Artistic Expression in the Christian Community
by Tom Emmerson, 1996 Distinguished Faculty Lecturer
The need to create is almost as basic as the need to live. This desire is one of the worthy activities we naturally seem to want to participate in with our life's work. With a healthy attitude towards creativity, our paths in life will be enhanced and much more balanced. How many people have you talked to who-sometimes wistfully and sometimes bitterly-expressed the wish that they had been encouraged to pursue a God-given talent? I know that I hear it all the time. There are many avenues to developing your talents. Many of us in this culture choose education to get our start. Just like being open to holistic medicine is healthy, holistic education is beneficial. For example, people shouldn't go to college merely to get training in the most practical sense of the word. To be reflective, to see relationships, to organize ideas into an ordered whole is the goal of education as put forward by Arthur F. Holmes in his book The Idea of a Christian College. He says, "Interdisciplinary approaches to learning are important. Theoretical questions are unavoidable because humans alone in creation are theorizing beings who extrapolate beyond the known and speculate about the unknown, formulate hypotheses for science to explore, and imagine new worlds for art to create." Our Puritan and Protestant backgrounds have given us an emphasis on education, a strong work ethic, and a healthy appreciation of non-conformity, but sadly they have given us a heritage lacking interest in art and beauty and the motivation to be creative.
Most of us should probably just admit it. We do not live in a culture that places significance on appreciation of artistic endeavors, but we do not have to accept such a state of affairs. Now is a good place and time to start thinking of ways we can have connections to things we might mutually appreciate. We could grow from there. Thankfully, there are many common areas of visual interest that we can join together in admiring. We can all try to capitalize on these areas if we strive mightily to get past indoctrinations from childhood to achieve calm, healthy, and positive attitudes. I have been gratified to see examples of individuals who exhibit creative talents who have done just that, which gives me courage to keep trying. I do try my best to encourage those wonderful people to keep making beautiful things. I often am gratified and reassured about my own dreams when a friend will excitedly tell me about a visit to another region of the world, like Tuscany, where he or she has experienced the culture and aesthetic beauty there, or has discovered cultural beauty in our own part of the world. The possibilities of choice are vast when you stop to think about it. Depending on that person's background and interests, they will describe things of beauty that range widely from ornate Baroque masterpieces to something as simple as the design found in Shaker furniture.
The urge to express is so strong with some people that if you quell that need you almost certainly do damage. The built-in desire to create and the pure joy in actually working with materials is a wonderful and rewarding experience. If I were a composer and if I had an idea for a new part of a composition I would cherish the feel of the soft pencil graphite on the receptive surface of high-quality music paper. Maybe that is a fantasy of my own since drawing, calligraphy and handmade artists' paper are things I love to see and touch. I can also tell you that after weeks of making pottery vessels, mixing and sieving glazes, using wax resist, decorating pots with a bamboo brush, applying glazes, loading the kiln, bricking up the door, and gently increasing the heat until you approach the high temperature and hear the quiet roar of the four gas burners late into the night, the kiln room can become a religious place. The joy and expectation of firing a kiln and then waiting a day for it to cool so that you can open it and have a kind of Christmas is one of the great experiences in life. The creations that you and your students have made are revealed there in final form. The few pieces that turn out well are so rewarding.
Whether your artistic expression comes from a temperament that could be described as patient, exacting, realistic, perfectionistic or spontaneous, free-flowing, expressionistic or gestural the pleasure you experience in the actual making of the object is something that has to be experienced first-hand to be believed. There is a wonderful sense of satisfaction after the days, weeks and sometimes months of thinking about how to creatively produce something. The English poet laureate, Robert Bridges, captures something of that satisfaction with his words, "I too, will something make, and Joy in the making." When a playwright or a poet or a novelist finally works out most of the kinks, the feeling has to be not only a huge relief but a reaffirmation of the belief in ones own ability to create. Think for a moment of the potential power of literature and its ability to move our sleeping consciences into moral and ethical action. We all go through highs and lows of belief and self-doubt. Many of us refuse to admit it but we probably experience it nonetheless. If you don't have some insecurities at times, I probably will not be comfortable in your presence. That kind of ego might lead to a lonely existence.
