Monthly Archives: December 2008

Art as Prayer II

lotus-painting.jpgI have been giving some thought to what I would paint for the Ching Ming Festival show … and out of nowhere it seems that God had something else in mind to show me. 

For a long time I have been concerned with trying to figure out what I am to be doing with my art.  So often, I think I felt the need to justify myself as an artist who has a full-time job doing something that is not art-related at all.  A job that I am actually good at.  A job that sometimes makes me feel like I am not a “real” artist.  So the way I justify myself is by making sure that I show in galleries.  I use the gallery as a sort of “quality control” mechanism for my art.  I tell myself that if I can show in the places where “real artists” show their work, then I must be “good enough.”

But the truth is … going down this road has been an unquenchable thirst for more and more.  First, I needed to get into a gallery … but then I wanted to be on their website … and then have my work in advertisements and postcards and, and, and …

… and it was never enough.  I always was searching for that next big thing to boost my ego, to validate me in my own eyes, to tell me that I was “good enough.”

So in this economy, especially in Michigan as we are at about 10% unemployment, the bottom has fallen out of the art market.  Well established art galleries that never struggled are struggling.  I don’t know how many will be left in a year.  So … if I need to be validated by being in a gallery, but the galleries are struggling, what does that mean?  That I am not worth-while?  That the quality of my work suffers?  That I lose heart?

No, I need to find another reason to paint, to get back to what I originally loved about making art. 

It struck me in church this past Sunday while I drew in my sketchbook that maybe what God made me to do with my art was not to be primarily a gallery artist.  Maybe the reason that I can support myself financially allows me the cash and freedom to perceive God’s artistic whispers.  Maybe the longing that God has put in my heart – to help people experience the presence of God through art – maybe the answer for me is to pray for people through the language of paint, giving them the finished product as a reminder that God cares for them.  This would be more in line with the way my 4-year-old creates art for me every day, the way my father used to make furniture for people without charging a fee, the way my mother used to give piano lessons for people in exchange for cassaroles.  Paintings are something extravagent, and especially my recent “Breath Prayer” series painted in gold … but God always is showering us with extravagent gifts.  This would be an echo, a shadow, of the kinds of gifts that God gives us through grace.

So … I was moved to make a pianting for a woman in her early 30’s who has had cancer 2x.  I want to give her something to remind her that God is walking with her, her husband, and their two little ones.  I want to make a painting of a woman holding a lotus blossom, the flower that ascends from the muck at the bottom of a lake to burst into blossom above the surface of the water.  This “most Chinese” of flowers is a symbol of renewal, the way that God is remaking each of us, and her in a very real way, into something of beauty.


an-elaborate-tomb.pngWe had a peaceful Christmas at our home this week, and today is another grey day.  This is my favorite time of the year – the period between Christmas and Easter when the Michigan weather creates an overcast that makes light dim and for me helps me settle into a reflective state of mind. 

I have an invitation to participate in an on-line art exhibition for the Chinese Cultural Center of San Francisco on the theme of the “afterlife” which will be posted to coincide with Qing Ming.  So … in my daydreaming time, I have been thinking about traditional Chinese tombs. Kind of an odd thing to be thinking of in the days after Christmas when we just celebrated the birth of Christ … but this is where my imagination is leading me these days.

Old Chinese tombs are one of the things that I really appreciate for their aesthetics.  Carved of white stone and often set into a mountainside, these pearly structures dot the landscape around Hong Kong.  On this past trip, I was on the Ngong Ping 360 ride and was looking out the cable car for tombs.  Saw one that was near the run, but saw many others when we took ferry boats out to the outer islands of the territory.  So, I am thinking about starting out with the idea of the traditional Chinese tomb as a starting point for these musings.  We will see what transpires.

Lily Feet

lily-feet1.pngThis weekend we experienced one of the largest snowfalls in 20 or 30 years.  While we were snowbound, I had time to reflect … and paint.

I am going to see a couple of dear friends for Christmas Eve and am making them a ‘breath prayer’ painting.  These are friends who often travel to China, and bought me a pair of bright red antique lotus shoes, decorated with little fish near the toes.  They appear to be wedding shoes and are very beautiful.  I wanted to make them a painting that included these shoes.

I can tell when I paint with love … the work is so much easier to do.  Time just vanished when I was working on the face.  It was a beautiful face.  I am learning so much about how to highlight, and while I am no professional, I am so enjoying these little paintings for the things they teach me.  Tonight, I get to do the “fun part” – decorating the embroidery of the robes this woman is wearing in my painting.  She is holding the lotus shoes which my friend bought for me.  These lily feet are for me symbols of broken beauty, a metaphor for all of us.  But God picks us up, like the woman in my painting, and gives us new life.  I want to have butterflies, or a budding branch, or something coming out of the shoes which gives evidence to the beauty coming out of the brokenness. 

In working on this picture, I asked my wife to hold the lotus shoes, so I could draw her hands.  My wife has beautiful hands.  Very tiny and delicate. 

 I can’t wait to work on this tonight.

Why Don’t We Do What We Think Is Meaningful?

800px-chinese_american_woman_and_child1.jpgOn days like today when the winter snow washes the earth in a dim monochrome, I tend to get really reflective.  Today I was thinking about what I actually do with my time, and what I would actually like to do with my time.  We only get to walk the earth for a few short breaths.  I wonder how I am spending mine.

If I could do anything with my life, I would want to help people develop a sense of the presence of God in their lives.  I would want to do that with art, though that would not have to be the only way.  My art is only a little part of my life anyway.  My wife and kids will certainly not care if I was a great artist as much as if I was a caring person who showed them my love as they needed it.  I need to keep that kind of perspective.  I think it is a humble way to think.

