Living at the convergence of faith and art.

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Process, Process, Process

Sojourner by Lewis M. Curtiss jr~

SOJURNER – Dry Pastel – 11×14 / LM Curtissjr

When I was a youngster, I was just like all kids seem to be. I was energetic and impatient. When I was supposed to do a “project” I’d rush through it as fast as possible. I’d then gather up my “creation” and toddle off in search of praise despite the dripping glue and paint.

Even in college I was still working fast because in this American culture of ours; fast is rewarded. In my work in film & theatre, there were time crunches and budgets to maintain. The mentality was for high quantity, and the quality just needed to be “good enough” for the job at hand. My creative work was always pressed by either a budget, a deadline or both.  It’s no wonder students of the creative arts are always asking the “old pros”, “So, where do you get your ideas?” The pressure to produce continuously is enormous.  But alas, I digress.

Years later when I was in theatre leadership, I was the Production Designer for the company and its primary builder as well. I took my time on the designs because I had to enhance the context of the story.  A good set does that, but our low-skill novices needed to be able to assemble it quickly.  So there’s the dichotomy; meaningful beauty in a matter of a few hours of intense construction.

In these current years of not working for others, not working in a production context, I’ve slowed down a great deal. I’ve gradually moved from impatiently wanting to see the thing done, to actually savoring each and every stroke of brush, pen, or pencil. It’s been a wonderfully long journey that takes further steps every day.

The majority of this shift has been a movement away from a paradigm of quantity over quality, to the reverse; quality over quantity. I savor quality (or qualities) over quantity any day. I’m no longer a tin can being kicked along the road by the driving forces of production.  For me quantity is so meaningless that I simply won’t tolerate it in myself.

As recently as this year, I’ve even stopped making quantities of Coptic-bound journals; why? because in the end it’s nothing more than a pile of product about which I have little care. What enjoyment did I get from that experience? Well, I enjoyed the collection and processing of upcycled papers and paste-board. I enjoyed ironing the paper and cutting it into sheets, and then folding them into signatures. I enjoyed the design elements I’d use on the covers; covering the boards and folding each corner with a binder’s fold. In short, I loved the process. But in the end, I was left with a pile of journals that I liked, but very few people wanted (or would buy). It was pleasant, repetitious, and productive. And while I’ve ceased making them for sale I still make all of my own journals and sketchbooks for personal use mostly. I don’t buy journals or sketchbooks anymore.

Instead, I make art books – that is books as objects of art. These are one of a kind, filled with meaning, and certainly not repetitious. With these “books”, anything goes, and I’m no longer making them for others. There’s no pressure to “produce” quantities of “product”. Each is filled with meaning and story.

The beautiful collage quilt blocks I used to make were also product.  I began making single blocks, having researched thousands of quilt block patterns, and while each was unique, it soon became a production line effort.

It wasn’t until I began reincorporating story into my work that a far deeper satisfaction emerged.  It’s what I was creatively hungry for but had so quickly forgotten.  As a faith-driven artist, I just couldn’t see much of my relationship with God in the quiltblocks.  I’m not knocking quilts or quilters, I love both.  I’m simply saying that quilts just aren’t my medium, whether made in paper on masonite or in fabric.  What I am knocking is my own impatience, and lack of savoring each moment of making.  I was rushing to get the thing done and missing the point along the way.

How is it that I allowed myself to be pushed and shoved into a production mindset?  What is it that I temporarily let go of?  What did I forget about myself, who I am, why I make art, and for Whom?

I’ve had to relearn why I got into this “art-thing” in the first place.  I’ve had to return to the foundations of what I’m doing and why I’m doing it.  That’s why I remembered that I’m into story – I’m a storyteller and that is the kind of art I need to be making.  I needed to quit listening to the “good advice” of well meaning others, and remember who and what I am before my Lord God.

