I find it impossible to avoid the dualities that culture and in many ways the church characterizes, splits and imposes on our very existence. What happens if we see ourselves as firstly human, before we split ourselves into categories; male/female, gay/straight, Christian/other, left/right, wrong/right, biblical/not biblical (often with minimal biblical input), fear of socialism/praise of capitalism, self/ group?
All of these dualities serve to quantify, separate and divide and make us feel safe and comfortable. Rather than seeing these as continuums, or even to recognize that there are third and fourth ways to see the issues, we are stuck in polar meltdown. When we characterize ideas of feminine and masculine, suggesting that these traits are biologically and culturally fixed we are coded into particular ways of being. I find this frustrating. I hope that all humans learn the traits of empathy, collaboration, negotiation, community, truth-telling, respect, non-violence, etc.. These shouldn’t be limited and valued/devalued as belonging to only one half of society.
If I accept the dualistic way of life then I must either choose to think I am always right or always wrong, instead of recognizing both the wisdom I have gained through the years and the increasing list of questions that mystify me still. When I can join in a dialogue with someone else–recognizing that in many ways they are like me and that we have a common human quality (some would even say the image of God) the conversation is one of discovery and growth rather than an exercise in finding only our differences. (I do have to remember this as we enter the current political system where creating a negative view of the other is common for all players.)
I am working on a few of the dualities that I find troubling–including the split between body and spirit which I expect to photograph images for this week.
I will show images of a second version of this idea. I am already working on a third that will be fairly different then the first two. I wonder what our churches would be like if welcoming and open tables were the first way that we described ourselves. As I have stood in the studio and looked at these images of the broken space of welcome, of valuing, of hospitality I recognize again why it is so painful when this space is violated.
Sanding is hard work. The inks and paints don’t come off easily sometimes. Revealing what is below without destroying what is below that surface is challenging. But the scratches reveal the truth that is underneath the facade, both the beauty and the deep pain.
There are moments when I wonder if I am up to the task, the one that seems to have chosen me. I am thinking the last piece in the series will be “Unfinished” since I know I can’t finish and there will remain so much to learn and so much for the church to learn, and so much left to continue.
The current state of the studio.
Here is what I think I know>
I might be wrong,
I am sure I don’t understand everything
I grasp at the core
Of what I understand
And it is a vision
with a little beauty mixed in.
Is grace possible without truth-telling? Can grace be offered before there is understanding of the gravity of pain, the deepness of the tear in relationship, without really looking into your own being and seeing the muck that is there. In fact part of grace may be seeing yourself honestly.
This runs counter to our desire to hide the truth, to not admit more than we feel we have to, to get on with it. In the John Howard Yoder case, it seems neither John, nor the leaders, who were to hold him accountable, wanted to see the truth, to tell the truth, to admit the truth, to let the truth be known. They wanted to jump to grace.
I am going to put the icon I wrote based on the Blessing Christ (sixth century, Sinia) where one eye sees into our being and tells the truth about what is there, into this piece. The other eye extends grace. You don’t get just one eye.
Our culture is constantly teaching and reinforcing the objectification of the female body and now to a degree all bodies. It is a force in the consumer industry, but it wreaks havoc on self-esteem and relationships. Young women are often forced into unhealthy behavior choices and young men are often sold a bill of goods that strips them of the skills to build rich and meaningful relationships. A part of this culture of objectification is that men get addicted to this idealized image and build their lives around an image. Allowing this facade to grip our lives–to separate us from our spirits, from our needs for real intimacy, from our desire for community, from the joy of conversation diminishes our common humanness. It allows us to treat each other as objects, as transactions, as existing solely for our own pleasure. Women can feel trapped by this, but men often feel equally boxed and unable to make decisions that would be best for them.
This objectification can lead us to believe that the physical acts are more important then the much more nuanced joys of crafting relationships, of deep conversations and of mutual care.
