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Filtering by Category: Art

Doubting at Christmas

Jean Hoefling

nativity-icon1. . . But God himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, King, husband— that is quite another matter.C.S. Lewis, Miracles

Christmas: God breaking the Second Law of Thermodynamics to snatch the cosmos from its ultimate decay. In other words, a miracle of upward mobility. The Orthodox icon of the Nativity teems with the theology and symbolism of this upswirl, this “redemption of the universe:” the ascending pull of light over the landscape; the bright celestials straddling the razor edge between time and eternity; the ethnic diversity of the Magi, God’s redemptive scope encompassing all peoples and all creation. And in the postures of Mary and Joseph we see the full gamut of human response to this event that couldn’t happen, yet did.

Here the figure of the Virgin is appropriately spacious and central. Mary casts her eyes not toward the babe but away from this one whose swaddling clothes and cradle resemble grave wrappings and a sarcophagus. Her restraint is a reminder, for who can look upon the face of God and live? Yet any minute Mary will pick up that normal looking baby and stare into omnipotent holiness, her soul taut with paradox. Mary’s power of belief is organic to who she is, a chemical and spiritual grace.

Yet in the figure of Joseph the Betrothed in the lower left we witness the other effect of miracle, the Church’s concession to the difficulty of grappling with blissfully mangled universal laws. A study in body language, Joseph slumps in the throes of mental torment, questioning the baby’s alleged origins. He’s under direct assault from Satan, come to once again sow his tedious doubts, this time in the guise of an aging shepherd. The shepherd’s short tunic and rigid profile symbolize duplicity and gross inadequacy—this father of lies who would keep Joseph’s eyes in the dust with no reference to the divine. (See: “Becoming Two-Eyed”)  

In the battle to make peace with mystery, the human mind has a remarkable capacity to see blank sky where in fact shines a sight-giving star. The downward drag of psychic inertia is ever present here among the shambles of the Second Law. Yet though God may approach with “infinite speed,” his home is no longer a manger, but our embrace.

Up Close

Jayne English

ayeux Tapestry - Scene 32 : men observe Halley's Comet

"Live in the layers, not on the litter." —Stanley Kunitz

What is the pattern for growing in knowledge? Usually, we observe what we want to know from a distance, then move closer. We stand on the beach and get an idea of the sea’s vastness, but when we walk to the water’s edge we know the sea better by feeling it on our skin. Or we see the orange fruit among the dark leaves, but we only know its pebbly skin and juiciness until we pluck it from the tree. From a distance, we won’t know the Bayeux Tapestry is embroidery on linen rather than a tapestry. We can’t run our fingers over the stitches (its entire 230-foot length is under glass), but if we move close we’ll learn through its details abouts the events surrounding the Battle of Hastings and William’s rule over England. We’ll see the graceful arcs of figures pointing toward Halley’s Comet; careful stitching that portrays kings and coronations, knights and longships, castles and seas.

The same ratios of proximity and knowledge can be said of poetry. When we look at a poem from the distance of a single reading, we’ll see its surface and shape. But as we get closer with a second reading we’re drawn into deeper layers. A recent poetry forum came up with a dozen ideas for what the word “Checks” might refer to in an Emily Dickinson poem. We can’t sit with Emily and talk to her about her poetry, but we can get closer by seeing how the ambiguities she creates benefit from a careful consideration of individual words.

In his book Prayer, Tim Keller tells us that a slow meditation of scripture can make our prayer life more like conversation with God. His method for meditating is a lot like close reading a poem or a slow look at the Bayeux Tapestry. Referring to Paul’s use of the term “power to grasp,” he says: “At first it seems a very strange word to use when talking about the love of God, but Paul is talking about meditating and pondering something until you break through...” He then goes on to show how he contemplates the words, wide, long, deep, and high and what this contemplation reveals about the “dimensions of Christ’s love.”

Keller says that prayer resulting from this kind of meditation “is continuing a conversation that God has started through his Word and his grace, which eventually becomes a full encounter with him” and that this encounter will “change the way we see all of life and how we behave in this world.”

Wasn’t it through a close-up look that the apostles got to know Jesus? As John put it: “What was from the beginning, what we have heard, what we have seen with our eyes, what we beheld and our hands handled, concerning the Word of Life—.”

Don’t we just want to get closer?

Night Study

Jean Hoefling

Hoefling Starry-Night This morning I saw the countryside from my window a long time before sunrise with nothing but the morning star, which looked very big.         —Vincent Van Gogh, 1889

With nothing but the big morning star to light his way, Van Gogh managed to see it all: the spire-like cypress bridging earth to heaven; the mute, squatting church he added—perhaps a symbol of that other, failed vocation; the moon dazzling as a comet among the lesser lights—all of them, ironically, as wide open as morning eyes. Of the dark hours, Van Gogh claimed they were, “more alive and more richly colored than the day.” Perhaps "The Starry Night," this most well known of the artist’s night studies, is a plea not to miss what’s there when the lights go out.

