“Art is like Christianity in this way: at its greatest, it can give you access to the deepest suffering you imagine–not necessarily dramatic suffering, not necessarily physical suffering, but the suffering that is in your nature, the suffering of which you must be conscious to fulfill your nature–and at the same time provide a peace that is equal to that suffering. The peace is not in place of the horror; the sorrow does not go away. But there is a moment of counterbalance between them that is both absolute tension and absolute stillness. The tension is time. The stillness is eternity. With art, this peace is passing and always inadequate. But there are times when the very splendid insufficiency of art…can point a person toward the peace that passeth understanding…” –Christian Wiman, Ambition and Survival: Becoming a Poet
“Literature, painting, music–the most basic lesson that all art teaches us is to stop, look, and listen to life on this planet, including our own lives, as vastly richer, deeper, more mysterious business than most of the time it ever occurs to us to suspect as we bumble along from day to day on automatic pilot. In a world that for the most part steers clear of the whole idea of holiness, art is one of the few places left where we can speak to each other of holy things…
And when Jesus comes along saying that the greatest command of all is the love God and to love our neighbor, he too is asking us to pay attention. If we are to love God, we must first stop, look, and listen for Him in what is happening around us and inside us. If we are to love our neighbors, before doing anything else we must see our neighbors. With our imagination as well as our eyes, that is to say like artists, we must see not just their faces but the life behind and within their faces.”
—Frederick Buechner, Whistling in the Dark: A Doubter’s Dictionary
“We mean all sorts of things, I know, by Beauty. But the essential advantage for a poet is not to have a beautiful world with which to deal: it is to be able to see beneath both beauty and ugliness; to see the boredom, and the horror, and the glory.” –T.S. Eliot
When I started to study poetry about eight years ago, I wasn’t thinking about the implications it would have on my Christian faith. I was clumsily writing along, trying new things with words that felt stupid and frivolous and unproductive, trusting some vague impulse that I was learning a language that was somehow already inside of me.
Over the past year, I’ve started to realize that the socially-disadvantaged genre of poetry is actually everywhere around us. It isn’t wearing knee-high socks, sitting the bench. It’s in our popular song lyrics, our slang, political speeches, and Netflix TV shows. It isn’t usually recognized as poetry, so we often miss it.
In the same vein, it’s easy to miss the breadth and depth of poetry in the Bible. The Old Testament prophets spoke almost exclusively in poetry, because it was perhaps the only way of writing that allowed them to describe the world according to the way they saw it–a world ridden by judgement and hope–a world that was ending and beginning. In essence, they saw a world full of complexity and tension, a world whose mysteries could not be easily pinned down.
Further, in looking more at the gospels, it recently struck me that Jesus spoke in parables, which are like little poems. He used the power of images to do the work that words alone cannot: a mustard seed planted in a field, yeast permeating the dough, the narrow gate, a merchant on the lookout for choice pearls.
I find it fascinating that God, the creator of language and the entire universe, chose for His official book to be highly permeated with poetry. One could potentially conclude that poetry is God’s language, that poetry is the language of the Kingdom. Jesus said, I will speak to you in parables. I will explain things hidden since the creation of the world. It’s like He knew that poetic language was the only way to communicate the hidden things, which happen to be the big things in God’s economy.
In light of this, I find it so weird that the churchy-world and the artsy-world seem almost diabolically opposed. Sure, poetry is a wild animal with an affinity for ripping open new realities and new ways of looking at things. The church, the political world, or any other structured institution is perhaps scared of that wildness. But, isn’t that what Jesus was all about? Challenging the current structures, speaking in new ways, seeing the world through new eyes?
What would happen if we were to bring poetry back into the modern evangelical church? It might get real gritty and interesting! It might get as scandalous and inappropriate as Jesus!