I’m drawn to art that contains story.  At minimum the work must contain some evidence of human beings.  I don’t care if it’s a paring knife on a plate with a half-eaten apple, there’s a story in it.  Someone’s been there.  This development of story in my work has caused a dramatic slowing in my making.  I “listen” more to the materials, to the piece being made, and to God’s insights in the making.  I’ve come to the point of savoring every brush and pencil stroke; every knife cut and trim; every architectural element to be included in the work.  I’m even savoring the mental planning process of thinking through how it’s going to be assembled; something of an old friend from my scenic design and stage directing days.

For me process, the acts of making, of thinking about making, of considering the meaning of what’s being made all merge into a kind of meditation or at least a contemplation.  That’s the major reason I’ve slowed so much, and savor each moment of process so much more.  I don’t want to miss anything, not a “flavor”, or a “smell”, or the whisper of insight God’s Spirit might share with me.

To my mind art, like faith in God, is not an intellectual/mental “thing”.  Making, the process of making, is intimate, dynamic, deeply personal, uncertain, “messy”, but oh so precious.  God and I commune in process. I worship Him in process.  Sometimes I even feel a bit like John the Revelator who, being taken away in the Spirit, was shown things, deep things, and told to share what he’d experience with the world.  It’s a privilege, a celebration, a joy.

It’s all in the process.

Process as Transformation

Detail: Mary Magdelaine & Christ / Sinai Monastery / 7th Cent.

Detail: Mary Magdelaine & Christ / Sinai Monastery / 7th Cent.

     NOTE: I apologize for the lack of open space between the paragraphs.  WordPress is having problems just now.  Thank you for your patience.

     The new goals I’ve set for myself this year is to [try and] read a new book every two-weeks; so far so good. The latest I’ve finished is by musician, worship leader, and author Manuel Luz called Imagine That: Discovering Your Unique Role as a Christian Artist (2009/Moody). This is not a book review but more of a sharing of a couple of his most nourishing points.

     I love how Luz reminds us that the life of an artist, and the daily act of art-making has a transformative effect on those artists for whom Christ is Lord. “In my own life, I have found that my music – and art in general – is a means by which I am drawn more closely in communion with God. God has formed me through the discipline of music. The discipline of worshiping while rehearsing… the discipline of songwriting and song journaling.

     “And this should make sense if one understands that to grow as artists is, in part, to increase in our Christlikeness.” Luz / 127

     To my mind this is another example of the purest essence of the convergence of faith and art; it not only affects those who engage the work but the artist as well. I love the Presence of God wherever I am. I love knowing that He’s not far off, up on heaven listening at a distance, but through His Spirit is literally with me 24/7. I love our discoveries in the process of making art, at whatever stage of the work. I love those discoveries which enrich my relationship with my Lord God.

     I don’t usually talk about art work that I’ve not finished, let alone haven’t even begun. A powerful thing happened to me a while back as I was reading Matthew 9:20 / Mark 5:25, the story of Mary Magdalene being healed by merely touching the edge of Christ’s shawl.

     There I was in the middle of my daily Bible readings and up came this story, with it’s beginning, its middle, and end; complete in every way. Heck, it even fits the 5-sentence story structure of a good Western world tale.

     So, there I was reading and as I savored each word, something built up in my heart. Here was a woman who’d made mistakes (don’t we all) and who was seeking full healing. Mark’s verse 27 tells us that she’d heard Jesus was near. She resolved to merely touch His shawl or tunic – that’s all, just touch his clothing. That’s all, the merest gesture, and she knew that she’d be healed. To my mind she got more than she hoped for. She got salvation, redemption, a whole new life in that single experience. What a powerful story. Then I heard it, I call it the silver bell. “Dinggggggg”; there it was, that resonance of recognition that this was an important story. My heart quickened, as itProcess as Transformation always does when that “bell” rings. I know I’m in the Presence of His Spirit and being offered a gift if I’ll just listen and receive it.

     As I began journaling about the encounter, something I often do in preparation of making a work, God was right there, revealing one level of meaning after another; a simple story, a single, brief encounter but layer upon layer of relational / spiritual significance. The practice of even preparing to make art was transforming me. I was growing and being nourished in the experience. I was savoring the Divine Presence of the living God whom I follow and serve. I was enjoying a deeply personal, intimate, private relationship with Him.

