Barnett Newman Made My Mom Cry

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Here I am crying in solidarity with my mother over these paintings.  (Well, not really….)

I can say with confidence that I remember little from my family’s trip to Washington DC when I was twelve, except for the moment when my mother entered a room in the National Gallery of Art and burst into tears looking around in abject horror saying, “They’re making fun of my Jesus!  They’re making fun of my Jesus!”

Granted I think she was tired.  This woman who was a polio victim at 18 had been keeping track of a husband, two teens and a pre-teen, while we negotiated monuments museums and war memorials.  Perhaps her outburst was just a byproduct of a very long day herding family to all the sites and wonders that get wrapped into a, “vacation.”

This event’s genesis actually all began with me watching Saturday morning cartoons.  I made a regular habit in my childhood to watch cartoons from 7-10am on Saturday.  I had a schedule to keep, so much so, that every Fall I would study diligently the new T.V. Guide and draw out a chart of what my Saturday morning cartoon routine would look like (8:30am Scooby Doo – channel 12, 9am Looney Tunes – channel 3…).

Folks of a certain age like myself may recall that CBS was mind-full in getting kids interested in something more than just how does the Road-Runner once again foil the Coyote, or what new candy a kid should buy.  And so, while watching Bugs Bunny or the like, a set of colorful globes would whirl onto a black screen with an attention grabbing repetitive set of notes that sounded like an electronic percolator.  The words, “IN THE NEWS” would appear whirling around the final stationary sphere. You would get a teaser, some commercials and then the news feature.

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The East Wing, National Gallery of Art

In 1978 the East Wing of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC was opened up and a Saturday morning “IN THE NEWS” did a feature on it.  Designed by I. M. Pei, the building was as modern as you could get, looking like a stocky capital H that was in the process of dividing itself into shards.  Being a budding artist I thought it looked fascinating. Watching the news feature, to my ears I understood that one of the angles on the building was “as sharp as a knife.”  I couldn’t imagine!  What if someone “accidentlly” pushed someone against it?  Were there guards protecting people from that part of the building?  Let’s just say that while I was wandering with my family inside the museum part of me was simply fascinated that the government would build such a deadly piece of architecture.  In hindsight I realize the news commentator likely said that one of the edges of the building “appeared” to be as sharp as a knife, but even recently while in D.C. I eyed the building with a little suspicion.  The cutting edge I. M. Pei building wouldn’t be the only thing I misunderstood in this story.

So, after seeing the news feature about this amazing blade-wielding modern building full of the most contemporary art the 1970’s was capable of cranking out, I asked my parents if we could go see this place of wonder on our vacation to D.C.  We arrived to the Gallery late in the day having done a myriad of other must-sees.  Now I was a regular at the Phoenix Art Museum in my home town, where I took summer classes and the like, but my family was not necessarily people that would visit an art museum any chance they got, nor were my parents art aficionados, although they were very good about buying lovely original benign landscape paintings at local art fairs.  All that to say, that afternoon in D.C. the Modernist art wing of the National Gallery was a bit unnerving and baffling to all of us.

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The East Wing interior

As we passed works by Pollock, Miro, Kline and Nevelson I recall my parents saying, “Where’s the real art?”  I’m sure I must have been smitten by the work of Calder if not for the size, at least for the playfulness, but for the most part, Modernism was leaving a bad taste in all of our mouths.  Then, we began seeing them: signs throughout the museum saying, “Stations of the Cross this way.”  So we began negotiating our way to where these hopeful markers led us, like following bread crumbs in a desert.  My mother excitedly said, “Now we will see some real art!”

Rounding a corner with a balcony adjacent, a gallery opened up to us on our left with signage making it clear that we had arrived at our destination.  There on the walls encircling our family were fifteen large paintings that resembled to me at the time very simplified bar codes, like those I’d find on the bottom of my cereal box, just not that complicated and much bigger.  And it was there that my mother burst into tears saying “They’re making fun of my Jesus!”  As she was in a wheelchair, one of my siblings or I pivoted her quickly away from the offending canvases to the balcony near the gallery as she sobbed.  A blonde woman around my mother’s age came to her side as mom looked forlornly into the cavernous interior of the museum.  The woman gently asked, “What’s wrong?”  To which my mother explained about the paintings and how they were mocking her faith in Christ her Savior who means the world to her.  I remember clearly the woman saying, “Well, I’m going to write them a letter.  That’s not right!”

I went back into the gallery of bar codes in a circle to find my dad looking about the space.  The guard in the museum had seen my mother’s reaction, which clearly perplexed him.  Why would this woman sob as she viewed these paintings?  He walked up to my dad and asked a very simple question.  “What are the Stations of the Cross?”

If you were to ask me even last year, I would’ve told you this story and said that Picasso was the culprit. It was he that had made my mom cry.  As I entered college and went on to graduate school in art and even began to teach art history, I always have been looking for these paintings by Picasso, but never could find them.  Of course I never could find them because they were by Barnett Newman, an Abstract Expressionist painter.  I didn’t discover the truth until visiting the East wing of the National Gallery of Art this past November with friends.  As the Sunday school answer in your standard Christian church is most likely, “Jesus,” I think my default setting for modern art as a kid was “Picasso,” and so, in my twelve-year-old mind, he was the culprit (and let’s just say I’m sure he made a number of women cry in his life time, so he’s a fair target).

