faith&foolishness

art.faith.culture.community

Nurturing Creativity, part 1

Posted by Sarah Jane on November 30, 2009

I’ve been thinking recently that it’s not enough for a community simply to acknowledge and embrace the diverse gifts brought by its various members — that the community also has an obligation to seek out and discover the as-yet-unknown gifts of its various members, and then to intentionally create opportunities for those gifts to be shared and celebrated.

We already know how to do this; we do it all the time with our children and teenagers — encouraging them to try music, athletics, church groups, etc. until they find something they enjoy and want to pursue. And we work hard to celebrate the results: watching their concerts and ball games, listening to them sing in church, showing off their artwork on the refrigerator. We put forth a lot of effort figuring out ways to nurture and support their budding talents, and our kids reap the benefits as both their abilities and their confidence soar.

And yet, once those children and teenagers turn into thirty-somethings or fifty-somethings, that encouragement evaporates. You want to run a triathlon, design clothing, or write a children’s book? We listen politely but without enthusiasm, and then carelessly dismiss these budding passions — what interesting hobbies! it’s great you’re enjoying them so much. And so we reduce a neighbor’s beautiful hand-made quilt to a mere diversion, and a friend’s excellent home-brewed beer to an idling pastime.

We fail to recognize that the whole community is enriched by this outpouring of creativity — that the trifling hobbies we casually dismiss are producing a wealth of good things that benefit all of us. As a result, we do not honor them as we should. We do not encourage our neighbors to pursue their creativity with passion and focus. We do not actively seek out and create opportunities for their talents to be showcased, appreciated, celebrated. And so our gloriously creative artists and gardeners and cheese-makers slowly come to believe that their talents are no more than selfish diversions — and all too often lay them aside in favor of more “practical” service to their families and communities.

We are all poorer as a result.

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Co-creating: Pleasure in the Unexpected

Posted by Sarah Jane on November 22, 2009

One reason I enjoy primitive firing processes is the glorious unpredictability of the results. In giving up rigid control over my work, I am blessed with beautiful, organic markings that are completely unique and impossible to reproduce — markings that reflect the richness and diversity of the universe.

In a pit-firing, the vessels are surrounded by flammable material, and then a fire is built on top of them. The surface of the vessels is marked by pockets of hot gas that form in the heart of the fire. (Some potters smother the fire to concentrate this effect; I prefer to let it burn down unhindered so that some vessels are exposed to air and others are buried in the ash.)

Here are some of my favorite pieces from a recent pit-firing at my in-laws’ house in Indiana. My apologies for the mediocre photography.

Pit-fired vessels, Sarah Jane Gray, fall '09

It has taken me a long time to to embrace that lack of control. When I first began sculpting, I agonized over every part of the process, polishing and fussing and worrying in a vain effort to make everything “perfect” — exactly as I pictured it in my head. It was a good way to get really excellent at my process, and some of those early pieces were very beautiful.

Yet in time, my own head simply began to seem too small; too finite and predictable to express the wonderful serendipity of the universe.

Surface markings on a pit-fired vessel, Sarah Jane Gray, fall '09

The first place I began to let go of control was in my drawings, as I began to use water, smoke, powdered pigments, and other unpredictable materials to create richly organic markings. Later I fell in love with the loosely-controlled firing methods that would create similarly rich markings on my ceramic work: raku-, saggar-, soda-, and finally pit- and barrel- firing. In addition to producing beautiful results, these processes felt better to do. I wasn’t desperately wrestling against the materials and process to force them to do my will, but working with them in cooperation and dialogue. I was co-creating.

Surface markings on a pit-fired vessel, Sarah Jane Gray, fall '09

“Co-creator” is a word that my undergraduate mentor, Rudy Medlock, used all the time. A man of deep faith, he never let his students forget that we weren’t just making art for fun or for a class, but that we were actively participating with the Creator of the universe. It’s an idea that has steadily deepened for me in the years since then. There is a vast difference between knowing something in an intellectual or religious sense, and stepping into it as a personal experience, both vibrant and transformative.

That’s what unpredictable processes are to me: a chance to eagerly and playfully cooperate with the Creator and with the universe itself — the richest collaboration of all.

Surface markings on a pit-fired vessel, Sarah Jane Gray, fall '09

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Members Together: Thoughts on Living in Community

Posted by Sarah Jane on November 19, 2009

I spent a good chunk of yesterday planning my next artwork — an interactive piece that will debut in January’s faculty exhibit. The theme of this year’s show is “Presence,” and I’m thinking about what it means to be fully present within one’s community: what kind of engagement and participation that entails. I’m also considering what is lost to a community when some of its members are absent, whether by personal choice or forcible exclusion.

Community has been on my mind a lot recently — the question of what it is to be members together of one body, unified as one while still retaining all our uniqueness and diversity. Many times we seem to take an easy way out and simply remove ourselves from potential sources of conflict, either by opting out of community altogether, or by glorifying bland sameness in place of genuine unity.