As I worked on this I explored again hundreds of images I shot of people milling around Times Square in New York City. It does seem like an endless parade of objectified bodies, but when you look closer you see small groups, couples, families who seem to be enjoying the company of friends. These two types of images will be joining the paint over the next week.
I keep reading the reports and listening to the stories. How could the leaders of my church, be silent for so long? How could they agree to put the papers under the ribbon of silence? How could they ask the survivors to be silent–or make it very difficult for them to raise their voice? Why does my church value silence? Why do we prefer not to know, to hear or to respond? Why is it hard for me to find my voice?
I often prefer not show the steps in the process, but for this project, I want to let you see the start of each piece, letting you see how hard it is to put these thoughts into a visual form.
My printer has been, clogging, so the photographic parts have been slowed down. That has given me time paint on backgrounds, trying to start the base of each piece with an emotional, intuitive response rather than one coming first from my brain. That doesn’t mean I won’t add words, but they are still coming.
From my journal:
blamed, shamed, abandoned.
Rublev’s icon the Trinity, offers an image of the Trinity seated around the table, demonstrating unity and offering hospitality to each other and to us. The table is a place of safety, of community and mutuality. As I reflected on this image, I kept thinking how sexual abuse has torn and destroyed the reality of hospitality and has broken the mutuality and safety of this space. While what Rublev was imaging (based on even older icons) was a nurturing, trusting, honest space of mutuality. The pain when this is broken is crushing. I worked late into the evening on the painted background, creating a place of tension and pain. As I crawled into bed I felt like my chest was under a weight, being pushed down until I couldn’t breath. I added the images of strong women to this broken space, standing in as survivors, but marked by the disruption of this space of hospitality.
I created a few images with mourning doves to experiment with some techniques of merging paints and multiple layers of photographic images. In between I scratch with sandpaper to reveal selectively layers as they are built. I chose these birds–whose call is literally mournful to join me on this journey into this painful place. They are already good companions. This will also give you ideas of the analog photoshop style I plan to work with. If you look at previous posts you can see what these images looked like with only acrylic paints on the boards.
My faith tradition takes the words of Jesus seriously, but sometimes seems to fetishize the Word in ways that can also make it a weapon. We give some preference to the New Testament, so I started reading Matthew this morning. That’s right we have sexual abuse in the very first chapter. Read the list of names and note for instance David or look up the story of Tamar. The words are not to be hid behind, or used to ignore the issue. I hope to recognize that words with out praxis are just that, and words without understanding the spirit of their meaning is just a another way to justify inaction or cover the truth of our life practice. I plan to start some of the panels with ink transfers of photographs of several of the icons I wrote (painted) over the last few years. I think Maria Skobtsova will be a good pairing with the words, since she was convinced that our lives lived in the world is what faith is about. She died at Ravensbrook after being caught by the Nazis for harboring Jews. The image is a stack of text and images from an old book I am photographing.
I have been given an amazing opportunity to be an Artist in Residence for the fall semester at Wesley Seminary in Washington DC. (Yes that was me running along the Potomac River on Sunday.) This is my first week in the studio and I am just finding my way around campus and the workspace. The real challenge is finding my way around the issue of sexual abuse, sexualized power and how infectious this is in my own church. I started this project as a response to John Howard Yoder and the legacy of pain he left behind. If you want to know more I suggest you read the MQR issue related to the case (Mennonite Quarterly Review). Artistically I plan to create a series using analog photoshop along with other hand processes. It is often what we can’t see that we should really pay attention to, so I am painting backgrounds on my first set of boards. I started with dark cycles–thinking about the pain, despair and anger–and cycles of awareness as some truth is being revealed (so I put some yellow to shine the light of truth-telling that reveals even more). Since this implicates all of us, I added strokes to represent the people moving through these cycles–discovering what is being revealed. These parts will be partly obscured as I build more layers on, but they are a start in my thinking. Come back in a few days to see if the mourning birds show up. I don’t know yet.