Posts in Category: Art



Today I have time to work … and I just can’t.  I sometimes have this after I go and work on a number of pieces.  I just am creatively dried up today.  It does not feel gloomy to be in this space, it just feels quiet.  So I am being content following up on some emails about future shows, and have scraped down my palette so that when I am ready to work, I can just begin.

So today, though I feel each ticking of the clock as something that I am wasting, I am enjoying the peace and quiet … and may choose to record a little drumming in podcast form to pass a few pleasant moments.

Blessing of the Hands: for GR CIVA

hand1.jpgI wrote this for the meeting of the Grand Rapids affiliate of Christians in the Visual Arts which we had last evening.  This is the text of the small talk that I gave before we had a hand blessing for all the artists gathered at our monthly meeting.  


  A few words before we begin the blessing of the hands ceremony.       //      As Christians, we are called by God to live as lights in a dark world – a world that sometimes does not even seem to notice anymore that it is in darkness.  To the world, the darkness has become normal.  Light, it seems, has become irrelevant, or something optional.  It no longer is seen as something needed to live the good life.  In fact, the very definition of what the good life is understood to be has changed from who we are, to what we have or are associated with.  The darkness has been re-imagined to be a complex, intriguing world, and the world revealed by the light has been stereotyped as sentimental and inapplicable to those who are accustomed to the excitement of the dark.    //     As artists, we are called by God to responsibly handle one of the more curious gifts given out by God.  Whereas many children find joy in creating, as we mature, society discourages many people from pursuing their creative gifts into adulthood.  Those who do, find themselves embracing their own inner sense of playfulness, wonder, and expressivity that may at times give them great pleasure, and at other times, a sense of isolation.  For some of us, our church homes have been places where these gifts have been encouraged to grow, and for others, our church homes may be places were we are discouraged in using these gifts.  Often, as with any relationship, there are times of both understanding and misunderstanding, calling us to reply to others with patience, grace, and humility when our culture may encourage us to respond out of indignation or heated anger.  But if we persist, we come to find that our creative voice becomes our private aesthetic language with which some of us preach, teach, and pray.  Many of us create works or art which aesthetically companion those walking in our dark world, reminding them of the light of life.    //     To be a Christian and an artist is to balance these twin callings – to be light bearers in a dark world while being faithful in learning to use a sometimes mysterious and unwieldy gift with increasing elegance and skill.  We each speak an aesthetic language, and many of us speak with divergent visual accents.  We speak with these visual languages at times in the community of light-bearers, hoping to touch some, and at other times take this language of the eyes to add our visual voice to the babble of competing ideas in the dark places of our greater communities, hoping to touch some.    //      We are called by God to touch some by being sensitive representatives of His teachings.  We are called not to have the same values of the world – to be known, to be wealthy, to be loved, or to be powerful – but to be faithful, humble, loved by God, and to be servants of the weak and powerless.  We are to be kind to those whom society has rejected, to take our visual language not only to the places where that language is understood, spoken and rewarded … but also to those places where the visual is forgotten, misunderstood, or seen as irrelevant.  We are called to be aesthetically generous to our neighbors.  We are challenged to find ways to honor God with our aesthetic “first fruits”, to tithe from our gifts to benefit others.  We are asked to serve “the least of these” with our art, and to be “like children” in the ways children try to please us with their own creations of crayons, finger-paint, and popsicle sticks.     //     We are called to stay involved in our church communities, even when these people hurt us as artists.  We are not to run away and hide our talents, our light, under a basket or stone the moment our feelings are hurt once again.  We are called to be a different kind of artist in this world, not only in the content of our art, but similarly in our character.    //     So we are called to speak visually to those around us who share our faith, who share our love of art, and even to those who share neither our faith nor our love of art.  We are especially called to love those whom the world, and sometimes even the church, has turned their backs on: those who may make us uncomfortable, those who are very different from us because of class, culture, or faith.  We are called to the poor, the helpless, and the strangers among us.  We are called to love with the language of art, the speech of our mouths, and the service of our hands.  We are called to do this in spite of the financial storms that whirl about us and have captured so much of our attention and anxiety.      //     And when these storms hit us, may we be mindful that we have a God who never leaves us.  He walks with us even when we do not feel Him near us.  May we be the tangible representatives of God’s love to each other as we are each others creative companions on this sometimes lonely road.  May we encourage each other to press on, to continue the race, and to persevere.     //     May we each have a  sense of God’s presence as we create.    //     May we sense Him smiling on us as we prepare to work.    //    May we feel the joy of creating when we begin to get sparks of ideas that light our imagination while we work.    //     May we have more moments in God’s presence when we lose track of time and are enfolded in the rapture of creation.    //     May we have a sense of God’s peace when we stand back from a finished work of art that brings a contented smile to our face.   //     May we remember to thank God for these times.    //     May we remember God, and not just think of ourselves.    //     May we remember God.        //     (pause)     //     As we prepare to anoint each other’s hands, do so by repeating these words while making the sign of the cross in each other’s outstretched palms:   —   “May God bless you, as you go and create.”    —    

