faith&foolishness

art.faith.culture.community

Posts Tagged ‘christian artist’

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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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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