When in the National Gallery of Art this Fall I had told my friends Kiki and Anne this story.  While we enjoyed some Rothkos, Kiki rounded the corner to the next gallery and then returned.  “I have a surprise for you Tim.  Come here.”  And she led me into the circle of Barnett Newman’s work.  The series began for Newman (who was Jewish) in 1958 when he was recovering from a heart attack. He created two canvases, each 6 ½ by 5 feet, and began his series.  Over the next eight years he created the other 13 works. All of them are black and white acrylic on raw stretched canvas. The exception is the 15th “additional” painting he added (to the traditional 14 Stations of the Cross), mysteriously entitled “Be II,” which has an orange stripe in it. My mom’s analysis was merited in that even art critics and others at the time the work was unveiled greeted them with puzzled looks and derision.  What could these abstract works say about the suffering of Jesus?  Newman clarified that the work was a single unit and statement about Jesus’ universal cry from the cross “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  And now, whatever any one thought at the time, they are regarded as some of Newman’s greatest works.

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My friends Kiki and Anne with the work.

Looking around at these paintings 39 years later multiple streams of thought came to mind:  One was that if creating these works somehow got Newman in touch with the suffering of Christ, what a good thing indeed and that’s enough for me.  Secondly, Modernism in all of its austerity and high-brow thought can unfortunately come across now as simply neutral decorations for corporate office buildings.  And three, Abstract Expressionism is in an endearing way, quite optimistic about the power of art. Those artists believed that this simple gesture, this movement, this mark, matters. The end result is important and deserves reverence. Sounds a little like an act of faith, doesn’t it?

Now as an adult seeing the work again, I realized I was around my mother’s age when she cried.  How wonderful that there are those who take what they believe so seriously, so tenderly, that matter, matters.  The Museum said this work was important, gave it authority by putting it up the gallery and that made my mom sad.  Sorrow is love, and mom was simply grieving because she thought someone was making fun of someone she loved.

Things change though when one is given more information, doesn’t it? It’s interesting to note that now since 1987 there has been an Episcopal priest, Rev. Bruce Stewart, who has gathered folks on Good Friday to contemplate these works and Christ’s suffering as a yearly spiritual practice.  Perhaps with a little education my Mom would’ve joined them.

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Barnett Newman

Granted, Mom was hurt in part by what she didn’t understand.  What would it would’ve looked like if my dear mother had known more about the paintings and the man that made them?  What would it have looked like for her to see him and his story and recognize that perhaps these paintings were a risk for him?  They were a testimony of his journey.  He was Jewish and choose to entitle a set of work, “The Stations of the Cross,” reflecting on Christ’s lament.  No wonder folks were a bit taken aback by the work.

Whatever you may think about Abstract Expressionism there was a soul behind that painting that was trying to figure life out.  Perhaps by painting acrylic lines on a canvas after a heart-attack, and seeing how fragile this thing called life is, he was a little more in tune with the One that suffers along with all of us.

Perhaps I’ll meet you at Barnett Newman’s paintings in D.C. on Good Friday, and we can see to where and whom the cry leads us. “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Maybe we will let the work cry, or maybe we will.

 

(If you wish to pretend that you are in the 1970’s watching Saturday morning cartoons and get to see an “IN THE NEWS” news feature, click HERE. Thanks also to Rick for your editorial help.)

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Posted in Artists of Interest, Faith Walk | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

I’m Going With Crazy

JPEG image-3074402B205A-1I want to offer you some radical ideas but before I do so, let me share with you where I’m at.  Physically I’m looking out at the winter sun highlighting my back porch with its peeling orange railing and a little yellow birdhouse with deep green metal leaves that hangs above it.  In my heart, I am finding myself weary of the in-between space I feel I occupy.  It can be a lonely space and it’s one few have chosen to walk, maybe for good reason.  I’m irritable today, which feels like a nagging cold I’m trying to shake.  And simply, I feel I got this cold thinking about my narrative, reflecting on the thoughts of a dear Christian friend who’s taking on more of a gay activist stance in his life, and watching a promo video for an evangelical writer talking about how pastors should address the issue of homosexuality in their churches.

If you didn’t know, I’m a 51-year-old man who has been celibate my entire life, focusing my attention on loving my community, brothers, sisters, extended family and students as best as I have been able. Celibacy, or “singleness,” has never felt like a calling; it’s simply me daily trying to be faithful to the sound of God’s voice and what I believe He’s asked me to take on.  Let’s just say that, wow, these days sure can add up.  I have a “family” I am doggedly committed to as I think any Christ-follower worth their salt has — it just doesn’t look like James Dobson’s version.  Mine is more of a rag-tag mix-matched motley crew of the wide-eyed broken and hopeful.