New Work

scan.jpgI have been struggling lately with depression.  I see things at my job in the psychiatric hospital that have impacted me emotionally more than I let myself realize.  Some people knew and prayed for me, but I have not been able to paint as much as I would have liked.  I have started again, with a notable change resulting.

New Light

smiling-chinese-woman.jpgIt has been some time since I have written anything.  I have been working on getting a piece ready for the Chinese Cultural Center of San Francisco.  I shipped out 6 pieces for their exhibition “Afterlife” and finished printing a block print for my church’s production of “God’s Trombones” which we will be putting on this spring. 

I have been struggling with feeling depressed again, and these overwhelming feelings have been draining me.  To distract myself, I have been learning about making African drums and finding the topic quite interesting.  My father and I are making a few Ashiko drums and possibly will be making a number of other conical, cylindrical, and compound conical drums in the next few months.  I am hoping to use these drums to facilitate a number of drum circles in my community, bringing drums that people can play.  Drum circles remind me so much of grace … a gift of rhythm that cannot be possessed and only grows if it  is added to by joining with others.  Rhythm is a gift that is freely given to everyone who listens to the beating of their own heart.

I have been trying to figure out again what it means for me to pursue art making in a humble, little way – a way that gets away from the kinds of rewards that society tells us that we need to have to measure our worth.  I am coming back to this.

 I heard a friend this weekend who plays in a gospel-rock-blues band who is doing a two-week tour this summer of homeless shelters between Denver and Grand Rapids.  I have never heard of such a thing – people who want to play music specifically for the homeless … and it seemed like the kind of thing that would make God smile. 

I want to make art in a similar spirit.

 God, move me.


a-chinese-vehicle1.pngOnce, someone told me not to continue working as a social worker because they thought I was “too sensative” to deal with all the pain that I would encounter in this line of work.  They thought that it would destroy my art.  Well, this person is right and wrong.  I am still creating art, but I have to say that I do lug around a pretty thick crust of defensiveness at times to protect myself from feeling “too deeply” the pain of the people whom I work with.

But lately, though, I have been pretty burdened by the kinds of problems that I am encountering here in the hospital.  More homeless people who are suicidal and have no place to go.  People who can’t get their psychiatric medications becuase their counties have no more indigent funds to pay for the medications these people need to stay psychiatrically stable.  People who drink and drug themselves to numb the pain of their problems, and end up wishing that they were dead when they clear. 

So, I walk among people who have these kinds of problems for 8 hours every weekday.  With the economy at 10.6% unemployment, the resources I need to help people are becomming scarce.  I can’t depend on the social service system to help me get resources to people like it did before.  It breaks my heart.  I ask myself every day that I am here if I will be able to help people … and this kind of dispair seems to hang over me. 

I sometimes worry that I am getting depressed … and it is possible that I am.  Making art, playing with my kids and talking with my wife are the things that give me temporary distraction from the burden of watching people suffer.  I feel like the waters of a flood are backing up to the door of our hospital … and it is slowly squeezing out my breath.  I paint, I drum, I play and I pray for the people who would gladly change places with me because they are worried that they will drown under the waters as opposed to being a spectator.

I have been working for the past two weeks on a large painting again.  This piece is about resurrection, and I am thinking about calling it “Lotus Resurrection”, but I am not sure yet.  As I paint it, I am becomming saddened by the fact that I hope that the suffering on this earth will end soon and that things will get better.  My fear is that they will not.

