faith&foolishness

art.faith.culture.community

Making Meaning

Posted by Sarah Jane on July 19, 2011

Is anyone still reading here?

Well, if you are, I wanted to apologize for evaporating like smoke a year and a half ago. I have plenty of good excuses — at the time I was living 20 miles from internet access, so blogging may not have been the best idea for me. Shortly after my last post on here, my husband left his good job to go back to school, I took on a second job, and we bought a funky old house that needs a lot of work.

Life seems to have settled down a little bit, and we now have home internet access like normal people, so I’m going to give this blogging thing one more shot. I’ve decided to close this blog for good, and have started building a new one, Making Meaning, that will touch on some of the same issues & ideas that I wrote about here. If you still care to follow me, I’d love to see you over there!

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Passing the Mantle

Posted by Sarah Jane on January 9, 2010

We are a culture that embraces youth. Our grandmothers wear sexy lingerie, our church elders play Twister with the junior-high youth group, and our retirees learn to snowboard or play the electric guitar. There’s no age at which people are required to stop being desirable, playful, adventurous, or cool — and that’s good.

In our boundless fascination with youth, though, I worry that we have forgotten how much we need our elders to be elders, too. And maybe we have forgotten what a burden that role can be. It must be scary to offer a lifetime’s worth of experience and observations to a younger generation who may not appreciate or embrace what you have to give. My parents’ generation once rallied to a cry of “Never trust anyone over 30!” — will they now be willing to embrace the role of elders, to share their stories and their wisdom? Perhaps it’s especially hard to take up this mantle if you live in a culture that puts youth on a pedestal and goes to incredible lengths to avoid any sign of aging.

But we need elders. We twenty-somethings need someone to tell us all the stories of our families and communities — the stories that explain where our values come from, and how things came to be the way they are, and what we have learned along the way. We need someone to reassure us that our world really can change and sometimes drastically — that Hitler and segregation and the Berlin Wall were real, and that they were brought down by real people, too. We need someone to listen to our fears and concerns, and help us to think about them within the context of a world where wars and unemployment and health care and political struggles and religious questions are nothing new.

So this isn’t just a plea to my parents’ generation to take up the mantle; to carry it wisely and well. It’s also a plea to my own generation to cherish our elders, and listen carefully to their wisdom, and celebrate the riches they have to share with us. One day we will be the ones to pass that wealth along.

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The Act of Naming

Posted by Sarah Jane on January 5, 2010

One of the hardest parts of art-making, at least for me, is bestowing a title on the work. Whether one is naming an infant, a city, or an art object, the act of naming has always been understood to be powerful and mysterious. With a name comes identity, definition, and belonging.

In my art-making, I like to put this off until the last possible minute, holding out in desperate hope of gaining a better understanding of this new thing I have made. Even that is not a flawless system, because many times I don’t fully understand my own artwork until I’ve watched viewers interacting with it. And so the act of naming is fraught with uncertainty and guesswork and hope.

Since I’m a real language nerd, naming also tends to involve a complex dance with the thesaurus. I am consistently attracted to unfamiliar words and phrases, and those with multiple layers of possible meanings — language that challenges viewers to stop and play with the new ideas, rather than jumping to easy conclusions. (I’m not interested in making my viewers feel stupid, though, so I always provide a definition when using unfamiliar words.)

I’d be interested in hearing from some readers, though. What do you think is the relationship between an artwork and its title? Is it possible for a poorly-chosen title to undermine the power of a work of art? How do you go about choosing a name for your own work?

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Apology

Posted by Sarah Jane on January 5, 2010

To my [very small] handful of readers, I apologize for the long silence over break; clearly this is something I need to plan for if I’m going to be a serious blogger.

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You Can Be an Artist; You Already Are

Posted by Sarah Jane on December 18, 2009

“I’m excited about the visual arts and want to continue pursuing my own creativity, even though I’m not majoring in art. How do I go about that?”

That question came to me twice this week. This is one of my favorite parts of teaching – witnessing that moment when the coursework suddenly intersects with a student’s dreams and passions outside the classroom.

Once I quieted the part of myself that kept trying to shout, “Well, change your major!” it occurred to me that my earlier thoughts on nurturing creativity had prepared the way for this question. In the pattern of Joseph Beuys, I believe that everyone is an artist. It’s not confined to a certain college major or to those with gallery representation; the sacred spark of creativity is a defining part of being human.

I think the answer to that question comes in three parts. The first is to start by making something. There’s something very meditative about making things: when our hands are busy in mixing colors or trimming pots or placing mosaic tiles, the mind is allowed to wander freely. In this open-ended time of asking questions, making connections and playing with ideas, we may come to a greater sense of understanding and direction.