I am a man who is where I am in life because my sexual impulses are for men and being intimately involved in a faith community that follows Christ beginning in my childhood in the 70’s to the present, let’s just say a homosexual lifestyle was not an option.  In my narrative being “gay” would’ve cost me my community, and so I never took the risk and simply have done what I have felt and feel is the faithful choice.  I have also had all kinds of wonderful opportunities to work through my own garbage in the process and have built a phenomenal band of brothers along the way.  It is what it is.

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Times are changing now aren’t they in the Church?  The difficulty I’m having is finding that those on both sides of “the gay issue” are more often than not short sided, caught in an us/them narrative, and lacking mutual empathy.  Personally, I’m desperately trying to listen closely to what the Spirit is doing, simply by asking others, “How is God showing up in your life?” and sitting back and listening.  What I’m finding is God seems to be okay with showing up in a very broad diversity of stories and ways. All I can conclude for now is this is all far more mysterious than planned.

I have watched my own denomination I belong to, the Northwest Yearly Meeting of Friends, split over the issue of homosexuality in the past year or so.  A friend of mine commented that he noticed I really didn’t participate in the debate.  I simply said, “I have been having this discussion and argument inside my head for the past thirty years or so.  It’s nice to see others finally entering the conversation.”  I have found it refreshing to hear Christians engaging the topic no matter where they fall on the spectrum. I would simply remark, “Welcome to this difficult conversation, where have you been?”

As the hands and feet of Christ we should have been engaging this topic and radically loving men and women with this story in the 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s.   In the 80’s most Christians were anything but Jesus as we lived out of fear and let men die (of AIDS) by the side of the road because it was God’s retribution on them for their sin anyway.  Fast-forward to the year 2018, it is THE topic at hand in Christian circles.  But we have been so absent, so busy with what we want and having our little Christian lives that make a pretty home for ourselves that we are now entering a terrain that is a foreign landscape.  It is an environment we have chosen to have nothing to do with, full of people we abandoned and have neglected for a long time.  We will have to earn a lot of trust here.

So folks write about this topic, like my little book, A Bigger World Yet, I put out eight or so years ago.  God bless all the books out there on homosexuality and faith, they’re still popping out of the presses.  Maybe we’ll figure this out someday.  I honestly give more weight to those written by those that are living the story.  It’s great that theologians and nice Christians want to engage the topic who don’t come from finding themselves attracted sexually to their own gender.  They reason thoughtfully as they talk in their videos about all the research they’ve done, as they stand in front of their mantle laden with pictures of their wife and kids.  Some comes across a bit like a white person talking about the black experience, or an American person talking about what it is like to be from Tibet.  There certainly is wisdom and insight they gain and give, but it’s awkward when a majority community talks about how insightful they are, in a spiritual or practical sense, about a minority community.  Things are bound to be a little sloppy, inaccurate and, well, presumptuous. They have not had to live this life from the inside.

I understand Christ-followers who want to stick to the biblical tradition of marriage as a woman and man.  It makes a lot of sense.  Granted, it’s what I have stuck to for all these years.  And yet, what I see is largely those that hold this view are profoundly passive.  Didn’t Christ say that really following him may cost you more than simply explaining your point of view and theology on the matter? Sure, the rhetoric is great and you can back it up with what your interpretation of Scripture, but who cares?  What are you doing?  The matter at hand, I believe, really isn’t so much about what those gay people should or should not be doing in the bedroom; the bigger issue I believe is what all those well-groomed, smiling, friendly straight Christians should be doing to be salt and light.  Instead of presenting the usual narrative about how we need to have the correct theology about what behavior is acceptable in the lives of gay folks, we need to talk about how we as Christians are radically living and loving those in and outside of our community that are different than ourselves.  I don’t care if you are affirming or non-affirming in your community. Get off the couch.

So, as a celibate man on the inside, who has been part of the Christian community my whole life, let me make some radical suggestion to you one-woman-one-man folks if you really want to be an agent of change here.  Over the years I gotten to know a lot of men who come with this story, so I will speak from what and who I know.  Here are crazy suggestions as to what that radical salt and light could look like:

Apologize

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Where to begin?  Let’s just start with what happened in the AIDS crisis.  Let’s talk about all the folks that have been in our churches …and left unloved.  Let’s talk about our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, cousins and love ones that have been ostracized or hidden their story for years because we weren’t a safe place for them to be honest.  How about all the times we have made others feel less than and terribly broken by pestering them weekly with questions like, “Who are you dating? Why aren’t you married?  Is there a woman in your life?”…  When we in our self-absorption really didn’t have the wisdom or courage to simply ask, “What do you want right now in your relationships and how can I support you?”

Let’s set up booths on the street in front of our churches confessing our sins of commission and omission on these matters.  How about we have Wednesday evenings with banners strung in the eaves saying “I’M SORRY,” where we simply invite those who are gay to come and tell their story and then we simply ask them for their forgiveness, and confess that we have not loved them well. Moreover, let’s do the hard work of simply asking, “What do you need, and how can I walk with you from this day forward?”

Take friendship seriously

When was the last time you heard a sermon talking about how you should give your life up for your friend?  What if friendships were held to the same level of accountability and esteem as marriages were in the church?  What if, as in historic times, there were “wedded friendships” where people made lifetime covenants to one another in the church, that were honored, celebrated, and kept accountable by the body of believers?  Perhaps then a romantic relationship would not be seen as one’s only shot in life to be with someone and not live a life alone.  What a concept!

