Posts in Category: sensing God

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.


grand-rapids-snow.jpgToday is the kind of day you want to stay indoors, snuggle under a blanket, and drink hot cocoa.  The clouds are so thick … the light even at noon is pretty dim.  Most people hate this kind of weather, but personally, I love it.  The world becomes quiet, as if in a moment of prayer.

 It makes me want to pray.  To be still in the presence of God.  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.  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.

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.

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. 

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.

Gold and the Presence of God

Ancient Gold Leaf WallTonight I was in my studio working on “laying down gold” for the backgrounds of my new “breath prayer” paintings.  All the while I was working, I kept thinking of who would eventually look at these pieces, who would own them, what would be going on in their lives when they take time to look at these little paintings.  I always hope that in some way my work helps remind people of the presence of God.  Lately, I have used gold in my pieces to suggest this presence as it surrounds the figures in my work. 

I once made a painting for a friend called “Can You Drink This Cup?”.  Years after she put this piece up in her home, she was looking at it one evening when she could not sleep and felt that she suddenly “understood” the painting in a new way.  I was so appreciative that she told me this, even though she did not share what it was exactly that she came to understand.  However, what struck me was that she talked about this experience as an encounter with God, and that it was God who gave her this understanding.

I so hope that something like this happens for the people who eventually receive my newest work, because I certainly feel a sense of being in God’s presence as I stand in front of my easel.  I hope that there is a life for my art beyond the joy I get in creating it.