BOOK EXCERPT: “Reality, Art, and Prayer” by Thomas Merton: In this excerpt from No Man Is an Island (1955), Merton talks about “aesthetic formation,” about how “music and art and poetry attune the soul to God”—art that doesn’t perform that function, he says, isn’t worthy of the name! Some might think that the spiritual solution to overstimulated senses (so many images, so much noise) is to close our eyes and ears. But that’s not necessarily so, as Merton explains: “The first step in the interior life, nowadays, is not, as some might imagine, learning not to see and taste and hear and feel things. On the contrary, what we must do is begin by unlearning our wrong ways of seeing, tasting, feeling, and so forth, and acquire a few of the right ones.” Yes! This is what I was trying to get at in my essay “Disciplining our eyes with holy images.”
KICKSTARTER CAMPAIGN: Songs for the Sojourn by Bellwether Arts: The same liturgical arts initiative that brought you this Advent/Christmas package is now poised to release a set of songs, visual art, and prose devotions inspired by the Bible’s “psalms of ascent,” which were likely sung by Jewish pilgrims as they ascended the road to Jerusalem for their three major annual festivals. At the head of the project is Bruce Benedict, founder of Cardiphonia, who in 2010 received a grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship to commission songwriters and visual artists to help his congregation explore, through their respective disciplines, these fifteen psalms (read his application here). The project was so enriching to those involved that he recently decided to expand it to include even more songwriters, painters, and writers—the fruits of which are being made available to the public as a double-disc album, songbook, and art-filled devotional book.
While the songs have been recorded, Bellwether needs your help to finance the mixing, mastering, and disc pressing and the printing of the other two products, as well as to pay the new artists involved. Pledging money in exchange for a reward (essentially, placing a preorder) is a tangible way to support the project. Visit their Kickstarter page for more information or to make a pledge. Campaign ends March 23.
(For other artistic responses to Psalm 133, see this artful devotion featuring the Psalter Project and a William Walker mural, and the poem “Aaron’s Beard” by Eugene Peterson.)
POEM CYCLE:“A Small Psalter” by Pádraig J. Daly: I really love this contribution in the current issue of Image journal—twenty-two modern-day psalms by Irish poet-priest Pádraig J. Daly. Like the biblical psalms, these poems express a range of emotions and postures before God, from sorrow and frustration to joy and awe. Here’s #12:
We are numbed, Lord, by number;
But you, being Other, know
Each single form that kneels at night,
Each heart enchanted by a meadow;
And hear our joys and heed our sighs.
And all we have and are, as we come naked here—
The very self of us!—
Comes from no thing in us
But from you, who make in us an emptiness
That you alone suffice.
FILM: Loving Vincent, dir. Dorota Kobiela and Hugh Welchman: The Oscars are the only occasion of the year that I watch live TV, and I’m really looking forward to the show this Sunday. One of the nominations for Best Animated Feature is the world’s first fully oil-painted feature film, Loving Vincent, a biographical drama about the mysterious Vincent van Gogh. While most reviewers say the narrative content is forgettable, they hail the film’s innovative production methods and visual achievement as nothing short of amazing. Funded by Kickstarter, a team of 125 classically trained artists from various countries painted 65,000 frames in the style of the Dutch master (many of the final canvas paintings were exhibited at the Noordbrabants Museum last year), and actors were cast who had a physical resemblance to van Gogh’s portrait subjects (e.g., Chris O’Dowd as Postman Roulin!). To view the paintings and learn more about the filmmaking process, visit LovingVincent.com, and see the trailer below.
VISUAL MEDITATION: “Behold the Broken, the Bruised” by Victoria Emily Jones: Speaking of van Gogh . . . Last week I wrote a reflection for ArtWay on the mixed-media sculpture After Van Gogh by Mad River Wiyot artist Rick Bartow (1946–2016). The primal wail of the figure expresses the artist’s psychological wounds, as a person with PTSD, and the communal wounds of his people, as well as invokes the famously troubled postimpressionist of its title. To me it also evokes Jesus’s cry of dereliction on the cross: “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”
Also, I’ve been writing Lenten art reflections for GiftofLent.org, one for each Monday of the season (through March 25). This week’s is on Kris Martin’s Altar, a steel replica of the Ghent Altarpiece framework, installed on a Belgian beach. Click on the link to read more.
Last summer when participating in a two-week Calvin College seminar, I was providentially assigned to room with Margaret (Peggy) Adams Parker, a sculptor and printmaker who lives, as it so happens, just an hour south of me! Peggy’s enthusiasm—for God, for life, for art—is infectious. She possesses such deep joy, and yet she feels so deeply the hurts of the world. She is attentive, as all good artists must be. “I feel called as an artist to bear witness to the world I see around me and also to the ways I understand that world,” Peggy wrote in an ArtWay feature. “This yields not only images of beauty and tenderness, but also images of suffering and terror.” She regards her art as a means of prayer.