Celibacy a gift for ALL people

There are those in the gay Christian community who argue that it isn’t fair for celibacy to be required simply because their proclivities are for their own gender. Understandable.  So, what if radical heterosexual Christians said “You know what?  I want to stand with you in this calling, and I too am going to be subversive to our overly romance-seduced Christian culture and I am going to be single with you and live a life of celibacy.”  What does that kick up for you? Paul seems to say it’s the better way.  All said, I think you understand my point.  If those advocating for celibacy aren’t willing to live out what they are asking others to do who are different than themselves, their argument comes across as a straw man at best.  I’ll give you another, perhaps easier option here:  What if married couples bought houses with single folks?  What if married couples made life-time commitments to friends to do life together with them in intimate community?

Reach out and touch someone

What if there were hotlines at churches from about 8pm to 3am and men rather than looking up gay porn or getting in a chat room or worse in the evening, could call and talk to a loving and caring brother? Moreover, what if the church doors were open and there was a team of heterosexual men that are there for the evening that would be happy to hug or hold you for an hour or so, hear your story, pray with you, let you cry, and simply be a safe space to connect in a loving but non-sexual way?  We could set up the same thing for women to take care of one another as well.  That would be scary wouldn’t it?  What if one of those gay guys got an erection? What if it triggered stuff for those that are there to help?  Well, really walking with someone as Christ did, as a human enfleshed body not just a mouth full of ideas will cost you something.  It will be scary because there is risk of getting your heart involved.  Love don’t come easy…or cheap.  What if we as the Church really embodied Christ that much, in the flesh?  It would be work, but it also may actually meet a need and feed a hunger.

Let them speak

They are already in our pews and churches. People that struggle with their sexual identity and impulses.  People who find themselves attracted to their own gender.  People who embrace and celebrate being gay. People who are in a heterosexual marriage but are not sexually attracted to their spouse.  The majority of them have been silent for many, many years.  They are not “those people,” outsiders looking in. Conversations need to happen, safe spaces need to open up where all share their difficult stories and narratives about sexuality so that those who come from needing their own gender so intrinsically and intimately can simply be asked in those tender places, “What’s your story?  How is God showing up in your life and even within your sexuality?  What is He telling you? What do you need?” and moreover, “How can I help and walk with you in this?”  For that, my friend, is where the rubber meets the road.

If these were in play two things would happen.  One is I don’t think anyone on the spectrum from folks like myself to those who are gay Christian activists would feel in-between simply because it would be profoundly clear that there is no in-between.  Why, there wouldn’t be sides to be between!  We would simply be one unified messy body of Christ loving on one-another the best we are able. The second thing that would happen if these ideas were put into play largely and widely within the landscape of those who say they follow Jesus, is absolutely no one could say with any footing, “Man, those Christians really hate the gays.”  Instead the comments would be more like, “Wow. Those Christians are crazy.”

Let’s just say, I’m going with crazy.

 

The artwork in this post are my work:  “More Mysterious Than Planned” micron pen, collage, gouache and watercolor on paper, 5″x7″ 8/17, & “Two Step Forward, One Step Back” micron pen, colored pencil, collage, gouache and watercolor on paper, 5″x7″ 11/17.  Well, and a picture of my back porch (-; Thanks to my dear friend Kristyn Komarnicki for her editorial help. Lots of love to you all-

Posted in Faith Walk, Tender Matters | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 9 Comments

Clean up your own house, and be nice.

This past November I did a residency at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.  All in attendance during my time there (fourteen writers, nine visual artists, and three composers) agreed that President Trump was not the best candidate for the job.  In an arts community perhaps that is to be expected, but it gave me pause.  We are in a climate that I feel more than ever gives us an opportunity to look at ourselves.  As a visual artist that has been working in the field for about thirty years, I have an observation.  The severe (all be it many would say merited) critique of our President I feel could also be levied at the art world.  We should work on our own community if we wish to see modeled in our government quality of character, integrity, honesty, hard work, and an example of what we want the next generation to be.

If you were to look up right now the top selling American artists many individuals will show up on your search who are modeling and marketing the very lack of character that many so virulently critique Trump as embodying.  On the top of the art sales are the likes of Jeff Koons, a man who has a team of 100 creating for him banality embracing mediocre wonders, Christopher Wool a cynic with a box of type stencils, and Richard 2916603700000578-3097994-image-a-60_1432668911926Prince a huckster who purloined others Instagram photos and sold them as his own for $100,000 (law suits currently in process).  If these are some of the folks that are being held up in the art community as wealthy laudable success stories, how on earth did we arrive here?  Much may be wrong in White House, but come on, let’s do what we can to work on cleaning up our own house first.  As many often hope or idealize that art is “cutting edge” and points to the future of things, perhaps we should recoil in fear realizing our President is a product of our age, in an environment many in the art world have not only endorsed but celebrated, with every note of sarcasm, bulling, self-centeredness, greed, lack of scruples, or care for others.

