so how can our hymns become ways of praying ourselves into these stories so they can sink deeply into the fibers of our hearts and minds and bodies, and for us to say, “Oh, all the weird and difficult and dissonant parts of our lives are part and parcel of God’s good work,” not, again, on the margins of it, or things we should eschew.

To help deepen and expand the church’s repertoire of Christmas music, Taylor founded, along with a few others, the Christmas Songwriters Project. The Psalms are an inspiration in this task, as they express a joy that is at times quiet and at others raucous, as in the Nativity narratives, and that exists as part of a dynamic constellation of emotions and postures that praise can encompass. Most of us don’t recognize the pure, undistilled happiness that is marketed to us throughout December, Taylor says, and we shouldn’t force ourselves to try to feel it but rather should take a cue from the Psalms and also see the same emotional complexity at work at the beginning of the Gospels:

The Psalms, and I think Christian faith at its heart, can make space for joy and sorrow to exist alongside each other in a way that happiness, as we commonly understand it, cannot, or only with great difficulty. . . . What the psalms of praise do . . . is that in one movement, there’s this effusive joy or a shouting joy or a convivial joy, and then it segues to a quieter joy or a contemplative joy or a yearning, painful kind of joy. . . .

So in the season of Advent, when we look at the characters in scripture—you know, Mary and Joseph and Zechariah and Elizabeth and the shepherds and Anna and Simeon—every one of them has this moment, perhaps, of which we could say, “That sounds like joy.” . . . But immediately before or immediately after, it transitions to something else. So does that mean that joy is negated? Is joy squashed? Is joy extinguished? Or is joy able to continue to exist side by side, to subsist, with a continued experience of longing or a sudden moment of sadness?

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ART BY SCOTT ERICKSON: This month Portland-based artist Scott Erickson has been posting on Instagram Advent-themed images he has made, along with thoughtful meditations. Some emphasize the bodiliness of the Incarnation, which often gets overlooked, presumably out of a sense of propriety. But “grace comes to us floating in embryonic fluid . . . embedded in the uterine wall of a Middle Eastern teenage woman,” Erickson writes about With Us – With Child, to which one Instagrammer responded, “This is trajectory changing. Thank you for this. Nipples, vaginas, and Jesus CAN coexist!” Another mentioned how she had never seen Mary with a belly button and a linea nigra before. The image reminds us that Jesus was indeed “born of woman” (Gal. 4:4).

Erickson, Scott_With Us, With Child
Scott Erickson (American, 1977–), With Us – With Child, 2016 [purchase as poster]
Another imaginative image suggests that Christ came to set the world on fire, so to speak. God, who is of old, gives himself to earth as a Jewish babe (“Love has always been FOR GIVENESS,” Erickson writes), sparking a revolution.

Erickson, Scott_Advent
Art by Scott Erickson

View more art by Scott Erickson @scottthepainter.

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LECTIONARY POEMS FOR ADVENT: This year Englewood Review of Books launched a new feature on their website: a weekly post of four to six poems that resonate with the Revised Common Lectionary readings for that week. “We will offer here a broad selection of classic and contemporary poems from diverse poets that stir our imaginations with thoughts of how the biblical text speaks to us in the twenty-first century. We hope that these poems will be fruitful not only for preachers who will be preaching these texts on the coming Sunday, but also for church members in the pews, as a way to prime our minds for encountering the biblical texts.” I’m really enjoying these stellar selections, several of which are new to me.

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