We do not need to tag all artistic people with the popular conception of the "artistic temperament." However, I can readily understand why that notion is around. There certainly is something to it. Sometimes artistic people are very much like prophets in the sense that they often can see and predict how a situation is going to turn out before the rest of us. This ability often shows up in some form in their art. My explanation of this is related to the notion of personal sensitivity and the unseen presence of multiple antennae picking up "vibes." I have known a few artists who exhibit this heightened sensitivity and have studied about many artists in history who fit into this category very well. A couple of examples might be Caravaggio and Goya. Taking that phenomenon one step further, many artistic types are sometimes just "wired" too hot. What comes out of these gifted and troubled people is often profound, powerful and at times, overwhelming. They feel everything strongly and the work they produce is powerfully intense in form, color, and content as any of you will attest if you have seen a show of Vincent van Gogh paintings. A self-portrait, an orchard in spring, or a vase of flowers can be powerful. However, the same creative artists that I recall also have peaceful times in their production when their music, their writing, their performing and their visual art latches onto quiet aspects of our earthly existence. A van Gogh example of that would be a painting called "Cottages with Thatched Roofs." Vincent wrote his brother Theo on the day he arrived at Auvers in 1890 that the place was "very beautiful; among other things [there are] a lot of old thatched roofs, which are getting rare;" he added that he hoped to do "some canvases of this ... for really it is profoundly beautiful." That kind of visual and psychological relief is a necessary and welcome part of creative production for all of us who are lucky enough to experience it.
These two examples of sides of the artistic temperament should also remind us that the honest, looking into of the whole work of an individual artist is so important. We need the whole picture before we reject their work based on an incomplete viewing or hearing. Productive artists are humans and because of that have highs as well as lows in emotion and in quality of work. Please do not think that just because they fall short on one work, other works will be the same. We all need to keep an open mind. Artists need to keep creating. And we all need to keep encouraging others to create.
A distinguished African-American, James Weldon Johnson published a collection of poems in 1927 called, "God's Trombones." Sandra Clayton-Emmerson,my mentor for this project, introduced me to one of these poems, "The Creation." She describes it as a poem about God's loneliness and His desire for companionship which prompts His acts of Creation. The idea of God being lonely for human companionship in itself might be thought of as an imaginative step. However, in this setting, poetry uses language to stimulate the power of our imaginations to create, with words, a picture of God kneeling in the dirt like a child to make man in His image. This poem will be presented to you now by our new drama colleague from the communications department, Kimberly Howard. I am grateful to her for her cooperative and expressive spirit.
And God stepped out on space,
And he looked around and said:
I'll make me a world.
And far as the eye of God could see
Darkness covered everything,
Blacker than a hundred midnights
Down in a cypress swamp.
Then God smiled,
And the light broke,
And the darkness rolled up on one side,
And the light stood shining on the other,
And God said: That's good!
Then God reached out and took the light in his hands,
And God rolled the light around in his hands
Until he made the sun;
And he set that sun a-blazing in the heavens.
And the light that was left from making the sun
God gathered it up in a shining ball
And flung it against the darkness,
Spangling the night with the moon and stars.
Then down between
The darkness and the light
He hurled the world;
And God said: That's good!
Then God himself stepped down-
And the sun was on his right hand,
And the moon was on his left;
The stars were clustered about his head,
And the earth was under his feet.
And God walked, and where he trod
His footsteps hollowed the valleys out
And bulged the mountains up.
Then he stopped and looked and saw
That the earth was hot and barren.
So God stepped over to the edge of the world
And he spat out the seven seas-
He batted his eyes, and the lightnings flashed-
He clapped his hands, and the thunders rolled-
And the waters above the earth came down,
The cooling waters came down.
Then the green grass sprouted,
And the little red flowers blossomed,
The pine tree pointed his finger to the sky,
And the oak spread out his arms,
The lakes cuddled down in the hollows of the ground,
And the rivers ran down to the sea;
And God smiled again,
And the rainbow appeared,
And curled itself around his shoulder.
Then God raised his arm and he waved his hand
Over the sea and over the land,
And he said: Bring forth! Bring forth!
And quicker than God could drop his hand,
Fishes and fowls
And beasts and birds
Swam the rivers and the seas,
Roamed the forests and the woods,
And split the air with their wings.
And God said: That's good!
Then God walked around,
And God looked around
On all that he had made.
He looked at his sun,
And he looked at his moon,
And he looked at his little stars;
He looked on his world
With all its living things,
And God said: I'm lonely still.
Then God sat down-
On the side of a hill where he could think,
By a deep, wide river he sat down;
With his head in his hands,
God thought and thought,
Till he thought: I'll make me a man!
Up from the bed of the river
God scooped the clay;
And by the bank of the river
He kneeled him down;
And there the great God Almighty
Who lit the sun and fixed it in the sky,
Who flung the stars to the most far corner of the night,
Who rounded the earth in the middle of his hand;
This Great God,
Like a mammy bending over her baby,
Kneeled down in the dust
Toiling over a lump of clay
Till he shaped it in his own image;
Then into it he blew the breath of life,
And man became a living soul.