Some may argue that art should be a safe place for bad behavior and antics as a form of expression; every third Tuesday of the month maybe, or under the caring eye of an art therapist… but even so we should question then if that behavior merits an art prize, or qualifications to be student body president.  President Trump is giving us all an opportunity to take a very good hard look at our disciplines, communities, families, and personal lives and take stock of what we really believe is good for us as individuals and moreover the thriving and flourishing of all on this blue dot we live on.

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from USA Today

So how do we proceed?  As many are aiming for, I would simply say, “be nice.” Kindness goes a long way.  It’s not Donald Trump’s fault he got elected to be the President of the United States. Maybe we should start talking to our neighbor.  Maybe we should invite to dinner folks who voted for him and get to know their perspective.  Maybe we should be kind to others even when they aren’t kind to us.  If our President doesn’t model civility, let’s take on the responsibility ourselves.

Looking at images of the women’s march that happened in DC this month I’m struck that hate speech isn’t helpful. “Fu** Trump,” or “Sh** President,” posters leave me cold.  Others showed creativity and virtue with signs saying “A New Day is on the Horizon, When They Go Low, We Grow High,” or, “Intersecting ALL of our voices weaves a POWERFUL fabric,” and a Helen Keller quote, “The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched – they must be felt with the human heart.”

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I find it somewhat ironic that you can also find images of Hillary and Obama rendered as “The Joker.”  Original it is not.

In Los Angeles at the beginning of this month I went to a pop up show at the Jason Vass Gallery in Downtown LA to see the work of Tony Puryear.  The illustrator created a series of pieces about what he referred to as the “Trump Mafia Family.”  I agreed with much of the factual accounts of the artwork, but looking around I simply noticed the images were preaching to the choir.  No one was there that had voted for Trump and was being convinced that perhaps they should look at things differently.  The work was ham fisted, one sided and blaring.  There was no place for conversation, understanding, or an open hand offering change, relationship or connection.  Honestly by the time I left, I found the work more of the ugly same that’s already out there.

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Vincent van Gogh, “Landscape with Snow” 1888, what Trump requested from the Guggenheim.

The Washington Post had an article on January 25th, bringing to light that the Trumps had asked the Guggenheim if they could borrow a van Gogh painting in their collection to put on temporary loan in the White House.  What an opportunity!  The Guggenheim had a moment where they could dialogue with a United States President that seems not to be so involved or interested in the arts, but perhaps wise curators could start building some bridges, have a conversation, and make an amicable relationship across the aisle.

Ah, but it is much easier to return sarcasm and vitriol to one’s honest request if we don’t like them isn’t it?  And so they offered instead a work of a contemporary artist from Italy, Maurizo Cattelan whose sardonic art like that of Jeff Koons is never made by his own hands:  A gold plated toilet titled “America,” was offered in lieu of the Van Gogh.  What, are we children here?  An opportunity for civil dialogue was lost by the Guggenheim modeling the identical behavior of those that they so despise.

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What the Trumps were offered: Maurizio Cattelan, “America” (2016), gold (photo by Carey Dunne/Hyperallergic)

Here’s to cleaning up our own house and front yard, and offering a glass of lemonade and maybe a thoughtful word, or even a kind work of art to those on the other side of the street.

Posted in Culture (as best as we are able) | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Use of Time is Fate

51sEPZxZDzL._SX325_BO1,204,203,200_Delighting in the aisles of Given’s Books in Lynchburg Virginia I think in part I was already dazed a bit.  I had found myself smitten and reassured that there are independent booksellers that are thriving.  Lo-and-behold, Amazon hasn’t destroyed all outposts for those of us who like to stare at covers, thumb through pages, and smell paper.  Enamored that chatting folks in the aisles seemed to have the same malady, I sauntered from used to new and perused the art books.  There rich orange capitals stared back at me from a deep sea foam green cover of a paperback with carving implements and a lovely wooden acanthus leaf upon it.  I opened the pages and after reading three paragraphs I found my breathing slower, more measured.  I had just sipped a cup of something rich.  The Lost Carving A Journey to the Heart of Making by David Easterly, was purchased at the front counter from a humorous middle aged woman with glasses and a print dress shortly thereafter.

HCP-FireThe book chronicles Easterly’s journey recreating a wood carving of the 1600’s artist Gringling Gibbons when a tragic fire destroyed and damaged some of his work at Henry VIII’s Hampton Court Palace in England in 1986.   Lady Gale living in a grace-and-favor apartment on the top floor apparently liked to live by candlelight and a bedside flame set the room, and subsequently the Christopher Wren 1689 designed interiors a light. Why that’s something we just experienced here in the Gorge in Oregon this summer with a teen playing with fireworks.  Ah, the carelessness of one can certainly cost much to many.

The fire and Gibbons work is interesting enough but what really drew me in was Easterly’s writing and I soon found out why.  The man received a BA from Harvard, and a PhD from Cambridge, with his dissertation being on Yeats and Plotinus.  He also was a Fulbright Scholar.  Well thought and well-read he began carving in London on a lark.  His writing has a rich depth and subtlety of someone who has a breadth of knowledge who knows how to use words as a malleable nuanced material.