Van Gogh learned to suffer, to accept his life of ambiguity, to live by the light of the diamond chips that rule the night as he wandered the shadowy landscape of mental illness and poverty and loneliness. The imbalances of his brain chemistry brought flocks of blackbirds to peck at his eyes, yet he still saw and painted with flawless inner vision. He produced hundreds of starry nights, some of which survive as established masterpieces. It’s perhaps the extreme turbulence of this most famous of them, the sense of perpetual, romantic chaos there, that makes things move inside for most of us in its presence. I viewed it at 17 in the New York Museum of Modern Art on our senior trip. I’d like to think the pounding of my heart had mostly to do with the emotional vibrancy of that painting and less with the proximity of a dark-haired boy in a green sweater. Yet I must attribute the pounding to both, for to view Van Gogh is a haunting, just as love is. We can speculate that Van Gogh may have been hard wired to go at life by the light of one trembling inner morning star. There may not have been another way. Yet to walk in the dark cost him dearly. It will cost anyone who accepts the night on its own terms.

Believing in Poetry in Haiti - Part 1 of 2

Adele Gallogly

IMG_4759 I believe in poetry as a way of surviving the emotional chaos, spiritual confusions and traumatic events that come with being alive. —Gregory Orr (as posted by Image Journal)

This quote comes up on my Facebook feed while I am straining for a wireless signal from a humid guesthouse in Port-au-Prince, Haiti. I am a few days into a work trip as a staff writer at a disaster relief and community development agency. Sweat gathers in my back. My eyes are dry from a full day in contact lenses I rarely wear. I have just finished a supper of spicy beef and beans over rice accompanied by bread and mango juice, both fresh.

I am safely accommodated here in this bustling metropolis, where honking cars and colorful tap tap crowd the narrow streets bordered by litter-clogged gutters. Here, where bright purple flowers spill out over barbed wire-topped gates and roadside vendors sell wares ranging from intricate handcrafted metal art to unlabeled pill bottles.

Safety and comfort have been rare commodities in Haiti. Just over twenty-one decades ago, this nation claimed independence after the first successful slave revolt in human history. Just over five years ago, a horrific shaking of the earth killed an estimated two hundred thousand people and reduced buildings in the city and countryside to rubble.

What might it mean to believe in poetry as “a way of surviving” here, in this place of concrete streets and mountain crests, poverty and creativity,  political corruption and revolution? As a visitor—a foreigner with a notepad and a fixed agenda—I cannot of course know completely. I can only glimpse and theorize and listen as I meet with project leaders and literacy students in my path.

In addition to learning about beginner literacy programs already underway, I’m also here to see a new program in its seminal stage. It is a post-alpha program giving those with basic reading and writing skills the chance to grow in their capacity to read and write and their love for these activities. These lessons focus heavily on the form of poetry. Students memorize poems and learn how devices such as rhythm, meter, metaphor, and rhyme give language its deep music. Eventually they work at their own creations.

Gregory Orr’s words of belief enter my tired mind with a fitting weight as I think of these learners perched on poetry’s earliest threshold. I’ve read Orr’s books, even heard him give a lecture. I know his personal story of a life marked by violence, addiction, civil disobedience, and a tragic shooting accident that claimed his brother’s life in childhood. He does not speak lightly of suffering or survival. He reminds me that poetry is a generative spark. A lifeline. A rush of breath, a new light. Pick your survival metaphorthey all click with some power here where daily life is a struggle for many.

These literacy classes are not about bringing poetry to Haiti. I bristle at that word, so often used in missions-speak about “bringing God” to a country or community. God is always there and everywhere, already. He is present. His Spirit is moving, working.

I believe it is the same with poetry. It is already present in this country, woven into its history and the new legacies made by those who have cause to speak heavy of both great affliction and great joy. Every country is a country of creators. Literacy is about naming and shaping what we, as creative people, read and make. Oh Lord, what a gift. Help me see it freshly in this place.

*

(Read Part 2 here)

Fado

Jayne English

The Ship Near Coast by Ivan Aivazovsky So few grains of happiness
 measured against all the dark
 and still the scales balance.
 - from The Weighing by Jane Hirshfield

When my siblings and I were kids, we observed the attributes of mercury on our kitchen table. We must have gotten it from a broken thermometer (and I’m not sure how we escaped its toxicity). We watched the mercury bead up and roll ahead of our fingers, always propelling itself away from our touch. The silver gem held its shape, in spite of being a liquid, due to its high surface tension. It was lovely and fascinating. Now, all these years later, I see it as a metaphor for longing; a soul leaning toward something precious that’s just beyond reach.

Longing resides in future tense and past tense. There is either something we yearn to have or something we used to have and want back, such as love, peace, adventure. We either reach toward something before God gives it, or reach back for something taken away.

Jane Hirshfield’s poem “Fado” speaks of yearning. The poem is titled after a type of Portuguese music of longing made popular by sailors who missed loved ones while away at sea. In the poem, Hirshfield paints a portrait of a woman in a wheelchair singing a fado in a “half-stopped moment” when dawn is just beginning to light the skies. Those in the club with her are silent as she sings her song. The wheelchair imagery suggests brokenness at the heart of the poem. It ends this way:

and a woman in a wheelchair is singing a fado that puts every life in the room on one pan of a scale, itself on the other, and the copper bowls balance.

What is this balance? Maybe it’s balance between brokenness and song, or between the audience’s empathy and the singer’s longing. We might say that the beauty of fado, and what balances the scales in the poem, is how the woman inhabits both wanting to be made whole and accepting brokenness.