     It’s this self same experience Manuel Luz was on about in his book. Art making, for the artist who is a follower of Christ, can (if we’re willing, open, and receptive) have a transformative effect on us – it ought to. Then the work itself goes on to affect the lives of those who engage it elsewhere, as long as they too are willing, open, and receptive. And I know I’m repeating myself, but I assure you that it’s deliberate repetition – process is an art-maker’s transformative journey. There is no destination, only journey, ever changing, ever growing.

     Amen~

When Heaven Invades Art

My Old FriendsI’m experiencing something of a grand transformation in these last weeks. Ever since my friend Sue Beckman introduced me to a book by Pastor Bill Johnson, When Heaven Invades Earth I’ve had a completely different outlook on my relationship with God.

Then, in one of his blog posts (Feb-12), Dick Staub shares some thoughts on the Christian life of meditation and contemplation via AW Tozer. The book he mentions is Of God and Men (I’m going to have to get a copy). I ran out and bought Tozer’s The Pursuit of God. I don’t know if that was an “accident” or a God-thing (I’ll take the latter), but Tozer, like Johnson, just blew me away.

This year God has been leading me away from the shore out into deeper spiritual waters. I’ve come to understand that my theologically heavy Christianity has taught me many really good and important things, but it’s a Christianity in which we talk about God. It’s a head-filled Christianity, and I’ve been looking for more… much more. I’ve been looking for an experiential relationship with God. Tozer and Johnson have helped me to begin that transformation.

I no longer talk about God, I talk to/with God. I’m experiencing Him deeply, intimately, and personally. What I’ve come to conclude is that this deep, personal, intimate, experiential relationship has been His plan all along. I’ve concluded that while theology is vital, it’s not the main thing. Theology is only about 20 to 30 percent of my relationship with my God. Deep, intimate, experiential relationship is the other 70 to 80 percent. To quote Tozer; “Sound Bible exposition is an imperative must in the Church of the Living God. Without it no church can be a New Testament church in any strict meaning of the term. But exposition may be carried on in such a way as to leave the hearers devoid of any true spiritual nourishment whatever. For it is not mere words that nourish the soul, but God Himself, and unless and until the hearers find God in personal experience they are not the better for having heard the truth.(The Pursuit of God / pg 9 – my underline)

So in this and other ways I’ve let go of the dock post, and swam away from the shallows, out into deeper waters with my Lord God. It’s changing everything in one way or another. The most awesome change has to do with my hearing Him, often suddenly and out of the blue. I no longer stop and go find Him, because His Presence is 24/7.

I feel like a little kid again who’s walking along with his Grandpa. I’ve got His finger as we walk. He points out something to me and together we giggle and ooo and aahh together in utter delight. He loves to show me things, insights of His Word both written and living, His universe, His love and guidance of me. I love my Lord God more deeply, more intensely, and more intimately than I ever have in all of my 60-years of life here on Earth.

In as much as God has invaded my life as personal, intimate, and experiential this new “walk” can’t help but permeate my art practice. He gives me new work at the mere mention of a relational thought, usually from someone I’m chatting with. Or I’ll be reading The Word and suddenly, as the words pass my eyes, precious bells of pure gold will “ting” and my heart quickens… there’s a new insight, a new work He’s giving me to make for Him.

My faith is literally driving my life and my art. It’s as L’Engle says in Walking On Water; “I learn that my feelings about art and my feelings about the Creator of the Universe are inseparable. To try to talk about art and about Christianity is for me one and the same thing.” (pg 16). With each passing day, a new deeper layer of meaning of those words comes to light. I don’t shut off my Christianity at night. I don’t shut off my being an artist. They’re “on” all the time and they’re inextricably interwoven; part of the self-same fabric of His Great Cosmos.