At this point, discontinuing my role as a social worker would only be like poking out my eyes or turning my head – it would not actually end poverty and helplessness.  No, being aware is necessary, I only need to find a way to continue to release my own pain to God so that I can enter the flood each day and try to pull more people from the storm.

I am trying to pray Psalm 13 this week.  I often pray this when I feel so distant from God like I do right now:

“How long, O LORD?  Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

How long must I wrestle with my thoughts

and every day have sorrow in my heart? …

… But I trust, in your unfailing love.”


chinfed.jpgI have a bad habit.  I believe in myself … more than I should.  This past weekend, I believed that I would be able to teach myself how to sew on my daughter’s new sewing machine.  I imagined one morning the way to build/sew an entire dragon dance costume that I wanted to make in time for Chinese New Year.  I wanted my daughers to have something fun to take to school for Chinese New Year. 

Well, I did create the costume, and if I had to do it all over again I would create the head out of paper mache’ instead of cloth.  However successful it was, however, could not make up for the fact that I was a complete grouch the entire weekend – taking our valuable family time for my over-zealous project.  This was not a marriage-ending project, but I hope not to take on another project like this for some time.  It was hard on my entire family. 

So, I am learning humility. 

This is the year of the ox … my year.  Being an ox, I am supposed to be patient.  HAH!  I am not patient at all.

So God has a lot to teach me this year.

I am a deeply broken person, in need of restoration.  I am impatient, overzealous, disorganized, and forgetful.  I am a clutter-bug.  I am too prone to yell and dictate to my kids instead of listen and be compassionate.  I am so much less than I want to be.  I don’t want to do another dragon any time soon, but I think it will be hard for me to watch another new-year dragon dance without remembering that I am a person with profound flaws.  I need God. 

Learning a Lesser Way

cn00370a1.jpgSo I am struggling with trying to figure out what God wants me to do with my art.  In the past week, I have come to the conviction that God is definitely moving me away from the things that typically are motivations for artists: to sell well, to be known, or to get bigger or better shows.  This is not to say that I don’t appreciate those things … I do.  I don’t look down on any artists who strive for these things, particularly as these are tools that people who need to live off of the proceeds of their art need in order to have commercial success. 

But I have a job… and there are other kinds of success besides commercial success. 

I am starting to believe that God is challenging me to not just give up the desire to seek commercial success, but to explore what it would mean to give all my artwork away – making art as a way to pray for others while I was painting, then giving the art to whomever I was painting (praying) for.  Maybe I should call it “prainting”.

So in starting on this journey, the following questions have come up in my mind:

1. How do I give away these praintings wihtout calling too much attention to myself?

2. How do I talk with other artists about what I am doing without sounding pretentious?  Or if I am trying to “do my giving in secret”, do I talk about this at all???

3. If I am “successful” at giving away my art, this will cut into what I can devote to the galleries I work with.  If I have to choose between this art-ministry or gallery sales, which would I choose?

There are so many dimensions to this that I spent some time this morning after church to talk with some trusted and wise friends about what I was thinking.  They encouraged me not to hesitate because I don’t have answers to these questions, but to press forward – even imperfectly – to do what I sense God wants me to do.

 So, I am moving forward.

New Beginning

huayan_studyflotusblossoms_rdax_300x388.jpg I cleaned out my studio today. 

I hate doing that.

Just seeing everything, my creative clutter – gone – I hate it.

… and now I can move in there again.  Everything that was behind me is gone.  I am in many senses starting over.

The economy has hit 10% unemployment in Michigan, and the art market is taking a major hit.  I don’t know what this year will hold. 

But I have this scripture that keeps coming back and back and back … like my mantra for the new year.  Matthew 6:1 “Be careful not ot do your ‘acts of righeousness’ in front of others, to be seen by them.”  So maybe having the art market tank will force me, like I needed to be forced to clean my studio, to find other ways to use my art.  Maybe in hidden ways. 

I think God likes us to get good at being little. 

For me to be little is a big thing because I live for recognition.  And I need to throw all that kind of stuff away, like the junk in my studio.  God, sometimes I don’t understand, because to be a “success” means to be known, at least down here!  I hope this is one of these things where we don’t get what we ask for, but we get what we desire most … only we don’t realize that until the very end. 

So I am working on throwing out my junk to get a new beginning.

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.