Highway Eleven – Saskatchewan

I drove into a William Kurelek
painting the other day – the sky
an orb, seeing me
travelling in God’s eye. I
stopped at a roadside
coffee spot, and saw
two wizened souls

she in spotted frock

and

he with hat crooked just so,

both leaning into the wind and
wearing both weariness and joy.

I travelled past wounded windmills,
from another time, and felt my soul
caressed by granaries old
enough to be my Omma and Oppa –
they called out:
“Do not forget your whence

and

Do not forget that your whither

cannot be divined.”

Advertisements

Painting Me in Three

I decided, not so long ago, that it was time to paint a portrait again. I generally work on landscapes but a few years ago I painted my Oppa, from a photograph. It was a most trying and satisfying experience: trying because I must have spent more time working on his eyes than any optometrist ever did. But satisfying because I remembered him as I painted: the way he teased Omma, his slow but graceful ways, his lovely accent, his warm smile, and the fact that he is – at least in part – where I come from. It was a richly satisfying experience, emotionally. But it was hard work for this amateur, not that painting landscapes isn’t. Yet this was altogether different. I’m not surprised it has taken me some time to come back to a portrait. The delay has been extended by the problem of deciding whom next to paint.

Some time ago I came upon the idea of doing a self-portrait. Yet, I knew I wanted to do something a little unusual and so have demurred. A couple of weeks ago I came upon an idea while cleaning up some files. I found a folder with some school photographs inspiring me to paint myself as a young lad. I spent some time pondering myself at twelve different stages. I came to the conclusion that I peaked in grade three, the year when my teacher likely combed my hair, and my teeth were all in place, and I seemed to exude a joy that suggests that life was pretty fine. I found my subject.

I have not yet started painting me in grade three, although I have done some sketches to warm up to the task before me. Drawing the sketches has been rather vexing. I come out looking like a young adult. With some re-working I can get myself down to what seems to be about grade seven. It is hard to draw myself at eight years of age. Perhaps the years have made it hard for me to reflect the adventurousness and curiousity of my public-school self. I can’t quite get me, but I have spent quite a bit of time looking at my eyes. The eyes seem to hold the key, and I will likely need a bit more sketch work before I wander toward the canvas.

In the meantime, I have been making an acquaintance of my grade three self. It has been most interesting. Questions emerge: what were my eight-year-old worries, joys, dreams, hopes? Was I proud of those delightful freckles? Where has my hair all gone? When I see myself in the photograph, I think that I would like to spend some time with that young man! Of course, I can and do spend time with him. He wanders around inside me; some days spreading more trouble than delight, and some days the opposite. Some days I send him to his room, but he generally sneaks out, and for that I am glad. We are spending quite a bit of time together these days!

I am not especially confident that this will be a successful venture, but I am absolutely certain that it will be worth every minute: looking at myself at a different stage in life, wondering whether one day I will be 82 painting my 56-year-old self ,and wondering: “What’s up with that grin?”

Seeing Double

I am only just now back from the American Academy of Religions, that annual event that allows me to be lost in a sea of folk who think about things religious, spiritual, and theological. It is always a rich experience, although oftentimes a bit harried with side-meetings, planning groups and such. This year, as I am wont to do most years, I came in on Friday. Things started in earnest on Saturday even though meetings and lectures are increasingly bleeding into the Friday too.

I came in by plane from Toronto, and my colleague and I shuttled our way to downtown Boston to Copley Place, a sprawling complex of hotels, shops, a convention centre and a huge mall. I checked into my hotel and from the 28th floor took my bearings. After checking a map, I walked out of the hotel/convention centre complex and took a right in order that I might go see the Boston Commons. After a time, it struck me that I was quite likely walking in the wrong direction. And so I pulled out my phone, took a look at the map and realized that yes, indeed, I had been walking for a time westward rather than eastward. But my map also indicated that this was a happy accident since I was now a stone’s throw away from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Upon finding out that the Museum was to be open until 10:00 pm, I bought my ticket and entered the shrine.