Longing has its own vocabulary. It’s not resignation (it’s not what I want but, whatever), or exasperation (I’m so tired of this mess I just don’t care anymore). And it isn’t really just acceptance (it is what it is). Longing speaks the language of prayer, thy will be done. Its language resides in the tension between not wanting God’s will and holding it close. Jesus’ prayer in the garden, take this cup, balances on a word; nevertheless not my will, but yours, be done. No matter how much we want out of one circumstance or into another, don’t we really long for God to have his way? The word fado translates as “fate” which is apt if we think of fate in the sense of a heavenly father who balances in his heart the precious things we long for.

Don't Worry, it's Not Religious

Joy and Matthew Steem

  Photo by Gisling / CC BY 3.0

We have to react against the heavy bias of fatigue. It is almost impossible to make the facts vivid, because the facts are familiar; and for fallen men it is often true that familiarity is fatigue. - G.K. Chesterton

If you don't mind, visualize a short little mental clip for me.

A friend and I have just been walking for 35 minutes to get to every booklover's Mecca, Powell’s City of Books in Portland. One square city block of bookish awesomeness. Despite the heat and slightly sweaty state of our sandals—when book hunting, comfy feat are important—we are hugely stoked about beginning our four-day Powell’s event. Just as we are coming close to our destination, we see two peddlers nearly blocking the entrance to the bookstore. One peddler is a dude with dreadlocks, and the other is an easy-on-the-eyes hippie chick—flower print dress, dark flowing hair, and all. We creep closer. (We are introverts, and thus can creep super well, trust me.) As we get closer, we notice that they have a sign in front of them that says “free.”  Turns out, they are giving away a thick book and a CD in a shiny cellophane package. No cash is exchanged.

Odd, right?

Now, despite my country mouse nature, I am intrigued: one of the objects is a book. After watching cautiously, I finally accrue enough courage to approach Mr. Dreadlocks and ask what they are handing out. Just as my friend and I get to him, and he starts to point to the book in his hand, flower-dress girl coos to a passersby in a reassuring singsong kind of voice, “Don’t worry, it’s not religious.”

Turns out it was a free novel, and true to flower girl, it wasn't religious. But here is the thing: why did I immediately sympathize with the passerby? I even laughed. And then I caught flower girl’s eye and she laughed with me. And then my friend joined in, and we shared a tripartite moment of mirth in that shared though unspoken understanding—that secret, but not-so-secret knowledge that people don't even want something for FREE ... if it’s religious.

Here is something of a bit of a play on words: when someone wants our attention (a seller, a student, a lawyer, a preacher) what do we do? We “pay” attention. There is a kind of transaction that takes place.

So the idea that something religious is of so little value that no one wants to pay attention to it, even when it is free, is a problem. At least it seems this way to me. And while I was thinking about this, I remembered G.K. Chesterton, and something pertinent he said about how we think about Christianity. He offers that Christianity has the problem of everyone being—or thinking they are—familiar with it. And this, he calls a “bias of fatigue.”

He goes on to say that it is nearly impossible to present vivid facts to a person suffering from the bias of fatigue. Chesterton’s advice is that in order to meaningfully convey information about Christianity, a change in imagery may be helpful. In The Everlasting Man, he says:

I am convinced that if we could tell the supernatural story of Christ word for word as of a Chinese hero, call him the Son of Heaven instead of the Son of God, and trace his rayed nimbus in the gold thread of Chinese embroideries or the gold lacquer of Chinese pottery, instead of in the gold leaf of our own old Catholic paintings, there would be a unanimous testimony to the spiritual purity of the story. We should hear nothing then of the injustice of substitution or the illogicality of atonement, of the superstitious exaggeration of the burden of sin or the impossible insolence of an invasion of the laws of nature. We should admire the chivalry of the Chinese conception of a god who fell from the sky to fight the dragons and save the wicked from being devoured by their own fault and folly. We should admire the subtlety of the Chinese view of life, which perceives that all human imperfection is in very truth a crying imperfection. We should admire the Chinese esoteric and superior wisdom, which said there are higher cosmic laws than the laws we know.

I have heard the statement “Jesus needs better PR,” but the only problem is that we (people) are it. And, maybe, just maybe, the problem of the bias of fatigue is that we are tired, too?

Their Eyes Meeting the World

Jean Hoefling

11 HoeflingSee that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that their angels in heaven always see the face of my Father in heaven. Matthew 18:10

The first grade art assignment was simple enough: draw our mothers working around the house. I went with a laundry theme; as the oldest of four kids I probably saw my mom beside that front-loader a lot. But to draw it? I was an abstract-leaning kid even then, and this exercise in visual realism apparently escaped me. I managed to produce a spindly specter with sea urchin fists inside a swishy enclosure whose boundaries pushed against the edges of the paper. While my classmates’ drawings yielded Mary Tyler Moore moms next to sensible blenders and ironing boards that looked like the real thing to me, my own mother was caught in an appliance nightmare. I simply could not visualize her anywhere but wedged inside that washing machine. I remember my tears; I still feel the moment’s helplessness and shame.

My mother saved the drawing. And now I know—because I know the rest of the story and a whole lot more about the psychic wisdom of young children—why I created what I did. I knew intuitively what grownups wouldn’t admit for years more—that Mrs. Johnson was desperately, clinically depressed, with no way out of the spin cycle there on Meade Street.