Here is one of his passages at length:

In one of his poems, George Chapman, Shakespeare’s contemporary, compares time to a pollinating honeybee and the world to a flower garden, declaring strangely that “time’s golden thigh upholds the flowery body of the earth.” He explains that when we use time correctly it brings harmony and legitimacy to life.  The verse ends with an aphorism: “The use of time is fate.” The phrase is inscribed on my workroom door.  It’s in front of me now, in the flickering sunlight glancing off the river.  The Use of Time is Fate.

(…He then goes on to talk about a Yeats quote that you have to accomplish fate.) The mind tells us that Yeats’s words are an oxymoron.  Another part of us feels otherwise, feels that if you use time correctly then somehow you’re harnessing the forces of destiny.  What fate proposes, you can bring to pass. 

As if you were fate’s deputy.  The idea gleams with danger.  In politics and religion it can be viciously delusional.  An instrument of power to princes and clerics, a murderous madness in the mob, says Yeats, in his passage about Byzantium.  But today as I sit in the wintry sunlight and let my mind stray, it occurs to me that the sense of being fate’s agent might be part of the making of every piece of art.  The making of anything, maybe.  Idea in mind, brush or pen or chisel in hand, you begin to fancy that you’re creating something that was meant to exist, that exists before you make it.  Perhaps in the end you feel that way about the life you make for yourself too. (page 53 &54)

While reading this passage I can’t help but see parallels in other books I have read such as Melissa Gilbert’s Big Magic, and Eckhart Tolle’s The Power of Now. “The use of time correctly brings harmony and legitimacy to life.”  Gilbert would tell us that we ARE called to make something that already exists or that wants to come into presence in this world and that’s the “Big Magic” we are being invited to participate in.  Tolle would emphasize to us that the use of time is exactly acknowledging and leaning into the very moment the wintery sunlight reflects off that chisel in your hand as you watch the slow curling of the shaving of wood peel from the wood.

Ekart Tolle writes, “Salvation is not in place and time, it is here and now. The illusion is that salvation is in the future.  Salvation is feeling the good within you, to know God.” Salvation comes when we make the best and the most of this moment we are given.  Art making can be and is a relishing, a celebration of what is good.  As Madeline LeEngle taught me years ago it is a moving out of kronos (linear time), into kairos (God’s time that is beyond measure).  In the losing of the sense of time we actually get in touch with the richness and beauty of what this moment is, and there is where I believe Tolle would say is where we meet God.

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Esterly has been carving since the 1970s (photo from NPR)

David Esterly is a master carver.  He is in addition a master at describing the time consuming experience of making deliberate and practiced work of chisels against limewood to create sumptuous works of art.  There is a purposefulness to his making and his writing that I found refreshing in a world where I recall something Nicholas Carr in the book, The Shallows commented upon: one could not invent a more distracting medium than the internet.  We are invited to read an article only to have ads for disparate items whirl at the perimeter, other articles vie for our attention as short video clips loop, a small rectangular note flies onto on our screen asking us if we want to install the latest update of software, another one asks us if we want to subscribe to a newsletter, all the while we are offered red words providing numerous links to drop us down a rabbit hole and warren of epic proportions.  Focus, attention, and being in the moment are not elements at play in this vacuum.  For me reading Esterly’s descriptions, the discipline of carving a piece of wood with a chisel for hours on end seems absolutely antithetical to our daily electronic endeavors.   Reading his process I found was like taking a series of meditative breaths as I saw what he saw in the moment of fashioning a series of fine stems, a clump of flowers, or the arc of a turning leaf.

As I was working this morning in a lovely moss covered A-frame room at a nearby refuge, I had given myself the assignment to simply draw and so what I found myself trying to render in colored pencil on a 5”x7” piece of hot-press paper with a watercolor of cobalt and magenta upon it, was a small rooster headed creamer that was a gift from my friend Dan this past Christmas. Honestly I thought “This is silly why am I drawing this? What difference does this make in the world with all of its hurts and ills?”  And yet, as I thought that what immediately came to mind was that I’m so glad Matisse never asked such questions as he busily made images of flowers, women and interiors during both WWI and WWII.  There is such life and joie de vivre in his work. Their simple candor give me optimism and hope.

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My little studio this morning.

If I am to fall into simply the moment, and be responsible with this piece of work that’s enough.  Do this well.  Yes, attention and care matter deeply.  My intention in making is a celebration of life, my own and others. As I simply layered waxy colors on top of one another I found myself thinking of my friend Dan, thinking about the designers who created this slip cast rooster with its curious whimsy, those in Japan who made it (for there is a stamp on the underside), contemplating who owned it before it arrived on the shelf of antique store in Orange California, and the symbolic history of roosters.  Such a small thing unfolded outwards in my head, simply by paying attention to the matter at hand to draw the rooster well.