I always find art galleries to be sacred after a fashion. They don’t quite take the place of churches, temples, synagogues, and such in my mind and soul but still, they facilitate a kind of quiet where looking at the art seems to facilitate a shuttle into a different place, interior perhaps. I was quite taken by a display they had of Mark Rothko. For those who don’t know him, his work is abstract in genre, with rich colours that bleed across fuzzy edges, blurring where lines begin and end at the edges of what is often a rectangular shape on a rich coloured back-drop. I learned at the exhibit that he painted with the expectation that the viewer is to look at the painting from 18 inches away, which really rather radically reframes the experience of his art. His goal, thereby, was for the viewer to be drawn into the piece, which I found to happen with great effect.

When I left the Rothko exhibit, I came upon “Seeking Stillness.” This show invites viewers into introspection. Here I found a marvellous traditional Chinese mountain scene, shown below.

20171117_172940 (2)

I took this photograph of me taking a photograph of it, in the hopes to capture the manner in which stillness allows viewers to see themselves in art, society, the city, nature, and more. As I wandered around the museum, I took a few such photographs in the interests of seeing myself in the art, attaining, I think, what Rothko was hoping for. We often see things, but don’t see ourselves in the things we see. We aim for a kind of detachment that might well encourage a posture of judgement of art, play, family, etc. that is naïve about its objectivity. There is nothing wrong with “judging” art and such, I think, as long as we recall that our judgment might well say as much about us as the art. Art, good art anyway, always draws us into the art at the same time as it artfully enters us. Such art enables us to set aside the too easy conceit that it is ours to play God – now with art and next, too easily, with people.

A Blue on White Delight

This last weekend was dedicated to orientation at the school where I work. For some years now, we have held it at the Crieff Conference Centre, a lovely locale run by the Presbyterians in our part of the world. The event is always inspiring in many ways, and although year to year admits a kind of litany of repeat questions, and worries, and excitements there is always something unique in the tone of each student speaking and in the collective voice that takes my breath away. I am grateful for this.

On the years when the weather is in our favour, my wife meets me on the last day, after chapel at Sunset Villa. This latter is just down the road from Crieff. It consists of a Danish restaurant and a holiday trailer park, where Danes from years past – and now their families – spent and spend their summers and weekends. We often park one of the cars there and scurry down to Lake Ontario to sail. This was the very thing we did this last Sunday, but there was a garage sale at the Villa, so we dropped in to see that.

This garage sale had many of the things one would expect to see at a garage sale: trinkets, clothing, curios, out of date electronics, record albums etc. As one would anticipate at a Danish garage sale, there were also the famous blue plates, some Royal Copenhagen and some Bing and Grøndahl. If you frequent Danish households in Canada you are sure to find some of these on the walls. They serve as aides de memoire of origins and special events. People will often buy a plate for special years: anniversaries, births, retirements and such. There was a rather handsome stack of such plates, but they didn’t catch my wife’s eyes, so much as a table set in the very middle of the garage sale “garage.”

Here a table was set as one might expect, with crystal for wine, schnapps and water, as well as a candelabra and dinner plates. But here too was the surprise. The dinner plates were white, with Danish blue plates laid on them. This was unfamiliar to us: using decorative plates for the first course. We didn’t know if people actually did this, or if it was for effect. The latter most certainly the case, and led me to thinking about our relationship to things.

Things are designed for a purpose, but rather like the words we write, or the poems we bleed, or the songs we breathe, once they leave us they take on a life of their own. It struck me anew that this is just as true for things as for words. There a piece of art becomes a use thing, and a use thing becomes a piece of art. And here a tool to make a sculpture is taken up into the sculpture itself. Designers’ intentions are thwarted by human imagination, and the sovereignty of the artist is usurped by some soul who imagines an instance of art commandeered to host a smørrebrød of herring on rye; and in so doing making a table setting to be a kind of art.

Theologians talk at length of the image of God, defining in sundry ways what this might be. I think I incline to a more fulsome than minimalist definition, and upon seeing those blue on white plates can well imagine that this imago Dei is also a way to say that people are finally just plain old interesting: both students with their heady questions and elderly Danish ladies upending my sense of what is what with the simplest and unexpected use of something beautiful.