Holistic Creative Readiness

Four Gospels

Four Gospels in process; acrylic on paper

Recently I was re-reading my notes from the Kindling’s Hearth I attended (Oct 2012). I came across something Dick Staub, our host brought up – Holistic Readiness. We were asked; What does it mean to be holistically ready creatively? How do we remain ready? What happens when we don’t remain ready?

I’m reminded of a story from a now famous TED Talk given by author Elizabeth Gilbert (Eat, Pray, Love). She was talking about a poet friend who could feel the approach of a poem from far away over the landscape. Her friend, because she was hanging laundry that day, had to run to the house to get paper and pencil so she could write down the poem as it passed by. For me however, it’s that word holistic (emphasizing the whole and all of its parts and their interdependence) that implies something larger than having paper and pencil at hand.

As an artist whose art-making is literally driven by my relationship with God, holistic readiness begins with the health and depth of that relationship. For me, that relationship is far more than just going to church, doing daily devo’s, and attending a weekly Bible study. Holistic readiness, in terms of faith, has everything to do with remaining fully surrendered to God, with constant prayer, daily journaling, and literally seeking His presence. It’s a 24/7 kind of relationship, not a, “Let’s see when I can carve out 15-minutes for God.” kind of thing

In the studio I know He’s there partially because I invite Him in. He’s directly involved, often in a dialogue, as I’m in the process of making. He’s always reminding me that there’s no such thing as a mistake, and that I’m not bold enough in the creative risks I take. He’s my comforter, my counselor, and my Lord. Sometimes I’m so overwhelmed by the wonder of what we’re making that I just have to raise my hands, and looking up, pray the Doxology; Praise God from whom all blessings flow / Praise Him all creatures here below / Praise Him above the Heavenly host / Praise Father, Son and Holy Ghost / Amen. My holistic readiness is founded upon my walk with God, without which I have nothing creatively to say.

Holistic also implies other life areas as well; diet, exercise, leisure, rest, and ArtJournaling. Like Julia Cameron’s Morning Pages from her groundbreaking book The Artist’s Way, art journaling has become something akin to scrapbooking or doodling. It’s an artform all by itself. For more on the value and power of doodling, look up Sunni Brown on TED. But my art journaling (Lessons From My Art Journal) has become a vital tool in remaining holistically ready.

In that journal I make messes and “waste” time and materials. I find out what various media* are able to do. I discover, play, and experiment. I take creative risks, and develop my skills with various media to use them well when making art. Mostly I find ideas that work and develop them toward becoming finished works.

I’ve learned that when I neglect my relationship with God, my health, or my exploration time, I’m not ready; I’m not creatively primed to work on making art.

Oh… and one last thing. I also need my coffee, and great music so we have an espresso machine and a boombox in the studio as inspiration.

Thanks for listening.

*Please help stamp out the misuse of the word mediums. I’m serious. This misuse has become an embarrassing epidemic in the art community. It’s bad enough how few people take us seriously anyway that we don’t need to empower their disdain by this simple mistake. Medium = single art medium (paint or ink or etc.) Media = many art media (paint and ink and etc.) BTW: Mediums are not art supplies, they’re people who predict the future or tell fortunes. Thanks!

That’s Why I Make Art

WBible & Laptophile I am fast approaching my 60th birthday, I still feel as though I am as naive as ever; that I just don’t get it, and that I really don’t have anything worthwhile to say. I must try however. I must still struggle, though I may look the old fool.  I must still share the good, share the right, and share the solid things I actually do know about. Pastor John Piper once said, “The older I get the less I trust myself to know the answers.” While that’s a paraphrase, it conveys what he meant.  It conveys my own sense of self. I too trust my own answers far less and God’s own wisdom far, far more than in the days of my youth.

Who am I that I have answers for others? At best I can only point toward the truth of a matter realizing that anything I convey may be accepted or not. It’s a free-will thing, as it ought to be. Who am I that I have answers for others? That’s God’s job. At best I am merely a devoted messenger, who, even then, may not fully comprehend the message I carry to whomever it is to be given.