James Weldon Johnson
The God of the vast Universe who planned and made this fascinating Creation of which we are a part gave us responsibilities. Our creator God obviously liked and appreciated infinite variety as you can readily observe. By making us in His "image" or possibly even in his "shadow" we are not only part of something solid but part of a statement about beauty and a different conception of ourselves. The scholar daughter of a rabbi and one of the presenters in the new Bill Moyer's "Genesis" series on PBS, Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg, makes the interesting observation that the "image" here, tselem in Hebrew can be thought of partially as "shadow." The created human being here could be thought of as the shadow that God casts in the world. "So if the human being is God's shadow, that says something about the reality of God as human beings experience God."
As you read the many interpretations by the widely varied panelists on that "Genesis" project relating to the ideas of Creation, it becomes clear that we humans quite naturally attempt to describe the unknowable to fit with our particular mindset and background. God can be thought of as bringing us into existence through the words of poetry, created by the forming of clay as a potter, or as a giver and lover providing the Garden for the new man and woman. There they are. The new created beings presented as complete, thinking, creative packages. They are ready, with the potential to grow and develop into mature, fully productive human beings capable of creative power.
These ideas about creation and artistic expression are difficult to pin down, particularly because we all struggle to break out of natural tendencies towards racism, bigotry and a particular religious "correctness." Our need to create is so strong at times that it is difficult to slow down. The best result of this energy is when that creativity emanates from positive thoughts. This does not mean that creativity has to sound pleasant or look pleasing. Not by any means. There are many times in an artistic life when grabbing onto a nasty problem and looking full in its face to make a necessary outrageous statement is the best response. Sometimes creative expression finds itself face to face with the need to speak out against something which ultimately benefits the understanding of all.
I have heard people talk about how big God is. I agree with them. God is soooo big. God is the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. God is the ultimate designer. Just think about and look at birds, beetles, butterflies and wood ducks. God is a Creator of infinite variety. The poet, Luci Shaw, has said that, "The whole universe is the manuscript in which the Creator has written His character and signed His name."
If we can agree that we need to be careful to not inadvertently limit God, our experience will be far richer. One thing that humans do is to search for explanations for things that are largely unexplainable and unknowable, but nonetheless we search and we search. Ideally, creative expression lessens the natural tendency we share towards exclusiveness. People with creative desires from all parts of our little threatened globe are doing artistic productions often with the intention to pay tribute to the Creator. Much of this activity seems fairly humble at times. However, there are times that our creative souls excel and words like glorious, sublime and wondrous help to describe the experience. Some of those times might include a reading by a beloved poet at a wedding which happens to have great emotional significance to you. It might take the form of a much-anticipated recital of art songs at some great hall like the Brahmsaal in the Concerthaus in Vienna combining Mahler with your favorite baritone. I hope you have had some of those kind of experiences. Poets, architects, performers, composers, writers, dramatists, actors and visual artists can occasionally achieve greatness that reflects, to a greater or lesser extent, God's creativity. Annie Dillard in her book, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, says that "Beauty and Grace are performed whether or not we sense them. The least we can do is try to be there."
To pay tribute to God's Creation, an appropriate choice of music to play comes from the chorus in the orchestral prelude to Haydn's "The Creation." In this we hear the words and dramatic, spine-tingling crescendo from the chorus in the middle part:
And the Spirit of God moved
upon the face of the waters.
And God said, Let there be light:
and there was light.
As far back as we can see, as long ago as we can comprehend, the innate, sometimes involuntary, sometimes purposeful making of images has been some part of mortal, human activity. This creative impulse is God-given and is a gift of infinite variety and individuality. Music, writing, conducting, directing, performing, artistic activity of all sorts present the audience with challenges that can be difficult. Typically, the witness or the audience needs empathy and the willingness to reach out and try to feel, to understand what is there and what is meant. The artist puts his or her expression of creativity out there then leaves us to our personal reactions and interpretations. Often, we read into it mostly what is meant and the artist is satisfied that our interpretation of it is what is important for us. The creative person has an idea, feeling or motivation that needs to be wrestled with. Also, the hearer or viewer may be expecting certain sounds, words, forms or images to be naturally comforting and realize that the artist has created with less obvious or approachable beauty. This is the time to learn and share as much of the artists intent and experience as possible. Often our attempt to do this helps us understand and grow, and we may end up appreciating the beauty and meaning of something that we didn't care for at first.
