“I’m all alone because all my friends have died. I’m not doing anything because I don’t have anyone to do them with anymore. I’m just waiting to die.”
I have a variation of this conversation every few weeks with my grandfather each time I come to visit him at my parent’s home, where he has been living since my grandmother died a couple of years ago. Each time I hear those words, I both sympathize with the sentiment, and in the back of my heart I sense a small uprising of protest. The fibers of my heart rebel against the idea that my grandfather is a worthless man, even if he is continually confronted by the sense of abandonment which waves of deaths must bring. Even yesterday afternoon, after having another of these conversations, we received a phone call that my grandfather’s sister had died. He retreated to his room after getting the news, understandably shaken again.
The day before, I played the piano for a funeral of a friend from church who was four years older than I am. He died unexpectedly from a heart attack. The morning of the funeral, I learned that another friend’s husband was just diagnosed with cancer. And when I went to church, I spoke with a friend whose family is in Liberia, West Africa, living near the center of the city where the Ebola outbreak is exponentially killing thousands of people. I come home, and turn on my computer to catch up on the news from my second home in Hong Kong, where students and citizens are protesting the Chinese government, fighting for open elections and the ability to chose their own leaders. I fear that many there will die for their efforts fighting for justice. All the while, another close friend lies in bed from a curable, but painful illness which takes months to heal from. In my circle of relationships, the world is groaning right now. I know I am not unique.
Lately, my art has taken a rather surprisingly abstract turn as I am drawn to create colorful, but undefined imagery, leaving my geometric, linear figurative work for this time. It is as if God is allowing me to explore in my devotional imagination what it would be like to create as if the things of this world are less and less my home. However, in many respects, the more I am drawn to be close to God, the more the world seems to be more vibrant, more important, more full of possibility in a spiritual sense. I am catching glimmers of the spiritual reality immersing our world, which often is just out of sight. It is as if God is calling to each of us to become more and more holy, shedding the things we cling to for control, and allowing ourselves to freely float as He holds us in the waters of His love. He is washing us clean, helping us to stop clinging to all those things which we think give us security, identity, and meaning and focus more and more on enjoying the sensation of floating in God’s mercy and grace.
God, my cravings for control is the debris on the river bottom of my life. Burn these waterlogged sin-tendencies up, so that what flows out of me, while you keep me on this earth, is clean, pure, life-giving … so much more like You.
I keep having the goldfish dreams … it seems to be pressing on me, tugging at me, eating away at me. I have this sense that God is wanting me to go ahead and explore this composition, but I am not clear on the reason for this. I suppose that the journey is in the making.
I had so many frustrations today that it was really hard to proceed with preparing for my show this weekend. I am really nervous about how this show will go over for some reason. I think part of it is that this show is so totally honest about my own recent struggles that I really fear being honest. I know that my own brokenness will be exposed, and I am trying to come to grips with this but it is hard. I also had quite a number of frustrating things happen today that were frustrating that I am trying to release to God. But God, I need your help to do it!
Maybe this is part of the image of the fish that I keep seeing in my mind. I need to allow myself to sink into the waters of God’s embrace to experience what it is like to have these burdens lifted from me to float to the surface and away from my heart. God, take my heart of stone and give me a heart of flesh. Let me learn how to cry again without being weighed down with my brokenness. Let me fly from this cage that holds me, God.
The last few days I have been seeing this idea in my head over and over again. In my imagingings, I see a large goldfish gracefully swimming, swirling, and eventually encircling a woman wearing a long Qing Dynasty robe. I heard this sermon this past weekend on suffering which really spoke to me. It was about God knowing our tears. In my dream, God is the fish, and I am the sinking woman. God is catching me, in spite of my tears. I want to be able to open myself up to God to be able to cry freely without becomming depressed. I want to be able to be completely transparent and vulnerable in the presence of God, but sometimes it just seems like I hold everything back just too much. I think this could be an amazing painting if I could just see the image more clearly in my mind. I love this daydream.Â I have started to collect photos of Ryukin goldfish, and other double fantail goldfish as this is the kind of fish I am seeing in my mind.Â The photo here shoes the kind of pose the fish is striking in my mind.Â I only wish I had a goldfish I could watch so as to learn how to paint the slow, graceful sense of the fish more clearly.
I have been truly touched by a fellow artist, Nicole France-Coe, whose work is presently in the Leep Art Gallery at the Postema Center on the Pine Rest campus where I work. Her work is about prayer, and has a sense of whimsical reverence to it. Bright colors, and mixes of photo clippings, beads, paint, stiching and fabric. It is like looking into a visual prayer journal. I love it.
