Tonight I realized that I am beginning the long journey back to being an artist. A lot has happened since I started this blog a number of years ago. A patient tried to kill me in the psychiatric hospital I was working in, which led me to a lengthy decline into a period of depression that eventually cost me my position. After being on leave, I was allowed to return to work at another site, and eventually was given a position as a therapist. But I had stopped making art altogether, and only in the past few months have I been able to draw in the presence of God again. I still cannot create the kinds of images like I used to, but the small sketchy paintings I am able to create with watercolor seem to speak to people. So I am learning to accept a number of things:
1.) I am only afraid of the things I keep a secret. I was afraid to tell people that I had lost my job, afraid to tell people that I struggled with depression and trauma, and afraid to say that I was now intensely fearful of being hurt again. But the good thing is, that I am learning to say and paint these things… and I have for the most part (apart from a few notable exceptions) been accepted and loved in spite of these fears.
2.) I am learning to accept that I cannot be who I thought I was … and I really was not who I thought I was anyway. I thought I could handle everything: violence, intense emotional tsunamis, threats, screaming, and seeing bloody people who had hurt themselves. I found that I could not, and that the prolonged exposure to these things was eating away at my soul. I was not strong in the sense that nothing bothered me. I am learning that strength is actually acknowledging, and being knowledgeable of, my weaknesses – because I can step to the side of those pits I used to fall into again and again. I am not taking as many pitfalls by realizing I can’t do anything.
3.) I can be an artist in many ways, even the small ways. I am learning that these little paintings, these sketches painted with colored teardrops, are able to move hearts like my large paintings formerly did. This I take as an unexpected form of grace – a true blessing.
I have fallen apart, but what God is making from these shards of my former self is something I am grateful for so many days. I hurt a lot yet, but I am becoming.
I have been greatly blessed the past few weeks, though I have been pressed to my limits at work. I have had a number of difficult situations at work with patients, insurance reviewers, and staff that have been quite distressing to me. But through it all I have been able to create beautiful art.
I had a very fortunate thing happen to me the other day. I was interviewed by the Grand Rapids Press and they ran a rather long article on artists serving the church in the RELIGION section of the paper which was a wonderful article. I will provide a link to it on the website for those of you who would like to read it. However, the article mentioned that my work would be a part of the Celebration Exhibit which opened this weekend at I United Church.
Well, wouldn’t you know it … the two artists interviewed for this article both were cut by the juror! It was ironic. But what was really ironic to me was that though it never feels good to be rejected from an exhibit, I was quietly at peace about the whole thing. I think the nice surprise of being in the paper more than made up for the disapointment of being cut from the show. The funny thing is, I have not sold anything for over two years now … and in my heart I know that I am creating some of my best work I have ever made. I don’t know what God is up to, but I am curious to see what comes next.
I wanted to show the painting here, because I TOTALLY love it, and it is hanging in my living room right now – just perfect for Chinese New Year. It is a metaphorical dream image of the parable of the lost coin, and I love the sense of movement and dynamism that I am exploring lately.
I have not written in a long time. I have been struggling a lot … wondering what to do with my life. I had been attacked in May by a patient who broke through a wooden door to attack me. It threw me into an emotional tailspin that has taken me up until now to pull out of. I have been wrestling with my thoughts and many days had sorrow in my heart.
I have no idea where my life is going, but I am beginning to have faith that there is an answer somewhere. Tomorrow I have a performance evaluation at work, which I am so nervous about. I have been having struggles at work since my attack, and only recently have been able to find interest in painting again.
I just want to be in front of my easel again.
Â I am sad.
I hate to even admit it to myself as I write this.Â I feel as though I need to step back from myself a little.Â Like a little piece of myself has died inside.
I am not sure if it is because of the long winter, the hard patients that I have in the hospital, my children (whom I love) who have been having excessive tantrums lately, or that my anti-depressants are not working well any more, but I am definitely sad.Â I feel like I used to be more caring about people.Â I used to have time for people.Â Now … now it is just rushing from here to there, just managing life only to fall asleep and start over the next day.Â
I read this terriffic article today in Christianity Today called “Searching for Radical Faith” and the author described how faith lived out in its most radical form is quiet and non-attention getting.Â So often I want to be out in front of everyone to be seen, and if I am really going to serve God like how I think He wants me to … I need to die to this.Â And I honestly don’t know if I truely want to give that up.Â Or maybe it is just that it is a cold, dreary winter and I am feeling depressed and overwhelmed so everything is colored by this.Â
I don’t know.