Child psychiatrist Robert Coles remembers his mentor, poet-physician William Carlos Williams, encouraging him to trust the psychic acuity of young children as they drew or painted their symbolic concepts of reality: “Look at them, looking, their eyes meeting the world. . .“ In Coles’s book on children’s art, Their Eyes Meeting the World, Williams tells him, “A youngster drawing is . . . a youngster telling you a hell of a lot. When will we know that?”

When indeed will we know that? A child dying of leukemia says little but paints a girl floating on a river of blood (her transfusions no doubt) toward a verdant, healing island. Then she dies. She doesn’t need anyone to tell her either how things are or how they ought to be. When will the chattering, arrogant world lose its appeal and we turn to the uncluttered expressions of the least of these and pure in heart who see and hear things we no longer can? Wasn’t it Christ who claimed God forms perfect praise in the mouths of children?

The Ascension

Lou Kaloger

13 Kaloger Dali

 

The painting on the left is The Ascension of Christ by Salvador Dali. It was completed in 1958 and it is part of the Pérez Simón Collection. I like it. In fact, I like it a lot. I like the crazy yellow "sunflower" shape in the center. I like the depiction of the angel gazing out from behind the glowing red clouds. I like the subtle reference to the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove. I especially like the way Dali positions Christ's body. In many ways it is the counterpart to Dali's Christ of Saint John of the Cross painted a few years before. In Christ of Saint John of the Cross, Jesus is portrayed from the viewpoint of the Father. In The Ascension of Christ, Jesus is portrayed from the viewpoint of the disciples. One is a portrait of humiliation. The other painting is a portrait of exaltation. Both are crucial to redemption.

The other thing I like about The Ascension painting is the perspective. It's all wrong: it bends and it twists. Jesus is going up at one angle, the big yellow "sunflower" shape is at a second angle, the angelic figure is moving at a third, and the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove is at a fourth. What's not being portrayed is a linear trajectory from the earth to sky. What's not being portrayed is the notion of a heaven that is far away and at the other side of the universe. Rather, I'm given a portrait of something that is strangely closer than I might first think.   

It's funny. As I read in the first chapter of Paul's letter to the Ephesians, I see language that is similar. I'm told that the Father "raised Christ from the dead" and "seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly realms." At the same time, I'm told that I too am "raised with Christ" and seated with Him in this same spot. It's not that earth is "here" and heaven is way over "there." Instead, Christ is revealed as the point of contact between two worlds and I am again given a portrait of something that is strangely closer than I might first think.

Not some day, but presently. Not eventually, but now. And then something happens. Something small, and minor, And trifling, and trivial, And immediate, and silly. And I forget Dali's painting. And I forget Paul's words. And I forget where I am.

The Photographs of William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days

Ross Gale

7 william-finnegan William Finnegan’s surfing memoir Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life features multiple, small, black and white photographs between chapters. The author as a young boy in his parent’s backyard in Hawaii. Surfing Waikiki as a teenager. Surfing a famous Fijian break as a man. A girlfriend. Surf friends. They’re interesting photographs for their sparsity, darkness, and lack of clarity. Like the photograph of the Fijian island, a dark outcrop of trees in the middle of dark water, the photographs hardly tantalize. They aren’t meant to. The only reason I bring them up is because modern surfing and stories about modern surfing are mainly image based. Surf magazines are all about the pictures. The big airs, the size of the waves, the colors, the impossible places men and women put themselves in the ocean. The articles are equivalent to those in Playboy: they go unread. Finnegan places himself among the few surf writers whose surf literature is so colorful and abiding that images aren’t needed. The black and white souvenirs are appropriate.

“Surfing is a secret garden, not easily entered. My memory of learning a spot, of coming to know and understand a wave, is usually inseparable from the friend with whom I tried to climb its walls,” he writes.

Pictures play a large part in the author’s surf communities. More than once, slideshow events are held among friends where they laugh and banter and show off past feats. One such slideshow features the end of Finnegan’s scarier surf outing, where he and a friend barely make it back to shore alive. The last picture in the slideshow is of the two men sitting on the edge of the seawall moments after arriving safely to shore. Finnegan uses the photographs he mentions as reminders for himself, little moments he forgets, or ways to transition between his descriptions of his surf friends. These aren’t the photographs between the chapters. They’re stories of photographs that leave a lasting impression.

His friend says about the slideshow photograph, “I was going to put my arm around your shoulder, but, you know.” The truth is we don’t know. Only Finnegan and his friend do.

“Nearly all of what happens in the water is ineffable—language is no help.”

It isn’t that surfing is so insular and inaccessible that we can’t know. It’s that fear and the possibility of dying is so omnipresent in Barbarian Days it’s difficult to really, truly know. He takes us as close as possible to an exciting and beautiful life of surf travel. But that’s only possible because of the story’s characters.  It’s what’s left unsaid between Finnegan and his friend that haunts Barbarian Days. We can’t replicate that in a glossy magazine spread. It’s what we can only experience in story, sitting near death’s edge with a friend, staring into mystery.

Constant Fear of Falling to the Ground

Jean Hoefling

11 Hoefling As I emerged from the porch of Santa Croce, I was seized with a fierce palpitation of the heart; the wellspring of life was dried up within me, and I walked in constant fear of falling to the ground.  – Nineteenth century French author Stendhal (Marie-Henri Beyle)

Rapid heartbeat, fainting, confusion, even hallucinations: just a few of the colorful symptoms that manifest in Stendhal Syndrome. Though the medical “disorder” was named after the famous author for his description of experiences while visiting Florentine churches and art galleries, Stendhal’s occurs with surprising regularity when people are exposed to extraordinary artistic achievements, especially the Renaissance art of Florence. After a lifetime of grubbing in American strip malls, there’s nothing like a sudden, blinding jolt of connection with the transcendent to prove to be more than some folks bargained for.