My second piece of advice is to listen intently. What is it that we called to bring into being? Sometimes that answer comes through something like gut instinct; other times it’s inspired by reading books, looking at art, or taking a walk. A friend of mine has a ritual of looking through old issues of National Geographic when she’s in need of visual inspiration. In my experience, this is the most spiritual part of the process – the time during which my creative spirit sits in waiting for the voice of its Creator.

Finally, an artist must have a community. We all need someone to both challenge and encourage the creative process – to tell us when we’ve done something brilliant, to act as a sounding board, and sometimes to tell us sternly to get back in the studio immediately and not come out until we’ve made something. This doesn’t have to be a formalized group; just a few people who understand the artistic process themselves and can be as engaged in the actual making of the work as they are in the end results.

I had one last thought, too, a thought that didn’t occur to me until after the last student had left my office and I returned to my grading. Perhaps the most important element of all is one of simple encouragement – you can be an artist; you already are.

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Terribilita: Making Sense of the Artistic Temperament

Posted by Sarah Jane on December 14, 2009

Terribilita. That’s what they called it in the glory of Renaissance Italy, in the days when a fiery young Michelangelo spit on Pope Julius II, and the enraged Holy Father (who had plenty of his own terribilita) threatened to hurl the artist from his own scaffold.

Our own times are quieter (or perhaps merely more anesthetized) but we still recognize that there can be something terrible about the so-called artistic temperament: the moods and misery that somehow seem deeper for creative types. Popular culture often suggests that creativity is inextricably linked to suffering, trauma, and mental illness — a belief frequently echoed by my students. But is art ultimately something that comes from pain, from depression, from our fallen and destructive tendencies? Or is it something that comes forth from the sacred creativity hidden within us; from the shards of grace that tumble from our fingertips when we least expect them?

I believe that the natural prerequisite to creating something great is not some ideal quantity of personal suffering, but the capacity to make oneself vulnerable, to feel deeply, and to empathize with the suffering of others. Human creativity is the ability to reach into the chaos and bring forth meaning and order: to touch the ugly and the broken, and transform them into something beautiful. That’s why creativity is ultimately a God-like quality.

If I’m right in this, then suffering may provide the fuel, but it is the order-making, beauty-making fire of creativity that brings forth artistic work. And we must not mistake that common fuel for the creative fire. Creativity is what allows a painter to bring forth great art out of the nightmare of chronic depression; it’s what allows the composer to weave harmonies out of terror and destruction. We will never make great things by wallowing in our own sufferings, but only by transforming them into something new.

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Nobody goes hungry in my kitchen!

Posted by Sarah Jane on December 12, 2009

“Nobody goes hungry in my kitchen!” Those are the words of my mother-in-law, who practices generosity and hospitality with something akin to religious fervor. Long before he ever considered a culinary degree, my husband understood the importance of making sure everyone had  a place and felt welcomed.

And so it has troubled him that a co-worker, a Pakistani Muslim, was unable to eat at many of the company events because none of the food was halal. For a recent holiday potluck, he decided to remedy this situation by making a dish especially for his friend. And so it was that I came home to find my blond-haired Baptist husband, armed with some internet research and a bit of advice from the manager of the halal market, up to his elbows in lamb jalfarazi.

It was a success. The co-worker was deeply touched that someone had put forth that effort to make sure he would be able to eat, and gave high compliments to my husband’s Pakistani cooking. But the gesture was confusing to many of their office mates, who found my husband’s actions strange and incomprehensible. They couldn’t understand why he would go out of his way to accommodate someone else’s eating requirements like that.

That troubles me. Hospitality is about a fundamental respect for other human beings. It’s not exactly optional.

Neither does it require that we understand or agree with everything that someone else believes, but only that we respect her enough to learn what we can do to make her feel welcome. And it doesn’t require that we get everything right on the first attempt. It isn’t our perfection that makes people feel wanted and welcomed, but the fact that we notice, and care, and try.

Posted in community, culture | Tagged: , , , , | 4 Comments »

More Thoughts On Process

Posted by Sarah Jane on December 10, 2009

Prototype

I hope to be posting more regularly once my grades are in next week — I’ll definitely have more time then, if not more intelligent ideas. In the meantime, I’d like to talk some more about the artistic process.

I’m currently working on a prototype for a piece that will be in Asbury’s faculty show next semester. In some ways, this piece is very different from any of my earlier work, and I’ve had to learn some new techniques and wrestle with some new ideas in the process of developing it. Exploring new directions is vital to any artist; without it the work remains undeveloped and stagnant. But necessity doesn’t always make it less scary.