Leaning In

Over the last couple of months I have attended two art installations attending to the topic of tornados. The first took place in The Museum in downtown Waterloo, and the second was nested in a exhibition by the Belgian artist Francis Alÿs at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

I first saw the former. This exhibit involved a 360 degree film that was shot by a multi-camera device on the ground. The film proper was displayed in a fashion whereby you stood in the middle of a screen that wrapped you round while you assumed the position of the cameras. From this spot you could see, in every direction, the storm approach and pass over. What I most remember about this piece was the manner in which I could see the grass at eye level, and the increasing fury with which the blades and other greenery flailed under the wind, until a kind a brown and gray Pollock-like canvas in motion raged for a time in every direction. Once the storm passed, all that was to be seen was fields, trees, and a landscape stripped bare.

The second installation was Francis Alÿs’s “A Story of Negotiation” at the Art Gallery of Ontario. It included a number of pieces, one of which was “Tornado (2000-110).” This was shot south of Mexico City and records his encounter with these forces of nature, of varying size. In a way this work was like the former in the “what” of the subject matter but utterly unlike it in the “how.” The artist carried a camera on his body and walked into the storm. Here, the perspective was not one of the storm approaching, but one of approaching the storm. What made this especially potent was a handful of shots where the viewer had opportunity to see the artist walking toward the tornado from afar: leaning in, and pressing against his own fear, and the fury of nature. This presentation was further intensified in that it sat alongside of other works of Alÿs addressing themes of immigration and war. The artist’s refusal to give in to the utterly natural and soundly reasonable propensity to turn and run spoke to me, expressively, of the kind of tenacity that under-girds the human condition in certain iterations. How is it that some find a kind of spirit that pushes them against the chaos, while other run from it, or negotiate it with political expediency, or perhaps fail to notice the approaching darkness? And when is which the right thing to do?

Great art, it seems, raises more questions than it answers about the human condition. In this way it echoes the work of theology, which – at its best – enables us to see how our seeing is ever conditioned and always incomplete: fractured and yet oftentimes beautiful in certain ways. Of course, the subject matter is differently explored, but in both theology and art the very act of exploration can be experienced as a grace. And the project’s “completion” is perfected in its birthing a curiosity that commences yet another immersion in the Mystery enfolding the mystery of creation and creativity both.

Cracks that let…

Friends, late this afternoon there was an Art and Vespers Service at Keffer Chapel. The theme of the event was “The Crack That Lets the Light Get In.” I was asked to provide a short reflection on the theme, which follows. Blessings to you in the cracks in your days. Allen

Leonard Cohen invites us to think mystically about the crack, the lack, the imperfection that marks and mars our journey from cradle to grave:

“Ring the bell that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack, a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.”

These are beautiful words, words that sound the world round; words of hope that play especially well in these days; these days of cracks becoming chasms, and bridges being drawn, and barb-wired walls being scratched across continents and around the world. These words of the prophetic poet Cohen sing the promise of light, the light of God promised by the poetic prophet Paul who hymned

“For it is the God who said, ‘let light shine in the darkness’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

This light, says Paul, is the light of the knowledge of God; he tells us that Christians see this light in the face of Jesus, our brother; others speak of seeing this light in other faces, other places but all of us who long for light find it coming in through the cracks that the world hammers in our souls. Cohen invites us to see these cracks – as painful as they may be, as embarrassing as they are, as disturbing as they will be – he calls us to call these cracks differently, to call them portals of grace.

I love Cohen’s poem. I love the way it lets the light in, and I ache for light in these days that are altogether too dark. Into your apocalypse and mine the light comes:

Deep in our hearts, there is a common glowing
Deep in our hearts, God’s hope is burning bright
Deep in our hearts, shalom is surging, growing
Dispersing hatred with God’s sacred light.