I get why these people’s hearts beat fast and their legs give out. I remember an afternoon watching light make sapphires and rubies of the air around the stained glass in the Florentine church of Santa Croce. I stood with a crick in my neck and an ache in my heart before the same Giotto frescoes that made Marie-Henri swoon two centuries ago. As to fear of falling, I could easily have sunk down among the pigeon guano outside some of those jewel-like basilicas and wept my eyes out over the gray blast of the world that hit me on the other side.

Living this far from paradise, extreme beauty is just plain dangerous. It smacks of God and we’re wary of it. Psychosomatic symptoms are the mind’s perfect deflection tactic. Still, we get our milliseconds, our sparkling glimpses of what’s beyond all this, “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited,” as C.S. Lewis put it in “The Weight of Glory.” Whatever keeps us starving for what lies beyond the pigeon poop. When Prince Vladimir’s pagan emissaries visited the Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, they readily admitted, “we did not know where we were, in heaven or on earth; and do not know how to tell about this.” What a tragedy, if they did know how to tell.

Go ahead and fall hard, Marie-Henri. I’m right behind you.

 

You Can’t Fake a Picture Like That

Ross Gale

A Portrait of James Lord by Giacometti. In A Giacometti Portrait, James Lord portrays Giacometti’s struggle as his art. It’s a daily wrestling that requires a commitment to begin again. Giacometti’s constant exasperation at his own work colors the story, but adds the interesting layer of uncertainty and attainment that ebbs and flows by the hour, and sometimes the minute, as he paints a portrait of Lord. When Lord suggests Giacometti fill in the background, Giacometti replies by saying, “You can’t fake a picture like that. Everything must come of itself and in its own time. Otherwise, it becomes superficial.”

I sometimes act like Lord, saying to myself, just fill-in the story. And while it’s easy to fill-in, it doesn’t create a compelling narrative. In order to make sure something does come of itself and in its own time, as Giacometti says it should, then one must continually work. This work might often be “fill-in,” but allows for something more to be made, something that can begin to become itself. This also takes time. Time to develop, time to form, time to reveal, and time to transform.

I've found there's a process to finding a things own thing. For me, it's a struggle. Nothing is clear. I have to work through the haze, through the mental frustration, fatigue, my own doubts and fears, and gently excavate the brittle bones and structures of a story.

In other words, everything must be earned. Which is why work with potential can turn out as superficial. The pace is rushed. Scenes and characters are posted like flannel pieces instead of developed over time. Instead of formidable and conflicted characters I write silhouettes producing cheesy dialogue everyone has heard before.

We need time to let our fill-in become something more and that requires a daily wrestling and a commitment to begin again and again. Show up. Take the time. Don’t fake it.

Behold the Man

Lou Kaloger

13 Behold the Man In 1999, Mark Wallinger created a statue of Christ wearing a crown of thorns. He named the statue Ecce Homo ("Behold the Man"). It was not chipped out of stone or carved out of wood, but was instead made out of a plaster-and-marble-powder cast of a human body. The piece was a temporary installation that stood on the empty "fourth plinth" in Trafalgar Square in central London. Being made from a human cast, it was literally life-sized and dwarfed by the imposing surroundings of the square.

I wonder what is was like to walk by that statue. Men and women on cell phones. Students rushing to class. Tourists asking for directions. Hot dog vendors and souvenir peddlers pushing their wares. People hurrying by. And there, in the midst of it all was that small, lone, unimposing figure of Christ standing on his enormous plinth.

Ordinary, modest, and ignored.

We live in a world of breathtaking beauty, complexity, and design. A world with pain, yet at the same time, a world of drama and purpose and subtlety and joy. A world created by, and now being recreated by the redemptive work of the God-man who walked the earth. So will I pray with my eyes open or will I simply busy myself with the cares of the day?

The Supreme Moment

Jean Hoefling

11 John Baptist with head on ground

Whatever you want to be, you’ll be in the end.The Moody Blues

 Subdued and faded to sepia tones, this 15th century Byzantine-style icon of John the Baptist portrays the Forerunner beseeching Christ in heaven while his own severed head lies haloed at his feet—a grim reminder of the cost of commitment to a person’s deepest convictions. At face value, this scene is out of chronology, since Christ wasn’t in heaven at the time John was beheaded, and we’re not sure where in the story the man is here. But of course the meaning is layered, certain elements symbolic of something more enduring. So though the icon portrays the essence of the most defining event of the Baptist’s life, the overarching message is about the “supreme moment” of kairos at work in John’s life. It’s about who he became in the eternal realm, not the chronos, the chronology, of his beheading. And the icon is about each of us in that moment when all is said and done and we’ve become whatever we are in the end.