It has been a place where I go daily for a sense of visual rest from the pressures of my inpatient psychiatric ward.
And I am resting.
As I have returned to my art studio, I feel a new sense of life returning to my work. It has been a heavy summer, and as the leaves are beginning to burst into vibrant color here in the woodland around my home, I am sensing God breathing life back into me.
I sense God’s graciousness to me. I have not been left in the darkness of my depression which has lingered off and on since January … He has lifted my head.
So I am painting again. I have been focussing on tiny, intimate canvasses recently, which I love doing. But I felt a yearning to paint large again. This past summer I purchased two wonderful books on the material culture of China, and have been pouring through the photos of one in particular: Chinese Dress by Valery Garrett. Whereas most books on the material culture of China focus heavily on the dress customs of the Imperial Court, she has a lengthy section on both the dress of women and working-class people. There are some wonderful reproductions of women’s clothing whose detail and coloring moved me profoundly. They remind me of visual graciousness that pair tastefully with my inner sense of God’s movement in my own heart. So I have begun painting a woman on a tall, narrow canvas. She is wearing a pale blue robe and reaching tenderly upward, her head tilted slighly back, reaching towards a dove which is flying above her head. The dove in my sketch is dropping a blossom from a flowering twig, but I have yet to see how God moves me to create this detail in the final painting. The background is gold, but a tarnished, and in places distressed. Yet what draws me into this painting is the face of the woman which to me captures a content and open quality that I so wish for myself. It excites me to create this piece … and I can’t wait to see how it comes out.
Every Thursday I lead a drum circle in the hospital where I work.Â Participating in this form of guided spontaneous music-making is probably as theraputic for me as it is for my patients.Â How often do you get to pound something for joy?Â To take the tension of life and transform it into a dancable beat is a wonderful thing.
I think of drumming as the prelude to being quiet in the presence of God.Â The silence seems so much more profound followingÂ a joyful sonic rumble.Â It is only after this kind of full-body activity that I can hear the beating of my own internal drum.
So I found this symbol on the internet from the site “oracle bone characters” by artist Vikki Quill : oraclebonecharacters.com/detail.php?prod=GCHa…
The site read as follows:
Ancient Chinese character for Happiness, (Ch:Xi,Jap:yorokobu)showing a large drum on a stand with decorations reaching up. The lower element may represent either a singing/laughing mouth or a vessel for holding ritual prayers.
For me, this character captures my sentiments for drumming as a form of prayer exactly.
I wrote this for the meeting of the Grand Rapids affiliate of Christians in the Visual Arts which we had last evening.Â 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.Â Â
Â Â Â Â Â Â Â //Â Â Â Â Â Â //Â Â Â Â Â Â //Â Â Â Â Â Â Â //Â Â Â Â Â Â //Â Â Â Â Â Â Â //Â Â Â Â Â Â // Â Â Â Â Â //Â Â Â Â Â Â //Â Â Â Â Â //Â Â Â Â Â Â //Â Â Â Â Â Â //Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â Â //Â Â Â Â Â Â Â //Â Â Â Â Â Â —Â Â Â
ÂA few words before we begin the blessing of the hands ceremony.Â Â
ÂÂ Â //Â Â Â Â As Christians, we are called by God to live as lights in a dark world â€“ a world that sometimes does not even seem to notice anymore that it is in darkness.Â To the world, the darkness has become normal.Â Light, it seems, has become irrelevant, or something optional.Â It no longer is seen as something needed to live the good life.Â 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.Â 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.
Â Â //Â Â ÂAs artists, we are called by God to responsibly handle one of the more curious gifts given out by God.Â Whereas many children find joy in creating, as we mature, society discourages many people from pursuing their creative gifts into adulthood.Â 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.Â 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.Â 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.Â 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.Â Many of us create works or art which aesthetically companion those walking in our dark world, reminding them of the light of life.
Â Â //Â Â ÂTo be a Christian and an artist is to balance these twin callings â€“ 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.Â We each speak an aesthetic language, and many of us speak with divergent visual accents.Â 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.