The important thing here is to arrive at our opinion after responsibly giving some work a fair chance to reveal itself by allowing ourselves time. If, in the end, we are still uncomfortable, then we certainly are entitled to our opinion and reaction. Let me use the analogy of a newly designed car to illustrate my point. If you buy a car on the cutting edge of technology, it will likely take you some time to get comfortable with its radical new design. If you are anything like me, you may smile at yourself ten years down the road at the memories of your discomfort, and, as you compare the ten-year-old car with the latest model, it now looks rather conservatively designed and not so radical after all. Sometimes, art will grow on you. Less commonly, art can be what is known as "classical." The idea of "classical" form generally means that the work has a timeless, lasting quality. This perception we come to share, strangely enough, seems to be the result of something really well created; made even more precious and timeless with the passage of time. I believe that the good parts of our artistic expression in this century will likely attain that stature in time.
In epochs and centuries past, the impetus for artistic activity might have been elemental, or later sponsored by a king, a pharaoh, a church, or wealthy patrons. But in the modern world, artists often prefer to exhibit some extra courage and independence by taking original paths which often creates distance between themselves and the community they deal with. This seems to be a fairly natural result of the nature of artists, what they have lived through and how others have influenced them. D. Talbot Rice writes that "The true artist does not merely copy nature, he or she gives expression to its forms and creates something new in the process." The hope always exists that over time and with repeated encounters, the listener or viewer will adjust their attitudes towards understanding. Nevertheless, original work done without outside pressure is the goal for a healthy environment in which artistic activity can best thrive and flourish.
The more truly wondrous phenomenon is when we delight in witnessing the creations we credit God with bringing into being. Many of the liberal arts and sciences represented on this campus have the privilege of connecting and integrating the marvels of God's creative, healing and restorative powers.
There are times in our lives when we are not going to have the time or the patience to see and hear some of this content but then there are some things worth waiting for. I look forward to many pilgrimages on foot someday to special places here and abroad for the purpose of experiencing aspects of the sublime. Whether you come at or produce art as a naif or as someone with more academic training, it is the sensitivity and the soul of the work that matters and rings true. Ralph Waldo Emerson tells us that, "what lies before us and what lies behind us are small matters compared to what lies within us. And when we bring what is within us out into the world, miracles happen." The soul of the work is what can give it its timeless quality. Dunoyer de Segonzac says, "For the creation of works of art there is a condition of the spirit that must be achieved and preserved at all costs. This condition can be compared to what religious people term a state of grace. It is a state of exaltation, of communion with life, nature and his fellow beings which enables the artist unconsciously to exalt, re-create and transcribe the world about him."
Artists are like inventors, or at least inquisitive reassemblers of what they perceive. They are naturally open to new ways of seeing and thinking. In case you haven't picked it up yet, musicians really hear well, visual artists really take things in with their eyes and writers and actors take the outside in which then comes back with great gesture and emotion. They feel the need to truly compose, write, perform and create quite freely with inventiveness that often goes way beyond our initial comprehension and appreciation. Try to imagine the joy that often exists when an artist is contentedly at work cutting, tearing, pasting, re-arranging, printing, writing, painting, overlaying, scissors flailing, brush scrubbing, pastels swerving quietly and the list goes on. I imagine it is one of those things that has to be experienced to be truly believed.
Sometime, if you want to lift yourself out of the stresses and strains of this extraordinarily stressful and complex world, plan ahead and treat yourself to a poetry reading, a play, a ballet, a recital, symphony, opera, a great movie, or a trip to a museum or gallery to see a retrospective of an artist like Degas, O'Keeffe, Kollwitz, Rivera, Beardon,Vermeer, Cezanne, Monet, Matisse, Henry Moore or Donatello. I could go on here for much longer. In other words, "Be soothed by gentle music!" or beautiful art, or intuitive writing, or great acting.
If we think about times past and times present and we consider the creative contributions of humans around the globe, we have to admit to some striking parallels of form, symbol and design. This fact leads us to realize that art has a powerful universal quality about it. Designs of all kinds in various media of paintings, sculptures and architecture can also be quite different and yet so wonderful as to deeply impress the viewer. The point here is to underscore human artistic activity as being comfortable playing the role of the universal mixer. Rollo May says, "Beauty overcomes distinctions between all people on this planet. In Beauty we have a language common to all of us despite racial and cultural differences-and even despite national and historical enmities."