We need whole paragraphs in English to adequately explain what kairos does in one brilliant, ancient Greek word. When Greeks used kairos, what came to mind was something elastic, qualitative, an undetermined measure of an unseen substance that intersects with the present, chronological moment in some cosmic way that makes a difference. It referred to that exact moment an archer must release the arrow from his bow if it is to accurately pierce the moving target in his aim. The ancient god the Greeks named Kairos was said to be “ever running.” Like the old god, kairos is that magic that races through our moments as opportunities worth seizing, noble choices worth making. Kairos is about bringing a new creation out of rubble, something that endures out of the rough material of crisis each of us faces continually living in a fallen system.

We’re no different than John the Baptist, who lost his head to principle. Each of us will eventually lose ours to something, too. The Greeks had it right all those centuries ago, inspiring the ancient world to consider what looks a lot like the dynamic of human free will intersecting with the grace of Providence. Whatever we choose to call it, the beauty of kairos will be around long after every postmodern notion of nihilism is in its grave.

Unending

Rebecca Spears

26 boxes Donald Judd’s one-hundred large aluminum boxes live inside an old army building, under the auspices of the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas, miles from nowhere. On first seeing row upon row of Judd’s boxes, I had to ask myself, what’s the point? How did we get here—the hot, unending desert, another world not my own, all these boxes.

My daughter Claire, who had just graduated from high school, requested this trip sometime in late winter as my gift to her. We had planned the trip for late May—before she shattered her ankle, trying to jump across a concrete culvert, chasing her boyfriend’s dog. After a surgery to pin and cast her ankle, she had hobbled across the stadium field of her small high school to receive her diploma. I was amazed that she still wanted to explore the desert areas of southwest Texas after the accident, but she did. We packed up and headed for Fort Davis and Marfa one hot day after Memorial Day.

So there we were, Claire in pain, leaning on crutches, willingly looking at the boxes, and me, worrying about her. The scene is so absurd, ironic—here we are, in the hot, godforsaken desert, inside an old, slightly remodeled World War II prisoner-of-war barracks, with warnings like Verboten! and Gefahr! still stenciled on the walls. And sidestepping the question of art for a moment, I looked from one end of the room to the other, beginning to think about how the artist put the boxes together. What processes did he use? What tools did he need?—just as I had wondered, after Claire’s accident, how the surgeons would fix her ankle. I had asked the doctors questions about what they would do, the steps they would take, what to expect after the surgery, how long it would take for Claire’s ankle to heal. For a long time, in the waiting room, I looked out the full-length front windows, imagining the surgery, imagining afterwards and the bones beginning to knit themselves back together, becoming integral and whole.

Inside Judd’s desert army barracks, full-length glass panes have replaced the long side walls. The large, cool boxes look out and reflect the high desert plains, the distant lost mountains. Throughout the day, the boxes’ reflect the landscape as the light changes. The variations would be most notable at sunrise and sunset. Yet in the brief time we were at the installation, I noticed the changing reflections as several high clouds briefly covered the sun. Then I saw. I saw. The boxes were no longer boxes but cubic mirrors, fluid canvases. The art—oh, this was the art of it—was grounded in the stark scenery and in the daily cycles of sun and moon and weather. The brief changes we saw had a marvelous effect on us; we were attentive to the present, in the rhythm of the earth’s turning. Claire’s face transformed, as if there was no pain for her at that moment, any nagging thoughts I’d had about the “rightness” of this trip dissolved, all was right with the world. Even now, several years after we made that trip, the moment endures. It lives with me. It remains perfect, eternal, abiding.

I Feel the Air of Another Planet: What’s to Love About Picasso, Silliman, and Schoenberg?

Jayne English

21 Cosmos Bank

“Does man love Art? Man visits Art, but squirms. Art hurts. Art urges voyages— and it is easier to stay at home, the nice beer ready.” - Gwendolyn Brooks

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I recently attended a show of Dali and Picasso works that were exhibited side by side. The gallery was a forest of people listening through headsets to a self-guided tour. On two occasions I came upon someone standing back from a painting, head cocked, telling a companion “I can’t see it.” One even approached a painting and, being careful not to touch the canvas, outlined a particular area in explanation for a friend who shook her head in response. Those two—Picasso and Dali—always trying to shake up our ideas of what is art (and maybe, reality). In Picasso’s Woman in an Armchair, I couldn’t see the woman either. But somewhere along the line, I lost the propensity to search out recognizable shapes in paintings (which oddly enough, coincided with my ability to see shapes in clouds). The less I try to find the woman, the more I find other things. In the gallery, I approached this perplexing painting and happily discovered a nice blend of colors, texture that begged to be touched, and a thought provoking juxtaposition of shapes. I was surprised to notice a block of leopard print which I took to be a cuff of the invisible lady’s dress. Though it could just as easily be a portion of a rug because by leaving the meaning ambiguous, Picasso welcomes the viewer to participate in its interpretation.

Inviting the audience to weigh in on the work’s meaning is also a goal of Language poets like Ron Silliman. Silliman’s poem “BART” is one, ten-page sentence. You have to let go of your dependence on grammatical elements because the work is disjointed and lacks the usual clauses and punctuation. But I really like how this openness allows me to make my own associations. As Silliman spends a Labor Day traveling and writing on a Bay Area Rapid Transport train, his non-linear approach gives my imagination freedom to explore. Here’s how BART begins: “Begin going down, Embarcadero, into the ground, earth’s surface, escalators down, a world of tile, fluorescent lights, is this the right ticket, Labor Day, day free of labor, trains, a man is asking is there anything to see, Glen Park, Daly City, I’m going south which in my head means down but I’m going forward,…” (Read the rest of it here.) Silliman leaves meaning open for his readers to discover. As Picasso used juxtaposition of shapes, Language poets un-anchor clauses and phrases at odd angles to stir our thoughts beyond a sentence or paragraph’s usual track.