I was recently listening to a wonderful podcast with Walter Brueggemann–theologian, professor, and prolific author–about his book The Poetic Imagination and the connection between prophets and poets. He says,
What the church does with its creeds and its doctrinal tradition, is it flattens out all the images and metaphors to make it fit into a nice little formulation, and then it’s deathly. So, we have to communicate to people, if you want a God that’s healthier than that, you’re gonna have to take time to sit with these images and relish them, and let them become a part of your prayer life and your vocabulary and your conceptual frame, otherwise you’re just gonna be left with these dead formulations, which again, is why the poetry is so important, because the poetry just keeps opening and opening and opening, whereas the doctrinal practice of the church is always to close and close and close, until you’re left with nothing that has any transformative power. So, more metaphors give more access to God…and it’s amazing how in Isaiah, Jeremiah, Hosea, there are just endless metaphors. What a metaphor or an image does, is to invite you to keep walking around it, and looking at it another way, and noticing something else. It’s a gift that keeps on giving.
So, what does this mean? Well, maybe the way we experience the transformative power of God on a personal and global level is as basic as reading poems and trying to write them. Geez. It’s so simple and so small, kind of like that mustard seed Jesus was talking about.
See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not
I am making a way in the
and streams in the wasteland.
acrylic on canvas; 10×10
I painted this two years ago. Each year, around this time, I come back to this painting and remember how life felt when I painted it.
It was the end of August. I had to hurry to finish the painting because the nectarines, my models, were beginning to rot in the bowl. Each time we passed the bowl on our dining room table we could smell their sweet scent.
About a month prior to painting this, we had returned to the States with our son from China. Life was raw and unfamiliar for all of us, trying to settle into one another and find our new normal. I remember sitting down during late afternoons to work on my painting, the angles of the August sun beating through the dining room window, my son upstairs napping in his crib.
For me, this painting captures the tension of August–the tension between the end of summer and the start of a new season. It reflects the sweetness of life and the impending rot of death. In this life, we cannot taste one without the other.
One of my favorite poems is “From Blossoms” by Li-Young Lee. I don’t think anyone has said it better. Here’s an excerpt:
“O, to take what we love inside,
to carry within us an orchard, to eat
not only the skin, but the shade,
not only the sugar, but the days, to hold
the fruit in our hands, adore it, then bite into
the round jubilance of peach.
There are days we live
as if death were nowhere
in the background; from joy
to joy to joy, from wing to wing,
from blossom to blossom to
impossible blossom, to sweet impossible blossom.”
Valentine’s Day seems to be synonymous with roses and love poems, so I thought I’d share one of each…
Rose; gouache on paper; 8×8
This is a little gouache exercise I did last week. I’m still getting the feel for this medium, and each time I sit down to work, I learn something new. Painting is an education…as is love.
Also, an excerpt from one of my favorite “love poems,” written by one of my favorite poets, Laura Gilpin:
The poem is called “Dinosaurs” and comes from her collection The Weight of a Soul. I believe this book is out of print now, which saddens me, and makes me value her work even more.
What I love about this poem is the imagery of the bones of two lovers curled together, like the petals of a rose, so that they are no longer distinguishable as two individuals, but as one entity. I think that’s what God intended for love to be.
What images embody love to you?
Do you have a favorite love poem?
Happy Valentine’s Day!
Over the past two weeks, my children have only had three days of school, which means we’ve had A LOT of downtime at home. My son wanted nothing to do with the snow, and the girls lasted about five minutes before they were whimpering to come back inside.
Art has always been a resting place for me, and now, as a mother of three, I am also benefitting from its ability to occupy my children! I am quite certain we would not have survived the past two weeks without new watercolors and crayons at our disposal.
As a parent, it’s exciting to see your kids gravitate to the things you are passionate about. I love watching my children embrace their creativity. It fascinates me that at such a young age their artwork already reflects their unique personalities.
By the end of the week, I had massive stacks of kid-art crowding my desk, so I decided to spread them all out on the floor. Here’s an aerial view. That’s not even all of it!
My oldest daughter is energetic, determined, and detail-oriented. She is a girly-girl who loves fashion and pretty things. She says she wants to be an artist when she grows up. She drew a few self-portaits this past week…all lashes, lips, and earrings.
Perhaps this sounds a bit dramatic, but I feel humbled when I look at my children’s artwork. There is no pride, no inhibition, no self-consciousness. They follow their impulses and don’t second-guess themselves. They aren’t bound by perfectionism.