Both of these actions, though, keep us from bringing our unique gifts to the community, and from benefiting from the diversity of gifts that others in the community have to offer. We miss out, too, on the validation of having our gifts celebrated, appreciated, and welcomed — and the opportunity to affirm the gifts of others, as well.

Those aren’t insignificant losses. I suspect that in abdicating our membership in the community, we also diminish our own identities, callings, and humanity.

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A Vision of Divine Generosity

Posted by Sarah Jane on November 16, 2009

I fear that much of our zeal has become misdirected; what began as a desire for other believers to know God has become an obsession with recreating other disciples in our own image — the self-made Christian. “If only I can build that ladder to heaven with my own two hands,” we think, “then I will be able to reach God.” Or, as have heard preached: “A relationship with God is like an empty box, you only get out what you put in to it.”

Oh, but I’m happy to remind you that the preacher was mistaken, and that we have been mistaken, and that the Good Book never mentions empty boxes, but it does talk about an empty tomb, and cups so full they runneth over.

That is the vision of divine generosity that took hold of me while I was an undergrad, and that continues to direct both my faith and my art-making.

It happened on a balmy evening in the summer of ’03. I had installed myself on a pile of rotting railroad ties just outside of a little cemetery, where I batted at mosquitoes and tried to summon the strength to return to my studio and correct my latest round of mistakes. A train whistled in the distance — a long, lonely cry that seemed to echo my own mournful defeat. I felt thoroughly empty, consumed from within by my own failure and unworthiness.

But I’d seen this vibrant hillside from the open door of my basement studio, glowing emerald in the the evening sunlight, with shadows like midnight stretching from below the low-hanging trees. It looked like a place of rest, and I thought perhaps I might find some small peace among the silent stones of those who dreamt within the earth. And so I went, and I sat. I was empty. But here, even the air was full, with moisture and the earthy scents of summer; ripening wheat, blossoming dandelion and magnolia, all manner of living things sprouting upwards from fertile soil. And peace fell like rain on my tired spirit.

I sat, unmoving, until it was fully dark, amazed at this silent field of modest graves bearing witness to the graciousness of a loving God. Like that summer night, the divine richness is so great that God asks nothing in return — only that we come and drink our fill of all that is offered to us. We come absolutely empty, ringing horribly with our own hollowness. We have nothing to bring. But all the same, God gives, and we go away filled to overflowing.

If we then worship, it is only because we have been loved by the God who is love. If we then go to serve others, it is only because we already been served by the greatest Servant. The only empty box is the one we bring to be filled. The only thing asked of us is that we come.

In due time, the heavenly ladder will be provided.

[This post is adapted from a piece I originally wrote in January, 2005.]

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It’s Not About Me

Posted by Sarah Jane on November 14, 2009

I believe the call to art-making is primarily about serving and enriching my community. It’s not about expressing my private angst, marking my artistic territory, or creating a name for myself in the circles of wealth and fame. Short version: it’s not about me. It’s about my community, which has a need for visual meaning and embodied truth.

That’s not to say that I am unimportant or interchangeable with any other artist. The only truth I have to tell is the image of God hidden within my own soul, and no one else can speak it for me; if I fail to discover and to tell this truth, it will go unspoken this side of glory. The fulfillment of my calling hinges on a willingness to crawl down inside my soul and search out the truth I have been given to speak to the world.

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Bits & Pieces

Posted by Sarah Jane on November 13, 2009

Nothing solid, just some passing thoughts — feedback is welcome.

1) Lots of really amazing artwork & ideas floating around at the Arts & Faith Conference at Asbury this week — I’ll definitely be posting more about that as I process everything over these next few days.

2) I’ve been thinking recently that living in community isn’t just about good fellowship within the church, but about an arching sisterhood and brotherhood that transcends church walls and religious creeds. Is it possible there’s something communal in our salvation? More to come.

3) One resource I’d like to add to this blog is a bibliography of materials that address issues of art/faith/culture/community — preferably complete with short descriptions or reviews. I’d love to include the well-loved classics, but what would be most helpful of all would be information about recently-published material that might not be referenced in other locations. Would you find something like this useful? Materials I shouldn’t miss?

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An Alternative to Solitary Genius, part 2

Posted by Sarah Jane on November 10, 2009

In my last post, I asked about the difference between excellence and elitism, and queried whether accessibility in art must come only at the expense of quality.

It’s a common enough sentiment — well, of course it would be nice to make art that is readily accessible and could be understood by people of all backgrounds and education levels, but that would mean dumbing it down or making kitsch. The cynics don’t want for examples, either: there’s a seemingly-endless abundance of smarmy, kitschy stuff out there masquerading as artwork. But does the excess of poor art point to an actual demand for kitsch objects in our culture — or is it instead a symptom of severe neglect on the part of an increasingly elite and inaccessible art world?*

Is it genuine quality we have been seeking in our artwork, or merely a sense of our own importance — we chosen few who have been initiated into the inside joke? Because at the end of the day, our small gains are measured against a great expense to the culture in which we live and are called to serve. Our most brilliantly-expressed artistic truths are unnoticed and meaningless, and the inside joke is more pathetic than funny.