The cascading walls of shape and meaning, and the beckoning of other worlds are also what draw me to atonal music. Schoenberg does with notes what Picasso does with shape and Silliman does with words. In 1908, when Schoenberg performed his Second String Quartet (traditionally made up of a viola, cello, and two violins), the audience was surprised when he introduced a soprano in the third movement. Actually, they hissed and shouted for her to stop. The lyrics are from the poetry of Stefan George, itself full of feeling but complicated by the soprano’s scripted part in the disharmony. As the piece became progressively atonal, the audience grew progressively hostile. Schoenberg opens the third movement with a dusting of notes reminiscent of a sci-fi spaceship, and these words from George, “I feel the air of another planet.” Schoenberg accurately, if unknowingly, predicted how his innovations would alienate and rub his audience “raw,” an image Brooks uses later in her poem.

As these artists set us adrift on voyages, their work chafes and intrigues. Can this be one way art imitates life? Maybe by leaving “the nice beer ready,” we are able to encounter new spheres. A further power of these kaleidoscopic works is that they add new dimension to the more linear and harmonious expressions when we do return “home.” Silliman says this about disjuncture in his poetry: “I’m more or less working on methods that allow people to experience the world as freshly as possible as constantly as possible.” Surely, we need answers in life. But maybe art is more about the questions. Bon voyage?

 

(For further exploration, find Schoenberg’s Second String Quartet, Opus 10 here. Under “Show More,” you’ll find the four time marks for each of the four movements. Follow Stefan George’s poem in the last two movements in German and English here on page 6. Read the rest of Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “The Chicago Picasso” here.)

Spatial Concepts

Lou Kaloger

13 spatial concepts

In the late 1940s, Lucio Fontana (1899-1968) took a knife and slashed a canvas that had been painted in a solid color. He called the piece Spatial Concept. Over the next two decades, Fontana produced a large number of similarly-slashed and similarly-titled works in a wide variety of sizes and colors. One of his last pieces was produced in 1964. It was white and contained twenty-three slashes. In February of this year, it sold for over $12.4 million.

Fontana's work was not without forethought and purpose. By relieving the canvas of its tautness, he sought to smudge the lines between two- and three-dimensional art and grant the surface a distinctively sculptural quality. In this sense, his Spatial Concepts seemed to stand as a protest against traditional art, particularly the work of Flemish still-life artists. After all, the depth, texture, light, and perspective of a Flemish still life is artificial. It is an illusion created by fooling the eye through technique.

The space depicted in Fontana's work can be measured. The space depicted in a Flemish still life is just a story.

Or so it seems.

Fontana's slashed canvases may have been "accurate," but the stories told by these Flemish still lifes said infinitely more. Many were chronicles of an individual's life summed up in the artifacts he or she owned. The best of them almost always included a memento mori. These "mementos of our morality" might be presented in the form of a bleached skull, a diminishing hourglass, a half-eaten apple, or an extinguished candle. Each served as a vivid reminder that the story of life is told best when we remember that we are but a vapor called to abide in the One who is from the beginning.

I guess that's the power of all good stories: Sentences with nouns and verbs. Rich imagery and tumbling metaphors. Stories about people, and places, and circumstances. People different from us, but also people a lot like us. Good stories measure.

Will I find myself in that story?

Fritz Eichenberg

Paul Luikart

26 artwork One of my favorite pieces of visual art is Fritz Eichenberg’s wood-cutting from 1951 called The Christ of the Breadlines. I have a print of it framed and hanging on the wall in my house. It depicts Jesus Christ standing in line at a soup kitchen, waiting with the rest of the down-and-outers for His turn to be served. In front of Him and behind Him are other raggedy people, hands in their pockets, wrapped up in shawls, anxiously waiting for food, a meal they couldn’t prepare for themselves. They’re all together nomads, riff-raff, vagrants, human dreck, homeless.

I like this piece simply because it’s not a very typical depiction of Jesus. Other artists, Peter Paul Reubens for example, who portrayed Jesus’ death and resurrection on more than one occasion, gleefully inserted muscle upon muscle into the Jesuses of their paintings. Doing so achieves a certain effect: Jesus, the All Powerful One, retains His strength even at the most vulnerable point in His life. What can keep Him down? Not even the Cross. Reubens’ canvases are also very busy with action and motion, with the twisting, straining bodies of Jesus’ friends and family, Roman guards and servants. The same could be said for Michelangelo or any number of other Renaissance painters. But Eichenberg’s Jesus is weak. He’s wrapped in rags. He’s entirely in shadow. No bulging abs, no mountainous biceps. And the figures in the painting with Him are still. They stand, with the Lord of the universe in their midst, motionless in their deep poverty and hunger, wanting the same thing He wants—rest, fulfillment, an end to suffering.