As adults, I think that self-consciousness can make us or break us. It can drive us to improve our craft as we become aware of what works, what doesn’t, and why, but it can also paralyze us with fear. There is a certain beauty that comes from a child’s innocence. Their art is bold, raw, and unhindered.
My second-born daughter is more of an abstract artist. She is also not a rule-follower by nature. She is our free spirit who marches to the beat of her own drum, a quiet soul with an active (and unpredictable) inner life. I love how this quality shows up in her art work as well!
At the age of four, she is already exploring the relationship between shape and color and letting these things stand for themselves on the page. If you ask her “What are you painting?” she looks at you in disgust…as if to say, “If you don’t know, then I’m not going to waste my time telling you.” I love her sass and confidence.
And…my boy…is all boy, with big strokes of brown and black, perhaps some green or blue mixed in, big blobs of color side by side. He is three and is still learning to rinse his brush between colors. He has meticulous hands, an eye for detail, and I look forward to see how this translates to his art work as he grows.
The poet Dean Young writes that “Everyone is a good poet up until the third grade. I saw it when I taught as a poet in the schools. The sublime coincides with the ridiculous, babble with referent, the witnessed phenomena with the combustion of name in song of dazzling appeal, of play. The alphabet presents itself as an unsolvable mystery to be frolicked it.” (The Art of Recklessness p13)
Young’s words also remind me of one of my favorite quotes by Picasso:
I suppose, as adults, we are always trying to get back to who we were as children, before self-awareness and insecurity came into play. A few weeks ago, my daughter, Tess, told me,
“I am just me. I am just Tess.”
The simplicity of a child, the way they exist in the world, without pretense or assumptions, is one of the greatest blessings of parenthood.
Little do they know how much they inspire me to keep writing and painting…
…to not be so critical of myself…
and to have the courage to share with others…
How have you “stayed an artist” as an adult?
What, or who, inspires you in your creative work?
For me, life has been a process of elimination, a process of trying on different identities that didn’t fit before finally returning to one that did. Like a piece of art, you don’t always know who you are until you figure out who you are not.
Perhaps some of us must embark on long detours before we finally return to ourselves. The beautiful thing is that we often return changed, wiser and more mature than before, more confident in who we are meant to be.
I found a few of my old sketchbooks this week. They’ve been hidden in a dark hallway closet since our last move. I dusted them off and sharpened my old charcoal pencils, which still work well after ten years of dormancy. I also came across the sketch above, which I must have drawn sometime in college.
I suppose that the truest things about ourselves have been true along.
Life is a process of reaching out and returning to ourselves, over and over again.
9×12; mixed media
It’s been a long week here. The children staying home from school 4 out of 5 days this week completely derailed my plans. Plus, I have a willful first grader at home and it appears that she is six going on sixteen! We are facing the sobering reality that as parents, we can do what we can to teach our children what is right, but a lot of what they decide to do is out of our control. Terrifying. All at once I want them to be self-sufficient but also do exactly what I say. I guess it doesn’t work this way.
…and faith that the big stuff that’s out of our hands is in His. It’s hard to do what you can and detach from the rest, but I am learning that it’s essential to sanity and survival.
In any case, amidst the hard work of parenting, there was magical snow…waking up to snow on Wednesday morning, the entire yard covered in smooth and unsullied white. I remember drinking my first cup of coffee that morning standing at the window, looking at the beauty just beyond the glass, life seeming to stand still for just a moment.
Life is such a blend of struggle and beauty. I suppose we are always bouncing between the two and grappling with where to land amidst the polarity.
The above painting is one that I did a few months ago, but it felt appropriate to share it today. Coffee and poetry in scripture have helped sustain me this week. Trusting in Him…pouring out my heart to Him. I am thankful for faith–for freedom that comes in trust–and for creative endeavors that bring me peace and calm even when life doesn’t go as planned!
Window to San Lorenzo
watercolor on paper, 16×20
a painting and a photograph,
a window to a world much bigger than us.
This was the view from our apartment window in Florence, Italy during the summer of 2001. I ended up painting this for our final project during our summer semester. The memory now lives in watercolor and hangs on the wall of my living room, thirteen years later. I am thankful for the way that art and photographs help us preserve the people and places that hold significance in our stories, in our small windows of the world.