Â Â //Â Â Â ÂWe are called by God to touch some by being sensitive representatives of His teachings.Â We are called not to have the same values of the world â€“ to be known, to be wealthy, to be loved, or to be powerful â€“ but to be faithful, humble, loved by God, and to be servants of the weak and powerless.Â 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 â€¦ but also to those places where the visual is forgotten, misunderstood, or seen as irrelevant.Â We are called to be aesthetically generous to our neighbors.Â We are challenged to find ways to honor God with our aesthetic â€œfirst fruitsâ€, to tithe from our gifts to benefit others.Â We are asked to serve â€œthe least of theseâ€ with our art, and to be â€œlike childrenâ€ in the ways children try to please us with their own creations of crayons, finger-paint, and popsicle sticks.Â Â Â //Â Â Â We are called to stay involved in our church communities, even when these people hurt us as artists.Â 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.Â 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.
Â Â //Â Â ÂSo 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.Â 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.Â We are called to the poor, the helpless, and the strangers among us.Â We are called to love with the language of art, the speech of our mouths, and the service of our hands.Â 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.Â Â
Â Â //Â Â ÂAnd when these storms hit us, may we be mindful that we have a God who never leaves us.Â He walks with us even when we do not feel Him near us.Â May we be the tangible representatives of Godâ€™s love to each other as we are each others creative companions on this sometimes lonely road.Â May we encourage each other to press on, to continue the race, and to persevere.Â
ÂÂ Â //Â Â Â May we each have aÂ sense of Godâ€™s presence as we create.
Â Â //Â Â ÂMay we sense Him smiling on us as we prepare to work.
Â Â // Â ÂMay we feel the joy of creating when we begin to get sparks of ideas that light our imagination while we work.
Â Â //Â Â ÂMay we have more moments in Godâ€™s presence when we lose track of time and are enfolded in the rapture of creation.
Â Â //Â Â ÂMay we have a sense of Godâ€™s peace when we stand back from a finished work of art that brings a contented smile to our face.
Â Â //Â Â ÂMay we remember to thank God for these times.
Â Â //Â Â ÂMay we remember God, and not just think of ourselves.
Â Â //Â Â ÂMay we remember God.
Â Â Â Â Â Â //Â Â Â(pause)
Â Â //Â Â ÂAs we prepare to anoint each otherâ€™s hands, do so by repeating these words while making the sign of the cross in each otherâ€™s outstretched palms:Â Â —Â Â â€œMay God bless you, as you go and create.â€
Â Â Â —Â Â
I have been struggling lately with depression.Â I see things at my job in the psychiatric hospital that have impacted me emotionally more than I let myself realize.Â Some people knew and prayed for me, but I have not been able to paint as much as I would have liked.Â I have started again, with a notable change resulting.
Lately, I have found that once again I cannot sleep at night.Â Some people may wonder if it is insomnia, and to be honest, I don’t think that is the case.Â Often, I assume that it is quite possibly the only time that I am still enough to reflect on God, which is quite a shame.Â I think I could really do much better for myself if I only took the time I needed to spend some regular time with God.
It is when I can’t sleep that I get up, walk down the hallway to my art studio, sit on the mat and open my Bible in the dim light of a small lamp which hardly lights the room.Â But I love the atmosphere.Â Tonight, in the darkness, I can hear the wind …Â
I just need to sit in God’s presence and ask, “God, what do you want?”
Maybe I don’t even need to ask anything at all … maybe it is just beingÂ aware ofÂ God’s presence which is enough.
As I sit here, I am filled with as sense of being sure that it is.
It has been some time since I have written anything.Â I have been working on getting a piece ready for the Chinese Cultural Center of San Francisco.Â IÂ 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.Â
I have been struggling with feeling depressed again, and these overwhelming feelings have been draining me.Â To distract myself, I have been learning about making African drums and finding the topic quite interesting.Â 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.Â I am hoping to use these drums to facilitate a number of drum circles in my community, bringing drums that people can play.Â Drum circles remind me so much of grace … a gift of rhythm that cannot be possessed and only grows if itÂ is added to by joining with others.Â 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.Â I am coming back to this.
Â 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.Â 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.Â
I want to make art in a similar spirit.
Â God, move me.
Today is the kind of day you want to stay indoors, snuggle under a blanket, and drink hot cocoa.Â The clouds are so thick … the light even at noon is pretty dim.Â Most people hate this kind of weather, but personally, I love it.Â The world becomes quiet, as if in a moment of prayer.
Â It makes me want to pray.Â To be still in the presence of God.Â To be aware of the presence of God.
I am feeling a calling to paint, to finish the prayer painting that I am working on, and to begin a new piece … possibly a large one.Â I don’t know what will happen next, only that I am starting to miss my easel and am itching to get back to moving paint around.