Tuesday, June 2, 2009
Making Sense of Making Art: Confessions about the Big Picture
Making Sense of Making Art: Confessions About The Big Picture
By Tom Wachunas
I often wonder very seriously how many artists realize that what they do, whether they know it or not, is nothing more and nothing less than remembering and celebrating God’s first recorded act. Actually, his second recorded act, if one can call his simply ‘being’ before there was any ‘thing’ an action. Which I do. Look it up. The first sentence of Genesis tells us so. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” First, he was there – “In the beginning God…” Then, he made stuff – “…created…” If it’s not apparent to you yet, my observation is predicated upon my firm belief that the Bible is God’s words to us – what we Christians embrace as “His Holy Word,” among other terms - and therefore true.
Now, with all due respect to the Dominican Sisters who influenced so much of my early time and thinking in this vale of tears, it was art, not catechism, that first brought me to my knees in awe-filled silence at the idea of God. There were many childhood hours of simply staring at pictures of the Sistine Chapel and countless other religious images (and those sculptures, oh those sculptures!) from the Renaissance, all the while listening to Bach, Beethoven, Handel, or Mozart, and fantasizing, “Could I ever make art about God like this?” As it turned out, no and yes. Undaunted by limited technical skill, for nearly 30 years I forged my own path through a substantial inventory of styles and ‘isms’ that addressed nothing even remotely connected to God, much less my relationship with him, since I didn’t even acknowledge I had one.
That all changed some years ago when, all puffed up with pride and praises for the marvelous artistic “creations” of humanity (my own included), I was once again brought to my knees, but not by merely abstracted, intellectual, or historic notions of God. This time it was personal. I surrendered to the astounding central meaning and reality of Jesus Christ. Consequently the look and content of my art has come to reflect that reality, albeit via symbolism that may at first glance appear cryptic in nature. More important, I have come to an expanded sensibility about the very process, purpose, and place of the arts in the world, and that in turn has informed how I evaluate the art I encounter.
To put it another way, I have found that for me, the art (or music, film, theatre, literature or dance) that is most edifying and efficacious is that which can, directly or indirectly, lead my mind and heart to recalling, honoring, and praising God and his act of creation. Here I feel it important to add that I am not proposing to storm the world with sappy pictures of smiling shepherd Jesus, martyred saints, or choirs of chubby cherubs, no matter how well rendered. God loves wild variety. Look it up. Genesis also tells us that all of his creation was “good,” including humanity, which houses his very breath and “image.” As the crowning glory of his creation, even in its corrupted and fatal choices to remain apart from him, humanity’s capacity and unceasing drive to make art is nonetheless itself a gift intrinsic to its spirit, an eternally remnant spark, a still- smoldering cinder from the explosive moment when God said, “Let there be light.” Herein we find the ineffable power of the arts to stir in us the primal recollection of the very source of our existence. In this light, I believe that we artists are accountable for the gift. It behooves us to remember the giver, and use the gift to lift him up as we illuminate, inspire, and encourage each other, and our patrons, to do the same, and certainly not for our own glorification. I like to think of artists as life-long apprentices to the First Artist. And in his big picture, we are all, in the end, imitations and imitators, not originators.
What ultimately prompted these musings were some works of art currently on view in an exhibition called, interestingly enough, “The View From Here,” at Second April Galerie in downtown Canton. A particularly direct illustration of the aforementioned is a tiny oil painting by Michelle Mulligan called “His Purpose.” A figure rises up from a liquid vortex of worldly stuff, including a pair of handcuffs (or maybe leg shackles?) – signs of enslavement. His outstretched arms reach into sun- drenched, white light, wherein Mulligan hasn’t painted so much as whispered with paint the Hebrew letters for YAWEH, one of God’s biblical names. Deft and elegant, the painting is a masterful homage to divinely bestowed hope and joy.
This current exhibit also features “Passages,” the work of photographer E. Bruce Lee, and his exquisite black-and-white (with subtly stunning hand-coloring) images offer what can fairly be called an indirect illustration of my thoughts. Without any overtly biblical references (other than in his posted artist statement), he nonetheless transports us to a soulful and enthralling consideration of things serene and promising. Whether through an alley between factory buildings, a woodland path overgrown with lush foliage, an office building corridor, or the interior of a barn, the artist gently leads us along passages to distant, but not unreachable light. To the threshold of possibility. These photographs breathe a palpable peace, and in so doing, they are a soaring, memorable celebration of our capacity, indeed our gift, to see.
I humbly offer these observations as a reminder and a request that as artists, we remain vigilant as to our messages and motives. And I’ll leave you with something you don’t have to look up. It’s from the apostle Paul to the Philipians: “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable – if anything is excellent or praiseworthy – think about such things.” (Phil 4:8)
Photo: “His Purpose,” oil, by Michelle Mulligan. Second April Galerie, Canton.
www.secondapril.org (330) 451 - 0924