May goes on to say, "The strange thing about beauty is that it wipes away all boundaries and inspires us to realize our common humanity." The arts combine to be "our common heritage of beauty, and never has there been any doubt that they belonged to all civilized people. No matter how primitive, the things of beauty from Africa to Alaska, from China to Australia, from New York to India are the language of all beings who call themselves human." "Our universal language, in other words, is beauty."
In the same sense that there are universal similarities in our bones we also have unique, independent talents relating to the expression, "he or she was just born with it." That simple expression can help us attempt to explain qualities that are essentially mysterious since really all we can do is marvel or at least feel some pride or appreciation of someone else's talents. Much of art that has meaning falls in the realm of a kind of meaning which acts as metaphor. Through metaphor and symbolism the artist can help us see and understand aspects of our feelings and existence which philosophy, science and psychology are not equipped to reach. Artistic expression is full of this wonderful quality which gives so much to the work. Even though there is a place for art that shows us the literal, straightforward efforts many of us produce, we often have a strong urge to move on to more personally expressive, inventive work. There certainly should be room for a variety of approaches. Obviously, God did not create everything the same (just think about a giraffe or a zebra for example) and to our minds He probably enjoys pushing the limits. Thanks to His gifts to us, we can share that love of variety and spontaneity with God.
If I am to address the notions of what it is like to try to be an artist in a Christian community, I am bound to admit to many of those feelings of concern about what others think or might approve. Now I am not sure what that means for others here representing so many other disciplines and work environments, but I can tell you that a lifetime of that kind of pressure can certainly have adverse effects on one's psyche and one's overall health. We need to pay attention to that.
When you get right down to it, Christian artists need to use their imaginations. The writer, Madeleine L'Engle, advises us to use our creative expression for everyone, not just a narrow group. She says, "If I understand the Gospel, it tells us that we are to spread the Good News to all four corners of the world, not limiting the giving of light to people who have already seen the light." She goes on, "If my stories are incomprehensible to Jews or Muslims or Taoists, then I have failed as a Christian writer." Secular art is not less worthy just because it is not obviously or even superficially Christian. If something comes through, let it come through naturally without being forced. If it is meant to have a helpful impact on the maker or the observer it will. This writer goes on to say, "When we are writing or painting, or composing, we are, during the time of creativity, freed from normal restrictions. We are opened to a wider world, where colours are brighter, sounds are cleaner, and people are more wondrously complex than we normally realize." Enjoy your dreams, believe in angels. Let your imaginations flourish. In following that path, your artistic endeavors will enrich your Christianity. Emphasize love and understanding in your work even when dealing with thorny, difficult issues and the impact will be great. We do not create alone. We are fortunate collaborators.
The mutual contributions of parents, teachers, leaders and other members of congregations in a Christian community work best when all elements respect and support each other to further a message of love and acceptance. I suspect that any religious community, representing the world's great religions, knows full well that they are at their best when they help to nurture, protect, support and teach respectful, moral and ethical behavior. Any of these significant religions including Christian communities should go one step further and work very hard at notions of acceptance for honest pluralistic differences. Nurturing individuality (and this is where it often touches artistic types), fairness and equality among members and non-members of the group is often the challenge. To avoid doing damage by squelching creativity among the young, impressionable people in our care, we could look to the example of Christ who appears as a bright, accepting light in the good news of the Gospels. Keeping creativity in a healthy, active, free-flowing form is so easy to crush, we often ignorantly don't even know we are doing it. Trying to recover a spontaneous sense of creativity that has been damaged is so difficult.
Not just for artistic production but for most other walks in life, the need to express joy, beauty, anger, despair and true Christian love and charity is essential to physical, mental and spiritual health. When I was younger I had heard so much about the restrictive notions surrounding physical, mental and spiritual well being that I reacted quite negatively to it. As so often happens with our progressive stages of maturity I have come to understand those concepts in a better light and understand better the balance those concepts represent. Fortunately, these concepts have a more comfortable place in my mind these days. There seems to be a time and a place for things to seem important and relevant. If you allow someone time and space to come at something independently, often from a distant and contemplative spot, the meaning and genuineness of that mature attitude will be worth waiting for. Artistic expression for all of us as individuals working in God's shadow is not just a luxury, but a necessity.
About the Author
Tom Emmerson, a 1972 WWC graduate, has taught at WWC since 1974. He has a bachelor of fine arts degree and also a master of fine arts degree from the Otis Art Institute of Los Angeles County. He has also completed postgraduate work in drawing and sculpture at Portland State University. In 1990, Emmerson received the Zapara Award for Excellence in Teaching. In addition to his special interest in pottery, sculpture, painting, calligraphy, prints, and artist books, Emmerson enjoys baking bread and cooking foods from different cultures.