That’s why I make art. That’s why I cling incessantly to the presence of the living God, for if I have no real answers for others, where are my own answers for me? It’s a matter of realizing that I’m a servant of God, and not God Himself. It’s a matter of letting go of the belief that anything I could do might remedy the need(s) in the life of another. It’s the realization that the Earth and all its people are God’s project, not mine. It’s a matter of fully surrendering to the task of dealing with the beam in my own eye, instead of the dust in another’s.

That is why I make art. That is why I cling to God in my inmost being, that I might grow into someone whose use, value, purpose, and worth rest in living out God’s divine plan for my life; surrendered, yet ever alert for His instruction(s), counsel, and guidance. He is the one and only reason I swing my feet out of bed in the morning, and in an act of faith and serendipity, rising to meet the purpose(s) of the day.

Who am I that I should have plans or schemes for “success”, or ambitions for “advancement”, when my Lord has already laid these out for me before the world was even made? I’ve come to accept that the best laid plans, plans to prosper, to fulfill my best purpose(s), to become all He has designed me to be in His service, come not from me and my own mind, but from Him who made me. That is why I write (pray) in my journals.

I have considered my ways,” it says in Psalm 119, “and have turned my steps to Your statutes. I am a friend to all who fear You, to all who follow Your precepts. The Earth if filled with Your love, O Lord; teach me Your decrees.”

Thank you for listening.

Prayer & Worship in the Studio

Lew's Art TableI’ve read a lot of blog posts, essays, and a few books which talk about art as worship and art as prayer.  Personally I find the subject fascinating, and it brings with it as many variations (which I love) as it does commentators.

Last Thursday evening I’d been invited to a gathering of faith-driven creatives and after a good meal together, catching up with one another, and some Show ‘n’ Tell, we got down to the discussion; (and I paraphrase here), Does prayer and worship show up in your work (if it does at all), and how does prayer and worship affect your art practice?  Juicy question, huhhh?

I want to share a few notes I took, which are reactions to comments made by others, and then I’ll talk about my own reaction to the question(s).

We talked about whether or not our artwork is prayer and if the act of making is an act of worship.  Some folks saw quite specific distinctions between prayer and worship, saying that for them prayer is a deliberate, intentional conversation with God.  Others felt absolutely no distinction between prayer and worship, feeling that they were so closely related as to be almost one experience.

What about following a formal structure or formula in prayer and can we offer prayer in any context?  To the latter half, we shared a resounding “Yes, we can pray any time, any where.”  But for some there is a need for some kind of structure to prayer, while others saw prayer differently, informally; perhaps more immediate and responsive.

One person said that for her prayer was intentional, serving a deliberate purpose, while worship is more responsive (perhaps more emotional). And, yes, she felt worshipful in the act of creativity.

For me, at this time, most of my prayer life, in any context, is done through my journal writing.  Sure, I do pray elsewhere at other times.  But my processing of the life-stuff that’s the “bread and butter” of my arts practice is done in my journal.  I learned this from author Julia Cameron from her book The Artist’s Way.  I unload my spirit and listen to God in my journal writing.  It’s a  luscious outpouring of often random bits and pieces which He and I look at and make sense of.  A whole lot of self-discovery has happened in our “sessions” together.

Often, in my writing time, I will break into worship, usually because He’s given me a discovery or revelation.  I may stop right then and there, raise my hands and pray the doxology, or simply proclaim His awesomeness in the form of a Psalm, just how great and wondrous He really, truly is.

For me, worship is part and parcel of my art-making process and experience.  Sometimes I’ll be so overwhelmed at what we’re making together I’ll start crying with release and joy – our time together is that intimate.  All-ways though, the making is an alchemy of an intimate faith relationship and is my worship of Him.  I mean, the very idea that I get to share in one of His most awesome attributes, creativity; I’m often overwhelmed by the privilege.

Let me close with this thought; To my mind we Faith-Driven artists are (or should be) powered by the ever-deepening intimacy and the ever-growing maturity of our relation with God through Christ.  That’s what Faith-Driven means – literally driven to action by our faith (relationship) in God.