The wood-cutting is very dark. In fact, Eichenberg’s only light source in the entire image is Jesus’ halo, central to the composition. By it and only by it does Eichenberg permit us to see that there are even any figures in the etching at all. Whereas artists like Reubens composed their paintings so the figures and action draw the eye to Christ, whether He is on the Cross or on the ground just after His death, Eichenberg gives us a different kind of composition. The figure of Jesus is literally in the middle of the piece, but the details—the stuff that Eichenberg pays such close attention to—are of those in the soup kitchen line with Jesus and not Jesus Himself. However, they can only be seen by the light of His crown.

Believe

Lou Kaloger

13 Believe A few years ago, in an effort to drum up some American business, the French advertising agency Soleil Noir came up with a promotional campaign. They called the campaign "Believe" and it opened with these words: "In 2012 if you don't believe you won't make it happen."

Believe in fashion. Believe in health. Believe in work. Believe in entertainment. Believe in your ideas. Believe in yourself.

Believe.

Very early in the history of the church, shortly after a time of persecution, bishops, priests, monks, and theologians gathered together to formulate a very different list of beliefs. Historians speak of these churchmen as a motley crew. Many came with severed limbs, gouged eyes, and marred faces from torment they had endured for the faith. The document born out of this council came to be known as the Nicene Creed. We recite it to this day:

We believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, And of all things visible and invisible. And in one Lord Jesus Christ, The only-begotten Son of God, Begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, Very God of very God; Begotten, not made, Being of one substance with the Father, By whom all things were made…

So, I wonder about the competing creeds in my life. After all, each creed compels me to stop, and to reorient, and to catch my breath, and to get my bearings, and to rediscover where "north" is located.

But not all creeds are the same.

Which is winning?

Which is dying?

 

Thirty Are Better Than One

Lou Kaloger

16 thirty are better than one In 1963, Andy Warhol silkscreened thirty back-and-white images of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa onto a canvas. The work was less than perfect. Any t-shirt printer will tell you that Warhol’s squeegee angle was sloppy, his ink application was inconsistent, and his registration was a mess. Since there were thirty “Mona Lisas,” Warhol named the piece Thirty are Better Than One.

So what does it mean? It's hard to tell. Warhol was always horribly enigmatic and rarely answered questions directly. When he did answer a question, he often seemed to be alluding to a joke no one else was in on. So what might we say about this piece? Well, we might say that Warhol was right—thirty are better than one. At least sort of.

When I was growing up in the 1960s, our country was in the middle of the space race. In school, we would talk about the future and it all sounded so cool. We would talk about how we would be able to take vacations on the moon, and how we would all own flying cars, and how we would all have our own personal robot, and how our television sets would have maybe as many as ten channels! (I remember saying, “Ten channels? No way!”). We would also talk about being able to instantly get our meals from a single mass-produced pill. So with all the 10-year-old humor we could muster up, we would pretend we were taking one of those pills, and say things like, “My, my this steak dinner is delicious!"

But a mass-produced pill is not the same as a meal. And eating is not the same as savoring. And hearing is not the same as listening. And looking is not the same as seeing. And thirty Mona Lisas are not better than one.

Choric Space

William Coleman

Christ_the_Pantocrator The whole of my school sat within the nave of an Orthodox cathedral, learning the language of icons. Think of the way language works, our guide, Joshua, said. We experience far more than we can express. Our words are the tips of icebergs. 

I looked again at the painted dome a hundred feet above us: Christ the Pantocrator, within a circle of light blue. Think about the metaphor, he said. Our words are not detached from the reality we hope to convey. They’re part of it. They’re the surface of the known and the unknown.

His own words ebbed; morning prayer had begun. We rose. The priest was coming down the aisle. He stopped before the twin doors that stood before us, the threshold between our place and the space where the altar lay. Small beneath the surging interior, the priest willed himself smaller, bowing as the cantor chanted, “Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy, Lord have mercy.”

The rapid words nearly lost their meaning, nearly dissolved into the substance that gave them rise—the human thrum of pure and urgent need—but they did not dissolve; somehow, they grew more integral. I was aware of the words’ surface meanings, even as I felt the unseen gravity in which those meanings participated; in no time, I was consciously outside this ritual’s import and helplessly within its radiant compression.

And I was not alone. As Seamus Heaney puts it in The Cure at Troy, his version of Philoctetes, such space in choric:

[…] my part is the chorus, and the chorus Is more or less a borderline between The you and the me and the it of it Between the gods’ and human beings' sense of things. And that’s the borderline that poetry Operates on too, always in between What you would like to happen and what will-- Whether you like it or not.

The chorus of Ancient Greece entered and exited like curtains, moved and had their say in a circle of space between the audience and the players, fluidly entering and exiting the drama, becoming one person, returning to twelve. They shared in the action and were outside it. And the hilltop rose around them, row upon row.

When the moment had passed, the students, my fellow faculty, and I made our way to the conference we’d come to see. I watched as learned men dissected and diagnosed the secular age, derided the destruction of mystery by the forces of science; I watched a man return again and again to the subject of same-sex marriage as though trying to come to terms with a blight. His parting words, the end of an answer to a curious member of our assembled body, were “And that is why I am not hopeful about the future.” The theme of the conference was wonder.

“How soon, unaccountable, I became tired and sick.” The words, of course, are Whitman's, but they were my words, too. All morning, they arrived to fill the space other words left empty. Sitting in the fellowship hall, I longed for awe, for the choric space Whitman found: “[R]ising and gliding out, I wander’d off by myself/In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,/Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”

Small wonder my thoughts floated back to the nave.