imagine, create, share
imagine creation, create form, share in community
Art done during a worship service in the Ruth series. I did go back and write down some thoughts and fine tuned a couple details later, so this one wasn't done in an hour.
I started painting during worship services a couple months ago. I used the background screen (see previous post) as the starting point for this one. I didn't have a plan except I wanted to do something that would suggest human forms. I'm pretty happy with how it turned out in an hour, but I'm still getting used to how the Jesus figure ended up in a powerman stance wearing overalls. Funny what shows up in a painting.
Materially Connected Creation / acrylic and gel pen on 10"x10" wood panels / copyright Jennifer Neal 2018
Coffee + Ritual + Creation story in Genesis 1... my idea was to tie those together for my final project in a worship arts class at Fuller. I wanted to see what it was like to think about faith and create art starting from a material based ritual rather than from abstract thought and belief. I was surprised how fun creating this project was and how connected I felt to humanity and creation. The simple yet nearly universal ritual embodies so many stories lived out in concrete, physical ways that I found it impossible to claim that I made a cup of coffee alone.
The exasperated people of Israel sarcastically ask God "What do you want from us? A burnt offering? 10,000 rivers of olive oil? Our firstborns?"
And Micah answers that God wants his people to act justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with him.
I've been fascinated, amused, and perplexed by this interchange in the Old Testament book of Micah. So I made an accordion fold art book inspired by the impossible spectacle of 10,000 rivers of olive oil and what that reveals about how Israel framed their responsibilities and relationship with God. As I worked on each page I thought about olive oil: its colors, how it's made, how its used, how much work and attention it would take to make 10,000 rivers. Olive oil is slippery, fluid, takes labor to cultivate and produce, and is used for sacred and common purposes.
What are the connections between the qualities of olive oil, the impossible quantities of it, what that reveals about how Israel approached God, and how that all relates to us today? Are there any connections? Art helps me explore those questions. I think there are lots of connections here that could be laid out and explained in words, but that is feeling like it would take an essay or a novel at this point. I do hope at least this post has shown you one example of how scripture can be approached creatively and artistically, and played with, and turned over to see its richness and complexity.
Here's a recent journal page done in watercolor. I'm a huge fan of non-representational art because creating it allows me to communicate a mood, or a feeling, or just a way of being in very loose and/or undefined terms. But I've found that a lot of people are uncomfortable or don't know what to do when faced with art like this. In a society super saturated in consumption, people aren't encouraged to determine the purposes or meanings of images for themselves. We are used to having our thoughts and emotions directed via mass media that ignores or manipulates our individuality and guides us to pre-determined conclusions.
But art like this invites the viewer to form open-ended individual responses. And that can be disorienting. How does one begin to make sense of something so void of direction? It begins with realizing that the artist is changing the terms of engagement rationally and relationally. There is no correct meaning or response. There is no direct message or sales pitch. No offering of tribal identity or exclusive belonging is pushed. There is only an invitation to understand the art as a kind of mirror that reveals whatever the viewer brings to it.
Sometimes art helps a person recognize and/or name feelings and thoughts they hadn't been able to define. That long brewing stress that you couldn't or wouldn't acknowledge? A work of art might be the thing that finally reflects your deeper self back to you in a way you can't resist and weren't expecting. Other times art serves to provide a beautiful and peaceful resting place that relieves us from figuring it all out, solving all our problems, or slaving away to the shoulds. A shared experience of beauty can unite people when other means of connection have been exhausted.
Of course there's a multitude of ways someone might respond to abstract art, or any art. The depth and quality of any response though will depend first on willingness to receive the art with intellectual and emotional openness and not demanding immediate whats and whys. The same thing might be said about our response to God, and can definitely be said about his response to us.
When I originally wrote the phrase "look through the blue sky windows" I was thinking of it like looking through a contrived exterior to see a deeper or more complex reality that probably isn't as sunny and chipper as blue skies imply. I spend a lot of time as an artist looking at life that way. I think that's an important role for artists and I'm drawn to art that acknowledges that everything actually isn't okay and can we please have some honesty because what we're doing isn't working. Art often exposes truths that we really want to ignore or deny.
But when I looked at this again later, I saw that "look through the blue sky windows" could also be understood as a choice to look intentionally for the blue skies behind the stormy. The problem is that sounds so cliched and it might be taken as offensive and dehumanizing to those who are going through some kind of stormy situation by implying that they don't have the right to sit in their suffering. But, I don't mean the forced, optimism at all costs, precious, Thomas Kincaidian kind of goodness, but an authentic, redemptive, costly goodness. Beautiful and real goodness that relieves our cynicism, anger, hate, and self righteous finger pointing, and leaves us genuinely hopeful and grateful.
Look through the blue sky windows.
The conditions are finally right for me to seriously pursue being an artist full time. So I’m going to start graduate classes this fall at Fuller Theological Seminary. Yes, Seminary. I figured the best way to launch my art career is by going to an institution that prepares people to work in churches that have largely shunned art for 500 years. I love a challenge.
I’ll be taking 6 graduate level courses for a Theology and the Arts certificate. Fuller started the program about 5 or 6 years ago and I have thought about it off and on for that long. I’m super excited to be moving forward professionally and gaining a deeper understanding of the interplay between art, theology, and culture. At this time I don’t think I would go for a full master’s degree, partly due to cost, and partly because I just don’t think it’s what I need.
My experience is that my art, in a worship context especially, creates a welcoming space in which people, some of whom I’ve never met before, want to share their heartfelt thoughts, feelings, and experiences with me when I am present as the artist. The art facilitates this dynamic back and forth exchange between people of giving and receiving, seeing and being seen, creating and discovering. Being able to create those spaces that encourage vulnerability and personal connections is what convinced me to pursue art from a place of ministry, in whatever way and wherever that might be possible. I think it’s possible and very much necessary in our society to create more ways for people to connect without having to justify their existence according to whatever rigid standards any given group requires. Good art is non reducible and expands people’s perceptions. People are good art.