Do you ever find yourself doing something that just doesn’t fit anywhere with your previous work? It’s like a first date — thrilling and scary and full of unknowns. I ask myself a lot of scary questions: is this a glimpse of what more of my work will look like in the future? Is this piece destined to be an anomaly; a work that never seems to fit with anything that I make? Will I look back in ten years and see the whole project as a waste of time and energy and epoxy?

In some highly rational part of my mind, I’m convinced that work is always worthwhile; that even my most complete failure now will give rise to the inklings of some future work. But those scary questions are incredibly persistent, and they still rattle me around a lot.

What about you? Have you experienced a dead-end project that was never fulfilled in some future work? How do you move yourself forward through uncharted territory?

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Artistic Process: Following the Threads

Posted by Sarah Jane on December 3, 2009

The artistic process feels at times like a many-layered friend, whose complexities I have come to understand through long acquaintance, and who occasionally still manages to surprise me. I have great trust in this faithful and mysterious companion.

Wendy Richmond’s recent Art Without Compromise intrigued me in its description of “visual reflection notebooks” created by the author: mixtures of article clippings, images of her own work, and images of other artists’ work that she admires. She describes playing with these disparate elements, varying the juxtapositions and letting the images lend each other meaning and context, and then using that information to identify common threads running through her work and thought processes.

This book has been a timely read for me, since one of my goals this winter is to identify and pursue some of the ongoing patterns in my artwork. In gathering my own materials for a visual reflection, I opted for loose cards instead of a notebook, in order to continually reconfigure and recreate the various juxtapositions. My material was gathered from a variety of sources — images of my own work, important words from my artist statements, images of other artists’ work, interesting quotations, and photographs of various natural objects. It’s an open-ended collection of elements that can grow and change along with my ideas.

My initial assortment consists of 80 images and words, but revelation struck even before I had completed that collection — exposing a previously-undiscovered thread dealing with fragmentary knowledge and the complex relationship between the known and the unknown. That particular pattern spans from a 2005 body of work exploring my grandmother’s experience with memory loss to my current projects in which community-wide participation ensures that no single person has full knowledge or control of the results.

Perhaps this fascination with fragmentary knowledge comes from a deep awareness of the limitations of my own understanding. I have no idea where the process is leading me. I’m just following the threads.

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Nurturing Creativity, part 2

Posted by Sarah Jane on December 1, 2009

A performance, a reading, an exhibit; all artists need to have their creative work showcased and celebrated in a public setting. The creative process is largely a private one, but it depends on the response of an audience — the acknowledgment that this work is important and meaningful to the broader community. One of the most effective ways to affirm and validate our artists is to provide opportunities for their work to be experienced by others.

In working with lots of young artists, one thing I’ve observed is that there are relatively few informal venues for displaying artwork or hosting performances — venues available to artists who don’t yet have (or perhaps aren’t seeking) formal gallery spaces, theatres, or concert halls to showcase their work. It’s a role that’s sometimes partially filled by coffee shops. But the need is greater than that, and can be filled by a broad array of organizations; a church can host an evening of recitals by community musicians, a library can sponsor a poetry reading or show an independent film, and a doctor’s office can feature an exhibit of local artwork.

I’m a big fan of such unconventional venues for art events. The artist is able to share his or her talents with a broader audience — not just personal friends and family, but also a variety of strangers who frequent the venue already — and benefits from the encouragement and validation of that experience. In addition to being enriched by the creative offerings, the venue welcomes in a crowd of newcomers and is able to better serve and connect with the whole of the community.

But this is when things get really serendipitous. When art moves out of the gallery and the opera house, and into the spaces where people live and work and spend their time, it reaches a much wider audience — an audience of people who might never have gone out of their way to listen to poetry or look at a painting. They may never have had a meaningful experience with theatre before, or they may feel unwelcome in a posh concert hall. But art doesn’t belong to the elite; it’s a fundamental part of what makes us human. And so I believe (and my experiences back this up) that these people, too, may be moved and transformed by an encounter with creative work.

And finally, at the end of the cycle, it begins again. There is nothing to spark creative thought like coming into contact with artists and with the fruits of their creative labor. If we want to inspire future creativity, one of the best ways to do so is to showcase and celebrate the creativity we already have.

*** The kinds of arrangements I’m describing here could be initiated by the organization wanting to host the event — but they could just as easily be proposed by the quilters or cellists or poets seeking a venue for their work. Either way, I recommend creating a written agreement in advance of the event, which can prevent miscommunication and protect both parties.

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