Thursday, January 26, 2017

Why Thin?

I wrote this post when I first was creating this blog.  These inspirations persist.  I'm shuffling things around a bit, so I'm moving this into a post.

The “thin” in "thin places" refers to what I am sometimes aware of as a narrow boundary between artwork and spirituality.  Here are some ways I see these worlds interplay. 

Artist as Instrument

"Therefore, the ardent lover of beauty, although receiving what is always visible as an image of what he desires, yet longs to be filled with the very stamp of the archetype."
Saint Gregory of Nyssa

When I act as an artist, I act as an utter participant in something much larger than myself.  If I am drawing a field, at a single point in the process I am in a state of heightened attention to detail on a blade of grass.  I certainly did not create the original scene before me: the greenness of the grass, the sunlight, the bluish shadow it creates, the ways it moves in the breeze.  (If I created a world, would I know to create shadows?)  Neither did I create the receptacles that allow me to absorb the scene: the blood vessels in the retina, the photoreceptors, the light sensitive nerve endings, the hands which hold my paintbrush, the legs I sit on while I paint. My eyesight, my concentration, my physical presence are as much pure gifts as the blades before me.  I am the creator of nothing on either side of the process: neither subject nor receptacles.  Rather, I am a conduit.  And, engagement with the scene that occurs within me brings me pleasure.  

Prayer, too, brings heightened awareness to our lives and activities: contemplating activities we engage in, people we interact with, situations or scenes we find ourselves part of.  Prayer acts to form us as a conduit of God’s grace, love, and presence in the world.  As we seek to allow ourselves to be used and formed in the ways God wants us to, we are aware of the ways we act as a vessel of God’s love in the world.  We did not create ourselves: would I have come up with the idea of two nostrils?  Teeth?  Did I create the physical, 3-dimentional world around me?  Recognizing that we are participants in happenings much larger than ourselves allows beautiful things to emerge.

Often when I am painting, I am not looking at the original image; I am looking at an image of an original, and producing an image in response.  I am quite removed from the realities of either side, and instead am offering an interpretation.  I am in no way capable of creating the originals: amazing misty waterfalls amid lush forests, sunsets over glistening hills of snow, intricate red lines on a crab’s shell.  Particularly, I have difficulty when I am trying to draw a human face that is very familiar to me.  I am quite aware of the complexity and specificity which goes into its creation and makes it unique.  Though it is intimately known to me, I am never able to justly reproduce it.  I am putting paint down on a 2-D surface.  What I do is invariably a mockery of the original.  God is the most incredible artist alive today.  I am a mediator of things far beyond my grasp.  
And, in the same way that successful art ventures require training and refining of a skill over time, building a significant prayer life requires dedication of time and energy, which I am not always fond of giving.  However, dedication to the process yields bountiful fruits.


“There is always the danger that we may just do the work for the sake of the work. This is where the respect and the love and the devotion come in - that we do it to God, to Christ, and that's why we try to do it as beautifully as possible.” Mother Teresa

When I paint a picture for a college friend, I put in an extra red swirl, recalling the time we played pool together, the way she was talking to her mom on the phone, and what her perspective was on her relationship with another friend.  I put all this thought into the swirl, but it will soon leave my consciousness; I certainly will not remember what I was thinking when I look at the painting later.  Neither will she ever have any means to know what intentionality went behind the red swirl.  I can add a little triangular edge to the piece, remembering the triangle we used to cue up our pool balls.  Whether conscious or subconscious, my intentionality is soon hidden amid the larger piece.  But, the small actions are known to our omniscient God.  Our motivation and intentions may never surface in a recognizable way in the world, but God who knows every hair on our head and every word before we speak knows, too, the desires of our hearts and is intimately a part of all of our thoughts and intentions.

Part of our intentionality is our ability to connect with other people.  Through artwork, I have been able to connect with people on new levels that I would not otherwise connect with.  I have been able to learn things about them: where they went to school, what their favorite animal is, what their favorite color is, because of the information they have shared with me, all because of an art project.  This is one of the primary gifts I am most grateful for that I receive because of my interest in art.