Our Talents and The Good Life ReImagined

Rowboat

Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been to Orcas Island. I’ve walked and talked, and broken bread with other thoughtful creatives. I’ve been loved back to my senses and out of my own self-inflicted doldrums. I’ve been quickened among other friends at KindlingsFest 2013. Last night, I listened to a podcast and took notes from Dick Staub’s talk on day one, The Good Life as the Godward Life. Let me share a particularly powerful gift I was given while there.

Matthew 25:14-30

The “terrible” parable of the talents… it pierces me through the heart time and time again. I drift away in some form of self-inflicted confusion or misery like a skiff that has somehow come untied from the cleat on the pier. With the slightest breeze, the briefest lapping of the waves, I slowly and inexplicably drift away from my purposeful place at the dock where I await my next commission.

I say terrible not because it’s a bad story, or because it’s a tale of retribution. I say terrible in the sense that Madeleine L’Engle calls human freewill a terrible gift. Like fire that warms and feeds, human freewill can also destroy the very thing it was meant to nourish and support. One’s home can be either warmed and brightened, or burned to the ground by that self-same power.

Talent is like that. Oh, I know the parable is dealing with a measure of material wealth, but that’s just a metaphor for any gift God, in His infinite wisdom, has designed us to bear; and they’re terrible gifts too. These same gifts woven into the very fibre and nature of our being can either bring great abundance and prosperity, and glory to God, or they can reveal what we’re made of through our cowardice of their neglect.

God doesn’t “gift” us just so we can run away in fear and trepidation and bury that thing He’s graciously made us to be. He’s not a malicious God of tricks, but a God of love, and yes, even of tough love; the kind of love that kicks us in the butt when we really need it. His is the love that restores our self-respect, gets us out of the ditches of our own digging, re-equips us, and sends us on our way, refreshed, restored, and a little wiser.

Love is restorative; we the prodigal child and He the Divine Father, embrace with the sudden realization that we’re off course and the brutality of some aspect of life was needed to bring us back to our senses. All He waits for is our own realization that we’ve somehow gone astray and need His help. He awaits our return with open arms, a ring for our finger, and yet another cloak to cover our nakedness. And with these gifts of restoration, He embraces us, kisses us on the cheek and says, “All is well now. What have you learned? Let’s go celebrate the new depth of our relationship together.”

Inconsistencies

I’ve neglected to regularly post on my blog, to show up every single work day in my studio, and to get an artist’s website up showing what I’ve been doing.

KindlingFest-Day One: I was at lunch and got to talking with some friends about our creative lives in general, and that embarrassing question came up again, “Do you have a website?” My friend asked in genuine curiosity. She wanted to see my latest work, and in the context of our conversation, I wanted to show her and the other friends round the table what I’d been working on. I couldn’t though.

Then it hit me; How long have I been asked that question? How many years have I been asked about a website of my own? How much longer am I going to keep my talents buried in mere conversation? I mean how tough is FREE for Pete’s sake?

“I don’t have one yet, but I promise you here and now, that I will before the year is out.”, and I shook hands with everyone at the table.  I was “safe”, it was late July and that gave me about 4-months to undertake the huge, complex, website project.

Well, it’s been just two weeks since KindlingsFest, and like so many other attendees, I’ve been processing the tremendous wisdom and counsel we received. I’ve also been getting my website together. And today I can tell you that I kept my promise to my friends; more importantly I’ve finally done what I ought to have done years ago. Now I can share the work that God and I do together in the home studio we have. Now I can deposit the talents my Lord has given me and return them unto Him with interest. Now I don’t have to stand around trying to describe with words what I ought to be sharing with pictures. Oh, and one more thing, I now keep a portfolio of my work on my Smartphone as well. I don’t ever want to be asked again, with enthusiasm and interest “if” I have a website, what my work is like, what kind of art I make. I want to show and share the gifts God has built into my very being on my way to becoming fully human and living the good life to His glory.

Here’s the link: http://lcurtiss.weebly.com/index.html

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