I drove away from that little A-frame Monday morning retreat feeling refreshed, alive and present; rare gifts in our lives where our pockets are constantly ringing, and we have become servants to the technologies that promised to free us.  I so appreciate David Esterly’s reminder to me to relish the momentary wonder of making.  Being fate’s agent life is abundant and flourishing because of such moments for, “when we use time correctly it brings harmony and legitimacy to life.”  Here’s to working for a little more of that into our day-to-day.

 

 

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Where I’m From

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A portrait of me by Stephanie Peterson

With the turning of the leaves in this past Fall a dear friend and woman I respect greatly Kristyn Komarnicki gave me an assignment.  Well, she gave a number of us an assignment.  It was for those of us who were gathering here in Canby Oregon to be a part of an “Oriented to Love” reunion. We were to be poets.

The charge was to create a sonnet of sorts about ourselves with her very specific prompts as our guide.  It was a smart, lovely and creative exercise to disclose part of our stories and selves, as well as hear others.  I liked it so much I wanted to share with you the results of mine, simply with the title Kristyn gave the exercise:

 

“Where I’m From” 

 

I’m from left behind stuffed animals with a story,
from a Patty Griffin CD played 1000 times
from light hitting a purple globe thistle.

I am from a 1908 plaster walled refuge christened the Bartholomew Estate at its groundbreaking, now populated with community and chattering students.

From Scotties who look deeply in your eyes and love to play,
and muddy shoes that must be removed when entering the house,
from breakfast or lunch on the back porch because the weather is good.

From work hard and love well,
from an engineer and an occupational therapist
George and Margaret,
Timmerman, Chase,
Turpin, and Schue.

I am from truthful connections because that’s all we’ve got time for,
and weeping, yelling, and play with others; doing the hard work.

From know that I’ll always love you.
And do it perfect.

I am from dancing Episcopal Charismatic movements of the 70’s
to Quaker silence. 

I am from the urban sprawl dead center in Arizona,
to a farm in Kansas and an apartment in Brooklyn,
and now deep roots in the loamy soil of Oregon.

I am from vegetables roasted in the oven
and a necessary morning cappuccino.

I am from whatever is good, right and true.

From oil paint on a wooden panel spelling out allegory and narrative,
and detritus assembled with dowel pins and screws into some kind of hope.

I am from a laugh so rich that tears come to your eyes,
and deep lake of absence and grief that trees and flowers flourish along,

My home is the now and the not yet.

-Tim Timmerman

 

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Not Being Funny and the History of Roberta Guthrie

So it was a bitter Winter and Spring of loss this year.  In a little over six months I was debilitated by the death (in order) of my sister (December 22), dog Bonny (January 23), dear friend John (May 23), and my bird of 18 years Cole (July 29).

I see myself to a fault as a “doer.”  I keep busy and am one that fills in my time with many people and activities I deem important as an artist and teacher.  For a seasonRobertasCoverITunes here I have been recalibrating to new realities without pets, family and friends.  The things that have been important have been simple, like eating and connecting with others and “living.”  I have also been struck that I feel at least for a season here I lost my ability to create humor.  The podcast “Roberta’s Pearls” has gone silent since last October.  When I made the time to do so I was lovingly putting this podcast out there simply because it’s goofy and I have a good time creating it. Consider it an odd gift of sorts.

Roberta Guthrie is an aunt of mine (well, sort of) that came to life my sophomore year of high school. In Phoenix Arizona where I grew up I was on Sunnyslope High School’s speech team.  My speech teacher one afternoon handed me the script for the old play and movie Arsenic and Old Lace to perhaps compete with in an upcoming speech tournament.  In the story a nephew Mortimer (played by Cary Grant in the movie) is staying with his two dear old elderly aunts and discovers they have been knocking off old men because their victims look so peaceful and happy when they do so. I had to come up with two elderly women’s voices, and Roberta Guthrie was born in the voice of Abby one of the Aunts. The other aunt Martha, is actually the voice now of Roberta’s best friend Gay Franks.

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An image from the 1944 production of Arsenic and Old lace with Mortimer (Cary Grant), Abby (Josephine Hull) and Martha  (Jean Adair)

While I competed with Arsenic and Old Lace back in the early 80’s, I did quite well.  One competition particularly I achieved what is called a “picket fence” in that I was ranked first (out of six competitors) in all the rounds that I competed in from the preliminary to  final rounds of the competition.  Let’s just say my little high school ego which was pretty low, thought maybe I was onto something with this old woman’s voice.

And so, Roberta Guthrie (as I would call the voice) became a part of my life.  I would fool friends and their parents when calling, asking to borrow ingredients for a recipe or inquiring if they knew what so-and-so was up to.  My mother who was always up for a good joke loved Roberta. So when receiving a call from a telemarketer she would inevitably say, “let me have you talk to my mother-in-law,” and then hand the phone to me.  Laughing with delight she would get on another phone to listen in as I tried to keep the unsuspecting agent on the phone as long as possible.  I remember one such call where they were selling lightbulbs of which Roberta kept asking if they sell other things like tin foil, “because there are just so many things you can do with tin foil….” She was hung up on by a very exasperated voice shortly thereafter, with my mother laughing in another room.