On the wall of my office, taped to the heater, is a handwritten note that I wrote once when I was in therapy.  It is a reminder to myself.  It reads:

Doing one thing well is enough.

Doing one thing well is honoring to God.

So often I try to be so many things to so many people.  I try to be a great therapist, a great artist, a leader, a musician at church … and I run myself ragged doing so many things.  In trying so many ways to accomplish my goal of helping people experience God in their life I end up filling all of my time and running up my stress level that I rarely take the kind of time I need to spend time with God myself.

So I am trying to work on that.

I know that the two things I totally lack in my life are regular time spent with God and exercise.  I have gained 35 pounds in the past two years, partly because of anti-depressants that I started taking, but also partly becuse I eat when I get anxous and I am anxious often.  My social work job is very intense, and my family life is also packed with expectations.  My baseline anxiety level is probably pretty high. 

So, recently I started Weight Watchers and so far have lost 8 pounds.  I am happy with this.  I also received a TNIV Bible as an early Christmas present and started reading it again.  I love how the font of the letters pairs so nicely with the language choices of this new translation.  I am just starting to go back to being who I want to be.  I wonder if I will ever get there. 

The one thing I love about winter, which is just starting, is that after these two weeks of busy time, is around 80 days of brooding, overcast, cloudly days that make you want to snuggle up under a blanket with a book, a cup of coffee, and a fire in the fireplace.  It is a good time to reflect on life.  I hope that I get a chance to actually live mine the way I want instead of passivly being a passenger on the road of life. 


210px-hongkongspiritseat.jpgI love the smell of incense.  I often burn it in my studio when I want to remember Hong Kong, or when I pray.  I know that incense was used in the temple in the Bible, though I imagine it wasn’t sandalwood!  As a Protestant boy, I wasn’t raised on smells associated with God like my friends of Catholic and Orthodox tribes.  So for me, the smell of incense reminds me of Hong Kong, particularly Buddhist temples.

 While in Hong Kong this last trip, we visited Man Mo Temple which was not far from the hotel where we stayed.  There people burn giant incense coils that hang from the ceiling as a way to pray.  People burning incense in a Buddhist temple is a pretty common thing … and as exotic to my Western sensabilities as these activities are, what strikes me often is the little ways that people worship in Hong Kong.

Particularly, I am quite taken by the little, humble doorway altars which people set up to burn incense sticks in front of their storefront shops.  You see them everywhere you go, and if you aren’t a Midwestern American, you probably wouldn’t give these altars a second thought.  But they strike me as something beautiful, in their common, humble way.  They are something that Christians could learn from.

In my imagination, I am always trying to think up ways that Christianity could be expressed through a Chinese aesthetic … and I really don’t know how much of these kinds of things could be altered to be used in a Christian way.  Let me explain.

I would love to envision Christians making their own doorway altars, which they tend as thoughtfully as the Buddhists.  These altars could be red as well, the color of happiness, and be reminders of praying to God.  Those that have text could express a scripture, a name of God, or a short prayer.  Those with images could do similar things.  But to be small, beautiful, humble remiders of God are what I think each of us are.

My questions, however, are many.  Are these altar forms expressly thought of by Chinese people as being only associated with Buddhism?  Similarly, are incense sticks something that Chinese Christians would burn to pray, or are these things thought of as Buddhist as well?  If incense does have a strong association with Buddhism for Chinese Christians, would incense that looks or smells differently be thought of differently?  Would candles or flowers be more acceptable?

These are the kinds of conversations I would love to have with Chinese Christians … and hopefully some day I will.  I think an exhibit of Chinese/Christian altars that explored these ideas would be something fascinating to view.  Maybe I will do that some time.

Art as Prayer

lords_prayer_in_chinese.jpgThis weekend I had a revelation in church following our family trip to Hong Kong.  I have struggled for some time with trying to figure out what God wants me to do with my life, particularly my art.  I do not have the stomach for risk needed to be a full-time artist, and quite honestly, I don’t think that my family would be well-served if I attempted this.  With the present economy right now, many galleries are closing while others are seeing their worst sales in years at present.  I received a call from one of my friends who said that the gallery she is with has sales that have dropped 70% from last year.  No, that is not the road I am to travel at this time. 

I have always felt that one way to tell if my work is good is to be accepted, and sell, in a gallery.  While this is a good thing, I think too much of my own self-esteem is tied up in being a gallery artist.  But my heart, if I am honest with myself, is not completely in this arena.  I think God has something more in mind for me.

 So while in church this past Sunday, it struck me that what I found fulfilling recently was making the “Breath Prayer” series that I have been working on.  My Breath Prayer series is a number of small portraits of Chinese women, praying while holding symbolic objects or making prayerful gestures.  Each painting was created either for a person, or to pray about an idea or issue while I worked.  The results have been a series of paintings that have had the most prayerful quality that I have been able to muster in ages.  I love these small pieces.

Maybe my calling is to create visual prayers for people … and give them away – divorcing myself from the idea of being paid for my work.  Just making art for people whom I have a direct sense that God wants me to create for, to pray for while I work.  Giving these pieces to people afterwards and sharing with them what it is that God put on my heart while I worked on the piece for them.  Maybe this would be a way that I could serve God with my art.

 I always have said to people that if I could do one thing with my life it would be to help people sense the presence of God in their lives with my art.  Maybe this is the way.

 I am going to prayerfully go a little way down this road and see what happens, taking with me my Bible, my paintbrush, and my open heart.  I want to see what this journey will bring.