Today I paused to witness a moment that I will hopefully remember for a long, long time.Â This is the first time that our country has elected someone to its highest office who was not of the same race as its founders.Â Someone whoÂ carries a dream forÂ peopleÂ to both celebrateÂ the complexities of ourÂ variousÂ racial and cultural heritages as well as see each person as an individual who can contribute something to the greater good of everyone.Â I have a sense of hope that I have not had forÂ years as our country wasÂ living in fear.
So, I took aÂ break from the studio to sit…
… and smile.
I am going to see a couple of dear friends for Christmas Eve and am making them a ‘breath prayer’ painting.Â 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.Â They appear to be wedding shoes and are very beautiful.Â 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.Â Time just vanished when I was working on the face.Â It was a beautiful face.Â 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.Â Tonight, I get to do the “fun part” – decorating the embroidery of the robes this woman is wearing in my painting.Â She is holding the lotus shoes which my friend bought for me.Â These lily feet are for me symbols of broken beauty, a metaphor for all of us.Â But God picks us up, like the woman in my painting, and gives us new life.Â 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.Â
In working on this picture, I asked my wife to hold the lotus shoes, so I could draw her hands.Â My wife has beautiful hands.Â Very tiny and delicate.Â
Â I can’t wait to work on this tonight.
I love the smell of incense.Â I often burn it in my studio when I want to remember Hong Kong, or when I pray.Â I know that incense was used in the temple in the Bible, though I imagine it wasn’t sandalwood!Â As a Protestant boy, I wasn’t raised on smells associated with God like my friends of Catholic and Orthodox tribes.Â So for me, the smell of incense reminds me of Hong Kong, particularly Buddhist temples.
Â While in Hong Kong this last trip, we visited Man Mo Temple which was not far from the hotel where we stayed.Â There people burn giant incense coils that hang from the ceiling as a way to pray.Â 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.Â You see them everywhere you go, and if you aren’t a Midwestern American, you probably wouldn’t give these altars a second thought.Â But they strike me as something beautiful, in their common, humble way.Â 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.Â Let me explain.
I would love to envision Christians making their own doorway altars, which they tend as thoughtfully as the Buddhists.Â These altars could be red as well, the color of happiness, and be reminders of praying to God.Â Those that have text could express a scripture, a name of God, or a short prayer.Â Those with images could do similar things.Â But to be small, beautiful, humble remiders of God are what I think each of us are.
My questions, however, are many.Â Are these altar forms expressly thought of by Chinese people as being only associated with Buddhism?Â Similarly, are incense sticks something that Chinese Christians would burn to pray, or are these things thought of as Buddhist as well?Â If incense does have a strong association with Buddhism for Chinese Christians, would incense that looks or smells differently be thought of differently?Â 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.Â I think an exhibit of Chinese/Christian altars that explored these ideas would be something fascinating to view.Â Maybe I will do that some time.
I often get stylistic inspiration for my work from Buddhist sculpture.Â Several years ago, I saw an exhibit in Hong Kong of a recent archeological find of centuries of ancient Buddhist sculptures which showed the way that Buddha came to lose his Indian features and become more Chinese-looking the longer Buddhism was in China.Â This was a very beautiful exhibit, and one that got me thinking about my own art in the years to come.Â Could an artist make art that had the face of Buddha and express the heart of Christ?
Today was a good day.Â I recently have been suffering from kidney stones, as I have for the last few years.Â Since June, I have had quite a number of painful episodes that prevented me from working, painting, playing music, or about anything else that usually brings me joy.Â Last evening, I had the privilige of watching Barack Obama win the presidency of the United States of America.Â Being deeply interested in anti-racism and racial reconciliation, this was a moment that moved me deeply, as it did many people around the world.Â For the first time in years, I was proud of my country in a profound way, and I am thankful for this moment in history.Â This morning, after waking up, I passed a kidney stone (3 mm) and was without pain for about an hour, only to realize that there is at least one more which is on its way out.Â I was in a lot of pain all day, and needed to take pain-killers again, but I was happy all day because of our president-elect.
This evening, I finished the second of my four or five paintings that I need to complete before traveling to Hong Kong.Â I am making headway.Â I also am prayerful about an opportunity I have tomorrow to give a talk on art as an aid to corporate and private worship to seminary students.Â I so deeply want the church to be a place where artistic revival can be experienced … I hope that in some small way I can play a role in this.Â I would love to be an instrument in helping the church undergo a sea-change in the way people encounter God’s presence in worship through the arts the way Barack Obama has changed the nature of race-relations in America forever.