At the time I was also dear friends with a buddy name Mark who as a “little person” was just around three feet tall.  Although a teen like myself Mark could speak if he chose to do so in a voice that sounded convincingly like a child, and so our crank call endeavors began.  Roberta would call a number and simply say “Hello dear, I really need to talk to…” and then the doorbell would ring.  Roberta would remark, “Oh my that is the door and I think is my grandson.  You know dear can I get that?  I’ll be right back.”  If the caller said “Yes,” the game would begin.  Mark would then “come in” as my grandson Jonathan who just got dropped off by his mother.  Roberta would say she forgot what she was doing and it was important… hmmm… and would he like some cookies?  Jonathan would say yes and then say “Your phone is off the hook grandma!” of which then Roberta would reply, “What? I’m getting your cookies sweetheart!”  Mark would get on the phone and say “Hello” and the fun would ensue as they often would say “Your grandmother has just called me; can you get her back on the phone?”  From there we had a number of avenues we would go down all in the hopes of keeping the caller on as long as possible.

There are more stories that I could tell about my dear Aunt Roberta that perhaps I will return to at some point here, but for now let’s just say Roberta will find her way to make another “pod-casty” sometime soon.  Heaven knows I’m sure she’ll have something to say to all of us.

You know I never had a living grandmother and even in High School I thought that Roberta came out of that absence.  Who wouldn’t want a dear Christian, somewhat naïve and shortsighted quirky grandmother?  So with all the losses as of late, maybe the space that remains makes room for new things, perhaps even a space to laugh.   We’ll see now wont we?

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The Cardinal Feature of Dreams & Creativity

So I had a dream last night, similar to so many others I’ve had over the past 20 years.  A familiar pair of folks again bubbling to the surface of my subconscious, familiar reminders of loss and longing.  These family members that has been gone for so many years can re-appear with such present life in the wee hours of the morning.  With all the processing I’ve done in my daily life over the past two decades it amazes me that this pair can be so vividly alive and present in my subconscious, still a haunting of sorts.

The-body-that-keeps-score-coverIn the midst of the record heat of our summer in Oregon I finished the amazing book, The Body Keeps the Score, Brain Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma, by Dr. Bessel Van der Kolk.  This researched, smart, and healing book filled me with awe and hope.  Exhaustively thorough with data and story Dr. Van der Kolk breaks down how trauma is processed and stored, but moreover points to helpful methods of redeeming and reconciling the broken pieces of those traumatic events.

One methodology that has proved helpful is EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing), which mimics the rapid eye movement that we all go through when we are in REM and dreaming.  Dr. Van Der Kolk points out that our unconscious is often working through our day-to-day lives in our dreaming, making connections and working to resolve problems.  The process EMDR with a therapist mimics that dreaming process in ones waking life.

When reading the book I pulled out my sketchbook and wrote down in my turquoise micron pen these passages that caught my eye, “Today we know that both deep sleep and REM sleep play an important role in how memories change over time.  The sleeping brain reshapes memory by increasing the imprint of emotionally relevant information while helping irrelevant material fade away.  In a series of elegant studies Stickgold and his colleagues showed that the sleeping brain can even make sense out of information whose relevance is unclear while we are awake and integrate it into the larger memory system.”

Perhaps I always felt like I had to be totally aware of what is going on in my head in order to figure something out.  I find it very hopeful in the bigger scheme of things to think that my soul and mind are making connections and sense of things even when I am in my deepest state of rest.  There is something quite wonderful about that.  Irrelevant information is worn away, while what is worth remembering becomes more sturdy and durable.

The book also points out that since dreaming is about activating distant associations, this could explain why dreams are so bizarre.  Aha! So that explains the bathroom that was also an elevator in my dream last night.  This bathroomevator also had two large stuffed wingback chairs in it, a fireplace, and seemed more like a very small 19th century parlor.

Dr. Van der Kolk also writes, “Stickgold, Hobson and their colleagues thus discovered that dreams help force new relationships between apparently unrelated memories seeing novel connections is the cardinal feature of creativity; as we’ve seen it is also essential to healing.” 

Novel connection is what creativity is about and it is also essential to healing.  Can I get an “Amen” to that?  Maybe that is what I and many others artists connect the threads of different fabrics to weave something that points to a bigger and better whole, a place where things make even more sense because we see really how connected it all is.  A recent mixed media work I created could reveal that a Lion and what it means connects to what roses mean, to what it is to be in front a microphone etc.., all in the hopes of a revelation, an “Aha” moment, or perhaps even the crazy notion of healing.

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“Sorry” 5″x7″ gouache, watercolor, micron pen, and collage on paper. 8/17

 

I guess I can take this all with me back to my own dream last night can’t I, as I talk with family members gone as if time has never passed in an Edwardian elevator bathroom?  The intuitive part of me is working on a resolution and perhaps bringing them back (now in the dream one has a full head of dark hair, the other wrecks a monstrous vehicle but comes out unscathed), in hopes of further growth and movement.

Can I hold onto the hope that this creative collision, association, connection, and reminder perhaps is simply to salve and make right past pain? In the connective fibers of dreams and art can healing happen?  I believe my friend Bessel would say so.

(Text from book taken from pages 262 & 263.)

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