Posts in Category: Creative Faith

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.


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. 

The Process of Creation

Women’s Chinese Styles Through the AgesI have been exhausting myself the past few days – going to work, coming home, painting, going to bed and then starting all over again.  I have been consumed with creating little visual prayers for various family members I will see in 6 days!!! (I can’t believe I will finally be in Hong Kong again after 4 years away!)  I have four done, and have two more to go.  I think I will make it.

In the past month when I began, I was mostly concerned with just making paintings, but within a few hours of starting, I realized that this in many ways was what I “really” want to do when I create: I want to create for a purpose.  I want to create “for” someone.

I pray when I paint.  So when I am creating an image for someone I know, their story influences me heavily.  I am praying with words of paint, using the grammer of design.  I am finding that each composition speaks to the unique joys and struggles that I am aware of for each of the people I am creating for.

It is what I would love to do – to be an aesthetic prayer servant.  If there was one thing that I could do with my life, it would be to help people experience the presence of God, to know and long for intimacy with God.  It is my firm conviction that the arts (verbal and non-verbal) would be primary channels for this to happen.  It is my hope that my own creations each can be little pieces of the way that this can happen for people – each painting like one grain of sand that makes up the beach of the presence of God.

So I am busy making art, and just praying that it will be used for the people that I am making the art for.

Christianity’s Verbal Bias

Don’t get me wrong, I love the Bible … and I love the way that words have given us insight into our history as a people of faith.  For example, the Nestorian Tablet which is the first evidence of Chrisitainity in China, gives us this information precisely becuse the words inscribed on the tablet tell us about the “Luminous Religion” which came to China around 700AD.  However, it really bothers me as an artist how Christians, especially Protestant Christians, have such a verbal bias when it comes to understanding and knowing God now.