The time has come for artists to reclaim our cultural calling and to reach out to the communities we have abandoned and neglected. It is for this reason that I suggest accessibility as a central aspect of artistic excellence — not something to be avoided at all costs, but an essential quality to be carefully cultivated. After all, an uneducated viewer isn’t a stupid viewer. She isn’t seeking cloyingly simplistic kitsch, but meaningful artwork in which she can gain some foothold of understanding — in which there is an element of shared visual language between the artist and the viewer. As a gallery director, I often observed that a shy viewer who connects with the artwork on one level is then comfortable (and curious) enough to investigate more subtle levels of meaning in the work, as well. Let that happen often enough, and she will become an educated and appreciative viewer.

I would love to hear your thoughts on the divide between fine art and the culture at large. What makes a work of art meaningful to you? What is an artist’s responsibility to find common ground with less-experienced viewers?

* Bruce Herman compares this situation to a present-day Tower of Babel in his 2003 essay, Breaking/Open: Postmodernism & the Return of the Religious Element in Art.

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An Alternative to Solitary Genius, part 1

Posted by Sarah Jane on November 8, 2009

Over the past couple of years, my artistic process has increasingly involved collaboration. Sometimes I’ve worked with other artists, but most often I have worked alongside friends and family members: people who are deeply invested in me and in my work, but who would not ordinarily identify as artists. And I’ve struggled for a while to give words to the deep rightness I sense in collaborating with non-artists — a significance that goes beyond the simple pleasure of doing something I love in the presence of people I love.

I’ve long been bothered by the specialization of art — the notion that only a chosen few should have the power to create objects and meaning, and that their efforts should be appreciated and interpreted by a similarly-elite class of curators and critics. And what happens beyond this charmed circle who have been initiated into the complex code of contemporary visual meaning? We don’t know, and we don’t care, the contemporary art world seems to say.

So cheerfully inviting non-artists into the artistic process is a satisfyingly concrete rebuttal to the image of the solitary artistic genius. The work we produce is no longer the product of my own genius (if I do possess any genius, it hasn’t surfaced yet), but of relationship and cooperation. And the art itself no longer belongs to the cloistered elite, but to the whole of the community — to the critics, yes, but equally to the priests and students and farmers and auto mechanics.

That, to me, is art worth making.

Coming soon: thoughts on the difference between excellence and elitism — does accessibility come only at the expense of quality?

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The Possibility of All Things

Posted by Sarah Jane on November 5, 2009

I’ve had four solo exhibits in the past 18 months — lots of time spent making art, very little time for thinking. We finish installing the fourth exhibit this coming Monday, and after that there are only a couple of commission projects still on the horizon. And so the unknown yawns ahead in a spreading void; inhabited only by the possibility of all things.

I’ve been looking forward to it. This is, for me, the most mysterious part of the artistic process — the unstructured time of waiting, watching, and listening that must always precede the time of making. New ideas require empty time and open space to take on form and life. And so I wait.

Stephen Cottrell describes the act of waiting as “not a waste of time but, as we see in nature, a time of change, growth and transformation.”* For artists — perhaps for all of us — the discipline of waiting is an opportunity to participate in the Spirit’s creative movement over the face of the deep; to listen in anticipation for the sacred Word that speaks all things into being. In waiting, we embody not the creating Spirit, but the boundless void itself: a wide, expectant womb in which the unknown and formless can be made flesh.

I don’t know what comes next. I am staring into the possibility of all things. And I am waiting.

*”Rediscover the benefits of waiting this Advent,” The Church of England, 24 November, 2008. Those at Asbury will recognize this as one of the central ideas behind my recent “Breath” installation.

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Empathy, Conscience & Consciousness

Posted by Sarah Jane on November 3, 2009

I was not-quite-eight years old in November 1989, when the word came that the Berlin Wall was coming down. It was an awakening for me; at that moment, world events ceased to be static or meaningless. Perhaps psychologists would identify that as a developmental stage — the moment at which history ceases to be a vague buzz in the background and suddenly becomes my own story. It’s a step forward in awareness and empathy and abstract thinking. And to the extent that such awareness creates responsibility, it’s a big step towards adulthood.

These are memories I simply don’t share with my students; their consciousness (and conscience) awoke at other moments — the Columbine shooting, 9/11, and countless other moments in between. That doesn’t make their understanding of the world less than my own, but it is necessarily different. Perhaps this is the truth in astrology: the timing of our birth profoundly impacts our experience of the world for the rest of our lives. We remember different things. We fear different things. And because of those, we ascribe meaning and value differently.

I started this post wanting to talk about the disconnect that this creates between my students and myself, although we are relatively close in age. But as I’m writing, the thing that seems most important is not the disconnect, but the potential for connection — for us to step inside one another’s experience and see the world through a diversity of perspectives. That willingness to connect and empathize with others, especially those whose experiences are radically different from our own, is another big step towards adulthood.

It is also a movement towards responsibility — from passive observation of the unfolding story, to active participation in its ongoing authorship.

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