Almost certainly God is not in Time. His life does not consist of moments following one another. If a million people are praying to Him at ten-thirty tonight, He need not listen to them all in that one little snippet which we call ten-thirty. Ten-thirty--and every other moment from the beginning of the world--is always the Present for Him. If you like to put it that way, He has all eternity in which to listen to the split second of prayer put up by a pilot as his plane crashes in flames.

That is difficult, I know. Let me try to give something, not the same, but a bit like it. Suppose I am writing a novel. I write "Mary laid down her work; next moment came a knock at the door! "  For Mary who has to live in the imaginary time of my story there is no interval between putting down the work and hearing the knock. But I, who am Mary's maker, do not live in that imaginary time at all. Between writing the first half of that sentence and the second, I might sit down for three hours and think steadily about Mary. I could think about Mary as if she were the only character in the book and for as long as I pleased, and the hours I spent in doing so would not appear in Mary's time (the time inside the story) at all.

C.S. Lewis

Someone deeply in the heart of a math problem, a pianist at his keyboard, or a surgeon at work all experience a sense of surrender to what needs to the task at hand.  When I am painting, I often experience a temporary blinders-effect to other aspects of the world.  What is going on next door, what I am wearing, and where I went to high school all drop away as I engage only what is immediately before me.  The intensity of focus opens a new world in which only this exists for the moment, and I am unable to quantify what is going on in minutes or seconds and I have no wish to divide this experience up, actually, into any fragments whatsoever.

I have always found C.S. Lewis’ analogy interesting and helpful in terms of thinking about the ways God exists out of time.  So, too, when we are in the heart of prayer, we can hopefully arrive at a state where we are momentarily set apart from the world for the sake of being present to God.  Surrender to the present moment is essential to good living, and to good prayer.  In the words of Eckhard Tolle:  “Realize deeply that the present moment is all you ever have.”  Or, in the words of Mother Teresa, “Yesterday is gone.  Tomorrow is not yet come.  We have only today.  Let us begin.”  There is something holy and good about realizing today, this moment, now.  This is something I have found harder to do as I grow older, and life seems to become more complicated.  However, painting in a reserved and defined period of time provides me an opportunity to engage, in real time, with a subject and medium.  

When we are able to surrender to the present moment, we find we are able to engage in sincere listening to another, to notice details, to experience great joy.  


“To be an artist means to approach the light, and that means to let go of our control, to allow our whole selves to be placed with absolute faith in that which is greater than we are.”  Madeleine L’Engle

A dentist, in his off hours, notices people’s teeth.  Someone who has been shoe-shopping for 2 hours notices people’s shoes in the parking lot outside.  I am in a new city and see a restaurant sign hanging on a street, and people bustling underneath, I suddenly imagine a snapshot of the scene as a watercolor painting.  That is, an immediate visual response sparks as a result of my particular training and interest.  Art happens not only when I am at the canvas but when I am on the city bus, when I am hearing a friend describe her adventurous trip, when I read a descriptive poem.  It is something that pops up at any time it pleases, that gives insight or casts a new light onto a scene.   We are fooling ourselves if we think an investment of time and energy in something can be limited to the restraints we place on it.  So too, when we invest in prayer, I think we are bound to see the world around us differently as a result.  As a Christian, I think I am called to view the images and events I see through a certain lens: recognizing people as God’s children, seeing the Holy Spirit at work, realizing what is holy and seeking after it.

The rituals and habits of prayer act to train us and shape us and inform our perspective on the world.  Suddenly, God speaks to us through the rain, through the phone call from a friend, from the timing of a successful merging into traffic.  Our belief is something we can control only to a certain extent, and instead as we engage in it, spend time working on it, it overtakes and envelops us.  And I think we remember it’s not something of our fabrication, after all.

