Monday, April 19, 2010

I am not an artist


Some days, like today, I am absolutely sure I’m not an artist.

On these days I remember how my brother was the artist of the family. At our elementary school, his pictures were taped up on the cafeteria wall for all to admire. Every week at our piano lessons, he played all the homework to perfection; even his scales sounded like music. I never heard him practice a moment, while I dutifully put in my 30 minutes a day, week after week. When my turn came, I played the notes right but they were dead as lead. I was not an artist.

On the days I’m not an artist, I search my heart for a passion or even a little tickle that will propel me back to artistry. I find nothing. Just anxiety about the 15-year-old water heater that could break at any moment and flood my wood floors, and the parade of plumbers, each with dire warnings and a pricey estimate. I read my daily Bible assignment and see that Solomon was wealthy and wise and Mary burst into song when she met Elizabeth and Paul is eternally exploding with enthusiastic exhortation. All this creative energy feels like it is only for the righteous, which I’m not.

On the days I’m not an artist, all the other days I wasn’t an artist swell up in my memory like Sylvester the cat with a hose in his mouth. I watch fascinated as the Sylvester days fill up the whole TV of my mind and tiny Tweetie stands in the corner watching with self-justified glee. Right now I want to flatten Tweetie, but he’ll just pop up again in the next scene with his stupid lisp and more dirty tricks. Never mind that Sylvester started it, I just want the cartoon to be over! Get me out of this two-dimensional world of sadistic sneakiness.

I want to feel like an artist again. I want to feel true and clear. I want to love everything and everyone.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

New motto: Better living through lower standards



I attended another retreat at Laity Lodge recently, this one for pastors of artists. My hope in going was that I would get a sense of what pastors need from someone like me. The daily struggle of writing the book has become like trying to drive a bumper car in a straight line in a rink full of 10-year-old boys on a sugar high. I was starting to despair of knowing how to get where I was going.

Most of the retreat attendees were 20- to 30-somethings, and most were not just thinking about starting arts ministries but were already deep into it. Very different from the people attending the Transforming Culture symposium two years ago (a 3-day event for artists and pastors) and even from the same Laity Lodge retreat last year, where most were just beginning to imagine bringing the arts into their churches. The pastors this weekend came from a wide variety of churches and arts backgrounds. It was clear that pastors’ interest in the arts is no longer on the bleeding edge.

It also became clear to me, as I spoke with and listened to the folks I met, that every one of them, with their own particular bent and set of skills and church culture, has created something different in terms of an arts ministry. Of course, I knew this would be true and never set out to write a one-size-fits-all template for arts ministry. But actually hearing firsthand the variety of approaches and concerns, I gradually realized that my stuckness has been due to trying to be all things to all people.

I knew my experience was limited, but my overachieving self believed that I must do more than I actually know how to do. In spite of knowing my limitations, I was in fact believing that God would not be pleased with me unless I exceeded those limits through monumental effort. God would not respect me unless I read everything already written about the arts and the church and then wrote the definitive book on how to create an arts ministry in the midst of this culture at this time. This definitive book would be about the nuts and bolts of presenting visual art in a Protestant church, which one can’t do (I told myself) without understanding the philosophy and theology of aesthetics, Western art history, church history at least since the Reformation, American cultural studies (look it up), the history of Hope Chapel and HopeArts, the psychology of relationships and of the artistic temperament. And I couldn’t limit myself to visual art when at Hope the performing arts were integral to the ministry. The definitive book must also include true stories to keep readers interested, it can’t be too academic in style or content, and it must be artful, even poetic, to prove the premise that Christians can produce good art.

Wow, did I really believe all that?

So what I am doing now is looking for the focus within the thousands of words I have written over the past couple of years. I am laughing at myself every time I sit down to work, at my arrogance and the mighty power of childhood desires to please well-meaning but critical parents. I am remembering that all I know about is how to hang art in one church, and God is okay, maybe even pleased, with that.

Monday, March 1, 2010

A new arts pastor!

Hope Chapel finally has an arts pastor again. The arts ministry did not disappear after David Taylor resigned, but it did go through a quiet phase, being led by a group dedicated to forming and discerning a new vision. Brie Walker Tschoepe (pronounced "shapey") has been hired part time. The dedicated group will continue as part of the leadership structure, and Brie will meet regularly with the non-artist leaders and be the face of HopeArts to the "outside world."

We had a beautiful commissioning ceremony yesterday. Many prayers -- for continued building of trust between Brie, who has already shown her trustworthiness, and the artists and congregation; for loving care of the naked heart of the artist; and for pursuit of excellence without exclusivity. I am so grateful to be part of this community!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Imagination


Pieter Brueghel, The Triumph of Death, detail

Imagination has had a bad rap in Protestantism and Western culture for a long time. Take the phrase “figment of the imagination.” I always understood it to mean that no part of the imagination is equal to the “reality” of reason. I don’t think the word “imagination” was ever part of any sermon I heard or teaching I received.

When I look the word up in the NIV, it appears four times, all in the Old Testament, always as a sin that has distanced people from God. The situation is even worse in the King James, the translation of my upbringing. Here “imagination” shows up 20 times, including twice in Genesis as an inborn and continuing evil and three times in the New Testament as ingredients of pride and idolatry. Again, most instances link the imagination with adjectives like wicked, evil, and vain.
Only when David prays for his son Solomon and for God's people does he associate the imagination with God.

The first time I ever heard the word imagination used in a sermon was about two months ago. Jennifer Cumberbatch, a guest preacher at Hope, was the perpetrator. She used it not to describe a sin but to describe a part of the mind’s life that God can redeem, like all other parts. She spoke of the “sanctified imagination.” As the sermon was not about the imagination, she did not mention it again nor
expound upon it theologically. She merely used the word as if we all knew that such a thing is part of our faith, and went on.