By way of further introduction, here is an essay Peggy wrote ten years ago for the book Heaven, ed. Roger Ferlo (New York: Seabury Books, 2007), pp. 158–66. It is reproduced by kind permission of the publisher.
“Where Sorrow and Pain Are No More”
by Margaret Adams Parker
To be honest, I’ve never thought much about heaven, at least in any systematic fashion. I was interested enough to pick up, at some point, The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis’s allegory of heaven and hell. And I’ve been known to joke about my expectations that heaven had better have a comprehensively stocked art studio, as well as a fabulous bookstore.
But in looking back though many years of making art and also teaching about art at a Christian seminary, I’ve unearthed a great deal about heaven, although not in the expected places. I haven’t glimpsed heaven among the many imagined depictions, ranging from medieval woodcuts to the visual speculations of twentieth-century outsider artists. I’m simply not drawn to “visionary” images. These are not the kinds of images I make. Instead, my image of heaven is distinctly negative (theologians would call it apophatic). I have no vision of what heaven is like. But I have seen, and I have also made, pictures of what heaven is not.
I am a concrete thinker, and so my art is earthbound, far from visionary. I’ve always understood the incarnational nature of Christianity as a charge to take seriously life in this world. What’s more, my two great artistic mentors—Rembrandt and Käthe Kollwitz—were rarely given to visions. Rather, their work was grounded in the physical, spiritual, and social realities of life. Such symbols as they used (most notably Kollwitz’s use of the skeleton to represent death) served to underscore their understanding of human existence as it is. They recorded moments as small as a child learning to walk and as momentous as war or revolution. Even when picturing the incarnation, that most heavenly of earthly events, both artists showed the miracle taking place in a tangible human setting.
Consider some of these two artists’ characteristic images. Rembrandt’s drawings testify powerfully to his all-encompassing interest in the life around him. He depicted everyone he saw—beggars and merchants, rabbis and serving girls—with the same probing yet sympathetic scrutiny. His drawings of his wife Saskia constitute a particularly poignant record: we watch as she endures four pregnancies, suffers the deaths of three infants, and finally dies at thirty, a short nine years after their betrothal. We glimpse her first in a silverpoint drawing (1633), made the week of their engagement. In this love poem in line, Rembrandt shows us a winsome young woman, resting her cheek lightly against her hand, dangling in her other hand one of the flowers that also adorn her straw hat. In a pen and ink drawing made four years later (1637), Saskia lies in bed, supporting her head heavily on her hand, staring out with a weary and resigned expression. And in the image that Rembrandt sketched on a tiny etching plate the year Saskia died (1642), she has become an old woman, worn, gaunt, and desperately ill.
Käthe Kollwitz’s imagery is more politically engaged. The daughter of a trained lawyer who chose to work as a builder rather than practice within the Prussian legal system, she spent her life depicting the plight of the poor and protesting the ravages of war. In her first great print series, A Weavers’ Rebellion (1897–98), she chronicled the causes, progression, and bloody aftermath of the 1844 revolt of Silesian home weavers against their employers. The series begins with Poverty (1894), where a family of weavers gathers around the deathbed of an infant, and concludes with The End (1897), where the bodies of slain revolutionaries are being laid out on the floor of a weaver’s cabin. In both of these dimly lit interiors, the looms and other apparatus of the weavers’ trade stand as ominous reminders of the weavers’ plight. Continue reading “ESSAY: “Where Sorrow and Pain Are No More” by Margaret Adams Parker”→
After years of hesitance, I’ve finally decided to try out this whole Twitter thing. My handle is @artandtheology. I will be sharing posts from the blog as well as retweeting others in the field. Feel free to engage with me there.
Van Gogh’s Olive Trees reinterpreted as earthscape for aerial viewing: Last year the Minneapolis Institute of Art commissioned earthworks artist Stan Herd to recreate Vincent Van Gogh’s Olive Trees, an important painting in its collection, on a 1.2-acre plot of land so that people flying into the Minneapolis–Saint Paul Airport could look down from their windows and be welcomed to the city (and invited to the museum!). Watch Herd at work on the project in the video below.
Deconstructed flower garden suspended in air: To herald the start of spring, London-based installation artist Rebecca Louise Law has suspended 30,000 live flowers from copper wire in the atrium of the concept shopping mall Bikini Berlin in Germany, giving shoppers a perhaps unexpected taste of natural beauty. Natural materials, especially flora, are Law’s specialty. Visit her website to view more of her stunning works (The Yellow Flower from Sasebo, Japan, is probably my favorite), or stop by Bikini Berlin anytime through May 1 to experience Garten.