Paul speaks of this treasured light lyrically saying “we have this treasure in clay jars,” this light abides in precarious, in precious, in fragile souls… The light that shines in our hearts is held in clay heart jars, jars that are

Afflicted, but not crushed
Perplexed but not despairing
Persecuted but not abandoned
Struck down but never knocked out.

Paul claims that we carry in this weak, in this broken, in this fundamentally flawed physical form the light of resurrecting love. The light that has come in through the cracks will also glow out through these same cracks as we walk into the darkness, into the confusion, into the abyss about us. Light shines out from our battered and broken bodies; hope shines out from our hearts, cleft and bereft; faith shines out from our sorrowing souls that swell and soar with love despite empirical orders to the contrary.

Friends, I close with a poem…

A light from the crack slips
Across my eye, so that now I
See sideways – Now I view the
World askew; now I hear the world anew.
Trees converse with me, and I with them as
They teach me to listen, train me to see:
Ears to bark, eyes on crown, my
Being breathing in their
Breathing out – and the world
Bursts open. It receives me as
I fall into holy palms, as I slide
Into God’s weeping wounds, the
Cracks that let the light shine in; the
Cracks that let God’s love shine out.

From Inside a Prayer Bead

This weekend my middlest daughter came home to visit. She took the bus from Ottawa to Toronto and my wife and I went in to pick her up. Gwenanne was going to a work Christmas party in Toronto and so after picking up N, we dropped Gwenanne off and the two of us headed over to the Art Gallery of Ontario. There was an exhibit there that I had been hoping to catch, so this was the perfect opportunity.

Mystical Landscapes” is curated by Katharine Lochnan who, of late, is also a student of theology. The art she has drawn together in the exhibit is powerful and includes heavy hitters: Van Gogh, Monet, Gauguin, Georgia O’Keefe, and Munch as well as a number of Group of Seven, Nordic and Western European landscape artists. I was especially entranced by some lithographs of Charles Marie Dulac. His pieces were ethereal and yet intimated an earthen connection that gives the viewer the feeling of being both grounded and floating. This is an artist experiencing something of a revival that is well deserved. The curators wisely set aside what I might call a “side chapel” for his work, which was most helpful in that his art is so subtle that it needs to be enjoyed in its own right/rite in a different light. We moved on a bit altered.

After making our way through the rest of this veritable feast for our eyes, we took in some sights at one of the floors dedicated to contemporary art and then headed off for a bite to eat. On returning we were wandering about, not quite aimlessly but nearly so, coming upon the sign for “Small Wonders: Gothic Boxwood Miniatures.” We look at each other, shrugged and entered. I had remembered reading a bit about it in a magazine, and was immediately intrigued as we came upon the first display. Many of the displays were of prayer beads, commissioned rosaries wherein the bead was actually a small “ball” about 4 to 5 centimetres in diameter. The balls open up and illustrates scenes from Christ’s life. These prayer beads, crafted some 500 years ago have details not visible to the naked eye. The AGO has done a remarkable amount of research around these, and in a video we learned of Micro CT scanning that allowed researchers to take the beads apart virtually without dissembling them. It was really quite captivating, and when we reached the end of the display there was a young woman asking if we might be interested in a virtual tour of a prayer bead. Of course we said yes, and then each of us, in turn, was fitted with a head set and a set of googles that allowed us to “see” an opened prayer bead in front of us, seemingly about 4 to 5 metres wide and the same high. A control stick allowed us to expand certain sections, and we were able to “step” right into the ball. From inside we could bend down and look up at features carved into characters mere millimetres in size. I can’t quite describe the experience. It was utterly fascinating. I left the AGO on cloud nine.

On the drive home I thought about my experiences at the art gallery. They covered such a wide range: I was awed by a kind of minimalist art with a spirituality that left me without words, and I was also bowled over by a veritable army of technological innovation that made the impossible possible. These two experiences shared something, and I am still thinking about that. Good art, and the technology that supports it, moves us in ways various and sundry to the end that we live with just a little more awe – sometimes pondering the possibility that we really are making our way, day by day, through the bead that is prayer.