I want more of that kind of talk! I want preachers and teachers to understand the sanctified imagination and be so comfortable with it that they refer to it without fear and with the assurance that such a thing is not only possible but part of God’s plan. Maybe we need some theological teaching about the difference between the wicked, vain use of the imagination and the sanctified imagination to do that, but maybe we don’t. Isn’t it obvious that both exist and which is to be resisted and which embraced? I think if preachers could invite the concept of the sanctified imagination into their, excuse me, imaginations, and assume its value to us all, we would hear some talk about creativity’s role in the Christian life that would be very refreshing to artists and would also be a connection point between artists and nonartists.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

A Trip to NYC

Last week I got to go to New York with a friend. We went for the express purpose of seeing the Kandinsky retrospective at the Guggenheim and the O’Keeffe abstracts at the Whitney. We also visited the Museum of Biblical Arts (MOBIA) without knowing what might be there. What a great confluence of paintings!


Wassily Kandinsky, Accompanied Contrast

Like most people, I suppose, I have had to work at understanding non-objective art – art with no immediate reference to natural objects – because it seemed to be without content, without a story to tell. Abstract art – the altering of recognizable images – is easier. But when I first saw reproductions of Kandinsky’s paintings, I just smiled. They made me happy. He pulled me in. So it was at the Guggenheim. I smiled all the way up the long spiral ramp as Kandinsky moved from abstraction to non-objectivism and developed his skill in making art that reflected his emotions and spirituality. Kandinsky made religious art. And being surrounded by nearly 100 of his paintings powerfully communicated to me both his spirit and His Spirit to mine.


Georgia O'Keeffe, Grey Blue and Black, Pink Circle

On to O’Keeffe. She was playing around with similar ideas in her art as Kandinsky, at about the same time. Her abstract and non-objective work uses curves and has a sensuous, soft, integrated look, whereas his are full of triangles and brightly colored blotches that seem almost antagonistic to each other. But they both were playing with color and form as expressions of their inner lives.



Tobi Kahn, Svirh

The work of Tobi Kahn was on exhibit at MOBIA. While not (yet) in the league of Kandinsky and O’Keeffe as a painter, still I saw more of the same – an exploration of the spiritual hidden in the material. MOBIA was a friendlier environment – no crowds to peer around, a smaller room, a place to sit and gaze. There I could imagine Kahn’s work surrounding me in a church (it was actually made for a synagogue) and living with it week in, week out, like those stained glass windows from my childhood.

These exhibits were all, to me, an “aroma of Christ,” even a feast. The art and its artful placement created holy places, sanctuaries from the American "real world" that no place represents better than New York.

That's why I care so much about bringing the visual arts into the church.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

A Failed Collaboration

HopeArts has been marked by exhibits where visual artists were asked to collaborate with artists working in different disciplines, with nonartists, or with a text. One of the least successful collaborative exhibits was one where we asked artists to create a piece for a hurting person, family, or institution that served people. The idea was to encourage the receiver through a piece of visual art. We asked through our email list for suggested places that would appreciate donated art, and then provided artists with a list of those and other possibilities -- the battered women’s center, the state hospital for the indigent mentally ill, a veteran’s center, nursing homes. The artist was to exhibit the piece during Lent and give it away for Easter.

We received very few works for this exhibit, and none for any institution, except the artist who cleared out his studio to give an unsold work to “whoever we thought would like it.” What went wrong? Did the artists think it was a gloomy idea to make work for a sad place or person? Did they have no relationship to such a place or person, and therefore no personal incentive? Were they embarrassed to offer work because it wasn’t skilled enough or because it was unsolicited? My best art always has always been art I made for a particular person that I loved or on a subject that I cared deeply about. Am I different from most artists or was the idea not communicated well?

Does anyone out there have an insight?

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Laity Lodge


Last weekend I attended a very special retreat at Laity Lodge for the third year. Stephen Purcell, formerly of a retreat center in Austria called Schloss Mittersill, is now the director. Each year he has brought together Christian artists from around the world for four days of discussion and artistry in the most hospitable setting I know. This year singer-songwriter David Wilcox and cellist Jozef Luptak were guest musicians, David Dark the speaker, and Melissa Hawkins performed a one-person play. And that was just the beginnning. Many attendees read, sang, and contributed to the impromptu art exhibit.

As entertaining and thought-provoking as all this is, it is only a backdrop for the community that springs up, two or three people at a time.

The first person I met there was Doug -- he sat next to me at dinner the first evening. Doug had lovely long silver hair, and asked me almost immediately, "What's the best thing your church ever did for artists?" He was very intent, and I desperately wanted to say the right thing. "Hiring David Taylor" was all I could think of. Not the answer he was looking for, I'm sure. Over the course of the retreat, I kept thinking about his question and sitting next to him now and then, to see if we could talk more. He was pretty quiet.

One afternoon I wandered into the main lodge and happened upon a group of 5 or 6 guys passing around a guitar, taking turns playing their own songs. The retreat’s guest musician David Wilcox was among them. In fact, I recognized most of them as professional musicians. And there sat Doug. I hung around for bit watching this spontaneous community of artists enjoying each other. When the guitar came to Doug, he took it, and we all cracked up at his great little ditty about sighting Elvis.

On the last day of the retreat, at a time set aside for sharing, this quiet, humble guy choked up while telling us how healing these few days had been. He revealed that although he was an integral part of his church's worship and taught in a church-sponsored performing arts center, no fellow Christian had ever invited him to play a single song of his own. He vowed to move his guitar from the closet to a stand in the living room and start playing, not just working, again.

I remembered that the best thing our church did for artists was to invite us to play our own songs.
 
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