“Vocation is where our greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need.” Frederick Buechner
“To love another person is to see the face of God.” Victor Hugo

I like art.  It is something that makes me happy, and, amazingly, makes other people happy sometimes too.  God speaks to us in our joy.  He leads us to pursue our passions, because it is in our passions that we find Him.  As all things we love are deeply spiritual experiences, when viewed through that perspective, art is so for me.  It brings me joy, satisfaction, a feeling of worth.  It allows me to anticipate the potential that it will be well-received, which will in turn make me feel appreciated, and therefore feel loved.  On the flip side, it provides an opportunity for me to try to express or present something that is important or meaningful or beautiful to you, the recipient.

And as we find ourselves on common ground of appreciation for something beautiful beyond our making, aren’t we paving the pathway to peace?

                                                 Plein Air Artists on Monument

June 2012
image courtesy Brazier gallery, via Richmond Magazine

“Faced with the sacredness of life and of the human person, and before the marvels of the universe, wonder is the only appropriate attitude.” – Letter to Artists, John Paul II

It is the sort of summer weekend morning when you would want to take a stroll down Monument Avenue, anyway.  You would want to soak up the sun, step in and out of the shadows, notice the brick steps and the potted plants, feel the breeze, and think “how beautiful.”  And today, you have reason to voice these words, looking over the shoulder of a man at his palette, who is focused on the stoop in front of him, recording his view in oil colors onto the board.  “How wonderful,” our response to a day like today, we now voice because there is someone else here focusing, noticing, and we can speak those words to him.  And as often happens, vocalizing further validates the truth of our thoughts.

A woman, sitting apart from the other artists, dabbles in acrylic paints, capturing the brick and tan buildings that compose the street corner in front of her, the various textures of shrubbery.  Most of the artists choose oil paint as their medium, but she is quick to say she is just a beginner.  She repeats this three times during our encounter: she is new to this, just beginning.  But, she is having fun with it.  She makes me think, what other occupation promotes such humility?  How often do I encounter adults saying, “I am new at this.  I am just beginning, but I am enjoying it, so I continue?”  Perhaps we would not be receptive to this sort of attitude in the professionals we encounter.  But, on the other hand, what right have we to button up our shirts, put on our good shoes, puff up our chests, and say, We have it All Together, We Have Practiced this for Centures, Our Knowledge is Ingrained, Our Skills are Set.  When was the last time we woke up, the sun on our faces, shrugged, smiled, and said to the sky:  “I’m new at this.  This is my first time alive.  I’ve been here 52 years – a speck of time – and I’m just trying.  This is my first time, but I’m having fun.  So I’m giving it a go.”

In creating plein air art, these artists assent to a sort of improvisation, responding as the mood of the morning catches them, their vantage dependent on the aesthetic and the practical, such as the prevalence of proximate shade.  Some slightly alter their angles during the morning, as the shade shifts.  All artists choose relatively stable subject matter: a doorway, a monument.  A parked car or bike seems a riskier choice, as its owner could jaunt out the door at any moment and whisk it away.  Yet, a few painters choose these objects, regardless.  An older woman, camped in the shade of a tree, paints what is probably my favorite portrait of the day.  Her subject is another artist, a bearded man standing around twenty feet away, with a straw-brimmed hat, his feet staggered one in front of the other, his hand outstretched toward his tilted canvas.  His body rides the border between shadow and sunlight, as he peeks out beneath the shade of the tree.  She captures his poised and attentive body with fine oils; you can tell she is no newcomer to her craft.  Her style is impressionistic, with graceful strokes capturing the scene with pleasing greens, yellows, and purples.  Watching this man from a distance, through the perspective of the painter, I see him as a graying and accomplished artist himself.  So, when I walked over to peek at his work, I am surprised to see it is more elementary than I would have expected.  Not for the first time today, I think of God.  The man struggles with and somewhat crudely represents the scene before him.  Meanwhile kinder eyes, unworried by their somewhat transient subject, are content to capture this man in gentle yet masterful strokes, noting the way the sun plays on his silhouette, as he dips in and out of the light all morning.  

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